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Friday, November 17, 2006

False Witness, Lying, Deceit, etc., commentaries

Is lying a sin according to the Ten Commandments? I'd like to muse about that. I have long suspected that two of the Commandments, namely the prohibitions against adultery and false witness, were meant to be specific. That is, although other sexual misconduct is sinful, and other types of deceit at least usually are, adultery, because it violates the marriage covenant, and false witness, because it undermines the system of justice, are especially bad, and therefore made the list of Ten. I decided that I'd better check to see what some experts had to say on this commandment.

Here's what Matthew Henry, the seventeenth and eighteenth century English clergyman, had to say about the ninth of the Ten Commandments, in his commentary on Exodus 20:
The ninth commandment concerns our own and our neighbour’s good name: Thou shalt not bear false witness, v. 16. This forbids, 1. Speaking falsely in any matter, lying, equivocating, and any way devising and designing to deceive our neighbour. 2. Speaking unjustly against our neighbour, to the prejudice of his reputation; and (which involves the guilty of both), 3. Bearing false witness against him, laying to his charge things that he knows not, either judicially, upon oath (by which the third commandment, and the sixth of eighth, as well as this, are broken), or extrajudicially, in common converse, slandering, backbiting, tale-bearing, aggravating what is done amiss and making it worse than it is, and any way endeavouring to raise our own reputation upon the ruin of our neighbour’s.

John Calvin wrote this in his commentary on the same commandment:
Although God seems only to prescribe that no one, for the purpose of injuring the innocent, should go into court, and publicly testify against him, yet it is plain that the faithful are prohibited from all false accusations, and not only such as are circulated in the streets, but those which are stirred in private houses and secret corners. For it would be absurd, when God has already shewn that men's fortunes are cared for by Him, that He should neglect their reputation, which is much more precious. In whatever way, therefore, we injure our neighbors by unjustly defaming them, we are accounted false witnesses before God. We must now pass on from the prohibitive to the affirmative precept: for it will not be enough for us to restrain our tongues from speaking evil, unless we are also kind and equitable towards our neighbors, and candid interpreters of their acts and words, and do not suffer them, as far as in us lies, to be burdened with false reproaches. Besides, God does not only forbid us to invent accusations against the innocent, but also to give currency to reproaches and sinister reports in malevolence or hatred. Such a person may perhaps deserve his ill-name, and we may truly lay such or such an accusation to his charge; but if the reproach be the ebullition of our anger, or the accusation proceed from ill-will, it will be vain for us to allege in excuse that we have advanced nothing but, what is true.

John Wesley's Commentary (available from this source) says almost exactly the same thing as Matthew Henry does, according to the above. I won't repeat it, therefore, as I am not sure of the reason for the duplication. I thank Tap for pointing out this error on my part. I re-published this post on the same day as first publication.

Adam Clarke's Commentary (available from this source) says:
Verse 16. Thou shalt not bear false witness, &c.] Not only false oaths, to deprive a man of his life or of his right, are here prohibited, but all whispering, tale-bearing, slander, and calumny; in a word, whatever is deposed as a truth, which is false in fact, and tends to injure another in his goods, person, or character, is against the spirit and letter of this law.
Suppressing the truth when known, by which a person may be defrauded of his property or his good name, or lie under injuries or disabilities which a discovery of the truth would have prevented, is also a crime against this law. He who bears a false testimony against or belies even the devil himself, comes under the curse of this law, because his testimony is false.
By the term neighbour any human being is intended, whether he rank among our enemies or friends.

These three do not completely agree, but they do agree on this -- speaking deceitfully in such a way as to damage a neighbor's reputation is the most serious violation of this commandment. Of the three, only Henry includes plain vanilla lying.

In two or more subsequent posts, I have examined some cases where Biblical characters (perhaps even God Himself) may have deceived others with God's approval. However, I also have reviewed the evidence that indicates that lying is at least usually, sinful, and examined what may or not be cases where deceit is acceptable.

Thanks for reading.

(I made some editorial changes to the paragraph beginning "In  two or more . . ." on February 4, 2014.)


Tap said...

I think you made a mistake copying one of the commentary's, as Matthew Henry's and John Wesley's seem to be almost word-for-word identical in the post.

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks, Tap!

I missed that. I have checked, and I don't know the reason for the duplication. I have revised the post.