Appendix A, on truth-telling: Commentary on the ninth command, Alden Thompson, “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor,” Signs of the Times, November 1988, 20-22. Published as “When the Truth Is a Lie,” in Russell Holt, ed., Lyrics of Love: God’s Top Ten. Boise, Idaho: Pacific Press, 1988, 79-86.
2. Falsehoods: David’s lies to Ahimelech led to the massacre of a entire community of priests at Nob. Yet in the Gospels, Jesus’ casts David’s emergency eating of the shewbread in a positive light. There Jesus is defending a more open attitude toward Sabbath activities. Interestingly enough Mark’s account refers to Abiathar as high priest (Mark 2:26) whereas 1 Samuel identifies Ahimelech as high priest [cf. Mat 12:1-8//Mark 2:23-28//Luke 6:1-5]. In 2 Samuel 15-17, Abiathar contributed significantly to the downfall of Absalom by deliberately misleading him. Is that ironic in view of the fact that Abiathar’s whole family was killed at Nob because of David’s deception? Is one’s attitude toward the telling of truth inherited? When is it appropriate to shade the truth? In defense of our leader? In defense of the ultimate truth? Here is Ellen White’s comment on the web of deception to which Abiathar (and Hushai) contributed that led to Absalom’s downfall.
“And David said, O Lord, I pray Thee, turn the counsel of Ahithophel into foolishness.” Upon reaching the top of the mount, the king bowed in prayer, casting upon God the burden of his soul and humbly supplicating divine mercy. His prayer seemed to be at once answered. Hushai the Archite, a wise and able counselor, who had proved himself a faithful friend to David, now came to him with his robes rent and with earth upon his head, to cast in his fortunes with the dethroned and fugitive king. David saw, as by a divine enlightenment, that this man, faithful and truehearted, was the one needed to serve the interests of the king in the councils at the capital. At David”s request Hushai returned to Jerusalem to offer his services to Absalom and defeat the crafty counsel of Ahithophel. – PP 735.4
The actual actual wording of the 9th command may be crucial: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Exod. 20:16). Most of the Old Testament narratives that seem to give approval to deception are those which involve the response to an evil tyrant who is out to destroy innocent people. These examples can be cited:
- The midwives to Pharaoh: Exod. 1:17-20.
- Samuel to Saul (at God’s direction): 1 Sam 16:1-3.
- Hushai and Abiathar to Absalom: 2 Samuel 15-17.
Deuteronomy 19:19 clearly defines the nature of the command in its description of the penalty, a penalty that underscores the aspect of self-interest at the expense of another: “You shall do to the false witness just as the false witness had meant to do to the other.”
3. The prophesied demise of Eli’s house. When Solomon demoted Abiathar, as described in 1 Kings 2:13-27, the Bible writer interprets the demotion as the fulfillment of prophecy against the house of Eli (1 Kings 2:27). Yet other passages in Scripture clearly indicate the conditional nature of prophecy, even ones that include the word “forever” (in English translations). In Psalm 89 the psalmist celebrates God’s promise that the royal line would continue “forever” (Psalms 89:36-37), then complains bitterly that God has broken his promise (Psalms 89:38ff). Jeremiah 26 provides an impressive list of illustrations that help define the biblical understanding of conditional prophecy. The book of Jonah is also part of the evidence, perhaps one of the best known illustrations of conditional prophecy.
One of the clearest illustrations, however, is God’s promise to – and subsequent rejection of – the house of Eli. When the messenger confronts Eli with the bad news, he notes that God had promised an enduring line: “I promised that your family and the family of your ancestor should go in and out before me forever” (v. 30). Immediately following, however, comes the huge “but”! Then, as the messenger continues his projection into the future he declares that God has a new plan: “I will raise up for myself a faithful priest, who shall do according to what is in my heart and in my mind. I will build him a sure house, and he shall go in and out before my anointed one forever” (vs. 35).
In short, “forever” doesn’t mean “forever.” Ellen White’s comment, growing out of her understanding of the Great Disappointment is an important one:
The angels of God in their messages to men represent time as very short. Thus it has always been presented to me. It is true that time has continued longer than we expected in the early days of this message. Our Saviour did not appear as soon as we hoped. But has the Word of the Lord failed? Never! It should be remembered that the promises and the threatenings of God are alike conditional. – MS 4, 1883, 1SM 73 [Evangelism, 695]
4. On balance. Abiathar is clearly a background character in the story of David. And yet his story forces us to come to grips with two complex issues: Truth telling and the nature of Prophecy. On balance, what would you tell your children about Abiathar?
Appendix A: “Thou shalt not hurt thy neighbor with lies or with the truth”
Commentary on the ninth command, Alden Thompson, “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor,” Signs of the Times, November 1988, 20-22. Published as “When the Truth Is a Lie,” in Russell Holt, ed., Lyrics of Love: God’s Top Ten. Boise, Idaho: Pacific Press, 1988, 79-86.
STORY #1: Louise was a gentle child and beautiful – at least she was at the moment.
Her father was a violent and unpredictable man. More than once she had paid the price for his outbursts. The telltale marks were on her arms and face. A pretty dress covered the ones on her back.
Three houses down lived the Martins, a retired pastor and his wife. Devout and gentle Christians, the Martins had struck up a friendship with Louise. When the violence in her own home became unbearable, she would slip over to theirs.
Now Louise”s dad stood at the Martin”s door, fists clenched, eyes blazing. “Is my daughter here?” he shouted.
She was. How should Pastor Martin respond?
STORY #2. As John Wilcox drove home, he pondered the bad news from the mechanic. John”s sleek little car, just 3000 miles out of warranty, looked like it was headed for a major engine overhaul. A casual observer wouldn”t notice – not yet. But the mechanic was a man of integrity and experience. John knew the cure would cost big bucks.
Another option would be to sell. Hardly a week went by without someone asking John if he would part with his car. It was a popular model, in spotless condition, pampered and polished both inside and out. Furthermore, John could flash a meticulous service record. He had followed the manufacturer”s recommendations to a fault.
What should John tell a prospective buyer?
STORY #3. Carmen had just returned to the dorm from a shopping trip in town. She had stumbled across a couple of real bargains and could scarcely wait to share her elation with friends on her hall.
“Friends” might not be quite the right word, for Carmen didn”t fit in all that well. In polite language, one would say she lacked social graces. She was something of a master at breaking into conversations at the wrong moment and showing up when she was neither invited nor wanted.
As she rushed into the hall with her purchases in hand, she met Debbie, a vivacious and popular girl on campus, but one who was also caring and sensitive. “Look at my new dress,” bubbled Carmen. Debbie”s heart sank. The fabric was good quality, but the style was dated and the design would hardly compliment Carmen”s figure.
Debbie struggled with her feelings about Carmen. She wanted to be helpful; she wanted to be nice. What should she say?
“Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.” How does this ninth command help us respond to these three incidents?
Is God telling us in the command simply to love the truth and hate lies? That”s part of the story, to be sure. Scripture is uncommonly blunt in that respect. Two of the seven “abominations” which the Lord hates are “a lying tongue” and “a false witness who breathes out lies” (Proverbs 6:16-19, RSV). The father of lies is the devil (John 8:44). By contrast, Jesus came “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14), admonishing us to worship God “in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24), and promising that “the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32).
But simply talking about truth and lies captures neither the full thrust of the ninth command nor the spirit of the decalogue as a whole. When we listen to Jesus and the writers of the New Testament, it becomes clear that the real focus of the commandments is on the neighbor. Jesus put it this way: “So whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them; for this is the law and the prophets” (Mat 7:12, RSV). Here is Jesus” one-verse summary of the Old Testament, the guiding principle for Pastor Martin, John Wilcox, and Debbie. And for us.
Elsewhere Jesus spoke of two great commands upon which all the others depend: loving God wholeheartedly and loving your neighbor as yourself (Mat 22:37-40). Paul claims that the whole law (including the command not to bear false witness) is summed up in that command to love your neighbor as yourself (Rom. 13:9).
The second table of the decalogue does give us a string of commands dealing with specific wrong acts: killing, adultery, stealing, bearing false witness. But the common thread uniting them all is the focus on the neighbor, indeed, on the very person of the neighbor. Many biblical scholars believe that even command eight, “Thou shalt not steal,” refers in the first instance to the crime of kidnapping (cf. Exo 21:16), a sin against the person of the neighbor rather than simply against his property. The seriousness of these crimes against the person (murder, adultery, kidnapping, bearing false witness) is underscored by the fact that Old Testament law decreed the death penalty against them.
Jesus summarized the second table of the decalogue positively: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Negatively spoken, it simply would be, “Don”t hurt your neighbor.” Suddenly a new and more penetrating light shines on the command, “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.” Here is a prohibition, not just against lies, but against even using the truth in such a way as to hurt our neighbor. Whatever we do or say should be for our neighbor, not against. And from the perspective of Scripture, the most horrifying sin would be to use truth to gain unjust personal advantage at the cost of our neighbor.
In that connection, a revealing commentary on the ninth command is provided in Deuteronomy 19:15-21, a passage spelling out with painful clarity the penalty for bearing false witness: “Then you shall do to him as he had meant to do to his brother” (Deu 19:19, RSV).
Here is an important clue that could guide the key actors in our stories. Pastor Martin should imagine himself in the place of Louise, and indeed, in the place of Louise”s angry father. John Wilcox should put himself in the shoes of a prospective car buyer. Debbie should imagine herself in Carmen”s place.
Now let them hear the command: “Thou shalt not hurt thy neighbor.” And now let them act accordingly, doing or saying nothing that would hurt another to their own advantage.
For John Wilcox, the answer is straightforward: the truth will be momentarily costly to him personally, but his responsibility to God and his neighbor is clear. His is not an “intellectual” difficulty, but the “practical” problem of struggling with human selfishness. And that is precisely the point of the command and also where we stumble most often. It is a sobering commentary on human existence that clear-cut circumstances are often the ones which most easily tempt us to sin.
Turning to Debbie and Carmen, we find a story that illustrates the potential of using the “truth” against a neighbor. Debbie could easily destroy Carmen with a blunt rendition of the facts. But not to tell the truth could leave a struggling human being to make the same mistakes again and again. For Debbie to know how much to tell – and when – demands a double portion of God”s grace.
If we tell the truth with evil intent and acid tongue, and thereby destroy a person, we most certainly have broken the ninth command, even though we are “telling the truth.” Invoking the penalty clause from Deuteronomy 19:19 clarifies our thinking marvelously: Are we ready for others to treat us as we have treated them?
Of our three stories, the one involving Pastor Martin is the most difficult one. I know of no easy answers for him. Yet faithful Christians constantly face such situations in this sin-twisted world. Where do they go for an answer?
Typically, Christians have appealed to the story of Rahab, the town prostitute in Jericho who provided cover for the Israelite spies (see Joshua 2). But Rahab was a Canaanite and a prostitute. Is she a reliable witness and example?
There are other examples in Scripture which reveal how God”s people have sought to fulfill the spirit of the ninth command in the face of difficult circumstances: the story of the prophet Samuel when he was threatened by King Saul (1 Sam 16:1-3); the story of the royal counselor Hushai when David”s son Absalom attempted to take over the kingdom by force (2 Sam 15-18); even the story of Elisha”s playful trick on the Syrian army which resulted in a free banquet for all (2 Kings 6:11-23). These examples can provide guidance for us. But in all circumstances, we must allow the key summary statements from Scripture to reverberate through our minds: Love your neighbor as yourself; treat him as you would want to be treated. In short, don”t hurt your neighbor.
But as we seek to be responsible Christians in the face of difficult circumstances, let us be clear about the risks. While it may be right to withhold the truth for the purpose of saving innocent lives (or even to throw a surprise party as Elisha did!), a great danger lurks therein. Telling the truth is habit-forming. So is telling lies. In God”s new kingdom there will be only truth and full disclosure – always. I want neighbors of integrity, ones I can trust. Don”t you?
And that is precisely the problem in this sinful world, for, with our twisted minds, we may whittle away the principle of truth until nothing remains. Light and darkness blend into a hazy twilight and we no longer are capable of telling right from wrong. That is why it is so important to make it a habit of telling the truth.
Langdon Gilkey, in his insightful commentary on a World War II Asian internment camp [Shantung Compound, New York: Harper and Row, 1966, pp. 145-47], describes a tragic case where a father proudly touted his son”s ability to work the blackmarket with the Chinese farmers outside the camp. Blackmarketing was forbidden by the captors, but was deemed acceptable by the captives. To the father”s horror, however, he discovered one day that his boy had lost the ability to tell the difference between captors and captives. He no longer told the truth to anyone. Something insidious begins to happen when we shade the truth, even for good cause, and no one knows where it will end.
So in our dilemmas we must constantly seek God”s guidance. And Jesus” summary statements of the law can help us keep first things first. Indeed, stating the ninth command as “Thou shalt not hurt thy neighbor,” is in keeping with the context of the decalogue and the Old Testament and in harmony with the spirit of the law as expressed by Jesus.
And in that very connection, let”s return to Pastor Martin, John Wilcox, and Debbie. What counsel do we have for them in light of a command which reads: “Thou shalt not hurt thy neighbor”?
Pastor Martin, we have no clear counsel for you. Whatever you say could be catastrophic. May your relationship with God and your understanding of his word be your guide in that terrible moment when you must say something. And may God grant you grace to love your neighbor as yourself – both innocent Louise and her violent father.
John Wilcox, put yourself in your neighbor”s shoes. Sell the car if you must, but don”t do anything that would hurt your neighbor.
Debbie, you know the frustrations you have had with Carmen over the months. On the one hand, you could be mightily tempted right now to tell the “truth” in a such a way as to destroy her. On the other hand, you could avoid the problem and pass her by with a superficial greeting. But that would not give her the help she needs. Quick, pleasant words now could hurt her in the end. So love her as you would want to be loved. Jesus would like that.
Thou shalt not hurt thy neighbor – with lies or with the truth. That”s the way it is in God”s kingdom. Deep inside, we all know that is the way it should be.