Why Does the Bible Say Do Not Bear False Witness?
What was God’s intention when he told the Israelites, “Do not bear false witness against your neighbor?” What did it say about God’s relationship with His people? What did it say about God?
When Did God Say, “Do Not Bear False Witness”?
God gave the Ten Commandments to the Israelites through Moses, giving as He gives everything else: at the right time and for the right reason.
The Israelites had been in slavery for 400 years before Pharaoh released them around the thirteenth century BC. At that time, many Israelites lost sight of the nation’s relationship to the One True God of the Covenant—the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They likely began to worship and serve pagan gods of the Egyptians and other nations like the Canaanites.
Where Does “Do Not Bear False Witness” Fit into the Ten Commandments?
After the Israelites were released from captivity, and as Moses and his brother Aaron led them through the wilderness, God called Moses to the top of Mt. Sinai.
There, God spoke these commandments to him (as recorded in Exodus 20:1-17):
1. “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me.”
2. “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God….”
3. “You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.”
4. “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.”
These first four are God’s expectations of how He will be treated as their God—as the one who saved them from perishing as a nation. The rest have to do with the people’s relationship with each other:
5. “Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you.”
6. “You shall not murder.”
7. “You shall not commit adultery.”
8. “You shall not steal.”
9. “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.”
10. “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”
What Does it Mean to Bear False Witness?
According to Matthew Henry’s commentary, bearing false witness can mean a few different things with the same basic theme. He stated the meaning as, “Speaking falsely in any matter, lying, equivocating, and any way devising and designing to deceive our neighbor . . . Speaking unjustly against our neighbor . . . laying to his charge things that he knows not, either judicially, upon oath or . . . in common converse, slandering, backbiting . . . endeavoring to raise our own reputation upon the ruin of our neighbor’s.”
Therefore, bearing false witness is not passive; it is an active assault against our neighbor. The action often meant misrepresentation in a court of law but also extended to the moral law of acting like a people set apart for God and by God to reflect His glory and majesty.
Why Is “Bearing False Witness” a Big Deal?
Once again, God’s people were coming out of 400 years of enslavement in a pagan country. They needed to be reminded that He was to be respected as the creator of the universe—the One True God. It would be offensive to Him to have idols made of Him that would be worshiped. He was the one who wanted the relationship with the people that He made. He would not take second place to any other “god” in their lives either. If they chose to follow Him, God would bless them. If not, life would be worthless.
And if they believed it was okay to bear false witness, murder, or steal, they would not receive His blessing either.
What Other Verses in the Old Testament Talk About Bearing False Witness?
We also see mention of lying and bearing false witness elsewhere in the Bible.
After God gives the Ten Commandments, there follow a series of other laws related to subjects such as Hebrew servants, personal injury among the people, social responsibility, and more. The Commandments were an overview, followed by more specific details that became common law. For example, in the New International Version translation, these verses are listed under the heading “Laws of Justice and Mercy.”
“You shall not spread a false report. You shall not join hands with a wicked man to be a malicious witness. You shall not fall in with the many to do evil, nor shall you bear witness in a lawsuit, siding with the many, so as to pervert justice, nor shall you be partial to a poor man in his lawsuit.” (Exodus 23:1-3).
The passage seems to expand on “not bearing false witness” to address litigation and court cases before a judge.
Is Bearing Truth the Opposite of Bearing False Witness?
I believe the rest of God’s commandments to His people concerning their neighbors imply something larger. They imply bearing the truth regarding them. Telling the truth, standing up for our neighbor if someone is witnessing falsely against them, not taking something of theirs that doesn’t belong to us, and keeping our promises—all these actions bring truth to bear in our relationship with them.
The site Hebrew for Christians says, “Note that the Hebrew letter for truth “emet”, is composed from the first, middle and last letters of the Hebrew alphabet… Thus in relation to our neighbor, which is really everyone, we are to be truthful and bear witness to the truth in all our moments of life. By lying, by bearing false [witness], we effectively deny our relationship to the One who said, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.”
What Did Jesus Teach About Truth in the New Testament?
In Matthew 5:37, Jesus teaches, “Let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No.’” Jesus’ warning emphasizes speaking truthfully in all circumstances, reflecting a heart of integrity and sincerity. When Jesus said, “Verily, verily, I tell you” or “Truly I say to you,” which appears several times in the New Testament, he wasn’t giving the listener a pass to misunderstand what He was saying.
He spoke about the truth of who He was as God’s Son, the truth about God’s love and justice, the truth of the Kingdom of God, the truth about salvation, the truth of His betrayal and death prophecies. He spoke to His disciples and followers with the urgency that a “verily, verily” implies. He did all the way, including the moment on the cross when He told the thief on the other cross, “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise.”
How Can We Avoid Bearing False Witness?
Misrepresenting someone in a court of law and committing perjury is an egregious way to bear false witness. But what about smaller sins against God’s command regarding how we should treat each other? What about gossiping about someone without having all of the facts (even if under the guise of asking for “prayer” for that person)? Or when we are critical and backbiting of someone (even a brother or sister in Christ) because they make us look bad?
If we keep our eyes fixed on Jesus—and consider taking the plank out of our own eyes before trying to remove the speck from our neighbor’s eye (Matthew 7:3-5), we will be less likely to bear false witness against our neighbor, bringing greater glory to God. Let’s be grateful to God for commandments that help keep sin in check when the enemy tempts us to think and do evil.
It’s unfortunate today that technology affects how much we bear false witness against our neighbor. We are tempted to say things online with strangers or even with people we know that end up causing great harm. It’s easy to hide behind a computer or smartphone and spread gossip, using harsh and judgmental words that we would never say to the individual in person.
In addition to removing the plank, we need to check our hearts and ask the Holy Spirit (who was instrumental in inspiring the Ten Commandments) whether our attitude, words, and actions could be considered bearing false witness. Jesus was the victim of false witness, and even though He was crucified partly due to it, He forgave those who perjured themselves, lied, and blasphemed against the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
Photo Credit: © Getty Images/natasaadzic
Mary Oelerich-Meyer is a Chicago-area freelance writer and copy editor who prayed for years for a way to write about and for the Lord. She spent 20 years writing for area healthcare organizations, interviewing doctors and clinical professionals and writing more than 1,500 articles in addition to marketing collateral materials. Important work, but not what she felt called to do. She is grateful for any opportunity to share the Lord in her writing and editing, believing that life is too short to write about anything else. Previously she served as Marketing Communications Director for a large healthcare system. She holds a B.A. in International Business and Marketing from Cornell College (the original Cornell!) When not researching or writing, she loves to spend time with her writer daughter, granddaughter, rescue doggie and husband (not always in that order).
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