The British poet John Dryden once wrote, “Truth is the foundation of all knowledge and the cement of all societies.” The God of the Bible is a God of truth, and in the list of seven things that he hates, we have already considered “a lying tongue.” But Solomon also includes in this list “a false witness who breathes out lies.” It may seem as if the Lord is repeating himself here, but in fact, while the two are related (“lying” and “false” translate the same Hebrew word), there is a subtle difference between a lying tongue and a false witness.
“A lying tongue” describes the person who speaks something that is untrue when he knows it to be untrue. We saw, when considering that sin, that the motive of the lying tongue is to hurt the one being lied to or about. “A false witness” is similar, but the inclusion of the word “witness” indicates that Solomon is thinking of something a little more formal.
A lying tongue can be exercised in any setting, but a false witness specifically breathes out lies in the context of a vow or an oath. A lying tongue might hurriedly fabricate an untruth, but a false witness carefully and deliberately plans the lies he plans to tell—or at least fails to honour a commitment he carefully and deliberately made.
The most immediate application of this truth would be perjury in a court of law (see Exodus 20:16; Deuteronomy 5:20). To lie about a person under oath is to ruin their reputation and to invite a penalty upon them. False witness is not easily dismissed, for it is carefully planned to sound like a reasonable charge against its victim. David spoke of “malicious witnesses” who had risen against him, asking “things that I do not know” (Psalm 35:11). In other words, they fabricated testimony against him that was well thought out and not easily answered. Jesus was likewise subjected to the testimony of false witnesses (Matthew 26:60), as was Stephen (Acts 6:13). In both cases, it led to death.
But the application can be taken a little further, because a false witness in a legal battle was not only lying, but lying under oath. He was not only lying under the general expectation that he should tell the truth, but lying against a specific oath he had made to tell the truth. Jewish custom recognised the need for oaths before a rabbinic or judicial court. Witnesses were typically reminded of their obligation to tell the truth and warned that, if they were found to be lying, they would suffer the consequences that the defendant would suffer if pronounced guilty.
If we understand this practice of “swearing in” witnesses, it perhaps puts something of a fresh spin on the broader application of this sin. A lying tongue is always detestable to God, but lying against a vow that one makes is placed in its own category.
What might this look like today—outside the court room?
When a couple is married, they make vows to one another. The husband vows to lovingly lead his wife, and the wife vows to reverently follow her husband’s leadership. God expects us to honour those oaths. To fail to do so is to behave as a false witness. And it always hurts the other party.
What about parents who vow to raise their children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord? That is an expectation laid upon all Christian parents, whether an “oath” is taken or not, but there are settings in which parents publicly vow to do so. In some circles, that vow takes the form of infant baptism. Baptists do not practice infant baptism, but in Baptist churches (like our own), parents often stand before the church and commit themselves publicly to raise their children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. For example, consider this paragraph from our church’s declaration of intent, which parents are asked to read before the dedication to help them understand the task to which they are publicly committing:
In acknowledging our dependence on God, we hereby commit ourselves to utilising the various practical means of grace which he has provided. We will therefore seek wise counsel about raising a godly seed; we will be intentionally faithful to fulfilling our covenantal responsibilities as members of BBC; we will expose __________ to the numerous opportunities to learn of Jesus Christ through the ministries of BBC.
If parents stand before the church and dedicate themselves to raise their children for the Lord, but then neglect to expose their children “to the numerous opportunities to learn of Jesus Christ through the ministries” of the church (Sunday school, etc.), have they not made a vow that they are failing to uphold, thereby making themselves false witnesses? And be sure that failure in this regard will hurt your children.
Another form that this might take is failure to live in light of a church covenant. Membership at BBC requires the signing of a church covenant. To formally and publicly agree to abide by the covenant, and yet to fail to do so, is to make oneself a false witness. For example, when the covenant reads, “We will not forsake the assembling of ourselves together, eager to make productive use of the means of grace,” is not the person who agrees to that term, and yet fails to regularly assemble and make use of the means of grace (preaching, prayer, Communion, etc.), guilty of false witness?
Why is this sin so serious? We could say, first, because God hates false witness, and believers are expected to hate that which God hates (see Psalm 97:10). We could add to that because false witness always hurts others, and the Bible consistently urges us to act in the best interests of others (see Philippians 2:1–4). But we should also notice that those guilty of this sin are specifically warned of dire consequences: “A false witness will not go unpunished, and he who breathes out lies will not escape” (Proverbs 19:5). Again, “A false witness will perish” (Proverbs 21:28).
We must, therefore, do all we can to avoid this sin. Biblical wisdom demands that we follow some practical steps to help us avoid falling into the sin of false witness.
First, if you are guilty of false witness, repent. Confess your sin to God, seek forgiveness from others, and commit to be done with false witness.
Second, strive to be trustworthy. As Christians, our words should reflect God’s truth. Jesus urged, “Do not take an oath at all…. Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’” (Matthew 5:3–37). He was not categorically forbidding the taking of oaths, but saying that Christians should be of such honourable character that they speak and behave truthfully whether or not they have taken an oath. We are to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15) and to put away lying (Ephesians 4:25).
Third, as we have seen consistently in this series, we must not keep company with those who are known to be false witnesses. “You shall not spread a false report. You shall not join hands with a wicked man to be a malicious witness” (Exodus 23:1). To become wise, we must walk with those who are wise, for companions of fools will be destroyed (Proverbs 13:20).
While false witnesses are assured of dire consequences, Christians should be driven more by love for God than by fear of consequences. “Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him” (John 14:21). Love for God should drive our obedience. And the wonderful promise is that obedience invites sweet fellowship with the one we love.