Biblical References: Proverbs 10-13
Leading Question: Do the “secular” proverbs make sense to believers and non-believers alike?
Proverbs 10 introduces a new compilation, this one of Solomonic proverbs. Derek Kidner, in his Tyndale Old Testament Commentary on Proverbs, suggests that what precedes in chapters 1-9 is probably not from Solomon, but is a general introduction to the pithy proverbs of Solomon that come from 10:1 on. The argument is that if chapters 1 to 9 were from Solomon, the title in 10:1 would read, “These also are proverbs of Solomon,” thus paralleling the heading in 25:1.
The four chapters that constitute the focus of our discussion for this week (10-13), contain a shower of pithy proverbs, most of them antithetical, contrasting the good guys and the bad guys, a pattern that is set in verse 10:1:
A wise son brings joy to his father, but a foolish son brings grief to his mother.
The first exception to that pattern comes in 10:10 where a synonymous parallelism appears:
Whoever winks maliciously causes grief, and a chattering fool comes to ruin.
For purposes of discussion, our focus here will be on one key element noted in several proverbs: lying and deceit. Underlying all these proverbs is the question of whether the “truth” of these proverbs would be recognized by religious people and secular people alike.
Lying and Deceit: The following proverbs all have a bearing on the question of lying and deceit:
10:18 Whoever conceals hatred with lying lips and spreads slander is a fool.
11:1 The Lord detests dishonest scales, but accurate weights find favor with him.
12:17 An honest witness tells the truth, but a false witness tells lies.
12:20 Deceit is in the hearts of those who plot evil, but those who promote peace have joy.
12:22 The Lord detests lying lips, but he delights in people who are trustworthy.
Question: Is the truth of these proverbs self-evident to any observer, whether a believer or not?
Note: One needs to move beyond the book of Proverbs to understand how the Old Testament as a whole views truth telling. The eighth command in the decalogue is the one that focuses on the question: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Exod. 20:16). Note the interesting qualification: “against” your neighbor. In fact, in the Old Testament one can make a good argument that the command prohibits self-interested falsehood, not all falsehood. The exceptions (in the OT) generally can be summarized as follows: When a evil person is seeking to destroy innocent people, then it is appropriate to mislead the evil doer in order to protect the innocent. Three Old Testament examples establish the point:
1. Mid-wives to Pharaoh in Exodus 1:15-21:
Exodus 1:15 The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, whose names were Shiphrah and Puah, 16 “When you are helping the Hebrew women during childbirth on the delivery stool, if you see that the baby is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, let her live.” 17 The midwives, however, feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do; they let the boys live. 18 Then the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and asked them, “Why have you done this? Why have you let the boys live?” 19 The midwives answered Pharaoh, “Hebrew women are not like Egyptian women; they are vigorous and give birth before the midwives arrive.”20 So God was kind to the midwives and the people increased and became even more numerous. 21 And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families of their own. (NIV)
2. Samuel to Saul at the anointing of David in 1 Sam. 16:1-4:
Note: The dialogue between God and Samuel is particularly interesting here because of the way Ellen White treats the narrative in Patriarchs and Prophets. Not wanting to raise the issue of “situationism” in a devotional setting, she drops out Samuel’s complaint about the dangers involved. The resulting text reads smoothly without it and devotional readers would not notice the break – unless they know the passage in 1 Samuel 16 well enough to recognize what Ellen White as done. Note the ellipses marks in Patriarchs and Prophets. The omission is highlighted in the following KJV quotation:
1 Samuel 16:1 And the Lord said unto Samuel, How long wilt thou mourn for Saul, seeing I have rejected him from reigning over Israel? fill thine horn with oil, and go, I will send thee to Jesse the Bethlehemite: for I have provided me a king among his sons. 2 And Samuel said, How can I go? if Saul hear it, he will kill me. And the Lord said, Take an heifer with thee, and say, I am come to sacrifice to the Lord. 3 And call Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will shew thee what thou shalt do: and thou shalt anoint unto me him whom I name unto thee. 4 And Samuel did that which the Lord spake, and came to Bethlehem. And the elders of the town trembled at his coming, and said, Comest thou peaceably? 5 And he said, Peaceably: I am come to sacrifice unto the Lord.”
Patriarchs and Prophets, 637: “And the Lord said unto Samuel, How long wilt thou mourn for Saul, seeing I have rejected him from reigning over Israel? fill thine horn with oil, and go, I will send thee to Jesse the Bethlehemite: for I have provided Me a king among his sons. . . . Take an heifer with thee, and say, I am come to sacrifice to the Lord. And call Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show thee what thou shalt do: and thou shalt anoint unto Me him whom I name unto thee. And Samuel did that which the Lord spake, and came to Bethlehem. And the elders of the town trembled at his coming, and said, Comest thou peaceably? And he said, Peaceably.”
3. Hushai to Absalom at David’s urging in 2 Sam. 15 to 17:
Note: Hushai, a counselor deeply loyal to his master David, joined the king’s entourage as they were fleeing from Jerusalem ahead of David’s rebel son Absalom. David already knew that another of his counselors, Ahithophel, had defected to Absalom. So he urged Hushai to return to Jerusalem, confess loyalty to Absalom, while planning all along to defeat Absalom’s goal of dethroning his father David.
When Absalom entered the city of Jerusalem, he consulted Ahithophel on the best course of action. Ahithophel’s advice was two-fold: 1) Sleep with David’s concubines in the sight of all Israel and 2) Pursue David immediately, killing the king, but bringing everyone else back safely.
Absalom followed the first piece of advice, sleeping with the concubines, but then he consulted Hushai to see if he would concur with Ahithophel’s counsel on military action. All this was preceded by an intense dialogue between Absalom and Hushai when the latter had first come to Absalom to offer his services. “So this is the love you show your friend?” taunted Absalom. “If he’s your friend, why didn’t you go with him?” (2 Sam. 16:17, NIV).
Hushai responded by spinning out a whole fistful of bold-faced lies, seeking to convince Absalom that his transfer of loyalty was genuine. Apparently he succeeded, because Absalom was coming to him for a second opinion on how to deal with David. Hushai politely disagreed with Ahithophel’s counsel, urging a delay until all Israel could pursue the king. And in that connection the biblical comment is very revealing: “Absalom and all the men of Israel said, ‘The advice of Hushai the Arkite is better than that of Ahithophel.’ For the Lord had determined to frustrate the good advice of Ahithophel in order to bring disaster on Absalom” (2 Sam. 17:14, NIV).
In short, not only are David and Hushai collaborating on a web of falsehoods, but Scripture says that God himself was behind it all in order to defeat Absalom. Note, however, that the rule stated above is fully illustrated here: Absalom was an evil character in pursuit of innocent victims. Under those circumstances, Scripture does not hesitate to affirm that the culprit should not be told the truth. Ellen White’s comment is intriguing, for though she seems to have avoided the issue of “situationism” in reporting the dialogue between Samuel and God over David’s anointing, here she affirms what David and Hushai did. The key phrase, “as by a divine enlightenment” is highlighted in the quotation below.
“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 [emphasis added], 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.” – Patriarchs and Prophets, 735.
Yet for all that, the basic thrust of the proverbs on deceit and lying would be whole-heartedly affirmed by believers and honest secularists alike. Those apparently rare exceptions do not throw everything into chaos. Instead they confirm the carefully nuanced thrust of the 8th command, that one should not bear false witness against one’s neighbor. And that important nuance is confirmed in the Mosaic legislation when the penalty administered to the false witness is laid out in Deuteronomy 19:16-21:
Deuteronomy 19:16 If a malicious witness takes the stand to accuse someone of a crime, 17 the two people involved in the dispute must stand in the presence of the Lord before the priests and the judges who are in office at the time. 18 The judges must make a thorough investigation, and if the witness proves to be a liar, giving false testimony against a fellow Israelite, 19 then do to the false witness as that witness intended to do to the other party. You must purge the evil from among you. 20 The rest of the people will hear of this and be afraid, and never again will such an evil thing be done among you. 21 Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot. (NIV)
The following article/book chapter places the whole discussion in the context of Jesus’ 2nd great command “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39, NRSV) and Jesus’ one-verse summary of the Old Testament: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets” (Matthew 7:12, NRSV).
“Thou shalt not hurt thy neighbor with lies or with the truth”
By Alden Thompson
Commentary on the ninth command, “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 [revised short version].
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” (Prov. 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” (Matt. 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 (Matt. 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. Ex. 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” (Deut. 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.