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Bible Dictionaries

Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology

Lie, Lying

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To practice deceit, falsehood, and treachery either by word or action. It is the exact opposite of truth. The sanctity of truth is fundamental in biblical teaching since it is based on the nature and character of God (Numbers 23:19; 1 Samuel 15:29; Romans 3:4; Titus 1:2; Hebrews 6:18 ). Therefore, to despise truth is to despise God, and the Scriptures treat this topic with profound seriousness.

In the garden of Eden the serpent denied the truth of God's pronouncement and encouraged the woman to act in defiance of divine truth (Genesis 3:4 ). The results of this action (3:7-24) demonstrate clearly that it is God and his word that are true. The Mosaic Law, summarized in the Ten Commandments, presents the bearing of false witness as a malicious sin against one's fellow man (Exodus 20:16; Deuteronomy 5:20; 19:18-19; cf. Exodus 23:1-2,7; Deuteronomy 22:13-21 ). Lying undermines moral standards and is, therefore, often associated with even more glaring sins (e.g., 2 Samuel 11:6-27; 1 Kings 21:10 ).

The Wisdom Literature, too, prohibits all false witness and lying (Proverbs 6:16-19; 12:22 ). It particularly points out how lying destroys community and interpersonal relations (Proverbs 25:18; 26:18-19,28 ). A God-honoring community is built on truth and trust, the opposite of lying and deceit. Judgment for lying will be incurred from God, who cannot lie (Proverbs 19:5,9; 25:18 ). The psalmists repeatedly warn against all falsehood and commend truth-telling (24:4-5; 27:12), for a liar disqualifies himself from worship (15:2).

The Old Testament prophets emphatically forbid lying and all deceit and show that this standard is fundamental to those who are in covenant relationship with the Lord (Isaiah 59:4,14-15; Jeremiah 7:28; Ezekiel 13:9; Hosea 4:1-2; Zechariah 8:16-17 ). One reason that the nation suffers the discipline of the Lord is her insistence on lying. False prophets (i.e., those who prophesy false visions, divinations, and delusions of their own minds) are frequently condemned (Isaiah 9:15; Jeremiah 14:14; 23:25-26; 28:15; Ezekiel 13:6-7; 21:29; 22:28; Micah 2:11; Zechariah 10:2; 13:3 ).

In the New Testament, Christ as the Son of God is spoken of as absolutely true (John 1:17; 14:6 ). The New Testament uses a number of Greek words to deal with the concept of lying, though the primary words used are hypokrinomai [ ὑποκρίνομαι ] and pseudomai [ ψεύδομαι ]. These are translated by words such as falsehood, craftiness, error, deceive, mislead, and cheat.

As expected, there is no change of standards in the New Testament in regard to lying. Simple honesty is a fundamental virtue of the follower of Christ (Matthew 5:37 ); lying is the basic sin denoting the opposite. The seriousness of lying in relation to the Holy Spirit of Truth (John 16:13 ) is indicated in Scripture by the fate of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11 ). Lying characterizes the unregenerated person (Ephesians 4:22-24; Colossians 3:9 ) and is part of the old life that is to be put off by the believer (Ephesians 4:25 ). John points out that to lie is to engage in the surrender of personal integrity, of one's standing with his brother, and of one's standing with God (1 John 2:4; 4:20 ). The paramount lie in the New Testament is the denial that Jesus is the Christ (1 John 2:22 ). An ever-present danger of sin lies in exchanging "the truth of God for a lie" and in subsequently reaping impaired moral standards (Romans 1:25 ). Since "no lie comes from the truth" (1 John 2:21 ) and because lying is obviously hateful to the God of truth and is in fact attributed to the devil ("for there is no truth in him, " John 8:44 ), there will be no place for any form of deception, pretense, or hypocrisy in the New Jerusalem (Revelation 21:27; 22:15 ). The one characterized by lies forfeits any hope of eternal salvation, for he does not truly know the God of truth (Revelation 21:27; 22:15 ).

The Scriptures bear universal, consistent, and clear testimony to the absolute sin of lying. It can never be right to lie because it is contrary to the nature of God. However, there are difficulties to be reckoned with in Scripture such as the lack of condemnation of untruths in certain circumstances, the use made of lies in the fulfilling of God's purposes, the approval of the use of partial truth, and the appearance of God as being the sponsor of falsehood in connection with inspiring false prophets with erroneous messages.

Concerning the lack of condemnation, at times, of untruth in Scripture (e.g., Rahab, Joshua 2:4-6 ), it must be understood that lack of condemnation is not approval nor is commendation of an individual by God a commendation of every element or action of that person. Nowhere is lying approved. Rather, lying that is not denounced must be seen as that which is assumed as wrong in keeping with the universal teaching of Scripture on truth. In the case of the commendation of Rahab it is her faith that welcomed the spies that is sanctioned (Hebrews 11:31 ) and so the lie must be seen as an unnecessary addition. Commendable biblical characters who become entangled in a lie or lies (i.e., Abraham, Genesis 20:2; the midwives in Egypt, Exodus 1:17-21; David 1 Samuel 21:2; Peter, Matthew 26:72 ) should have this period or incident seen as the exception (though still inexcusable) rather than the pattern.

Similar to the difficulty above is the apparent use made of lies in the fulfilling of God's purpose (e.g., Jacob's deception to obtain the blessing promised to him by God, Genesis 25:23; 27:35 ). It must be explicitly stated that God does not approve or need methods that are alien to the integrity of his character to fulfill his purposes. However, God by his sovereignty in his work with sinful humankind, is able to accommodate such lapses and still fulfill his purposes. Never, however, is lying a prerequisite to fulfilling the divine plan.

Concerning the approval of the use of partial truth (e.g., God's instructions to Samuel, 1 Samuel 16:2-3 ) a careful distinction must be maintained between partial truth and untruth. Some, like Saul, have forfeited their right to know all the truth as demonstrated by past actions and the willingness, as Saul had, to commit murder if all the truth be known. Therefore, God demonstrates the right to conceal certain facts from such a person. God's people have no right to speak an untruth, but there are times when the right to know all truth has been forfeited by someone.

The appearance of God as being the sponsor of falsehood in connection with inspiring false prophets with erroneous messages (e.g., 1 Kings 22:21-22; Jeremiah 4:10; Ezekiel 14:9 ) must be taken in context. It is true that God's role is expressed in an imperative form but it is in the context of those who have already committed themselves to such a role in life. God himself cannot do or will evil. He can, however, in his sovereignty, use committed false prophets to accomplish his divine purpose. Although God does not lie, he does allow others to use lies and at times applies this to further his own plans (i.e., 1 Kings 22:23; 2 Thessalonians 2:11 ).

Stephen J. Bramer

See also Sin

Bibliography . U. Becker and H.-G. Link, NIDNTT, 2:467-74; D. W. Gill, EDT, pp. 639-40; W. Kelly, Baker's Dictionary of Theology, p. 323; W. C. Kaiser, Jr., Toward Old Testament Ethics .

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Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Edited by Walter A. Elwell
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of Baker Book House Company, PO Box 6287, Grand Rapids, Michigan 49516-6287.
All rights reserved. Used by permission.
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Bibliography Information
Elwell, Walter A. Entry for 'Lie, Lying'. Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. 1996.

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