Thursday, April 30, 2009

Honest Testimony

Proverbs 12:17

"A truthful witness gives honest testimony, but a false witness tells lies." Proverbs 12:17

I think I would enjoy being a forensic scientist for the FBI. I watch some of the police shows on tv and read stories about police investigations. It amazes me how a police scientist can take a hair found on a shirt, run tests on it, and use it to match the DNA of a suspect in a crime. Police can take a sample from the tiniest speck of blood on a kitchen floor, run tests, compare it to blood on a shirt found in a garbage can five miles away, and match it to a crime committed in that kitchen. What really gets me is how DNA tests can be run 20 years after a crime is committed, exonerating or confirming someone’s guilt.

Today we have incredible scientific and technological means of proving guilt or innocence in a crime. Finger prints, saliva, blood, hair and threads of clothing can convict you of what you thought was a perfect crime. If you walk across a floor, you are leaving evidence of where you were days before. All of that can be used against you in a court of law. It’s almost spooky.

People are known to lie in court. They lie hoping that they won’t get in trouble. "I wasn’t in that store." "I’ve never seen that person." "That’s not my knife." All of these can be lies. How can you prove if they are indeed telling the truth or if they are lying?

In ancient times you needed two things to make a case in court. One, you needed people to tell the truth, whether defendants or witnesses. Secondly, you needed evidence. Gathering evidence though, was not quite as sophisticated as today.

In ancient times if you stole a person’s cow, the owner and court officials could find the animal in your field. That was evidence. If you injured a neighbor’s servant, they just had to watch him limp, or see him lying on the ground, and that was evidence. But they didn’t have the sophisticated means of matching blood types, analyzing hair samples and comparing strands of cloth. There were no microscopes, chemicals or computer imaging to compare things at the microscopic level. Evidence was simple and basic.

Ancient courts had to rely upon the integrity of the one testifying. Everything hinged on a person telling the truth.

Punishment for Lying

Two things were done to try to ensure truth-telling by defendants, accusers and witnesses. One, people were threatened with severe punishment if they lied.

"If a malicious witness takes the stand to accuse a man of a crime, the two men 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. The judges must make a thorough investigation, and if the witness proves to be a liar, giving false testimony against his brother, then do to him as he intended to do to his brother. You must purge the evil from among you. Then the rest of the people will hear of this and be afraid, and never again will such an evil thing be done among you. Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot." (Deut. 19:16-21).

If you accused another man of a capital crime, such as rape or murder, you had better be sure your charge was correct! If you lied in court to get another man in trouble, and your lie was uncovered, you would be sentenced to the very punishment the man you accused would have suffered if he was found guilty. In the case of a rape or murder charge, you would be put to death. This might sound severe to our sensibilities, but it was one of the few ways God had of instilling a sense of honor in people. If they acted with dishonor and treachery, they were to be severely punished. If this happened a few times, God hoped the news of it would spread through out Israel and the people would be afraid to lie. God called lying in court and "evil thing" that he did not want to have happen among his people.

But threatening people with punishment is not enough of a deterrent to crime and treachery. People will still lie, but they will just be more careful with it. For example, When Jezebel wanted to steal Naboth’s land from him, she set-up a couple of scoundrels to tell lies against him. Naboth was found guilty in court and was executed. Really, since he was an innocent man, his death was a murder. The lying scoundrels should have been executed, as should Jezebel herself, the first lady of Israel! But, she was one of the highest leaders in the land and she was involved in the crime. She certainly protected the lives of the scoundrels from exposure. She may have even bribed the judge in the case.

The threat for lying and criminal behavior has some teeth to it, but not enough. It doesn’t stop people. It can only work if the leaders of court and government are honest themselves. If they are liars and criminals, then the system breaks down and the lawless prevail. That is why God relied on one other means of people telling the truth: character development.

Truthful Hearts

Proverbs says a "truthful witness gives honest testimony." The key to honest testimony is not threats of punishment, but a truthful witness. A truthful witness is an honest person.

Proverbs 12:20 says, "There is deceit in the hearts of those who plot evil, but joy for those who promote peace." Those who lie with their mouths have a spirit of lying within them. They have deceit, mischief and evil in their hearts. That is why they lie. That is why Jezebel and the scoundrels lied about the innocent man, Naboth. They were evil people. They intended to steal another man’s property. In order to do that they had to destroy Naboth’s reputation and have him murdered. Lying was a tool in their arsenal to accomplish their wicked ends. The lies and evil that came from their mouths were but an extension of the lying and evil in their hearts.

This spirit of lying can be implanted in our hearts at a very early age. We once owned a home that had a sliding glass door that opened into the backyard. One day a neighborhood child came to the backyard, slid the door open and walked in. She came to play with my kids. "Close the door, please," I said to her.

"I didn’t open it," she replied.

I had two problems with her answer, both of which I explained to her. "You did open the door. I sat here and watched you. Also, even if you didn’t open the door, you walked through it. So, please close it."

"But I didn’t open the door."

"Yes you did! I saw you! Now close the door, please!"

"But I didn’t open it."

"Just close the door!"

Two things exasperated me about this brief conversation. One, the little girl refused to do what she was asked to do, something as simple as closing the door she walked through. But, my real concern was that at such a young age, about ten years old, she was already wired to lie. When she was asked a question her immediate response was to deceive, even when there was nothing to gain from it. Other experiences with this young girl confirmed that she would regularly lie even when she didn’t have to. There was nothing at stake to make her feel that lying would benefit her in some way. She wasn’t in trouble for opening the door, so why lie about it? Then, why repeat the lie and stubbornly refuse to close the door? Unfortunately, a spirit of deception can dominate our hearts even at a very young age. "A truthful witness does not deceive, but a false witness pours out lies" (Proverbs 14:5). It was chilling how natural it seemed for this young girl to "pour out lies." I don’t know if she had any awareness of the treachery of her heart and speech. This is the spirit of deception that God wants to prevent in the hearts of people. He wants truthful hearts.

A Truthful Witness

A truthful witness is the opposite of a lying witness. Instead of evil and corruption inside, truthful people have honesty, truth and integrity. They tell the truth because a spirit of truth permeates their heart and life. They don’t have to wonder, "Should I tell the truth about this?" because the truth pours out naturally.

The greatest assurance that an ancient witness, or modern one, will tell the truth is that they have an honest character. To this end God tried to teach the Israelites to be people of integrity. In Exodus 23:2-3 he said, "Do not follow the crowd in doing wrong. When you give testimony in a lawsuit, do not pervert justice by siding with the crowd, and do not show favoritism to a poor man in his lawsuit." God showed two concerns here about the integrity of testimony in court. One, don’t be swayed by what most people are saying or thinking. Even if what you have to say does not "square" with the crowd’s perception, you speak what you know to be the truth anyway. Secondly, don’t show favoritism. Other verses in scripture warn against siding with the rich against the poor in court (Exodus 23:6). The rich are able to afford bribes to the judges and witnesses, (Exodus 23:8), thus perverting justice. "A bribe blinds those who see and twists the words of the righteous." Judges and witnesses are particularly susceptible to this sin. But God also gives this warning that we shouldn’t allow our sympathies for some one who is poor to cloud our judgment. It is possible that the poor man is the guilty man. Pay attention to truth, not to sympathies or money payments!

God hopes that a spirit of truth will root in his people’s hearts. He has given warnings that liars are to be severely punished. But even then, a crooked judge or leader might be in collusion with a lying witness, thus perverting justice. God’s real concern is that his people will refrain from lying because they have honest hearts and the truth pours naturally from them. A man’s only real hope in court is that the judges and witnesses are people of God.

The Bigger Issue

While these verses in Proverbs and other texts of the Bible are primarily about telling the truth in court, the bigger issue is that God wants us to be people of truth and integrity at all times and in all situations. God is a God of truth, he cannot lie (Hebrews 6:18). As followers of God we are in pursuit of his holiness (1 Peter 1:16). The purity of heart that characterizes God is the goal we aspire to.

God wants us to be people of integrity. "The integrity of the upright guides them, but the unfaithful are destroyed by their duplicity" (Proverbs 11:3) and "Righteousness guards the man of integrity, but wickedness overthrows the sinner" (Proverbs 13:6) both address the heart of the righteous person.

The word "integrity" in these verses means there is a wholeness in a man’s life: his outer profession matches his inner conviction. Stated in another way, the way he speaks and acts is an accurate reflection of the character within him.

When I was in college I worked for a sales company during the summer. In one city where I spent a few weeks I worshiped with the local congregation and got acquainted with some of the members. During my days working in the community I had numerous people ask me about a particular man who was a leader in the church I was visiting. "I know he is an important man at your church, but he is a very cruel and dishonest businessman. His main concern is to make money, not promote Christ."

I realized that what some of these people were saying about this man may have been untrue. But in the many years since then I have known some brothers in Christ who could put on the "religious ritz" on Sunday, but during the week you would never believe they claimed to be Christians. Some were dishonest in business, some were abusive of their wives and children, some were cruel and heartless employers. Then, when it was Sunday, they were back at church again as if everything in their lives were fine!

We are all turned off by this kind of flagrant rejection of God’s call upon us to live good and moral lives. Some are tempted to drop out of church because of people like this. Please don’t. If this kind of behavior bothers you, think how much it grieves God!

God is the one who calls for us to live lives of integrity. He wants "wholeness" in the conviction of our hearts and the performance of our lives. It grieves God more than we can imagine when we allow a spirit of deception, greed, meanness or envy to arrest our hearts and commandeer our lives. God wants his spirit to lead and guide us.

A man who is upright is a man of integrity, and this quality shows itself in two ways in his life. One, he always tells the truth, whether it is in court, in business, with his wife and kids, or in casual conversation with a stranger. He is rarely even tempted to lie, because it is not in his heart to. Everything this man says can be believed, because he consistently, over time, proves his honesty.

Secondly, he is always honest in his personal dealings with other people. "Honest scales and balances are from the Lord; all the weights in the bag are of his making (Proverbs 16:11; cf. Deuteronomy 25:15). One way to cheat people in ancient times was to buy and sell farm produce, such as tomatoes, with different scales. When a farmer brought a bag of tomatoes in to sell to a merchant, a dishonest merchant would use a scale that would cheat the farmer. Ten pounds of vegetables would only register as eight pounds. Then, the merchant would put that scale away and use another one to sell to customers. If a customer wanted to buy ten pounds of tomatoes, the merchant would use a scale that would register eight pounds as ten. The merchant just stole four pounds worth of produce.

A man of integrity will never cheat anyone in business, even if he can get by with it. He won’t cheat because it is not in his heart to do so. In fact, a man of integrity might even give extra product to the customer, just to make sure he isn’t cheating him.

I heard a Christian man say that he will never try to talk a man down on a price he has asked for a product. He said, "That businessman needs to make a living. If he is cheating me, God is a witness to that, so I don’t have to worry about it. But, if he is a Christian, and he is trying to give me the best possible deal, and I try to reduce him even more, I might deprive him of a profit he needs to make to feed his family. I won’t do that. If I want the product I will pay the price that is listed without trying to talk him down."

That is an honest man. He conducts himself with such honor and integrity that he expects everyone else to do the same. And, even if they don’t, he will still conduct himself in that manner.

God wants honesty and integrity in our speech and conduct. The emphasis God puts on honest testimony in court is but one aspect of the honesty God wants to permeate all of our speech and actions. Honest hearts will lead to honest speech and honest business practices.

Jesus Said ...

"Simply let your ‘Yes’ be "Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one" (Matthew 5:37).

Jesus made this comment after telling his followers that they don’t have to resort to oath-taking to confirm the accuracy of their statements. Some Jews would swear by heaven, some by the earth, some by Jerusalem. Some Jews even went so far as to make some oaths non-binding (swearing by the temple) and other oaths binding (swearing by the gold in the temple; Matthew 23:16-22). Presumably this was so that they could deceive newcomers to Jerusalem in business deals and still have a clear conscience! A Christian, a person of integrity, can simply speak the truth because it emanates from a heart of integrity.

Ironically, Jesus, who taught his followers to tell the truth and who demonstrated perfect truth in his very being (John 14:6) was a victim of lies and deception. The chief priests and elders of Israel "plotted to arrest Jesus in some sly way and kill him" (Matthew 26:4). Numerous false witnesses testified against Jesus, but their lies weren’t coordinated (Mark 14:56). Finally, the chief priests were able to use testimony about Jesus destroying the temple and rebuilding it against him, but they had to misinterpret him to do it (Mark 14:57-64). Lying witnesses and judges conspired to ramrod a deceptive process and kill the Son of God. But Jesus never wavered from truth and integrity. He continues to be our example of telling the truth, even if it kills us, literally.


1) Have you ever been hurt by lies?
2) Have you ever told lies that hurt someone else?
3) How does lying hurt your example for Christ with people who know you are a Christian?
4) How might telling the truth enhance your example for Christ?

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