Considering David's Deceit -- The Ethics of Lying

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It troubles us to see David lying. Is this right? While we can't discuss all the ramifications of truth-telling here, let's look briefly at some of the issues.

Part of it depends on how you define lying. Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary defines "lie" as "to make an untrue statement with intent to deceive." Baker's Dictionary of Christian Ethics is more nuanced. It defines lying as

"the intention to deceive when we are bound to speak or do the truth."[340]

This second definition makes a distinction related to the circumstances of the lie -- "when we are bound to speak or do the truth."

Lying in War

When they think about it, most Christians would probably agree that, while not ideal, lying to the enemy is acceptable in war.

  1. Homeowners sometimes put the lights in their houses on timers when they leave, for the purpose of deceiving burglars into believing that they might be home.

  2. Dutch Christians hiding Jews from the Nazis wouldn't tell the Gestapo, when asked, if they were harboring Jews.
  3. War strategy uses all sorts of methods to deceive an enemy -- camouflage, misinformation, troop movements intended as feints to distract an enemy from the main attack, etc.

Maybe so. But it isn't always so clear cut. Is it acceptable for the police to use deceit when interrogating suspects in a crime? Is it acceptable to lie to deceive business competitors in order to gain greater marketshare? Is it acceptable to deceive customers by marketing copy that makes untrue or unproved claims concerning their products?

The standard in the Old Testament is stated clearly in the Ninth Commandment:

"You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor." (Exodus 20:16)

Clearly, in a court of law, you must not speak falsely, because the court has a right to know "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth." Otherwise, the court can't act justly for the good of society and the protection of the innocent. The ethical definition that adds, "when we are bound to speak or do the truth" is useful in helping us determine when we must always tell the truth.

Similarly, you have an obligation to be honest with your spouse -- he or she has a right to know the truth because your lives are bound together. We are also bound together with Christians in God's family:

"Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor, for we are all members of one body." (Ephesians 4:25)

We know that sometimes we shouldn't tell a person the truth when it might hurt them. However, we need to be extremely careful, since we can be very self-serving in our bending of the rules.

One side of the coin is to consider lying. The other side of the coin involves truth and faith. We serve "the God of truth" (Isaiah 65:16). We believe with Jesus, "Your word is truth" (John 17:17). If God isn't trustworthy, how can we believe on him? God is consistently true! He is our exemplar of trustworthiness and faithfulness. If we are men and women of God, then we must be men and women of truth. We must be believable.

There's quite a bit of deceit found in 1 and 2 Samuel. For example:

  • Michal deceives Saul so David can escape (1 Samuel  19:17). The purpose is to protect an innocent person.
  • David deceives Ahimelech the priest at Nob (1 Samuel  21:2). The purpose is to protect Ahimelech from knowingly helping a fugitive from the king. But Ahimelech ended up being killed anyway.
  • David feigns madness before Achish king of Gath (1 Samuel 21:10-15). The purpose is to protect himself from being killed by his nation's enemies, the Philistines.
  • David deceives Achish concerning where he had raided (1 Samuel  27:10). It isn't clear that this involves either war or protecting the innocent.
  • Saul deceives the witch of Endor as to his true identity (1 Samuel  28:12).

  • Amnon deceives his sister Tamar by feigning sickness in order to rape her (2 Samuel 13:6-14).
  • Absalom slays Amnon to avenge his sister Tamar (2 Samuel 13:24-28).

  • Absalom deceives when he begins his conspiracy to become king (2 Samuel 15:7).

  • Hushai deceives Absalom  (2 Samuel 16:15-19). This is deceiving an enemy in war.
  • David's spy network deceives Absalom's men at En Rogel (2 Samuel  17:20). This is deceiving an enemy in war.
Life of David, Discipleship Lessons in 1 and 2 Samuel, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Available as a book in paperback, Kindle, and PDF formats.

It seems clear that sometimes it is permissible to lie, such as in war, to protect innocent life, or to keep people from harm. However, since we humans find it easy to justify whatever action we desire to take, no matter how wrong it might be, we need to be extremely careful to be truth tellers.

Our standard of behavior must be Jesus, who started many of his most important sayings with, "Truly, truly, I say to you...." We serve a God of truth! Let us rise to his high standard.

[340] Ralph H. Alexander, "Lying," Baker's Dictionary of Christian Ethics (Carl F.H. Henry, editor; Canon Press/Baker, 1973), pp. 400-401.


Copyright © 2024, Ralph F. Wilson. <> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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