November 10, 2011 by Matthew Mason
The following are somewhat tentative thoughts on a biblical definition of lying and telling the truth.
Psalm 52 challenges our usual notions of truth and falsehood. The superscription tells us that Psalm 52 comes from the time when Doeg the Edomite told Saul “David has come to the house of Ahimelech.” (cf. 1 Sam 21:7; 22:9-10). The evil of which the first stanza of the psalm repeatedly accuses Doeg is lying (vv. 2b, 3b, 4b). The problem is, he didn’t. Doeg was an eyewitness of David’s visit, and his report to Saul was factually accurate.
But Psalm 52 tells us that he was lying. He was a doer of deceit (v. 2). And the reason is the intent of his words—he spoke this way because he wanted to destroy David (more on why in another post).
Note how the parallelisms work:
2a Your tongue plots destruction
2b like a sharp razor, you worker of deceit
3a you love evil more than good
3b and lying more than speaking what is right
4a You love all words that devour,
4b O deceitful tongue.
To deceive is to plot destruction (v. 2); to lie is to love evil (v. 3); to deceive is to speak words that devour (v. 4). In other words, the context in which Doeg offers his true proposition was one in which his intent was destruction and evil. He wanted his (true) words to devour David. And so his true words were, in fact, a lie.
It’s the flip side of the story of the Hebrew midwives (Exod. 1:15-22). Because they fear God, they lie to Pharaoh. And their lie was not a lie. Their “lie” was, in fact, the truth. And the reason is their intention; they intend to deceive the tyrant and preserve the life of the covenant seed, and so their lying is truthful. In contrast, Doeg tells the “truth” to the tyrant, because he intends to destroy the covenant seed, and so his “true” statement is a lie.
When Doeg came to Saul, the king was under a tamarisk tree with his spear in his hand. It’s an ominous scene, because it’s the same spear with which Saul had tried to stick David (18:11, twice; 19:10) and Jonathan (20:33). And Saul is whining about David, and about Jonathan’s covenant with David. Doeg’s words are designed to feed the beast; they’re words that devour. And so, even though they’re an accurate report, they’re a lie.
This suggests that, if we are thinking biblically, truth is less about propositional accuracy than about intent. Truth is about doing the truth. Psalm 52 contrasts Doeg’s actions with God’s. David condemns Doeg because he does (’sh) deceit (v. 2). He praises God because of what he does (’sh) (v. 9). And as he praises, David waits for God’s name, the name he proclaimed to Moses in Exodus 34:4-6. There, God told Moses that he is merciful, gracious, abounding in steadfast love (cf. Ps 52:1, 9) and faithfulness…but who will by no means clear the guilty [ie, in this case, Doeg]. God is the God whose name is “Abounding in Steadfast Love and Faithfulness,” or in John’s paraphrase, the God whose name is “Full of Grace and Truth (Jn 1:17; cf. 17:6). The God revealed in Christ is the God who is the Truth and who does the Truth. For God to be truthful is not just for him to speak true propositions, but for him to do faithfulness.
Truth is not so much speaking that which is factually accurate as about how you behave, and, in the case of your words, what you are doing with your words. To use the language of speech act theory, truth has less to do with locutions than it does with illocutions. Now, under normal circumstances, locutions and illocutions go together, and so propositional accuracy is an important part of truth telling. But if being truthful is primarily about doing the truth, then there will be occasions when an untrue proposition is, in fact, more truthful, than a true one. You have to ask, not simply, “What is she saying?” but also, “What does she intend to do with her words?”
So, take Genesis 3:5. “You will become like God, knowing good and evil.” True or false? At one level, true. God himself says, after the fact, “the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil.” (3:22). But, actually, although the locution is true, the serpent’s statement is a lie because of it’s illocutionary intent: “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” Satan tells the “truth” in order to deceive. His “truth” is therefore untrue. (Of course, this example is further complicated by the fact that the first proposition is untrue as both locution and illocution.)
Or, take Jesus in the synagogue (Mark 1:21-28). When the unclean spirit identifies him (correctly!) as the Holy One of God, Jesus silences him. Why? I suggest that it’s at least in part because the spirit’s “truth” was a lie. It was a lie because the spirit did not intend to do the truth; he correctly identified Jesus, but was not going to worship.
Sometimes the truth is a lie and a lie is the truth.
So, imagine. You are in Berlin in 1940, and you have Jews hiding in your basement, waiting to be smuggled out of the country. The person who will escort them out of Germany knocks on your door and says, Do you have any Jews in your basement? The truthful answer is “Yes.” Now, imagine that instead your caller is an officer in the SS. He asks the same question. But this time, the truthful answer is “No”. To say yes, even as the Jews hide, would be a lie.
Or, more trivially, I wonder if this distinction can be applied to any number of socially acceptable “half truths”, and “white lies”. Truth telling, in other words, is as much about forming relationships as it is about conveying accurate information. So, how do you answer the question “Does my bum look big in this?”? Or, “Did you enjoy the poem I sent to you?” Or, “How was dinner?” There are times when a truthful answer to those questions might require some straight talking. Perhaps there are times when the truth requires a “little white lie.”0 Comments