Ruth 3-4, Jeremiah 38
Today’s readings are Ruth 3-4 and Jeremiah 38.
This devotional is about Jeremiah 38:24-27.
Is it ever right to lie? The ninth commandment commands us not to give false testimony against someone else (Ex 20:16). The first object of this command is in a legal situation when you or I witness a crime or can truthfully be an alibi witness to exonerate someone from a crime. It is always wrong to give false or misleading testimony. You shouldn’t lie to save your friends or family if they’re guilty nor should you lie to get your enemy convicted unjustly.
Like all of God’s commands, however, there are applications beyond the original, primary situation addressed in the command . While the ninth commandment requires us to tell the truth legally, it also teaches us that it is ethically and morally wrong to lie, mislead, and be dishonest. The reason is the same as the one behind the command: when we lie, it is usually to create an unrighteous advantage for ourselves. Here are some examples of that:
- We lie to make ourselves look better than we are, like Ananias and Sapphira did in Acts 5
- We lie to cover something sinful or embarrassing that we did, like Sarah did in Genesis 18:15.
- We lie because we’re afraid of what will happen to us even if we did nothing wrong. Jacob did this in Genesis 26:7-9.
In our passage for today, Jeremiah 38:24-27, Jeremiah is summoned by Zedekiah, king of Judah. He was a constant spiritual opponent of God and his prophet Jeremiah, even imprisoning Jeremiah unjustly in Jeremiah 37. But Zedekiah was also afraid of the possibility that Jeremiah might be right. Here in chapter 38, he consulted privately with Jeremiah to see if surrender to the Babylonians was the wisest move he could make. Spoiler alert: it was.
At the end of their consultation, Zedekiah ordered Jeremiah to lie. Verses 24-26 say,
Then Zedekiah said to Jeremiah, “Do not let anyone know about this conversation, or you may die. 25 If the officials hear that I talked with you, and they come to you and say, ‘Tell us what you said to the king and what the king said to you; do not hide it from us or we will kill you,’ 26 then tell them, ‘I was pleading with the king not to send me back to Jonathan’s house to die there.’”
This is a lie. There is no way to fudge it or nuance it away. Zedekiah was a wicked man, so lying was probably his second language. The problem for us is that Jeremiah went along with it and lied just as Zedekiah told him to do. Verse 27 says:
All the officials did come to Jeremiah and question him, and he told them everything the king had ordered him to say. So they said no more to him, for no one had heard his conversation with the king.
What do we make of this?
It doesn’t help us that Zedekiah was worried about Jeremiah. Verse 24 told us that concern about Jeremiah’s life was behind the king’s order because Zedekiah said, “Do not let anyone know about this conversation, or you may die.” It is true that people were out for Jeremiah’s life (see verse 4). It is also true that the king could have ordered the people not to touch Jeremiah, or else. See verse 5 where he gave tacit permission to Jeremiah’s enemies to kill him or let him die in the pit. If they came to Zedekiah for permission to kill Jeremiah, then Zedekiah certainly had the power to forbid him from being harmed, his statement, “The king can do nothing to oppose you” (v. 5) notwithstanding. No, Zedekiah’s dishonest cover story was to protect him because he was afraid of the implications of consulting with Jeremiah, according to verses 5 and 19. So the lie may have helped Jeremiah but it was really more designed for Zedekiah’s sake.
Yet Jeremiah went along with this lie and there is nothing in the chapter to suggest that God was displeased by his lying or that Jeremiah would face any consequences for it. In fact, the end of verse 27 seems to downplay any moral problems with the lie when it says, “So they said no more to him, for no one had heard his conversation with the king.” In other words, “What they don’t know can’t hurt them.” Since the lie was truly harmless, the implication seems to be that it was not wrong.
The bottom line is this: God is truth and his people should speak truthfully. The ONLY exceptions we see in scripture are lies that protect human life without endangering anyone else. That applies in this chapter, in the case of Rahab (Josh 2:4-7), and in the case of the Hebrew midwives who probably didn’t directly lie but did give an answer what was only partially true (Ex 1:18-21).
Unless you’ve lied to protect a life that was in immediate danger, you’ve sinned. Lying may not be the best way to save a life that’s in danger, but God’s word indicates that it is an acceptable way. Every other lie or bit of dishonesty is sin.
 Of course, there are plenty of other scripture passages that teach that lying is sinful even in non-legal situations. See this page for a nice list: https://www.biblestudytools.com/topical-verses/lying-bible-verses/.