Telling lies is a human pastime. It is common knowledge that we all engage in this, so much so that Mark Twain quipped that “a man is never more truthful than when he acknowledges himself a liar.” When we are honest with ourselves, we must admit it is easy to tell “little white lies” or embellished stories, or to engage in disingenuous actions so as to make ourselves look better than we are.
But God hates lies and loves the truth (Ex. 20:16), and He shows us how seriously He takes the truth not only in forbidding false witness but also in applying the lex talionis to those who violated His prohibition against false witness in ancient Israel. We are perhaps more familiar with the lex talionis in the formulation “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” which many people today view as a primitive and brutal expression of justice. Yet the lex talionis was actually established to ensure that true justice is dealt. It establishes that the punishment must fit the crime: If the victim’s eye is taken, then the perpetrator’s eye is taken — no more and no less. Without the lex talionis in place during the ancient days of tribal society, there was the potential for never-ending feuds — one might burn another’s house down if the owner of the house was responsible for breaking the other’s leg. In response, the homeowner’s cousin might try to kill the one with the broken leg. It could go on and on.
Today’s passage applies the lex talionis to false witness by prescribing that the lying witness should receive the same punishment that would be dealt to the accused if the liar’s testimony caused a conviction (Deut. 19:16–21). This law cannot be easily applied within the new covenant community because it originally spoke to the political status of Israel as a nation-state. Still, that God would not allow false witness to go unpunished shows the church that sins of gossip and lies that besmirch another’s reputation cannot be taken lightly. The community of God’s new covenant people is to be the last place where the slandering of another’s character is acceptable. When we hear such things happening, we should confront the offender in love according to Matthew 18:15–20, and church elders must be prepared to address the situation should the need arise. Destructive gossip, backbiting, and other sins of the tongue should never be tolerated in the church, the Lord’s holy temple.
The Lord, being the font of wisdom and truth, has given us fair principles for guiding His community. It is essential, therefore, for a healthy church to follow His law, showing grace to the repentant and applying discipline when professing believers harden their hearts. A healthy church is going to take all of God’s Word seriously, refusing to tolerate false witness and taking tangible steps when it attempts to flourish in the body.