Another question that often arises when it comes to Biblical matters is the matter of so-called “white lies.” There are a good many of these in the Scriptures, and we will not attempt to consider all of them here. Instead, we will make note of a few pertinent examples. First of all, there are times when things that seem to be “white lies” are commanded to be spoken by the LORD. For example, the LORD commanded Moses to say to Pharaoh:
Exodus 3:18. Then they will heed your voice; and you shall come, you and the elders of Israel, to the king of Egypt; and you shall say to him, “The LORD God of the Hebrews has met with us; and now, please, let us go three days’ journey into the wilderness, that we may sacrifice to the LORD our God.”
We know that this was communicated to Pharaoh, as we are clearly told this in Exodus 8:27.
27. We will go three days’ journey into the wilderness and sacrifice to the LORD our God as He will command us.”
So the LORD seems to make out that all He wants is the freedom for His people to go three days’ journey into the wilderness to sacrifice to Him. He does not act like what He actually wants is for them to be able to go free and leave the land of Egypt altogether. Yet when the Egyptians actually let the Israelites go, we read in Exodus 14:5:
5. Now it was told the king of Egypt that the people had fled, and the heart of Pharaoh and his servants was turned against the people; and they said, “Why have we done this, that we have let Israel go from serving us?”
So when the time came, the people fled from Egypt altogether, and didn’t just go three days journey into the wilderness. Did the LORD, therefore, command Moses to lie to Pharaoh in making this claim?
Other times, though God did not command the lie directly, it is clear that His people benefit from the lie. For example, in Joshua 2, we read that Rahab lied to the messengers of her king, the king of Jericho, when they came to her seeking Israel’s spies.
4. Then the woman took the two men and hid them. So she said, “Yes, the men came to me, but I did not know where they were from. 5. And it happened as the gate was being shut, when it was dark, that the men went out. Where the men went I do not know; pursue them quickly, for you may overtake them.” 6. (But she had brought them up to the roof and hidden them with the stalks of flax, which she had laid in order on the roof.)
She said the men had gone out, but they had not gone out. Rahab was lying.
Finally, there are times when God’s people lie. David lied to King Achish of Gath, for example, in I Samuel 27:8-11.
8. And David and his men went up and raided the Geshurites, the Girzites, and the Amalekites. For those nations were the inhabitants of the land from of old, as you go to Shur, even as far as the land of Egypt. 9. Whenever David attacked the land, he left neither man nor woman alive, but took away the sheep, the oxen, the donkeys, the camels, and the apparel, and returned and came to Achish. 10. Then Achish would say, “Where have you made a raid today?” And David would say, “Against the southern area of Judah, or against the southern area of the Jerahmeelites, or against the southern area of the Kenites.” 11. David would save neither man nor woman alive, to bring news to Gath, saying, “Lest they should inform on us, saying, ‘Thus David did.’” And thus was his behavior all the time he dwelt in the country of the Philistines.
David clearly lied to King Achish, for he did not want the king to know his actual activities, fearing he would no longer be welcome in his country if the king was aware of them.
Jeremiah the prophet lies in a similar way according to Jeremiah 38:24-27.
24. Then Zedekiah said to Jeremiah, “Let no one know of these words, and you shall not die. 25. But if the princes hear that I have talked with you, and they come to you and say to you, ‘Declare to us now what you have said to the king, and also what the king said to you; do not hide it from us, and we will not put you to death,’ 26. then you shall say to them, ‘I presented my request before the king, that he would not make me return to Jonathan’s house to die there.’”
27. Then all the princes came to Jeremiah and asked him. And he told them according to all these words that the king had commanded. So they stopped speaking with him, for the conversation had not been heard.
What Jeremiah told them was not what had actually occurred, for King Zedekiah had sent for Jeremiah and asked his advice on what to do in the light of the besieging of the city by the Babylonians. So this seems to be another case of “white lying.”
Let us consider these “white lies” in order. First of all, the LORD commanding Pharaoh to let the children of Israel go three days into the wilderness. There are multiple things we need to realize about this. First of all, Pharaoh really had no right to enslave the Israelites or to claim to own them. Except for Joseph, Israel had come into Egypt of their own free will (Genesis 46:2-7.) They had not belonged to Pharaoh, and the Egyptians had no right to enslave them. Moreover, they had already had a Master, as the LORD makes plain when He commands Pharaoh, “Let My people go, that they may hold a feast to Me in the wilderness.” (Exodus 5:1b) The people of Israel belonged to the LORD, and for the Egyptians to attempt to enslave them was for them to attempt to steal them from their former Owner. The LORD made prior claim to this people, and Pharaoh had no right to them.
So considering the fact that the Israelites had come into Egypt as a free people and that they had belonged to the LORD when they came in, the LORD had every right to demand their ability to leave Egypt, not only for a short time, but also for good. His cry to Pharaoh was “Let my people go.” The fact that He demanded a three day journey into the wilderness to worship Him did not change the fact that they were His people, and He had every right to do with them what He wished. Moreover, He never promised that after the three day journey and sacrifice, He would bring them back into Egypt. Egypt had no legitimate claim on them, and they had every right to go where they wanted after the sacrifice was over. A return to Egypt after the sacrifice was neither stated nor implied. Israel were the LORD’s people, and would go where He wished after their three day journey was over. Therefore, no real “white lie” was told here.
As for Rahab, hers does certainly seem to be a white lie. We would point out several things here. First of all, her “white lie” hardly justifies many of ours. She was lying to keep some of God’s people from being murdered by their enemies. Our typical white lies, like telling a woman you like her outfit when really you think it is hideous, are hardly life-and-death situations. The lie here has to be measured against the consequences of telling the truth. By telling the truth, Rahab would have been betraying two of God’s people who had come to her for protection, and would have all but guaranteed their deaths. How could this possibly have been right? Moreover, Rahab is commended for this in James 2:25.
25. Likewise, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way?
James argues that Rahab was actually justified by doing this. Therefore, her actions are commended. Yet I would still call upon my readers to notice that Rahab was not commanded to lie in this way.
As for David and his lies to Achish, while the LORD never openly condemns him for this, I would point out that David got into considerable trouble for doing this. When Achish and his army joined the rest of the Philistines in order to make war on Israel, David and his men were expected to join them. (I Samuel 28.) This put them in a great quandary. How could they fight against their own people? Yet if they refused, their actions would appear traitorous to the Philistines, and they might have been killed. Only by the LORD’s gracious intervention did they escape with their lives, and that only by a desperate flight. Then, when they returned to their homes, they found that the vengeful Amalekites had attacked while they were gone, burned their city, and carried off their families as prisoners. Somehow, apparently, news of what David had been doing had gotten out to them, or else they had tracked the troublesome raiders back to David’s hometown of Ziklag. Again, David’s policy appeared to have gotten him in terrible trouble. Again, he escaped when the LORD gave him victory over the Amalekites and brought about the safe return of all the prisoners, their families. Yet David’s policy of lies brought no good upon him and his men.
Finally, in the case of Jeremiah, we would point out that it was Zedekiah, not the LORD, who commanded Jeremiah to tell this lie. Plus it might not have been entirely a lie. Certainly, Jeremiah did not want to return to Jonathan’s house, for that would likely have meant his death, and he might well have requested this of Zedekiah. His answer masks the real reason for his visit to Zedekiah, but telling part of the truth to those who do not deserve all of it is not exactly the same as lying.
Thus, while the Bible may contain things that we could call “white lies,” it is questionable whether or not the LORD ever directly commands any of these. The most obvious examples are when people have lied to save others’ lives, and these kinds of lies in such extreme circumstances are hardly justification for the kind of everyday lies people usually tell. We are people of the truth, and should tell the truth, a few extreme exceptions notwithstanding.
So we have examined multiple cases of what at first glance would seem to be “sin by command.” Yet many of the things that we have found are not necessarily “sins” that God has commanded. Either the LORD did not actually command the thing that was done, or there were circumstances that explained why what He commanded was not actually sinful, but justified. Ultimately, many of these things must be examined on a case-by-case basis, as no single “one size fits all” explanation can be given for all the times the LORD seems to command a sin.
In the final analysis, we would say that the LORD does not sin Himself, nor can any of His commands be sinful, though they might feel so to someone who is used to doing something else. Yet to obey the LORD is always the ultimate good, and to disobey is rebellion, which is worse than the sin of witchcraft. Therefore, His commands should always be obeyed, whether or not they might seem “right” to one at the time. That is the final lesson we should learn, and what we should take away from our study of “sin by command.”