From “Growing in the character of a disciple”: Chapter 11 – The complications that arise when we tell the truth, and a look at some exceptional situations where we could lie
1Truly God is good to the upright, to those who are pure in heart.Psalm 73:1 (RSV)
The sum of thy word is truth;Psalm 119:160 (RSV)
and every one of thy righteous ordinances endures forever.
2Blessed is the man to whom the LORD imputes no iniquity,Psalm 32:2(RSV)
and in whose spirit there is no deceit.
9“The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; who can understand it?Jeremiah 17:9 (NASB)
Then the LORD said to me, “The prophets are prophesying falsehood in My name. I have neither sent them nor commanded them nor spoken to them; they are prophesying to you a false vision, divination, futility and the deception of their own mindsJohn 14:6 (NASB)
9The coming of the lawless one is by the activity of Satan with all power and false signs and wonders, 10and with all wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. 11Therefore God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false, 12in order that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness.2 Thessalonians 2:9-12 (ESV)
Are there ever any exceptions when it’s OK to lie?
This is the sort of question which few people ever ask themselves, It only arises if you love the truth so strongly that the question of exactly how truthful we are meant to be starts to become an issue. The average person never feels the need to ask this question. He lies, exaggerates or compromises, whenever it is necessary in order to protect himself or his own interests. It’s just not a problem to him.
However, if you are truly serious about committing yourself always to tell the truth, then extreme or complex situations will arise from time to time which really test you to the limit. Sometimes situations arise for me where I suspect that even the prophet Daniel might wonder what to do for the best.
However, there can be certain extremely unusual circumstances where telling a deliberate lie can become the right thing to do. It is very rare indeed. Nevertheless, there are some examples of this in the Bible which we ought to examine, for completeness, so that we have looked at honesty from every angle.
The lie told to Pharoah by the Egyptian midwives to save the lives of Israelite boys
We read in the book of Exodus of how the Israelites went to Egypt at the time of Joseph. They were welcomed by the Pharoah of that time. However, four centuries later they had grown into a nation of about two million people and the Pharoah of that time was very hostile to them. Therefore he even gave orders that any boys born to Israelite women were to be killed. He ordered the Egyptian midwives to put them to death deliberately and only to allow baby girls to live:
15 Then the king of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other was named Puah; 16 and he said, “When you are helping the Hebrew women to give birth and see them upon the birthstool, if it is a son, then you shall put him to death; but if it is a daughter, then she shall live.”Exodus 1:15-16 (NASB)
No doubt some midwives carried out these orders. However, these two particular midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, refused to do what Pharoah had ordered. It was impossible for them to openly oppose Pharoah or to refuse his orders. So, they lied to him and told him that the Israelite women gave birth so quickly that the boys were born before they could get to them. The clear implication is that that was not true. It was only said to mislead Pharoah and to obstruct his wicked plans:
17 But the midwives feared God, and did not do as the king of Egypt had commanded them, but let the boys live. 18 So the king of Egypt called for the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this thing, and let the boys live?” 19 The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not as the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife can get to them.” 20 So God was good to the midwives, and the people multiplied, and became very mighty. 21 Because the midwives feared God, He established households for them.Exodus 1:17-21(NASB)
Some have argued that perhaps what the midwives said was true and that the boys were saved purely because the Israelite women gave birth quicker than Egyptians women. However, that cannot be the case. Firstly, it is inherently unlikely. Secondly, there would be no need for God to reward any of the midwives if this was the explanation. They would have done nothing to reward.
Therefore we are faced with the inescapable fact that God is praising and rewarding the actions of these Egyptian midwives. When faced with the choice of killing Israelite babies or lying to Pharoah, they chose to lie. Misleading Pharoah was the only way that they could have saved those children. If they had told the truth, then the Israelite baby boys would have had to die.
In that context, when dealing with questions from a wicked man, and where the lives of children were at stake, God evidently deemed it right and proper for those midwives to lie to Pharoah. That creates an ethical and theological complication, but it is one that we cannot get away from. It is plainly there in the Scriptures. And it is not the only example: