1 “You shall not spread a false report. You shall not join hands with a wicked man to be a malicious witness. 2 You shall not fall in with the many to do evil, nor shall you bear witness in a lawsuit, siding with the many, so as to pervert justice, 3 nor shall you be partial to a poor man in his lawsuit. 4 “If you meet your enemy’s ox or his donkey going astray, you shall bring it back to him. 5 If you see the donkey of one who hates you lying down under its burden, you shall refrain from leaving him with it; you shall rescue it with him. 6 “You shall not pervert the justice due to your poor in his lawsuit. 7 Keep far from a false charge, and do not kill the innocent and righteous, for I will not acquit the wicked. 8 And you shall take no bribe, for a bribe blinds the clear-sighted and subverts the cause of those who are in the right. 9 “You shall not oppress a sojourner. You know the heart of a sojourner, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.
A couple of years ago a movie called “The Gift” came out. It turned it out to be something of a minor hit. It is the story of a couple who moves to California near the husband’s, Simon’s, hometown. Shortly after moving, they encounter one of the Simon’s old classmates. This man, Gordo, is awkward and soon begins an uncomfortable process of showing up unannounced when Simon is away and being generally creepy and dishonest. There is a slightly menacing air about Gordo.
As the film progresses, however, you begin to discover that Simon and Gordo have a dark past and that, in fact, Simon had cruelly bullied Gordo when they were children in school. In particular, Simon had told a malicious lie about Gordo, spreading it all around school. As a result, Gordo’s was ostracized from his peers and nearly killed by his own father. All of this happened because Simon bore false witness.
The ending of the movie is shocking and unnerving and the point is powerfully driven home: bearing false witness, especially about somebody weaker than you who cannot defend themselves, is a profoundly cruel and vicious thing to do that can leave deep and lasting scars on the victim. Baring false witness is grossly unjust and should never be done.
The first nine verses of Exodus 23 deal largely with this issue.
The people of God must demonstrate honesty and integrity in legal proceedings and in their dealings with others in general.
Exodus 23:1-3 and 6-9 deal with the issue of how we behave in court. However, it is also a warning about how we should behave in general towards others.
1 “You shall not spread a false report. You shall not join hands with a wicked man to be a malicious witness. 2 You shall not fall in with the many to do evil, nor shall you bear witness in a lawsuit, siding with the many, so as to pervert justice, 3 nor shall you be partial to a poor man in his lawsuit.
6 “You shall not pervert the justice due to your poor in his lawsuit. 7 Keep far from a false charge, and do not kill the innocent and righteous, for I will not acquit the wicked. 8 And you shall take no bribe, for a bribe blinds the clear-sighted and subverts the cause of those who are in the right. 9 “You shall not oppress a sojourner. You know the heart of a sojourner, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.
Let us summarize these laws like this:
- Do not offer a false witness. (v.1a)
- Do not offer a malicious witness. (v.1b)
- Do not join the clamorous mob and offer a perverting witness. (v.2)
- Do not unjustly side with the poor. (v.3)
- Do not unjustly side against the poor (v.6)
- Do not allow somebody to be put to death as a result of a false charge (v.7)
- Do not take bribes. (v.8)
- Do not oppress sojourners. (v.9)
These laws are concerned with justice. Many of them are specifically concerned with truth telling. Justice hinges on truth. If the truth is perverted, so is justice. Even so, there are numerous temptations presenting themselves to us in this area. If we are not careful, we may pervert the truth, no matter how subtly, with profoundly disastrous effects. Ralph Keyes put it like this:
Even though there have always been liars, lies have usually been told with hesitation, a dash of anxiety, a bit of guilt, a little shame, at least some sheepishness. Now, clever people that we are, we have come up with rationales for tampering with truth so we can dissemble guilt-free.
That is true. How easy it is to dress up and justify a lie! Perhaps we tell ourselves that some greater good is served by lying in this or that instance. Perhaps we tell ourselves that what we are saying is not one hundred percent true but neither is it one hundred percent false. Perhaps we tell ourselves that we are justly settling an old score that needs settling by allowing a specific injustice to occur.
But the scriptures are clear: we must say what is true and only what is true. We must not allow bad motives to distort the truth. Interestingly, in verse 3, we see that we also cannot allow good motives to distort the truth.
3 nor shall you be partial to a poor man in his lawsuit.
That is an interesting and unexpected verse. We are not to be partial to the poor in matters of justice. What can this mean? Do not the scriptures tell us in numerous places to have special care for the poor and the needy? Douglas Stuart suggests that verse 3 is surprising and is “cleverly worded” because we would expect it to warn against being impartial against the poor (“the more likely temptation”) whereas it actually warns us not to be partial to the poor in a lawsuit (“the less likely temptation”). He paraphrases it to mean: “Do not show favoritism to anyone of the powerful or hope for personal gain nor out of sympathy for the suffering of the lowly.” John Chrysostom paraphrased it as, “Do not be overcome by pity or unduly influenced if the wrongdoer happens to be a poor man,” but went on to caution that, “if we must not show favor to the poor man, much more must we not do so for the rich.”
This is an interesting way of putting it, but once you think about it, it is actually extremely important. The truth should be impartial. It should be impartial to the rich and the poor. After all, while the rich hold the power and the money, human beings are human beings regardless of their socio-economic status, and a poor man can commit a crime just like a wealthy man. Of course, verse 6 cautions us against “the more likely temptation.”
6 “You shall not pervert the justice due to your poor in his lawsuit.
Do not tell a lie because you are malicious. Do not tell a lie because you are partial to the rich. Do not tell a lie because you are partial to the poor. Do not tell a lie out of sentimentality. Do not tell a lie out of cynicism.
Do not tell lies!
Regardless of who you are standing before, regardless of who the accused is, regardless of who you like and do not like, the point stands: witnesses must not lie, either in court or out of court. We must be people of the truth. Justice hinges on the truth and we dare not pervert justice. Why? Because our systems of justice operate beneath a higher system, namely the justice of Almighty God. Both in our individual lives and in our legal systems, justice must remain unperverted.
Philip Ryken quotes this little poem:
Though the heel of the strong oppressor
May grind the weak to dust,
And the voice of fame with loud acclaim
May call him great and just,
Let those who applaud take warning,
And keep this motto in sight:
“No question is ever settled
Until it is settled right.”
True. “No question is ever settled until it is settled right.”
The people of God must not seize opportunities to enact vengeance on their enemies.
Right in the middle of our text is an interesting little two-verse section on refusing to wrong our enemies when given the opportunity. It is most likely that these sections are not utterly disconnected. After all, this too deals with a kind of justice. The two examples we find in verses 4 and 5 involve opportunities for wrong doing arising from chance encounters with the enemy’s animals.
4 “If you meet your enemy’s ox or his donkey going astray, you shall bring it back to him. 5 If you see the donkey of one who hates you lying down under its burden, you shall refrain from leaving him with it; you shall rescue it with him.
Verse 4 is simple enough: if you come across your enemy’s stray animal, return the animal. What is the other alternative? The other alternative is to snicker to oneself, “Well, he had that coming,” and then let the animal continue on its misguided way without turning it back or reporting it. Keep in mind that we are not talking about pets. We are talking about a man’s livelihood. His ox or his donkey were beasts of burden, work animals who contributed to the survival of his family. It would be a cruel thing indeed to allow a stray animal to continue to go astray.
In verse 5, the law states that one should seek to unburden and assist an overly burdened animal. That is, do not leave your enemy’s animal in a state of duress. Help it.
Some have argued that the point of these laws is to keep one from making an enemy’s animals the objects of his or her anger. But surely more is happening here than just that. Victor Hamilton explains.
In one sense, such laws as these in vv. 4– 5 urge an individual not to extend his feelings of anger against an enemy to his enemy’s animals. Your enemy’s animals are not your enemy. So Carmichael…says, “It is doubtful if the lawgiver is at all concerned with lessening feelings of enmity between two human beings.” But why, then, do other portions of Scripture, especially Wisdom literature, urge the putting of a lid on anger toward one’s enemies and argue against gloating over an enemy’s misfortune (Job 31: 29; Prov. 20: 22; 24: 17; 25: 21)?
The point is less about protecting the animals than about keeping the animals from becoming the means by which we attack our enemies. This is not to say, of course, that the law is not concerned about the welfare of the animals. It is. But the point in this particular case is that failing to help our enemy’s animals in an effort to wound our enemies is wrong, illegal, and, in truth, only really injurious to ourselves. The animals in this case are mere pawns on the chessboard of our own vengeance. The law is cautioning us against allowing such a spirit of vindication to take over.
Rich Mullins jokingly used to say, “I know, ‘“Vengeance is mine,” saith the Lord,’ but I just want to be about the Father’s business.” Again, he was joking, but, in truth, that is how many actually feel today.
This entire passage is about justice and about guarding against injustice. Revenge leads us to unjust actions and we must be ever vigilant against such attitudes. In his collection of sayings from the desert fathers, Thomas Merton passed on an interesting conversation between two monks on this point.
One of the brethren had been insulted by another and he wanted to take revenge. He came to Abbot Sisois and told him what had taken place, saying: I am going to get even, Father. But the elder besought him to leave the affair in the hands of God. No, said the brother, I will not give up until I have made that fellow pay for what he said. Then the elder stood up and began to pray in these terms: O God, Thou art no longer necessary to us, and we no longer need Thee to take care of us since, as this brother says, we both can and will avenge ourselves. At this the brother promised to give up his idea of revenge.
This is a point well, if dramatically, made! God alone can truly act justly in punishing wrongdoers. While any society needs laws and legal structures, we must ever and always keep that fact in mind. We are not God. Our efforts at meting out justice will be necessarily and inevitably flawed. Yet, we must attempt to dispense justice. So what do we do?
An individual or a society seeking to act justly should read well and carefully our very text. We should strive to be diligent, fair, honest, and just. The scales of justice should indeed be blind. We should show no partiality. We should seek instead to honor what is true and right. We should avoid all temptation to vengeance or to seeking to harm another by treating their family or their property cruelly or wrongly.
Acting justly involves allowing the Spirit of the living God to hold sway over our attitudes and impulses. It involves an emptying of the self: our egos, our agendas, our preferences, and our desires. It involves giving the final word to Him alone who is able to act with perfect justice: the Lord God Himself.
 Quoted in R. Albert Mohler, Jr., Culture Shift: Engaging Current Issues With Timeless Truth (Colorado Springs, CO: Multnomah Books, 2008), p.97.
 Douglas K. Stuart, Exodus. The New American Commentary. Vol 2. Gen. Ed., E. Ray Clendenen (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2006), p.525.
 Philip Graham Ryken, Exodus. Preaching the Word (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2005), p.750.
 Hamilton, Victor P. (2011-11-01). Exodus: An Exegetical Commentary (Kindle Locations 13432-13436). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
 Shane Clairborne, The Irresistible Revolution (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006), p.248.
 Thomas Merton, The Way of the Desert (New York, NY: New Directions), p.37.