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.” – Exodus 23:1-9 ESV
The laws contained in the Book of the Covenant were meant to provide practical applications of the Ten Commandments to real-life scenarios. The ninth commandment stated, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Exodus 20:16 ESV). But how was that commandment to be applied in everyday life? The first three verses of chapter 23 provide an answer.
God warns His people about spreading false and potentially malicious rumors about one another. As mentioned before, all of these laws were intended to inculcate and reflect God’s character. Yahweh expected His chosen people to mirror His passion for truth and justice, and you can’t have one without the other. Falsehood makes justice impossible because it paints an inaccurate picture of reality. To spread a false report about someone is to purposefully twist the truth about them in order to denigrate their character in the eyes of others. At its most basic level, a false report is a lie intended to damage another person’s reputation. This kind of action can be subtle and take the form of idle gossip but, as God points out, it can also escalate into a coordinated attack designed to deny the other person a just outcome in a trial.
“You must not cooperate with evil people by lying on the witness stand.” – Exodus 23:1 NLT
In the case of a trial, it might be easy to take sides against an individual and be pressured to provide false and incriminating testimony. But God forbids such sinful behavior. His priority is always truth and He will not tolerate those who twist the truth for their own personal gain or in order to enact their own brand of justice.
“You must not follow the crowd in doing wrong. When you are called to testify in a dispute, do not be swayed by the crowd to twist justice. And do not slant your testimony in favor of a person just because that person is poor.” – Exodus 23:2-3 NLT
Justice thrives on the truth and a spirit of favoritism that fosters inaccurate and falsely slanted details will make it impossible to achieve a just and righteous outcome. When it comes to the truth, taking sides is the worst thing you can do. Allowing someone’s personal circumstances to cloud your judgment can be a dangerous thing. That’s why, in a courtroom environment, God prohibits lying on someone’s behalf just because they are poor. But He goes on to warn, “In a lawsuit, you must not deny justice to the poor” (Exodus 23:7 NLT). His people were not to let their personal feelings cloud their judgment or tempt them to falsify the facts. They were to stick to the truth and let justice take its course.
He wanted His people to follow His example. As a just and righteous God, He would “never declare a guilty person to be innocent” (Exodus 23:7 NLT). And He expected His people to follow His righteous standards.
“Be sure never to charge anyone falsely with evil. Never sentence an innocent or blameless person to death…” – Exodus 23:7 NLT
God knew the Israelites would find it difficult to adhere to His law. There would be constant temptations to twist the truth, either out of favoritism or personal gain. That’s why He prohibited the taking of bribes. Money can exert a powerful pull on even the most righteous person, causing them to play fast and loose with the truth in order to profit from their perjury.
There were certain groups within Israelite society that God knew would never get a fair shake. One, in particular, was made up of “sojourners” or “strangers.” These were the non-Israelites or foreigners who had chosen to accompany God’s people when they left Egypt. These individuals would always find it difficult to get a fair trial because of their outsider status. That’s why God warned His people, “You must not oppress foreigners. You know what it’s like to be a foreigner, for you yourselves were once foreigners in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9 NLT).
The Israelites knew what it was like to be an outsider. They had lived for centuries as strangers in a strange land and faced open ridicule and hatred for their identity. Now that they were in the majority, they would be tempted to treat the strangers in their midst with a certain degree of suspicion and even disdain. But God wanted them to treat all people justly and fairly.
And this righteous behavior was not to be reserved just for the courtroom. In their everyday actions with one another, they were to put God’s passion for truth and justice on full display. They were to do the right thing – at all times.
“If you come upon your enemy’s ox or donkey that has strayed away, take it back to its owner. If you see that the donkey of someone who hates you has collapsed under its load, do not walk by. Instead, stop and help.” – Exodus 23:4-5 NLT
Everyday life would provide plenty of opportunities to treat one another with love and respect. As they went about their daily routines, they would run into scenarios that required them to put truth and justice on display. To fail to do the right thing is to do the wrong thing. Refusing to return a neighbor’s wandering donkey is tantamount to stealing it. You had the opportunity to do the right thing and chose to ignore it.
And God warns against decision-making based on personal grudges. The identity of the animal’s owner should have no bearing on whether you offer aid. The right response should be driven solely by a desire to do the right thing – that which God would have you do. And Jesus would pick up on this same idea in His sermon on the mount.
“You have heard the law that says, ‘Love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy. But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike. If you love only those who love you, what reward is there for that? Even corrupt tax collectors do that much. If you are kind only to your friends, how are you different from anyone else? Even pagans do that. But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.” – Matthew 5:43-48 NLT
Notice how Jesus portrays right actions as a sign of identity. Doing the right thing provides undeniable evidence of one’s relationship with God. The children of God mimic the character of their Father. They follow His lead and foster an atmosphere of truth and justice through the way they live their lives. No favoritism. No falsehood. No prejudice or premeditated partiality. God expects His children to serve as conduits of His grace and mercy to all those around them.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.