Is the "whole truth" always necessary?

When a witness is sworn into court, they vow “to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth.” Understandably, in order to have a fair trial, the judge wants all witness to tell everything they know, as accurately as they can remember. But is this necessary in all situations?

In Jeremiah 38, King Zedekiah asks Jeremiah to do something that seems like a lie, and Jeremiah goes along with it. After a private conversation between the two of them:

Zedekiah said to Jeremiah, “Don’t tell anyone you told me this, or you will die! My officials may hear that I spoke to you, and they may say, ‘Tell us what you and the king were talking about. If you don’t tell us, we will kill you.’ If this happens, just tell them you begged me not to send you back to Jonathan’s dungeon, for fear you would die there.”

Sure enough, it wasn’t long before the king’s officials came to Jeremiah and asked him why the king had called for him. But Jeremiah followed the king’s instructions, and they left without finding out the truth. No one had overheard the conversation between Jeremiah and the king. (38:24-27)

Frequently I have been asked by someone about a conversation I have had with another person. I’m sure you have as well. Of course, we don’t want to lie, but it’s not always everyone else’s business.

So if I tell only part of the conversation, like Jeremiah, and intentionally hold back the other part(s), is that the same as a half-truth, which many people call a lie? In other words, is it a sin?

Consider another Bible example. God had told Samuel to go to Bethlehem and anoint one of Jesse’s sons to be the next king of Israel. The current king, Saul, was upset with Samuel, and this would really set him off if he heard about it. Here’s the conversation between God and Samuel:

Now the LORD said to Samuel, “You have mourned long enough for Saul. I have rejected him as king of Israel, so fill your flask with olive oil and go to Bethlehem. Find a man named Jesse who lives there, for I have selected one of his sons to be my king.”

But Samuel asked, “How can I do that? If Saul hears about it, he will kill me.”

“Take a heifer with you,” the LORD replied, “and say that you have come to make a sacrifice to the LORD. Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you which of his sons to anoint for me.”

So Samuel did as the LORD instructed. (1 Samuel 16:1-4)

The situation is similar to Jeremiah’s. Samuel was to do a specific task, but because of the sensitive nature of the job, God told him to do it in a way that no one would know and to not let them in on the real reason for his arrival.

Again, was this an intentional deception, a lie, a sin? Well, it really can’t be if God told him to do it. James 1:13 reminds us that God never tempts anyone to sin. This was necessary under the circumstances, and Samuel did not hurt anyone in the process.

My conclusion: Deception for the purpose of leading someone wrong is sin. But wisdom dictates that we don’t tell everything we know. This includes gossip and bringing up past hurts as well as knowledge about confidential or sensitive situations. In reference to my previous post, good leaders [and followers] know when to keep information to themselves.

Wise people keep what they know to themselves, but fools can’t keep from showing how foolish they are. (Proverbs 12:23, NCV)

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