Does God Condone Lying?
“A story found in 1 Kings 22 seems to indicate that God condoned lying. Yet Titus 1:2 speaks of God, who ‘cannot lie.’ Does God approve of lying on certain occasions?”
There is perhaps no narrative in the Old Testament that is the focus of more infidel criticism than 1 Kings 22. In that account, Jehoshaphat, king of Judah, and Ahab, king of Israel, united against the Syrians in order to recover the territory of Ramoth-gilead. For support, they sought the endorsement of false prophets who promised them success. Micaiah, a true prophet, predicted defeat for the confederation. But a lying spirit in the mouths of Ahab’s prophets persuaded the king to enter the fray. True to the divine prophecy, the forces of Judah and Israel were beaten, and Ahab was killed.
The problem with the passage has to do with that “lying” spirit. The text reads as follows:
And Jehovah said, “Who shall entice Ahab, that he may go up and fall at Ramoth-gilead?” And one said on this manner; and another said on that manner. And there came forth a spirit, and stood before Jehovah, and said, “I will entice him.” And Jehovah said to him, “Wherewith?” And he said, “I will go forth, and will be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.” And he said, “Thou shalt entice him, and shalt prevail also: go forth, and do so.” Now therefore, behold, Jehovah hath put a lying spirit in the mouth of all these thy prophets; and Jehovah hath spoken evil concerning thee (22:20-23).
How is this seeming difficulty to be solved?
First, since it can be established, on the basis of solid evidence, that the Scriptures are inspired of God (2 Tim. 3:16-17), and since it is true that the Scriptures testify that Jehovah is holy (Isaiah 6:3) and does not lie (Tit. 1:2), it must be concluded that there is some explanation for this context that is in harmony with the lofty character of our Creator. The diligent Bible student must search for it.
Second, one should observe that the narrative involves a vision (v. 19) that is highly symbolic; it is folly to press it as though it were a literal circumstance. Thomas Horne bluntly commented that any attempt to literalize this story, in an effort to implicate God in wrong-doing, is “as false as it is malignant” (412).
Adam Clarke wisely noted that this account is an illustration; it “only tells, in figurative language, what was in the womb of providence, the events which were shortly to take place, the agents employed in them, and the permission on the part of God for these agents to act” (476).
Another writer has observed:
“Visions of the invisible world can only be a sort of parables; revelation, not of the truth as it actually is, but of so much of the truth as can be shown through such a medium. The details of a vision, therefore, cannot safely be pressed, any more than the details of a parable” (Cook, 619).
Third, there is a common idiom in sacred literature by which the permissive will of God is expressed in forceful, active jargon. For example, the Lord is said to have “deceived” His people (Jer. 4:10), or to have given them “statutes that were not good” (Ezek. 20:25). In the New Testament, God is characterized as sending a strong delusion that some might believe a lie and be condemned (2 Thes. 2:11-12).
All of these passages simply indicate that when men are determined to disobey their Maker, He will allow them to follow the base inclination of their own hearts. For further study of this idiom, see Macknight (29).
In these verses, therefore, and numerous other verses of similar import, the Bible merely is expressing what Jehovah conceded, not what He initiated. Walter Kaiser correctly stated that “many biblical writers dismiss secondary causes and attribute all that happens directly to God, since he is over all things. Therefore, statements expressed in the imperative form of the verb often represent only what is permitted to happen” (119). This account, therefore, does not represent an inexplicable problem.
- Clarke, Adam (no date), A Commentary and Critical Notes (Nashville, TN: Abingdon), Vol. II.
- Cook, F.C., ed. (1981 reprint), The Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker), Vol. 2.
- Horne, Thomas H. (1841), An Introduction to the Critical Study and Knowledge of the Holy Scriptures (Philadelphia, PA: Whetham & Son), Vol. I.
- Kaiser, Walter (1988), Hard Sayings of the Old Testament (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity).
- Macknight, James (1954), Apostolical Epistles (Nashville: Gospel Advocate).
About the Author
Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.