Did Elisha Lie?
As Ben-Hadad, the king of Syria, made war with Israel, the prophet Elisha warned the Israelite king (Joram) time and again how to avoid his enemy. When Ben-Hadad learned that Elisha was the one who kept the king of Israel informed, he commissioned “a great army” to go and arrest the prophet of God (2 Kings 6:13-14).
When Elisha saw the Syrian army, he prayed that the Lord would strike them with blindness, which He did. The prophet then told the blinded Syrians, “This is not the way, nor is this the city. Follow me, and I will bring you to the man whom you seek” (2 Kings 6:19). Elisha proceeded to lead them to Samaria, the capital of Israel. Only after the Syrians were inside Samaria did God return to them their sight. Undoubtedly, it was here that Elisha revealed himself to the Syrians.
The question that many wonder is, “Did Elisha, a prophet of God, lie?” Rather than reveal himself to the Syrians when he first met them, he said, “‘This is not the way, and this is not the city. Follow me, and I will bring you to the man whom you seek.’ And he led them to Samaria” (6:19, ESV). Bible critics allege that Elisha lied (cf. McKinsey, 2000, p. 542), while many Bible believers also question the ethics of it all. Did Elisha sin in his dealings with the Syrians?
First of all, Bible students must keep in mind that every person who has ever lived, except Christ, has sinned (Romans 3:10,23; 1 Peter 2:22). Yes, all of the godly people mentioned in the Bible sinned at various times in their lives. Even inspired penmen, including Moses, David, and Peter, sinned at times. [NOTE: Inspired spokesmen and writers communicated the Spirit’s supernatural revelation accurately as He “carried” them “along” (2 Peter 1:20-21), but inspiration was not a 24-hour-a-day, supernatural process that protected inspired men from ever being able to sin.] No doubt, at various times in his life, Elisha sinned against God. Thus, whether Elisha lied on this occasion or not, he definitely fell short at some point in his life.
That said, we must also keep in mind that there is a difference in lying and (1) not revealing everything you know (e.g., John 6:64,70-71), (2) diverting one’s attention, (3) outwitting an enemy during a time of war (e.g., Judges 7:1-22), etc. If a soldier in a bunker puts his hat on a stick and raises it in the air to see if the enemy shoots it, has he deceived the enemy in a sinful sense? He intentionally tried to make the enemy think that his head was under the hat, but such a trick of war is not a lie. If soldiers impersonate the enemy by wearing the enemies’ uniforms while infiltrating the camp, have the soldiers been sly in order to gain the advantage? Yes. Have they lied? No. How many truthful, though blatantly illusive, things can a passionate husband and wife say to their child who finds a way into their room in the middle of the night? There are many noble ways to answer questions without revealing exactly what someone wants to know.
When the Syrians invaded Israel in order to find and arrest the prophet of God, Elisha appeared to them, without first revealing himself to his blind enemies. Instead, he said to follow him and he would bring them to the one they sought. He eventually revealed himself to them, but only after he had led them to Samaria and their sight was returned to them. Did Elisha trick his pursuers? Yes. But misleading enemy soldiers, intruders, or others who might want to do us harm is not necessarily the equivalent of lying. When God sent Samuel to Bethlehem for the purpose of anointing David as the next king of Israel, Samuel mentioned that Saul would kill him if he heard of it. God’s response: “Take a heifer with you, and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.’ Then invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do; you shall anoint for Me the one I name to you. So Samuel did what the Lord said” (1 Samuel 16:2-4, emp. added). When the elders of Bethlehem asked Samuel if he came peaceably, the prophet said, “Peaceably; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord” (16:5). Was the sacrifice the main purpose of Samuel’s visit to Bethlehem? No. But Samuel was under no obligation to tell his questioners the central reason for his visit. He simply revealed to them a secondary reason for his arrival into town.
God does not condone lying (Proverbs 6:16-17; Ephesians 4:25). There is never a justifiable reason to be untruthful (see Colley, 2010). A husband cannot lie about having a wife. A child cannot lie to his parents. A Christian cannot lie about being a follower of Christ (whether to escape death or for any other reason). As Christians we are to be as “harmless as doves.” But, we are also to be as “wise as serpents” (Mark 10:16). God’s people are not obligated to tell others everything they know. And, like Samuel, we may only reveal secondary reasons for certain things we do, especially if in doing so (1) we are still being honest, and (2) we have godly motives for not divulging all of the facts on a given occasion.
The Scriptures do not clearly indicate whether Elisha lied to the Syrians or not. (Of all the communication that likely took place between them, only one line is recorded in Scripture; 2 Kings 6:19). If Elisha did lie, such a sin would neither reflect poorly on God or the Bible—“for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Still, we must be careful not to over-react to what Elisha did. In a time of war, he strategically led his God-given “captives” to “the city” of his choosing, where he would reveal “Elisha” to them.
Colley, Caleb (2010), “Defending the Biblical Truth Against Lying,” Apologetics Press, http://www.apologeticspress.org/APContent.aspx?category=13&article=2843.
McKinsey, Dennis (2000), Biblical Errancy (Amherst, NY: Prometheus).