Many people are at least somewhat familiar with what the Bible states about being a false witness, particularly with regard to what is instructed in the Ninth Commandment. Far fewer people are aware of what the Bible says about not testifying as a witness. The question we will attempt to answer in this article is: Does the Bible declare that a person who is knowledgeable about a matter is committing a sin if he (or she) does not testify as to what they know about the matter?
To answer this question, we will focus on Leviticus 5:1, which in the New International Version (NIV) of the Bible states, “If anyone sins because they do not speak up when they hear a public charge to testify regarding something they have seen or learned about, they will be held responsible.”
[Note: Although we generally rely on the New King James Version of the Bible when we are quoting scripture, that translation of Leviticus 5:1 differs significantly from most of the other translations, so we have quoted the NIV translation, which we believe is representative of most of the other translations of this verse of scripture.]
With regard to the focal scripture, Barnes’ Notes on the Whole Bible says, “The case appears to be that of one who has been put upon his oath as a witness by a magistrate, and fails to utter all he has seen and heard.”
Also, in reference to Leviticus 5:1, Adam Clarke Commentary provides the following perspective:
It is generally supposed that the case referred to here is that of a person who, being demanded by the civil magistrate to answer upon oath, refuses to tell what he knows concerning the subject; such a one shall bear his iniquity – shall be considered as guilty in the sight of God, of the transgression which he has endeavored to conceal, and must expect to be punished by him for hiding the iniquity to which he was privy, or suppressing the truth which, being discovered, would have led to the exculpation [i.e., freedom from blame] of the innocent, and the punishment of the guilty.
John Gill’s Exposition on the Whole Bible declares with regard to the same verse of scripture,
hear the voice of swearing; . . . either of false swearing, or perjury, as when a man hears another swear to a thing which he knows is false; or else of adjuration [i.e., a solemn charge or command], either the voice of a magistrate or of a neighbour adjuring another, calling upon him with an oath to bear testimony in such a case. . . .
and is a witness; is able to bear witness to the thing he is adjured about:
whether he hath seen or known of it; what he has seen with his eyes, or knows by any means: of such a case . . . there may be seeing without knowing, or knowing without seeing, and in either case a man ought to bear witness:
if he do not utter it; tell the truth, declare what he has seen or known:
then he shall bear his iniquity; he shall be charged with sin, and be obliged to acknowledge his offence, and bring a trespass offering for it. . . .
Again, in reference to Leviticus 5:1, Matthew Henry’s Complete Commentary on the Bible states,
A man’s concealing the truth when he was sworn as a witness to speak the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. . . . [I]f he hear the voice of swearing (that is, if he be adjured to testify what he knows, by an oath of the Lord upon him, . . . [I]f in such a case, for fear of offending one that either has been his friend or may be his enemy, he refuses to give evidence, or gives it but in part, he shall bear his iniquity. . . . He that heareth cursing (that is, that is thus adjured) and betrayeth it not (that is, stifles his evidence, and does not utter it), he is a partner with the sinner. . . .
The Wycliffe Bible Commentary asserts with regard to the same scripture,
[This] instance is that of a witness who has refused to testify. This is a man who has seen a crime committed or heard something that might help in the solution of a crime. He must pay the penalty for silence if he hides his knowledge.
In light of the focal verse of scripture and the related commentaries that we have cited, we believe that anyone who is a witness to a matter that is being adjudged should volunteer to provide honest and complete testimony in that regard. And, failure to do so is a sin. Although we have sympathy for a person who is sincerely concerned that, if he (or she) serves as a witness, the person(s) on trial will subsequently cause severe consequences for them and/or for members of their family, we are not confident that such a concern is a sufficient reason to not testify.. Therefore, we can only speculate as to whether or not God will regard as sin their failure to testify or to testify honestly, regardless of the circumstances. Nevertheless, we are confident that God will forgive such a sin, as He would any sin other than the so-called “unpardonable sin,” provided that the person who commits the sin sincerely confesses their transgression to God (in accordance with 1 John 1:9) and genuinely repents. [For a discussion of the unpardonable sin, click on “What Is the Unpardonable Sin?”]