In Proverbs 6 is there a difference between a lying tongue and a false witness?

Proverbs 6:16-19 ESV There are six things that the Lord hates, seven that are an abomination to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that make haste to run to evil, a false witness who breathes out lies, and one who sows discord among brothers.

3 Answers 3


Shift of Emphasis and Focus

The same Hebrew word (שֶׁ֫קֶר; shěqěr)1 is used for both "lying" and "false" in those verses from the ESV, so there is a definite relationship between them, but also a difference of emphasis.

Note how the first five abominations relate to things done with the body (eyes, tongue, hands, heart, feet). These focus on "parts" of a person being used for specific sinful actions, and poetically reflect the inner person's will and desire to do these things.

In the case of a "lying tongue" (v.17), it makes a very generic statement about speaking falsehood of any kind, while pointing as well to the person's will and desire to so lie.

However, the last two abominations escalate the issues, because they actually reflect a combining of the previous five abominations,2 with the focus not on the part of the person so doing it (nor the inner self), but on those maliciously affected by the sins.

Now "false witness" (v.19; עֵ֣ד שָׁ֑קֶר; ʿēḏ shěqěr)3 itself can reflect the generic idea of "lying" (for one can be a false witness about oneself or another), but the focus of the idea of false witness is toward another person (Ex 20:16), especially in the context of being judged by a third party (legally or otherwise). Lying about oneself or some thing deceives others (and falls under "lying tongue"), but lying about another person before others not only deceives, but it affects that other person's reputation to others, and can cause those judging to not judge rightly about the morality, character, and actions of the one being lied about.

This one "breathes out lies" (יָפִ֣יחַ כְּ֭זָבִים; yāp̄îaḥ kāzāḇîm).4 The focus here is on the act itself, not just the tongue that does it (and the inner self that desires to lie). Here the lie becomes spoken in a false testimony toward another person.


All false witnessing is a lie, but not all lies are false witnesses in the sense that not all lies affect the reputation of other persons and the judgment of that person in the sight of still other people.


1 The idea is "deception" or "falsehood" (BDB, s.v. שֶׁ֫קֶר), but specifically intentional falsehood.

2 When one gives "false witness" (i.e. false testimony) toward another person, they are exhibiting pride (one believes one can and has the right to control that person's situation in a false way), lying (speaking untruths), murder metaphorically, but possibly actually as well (destroying that person's proper reputation and perhaps even sentencing them to death under OT law; note how "proper reputation" can be affected by telling a negative thing about someone who does not deserve it [slander], or telling a positive thing about someone who does not deserve it [coverup]), wicked plans (one has premeditated to bear such false testimony toward another), do evil (the result of the actions of false witness). Similar ideas could be compounded together for sowing discord among the brothers.

3 "Witness" or "testimony" (BDB, s.v. עֵד).

4 "Breathing" or "speaking" BDB, s.v. פּוּחַ (note there is a mispelling on this online BDB for this term—they have מּוּחַ rather than פּוּחַ); "lies," plural of BDB, s.v. כָּזָב.


The Idea in Brief

Liars tell lies, but the false witness also includes those who may tell the truth, but are malicious people who therefore "lie" against the truth. When liars lie, they are false witnesses, but not all false witnesses tell lies (notwithstanding that they still "lie" against the truth).

The Book of James provides the framework for understanding the arrogant, lying, murdering, wicked evil heart in addition to the "malicious" false witness found in the Book of Deuteronomy.


The Book of James appears to provide the parallel explanation and clarification of these verses in Proverbs.

Proverbs 6:16-17 (NASB)
16 There are six things which the Lord hates,
Yes, seven which are an abomination to Him:
17 Haughty eyes, a lying tongue,
And hands that shed innocent blood,

The "haughty eyes (proud) look, lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood" speak of the so-called brother who kills others with his words.

James 3:14 (NASB)
14 But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart, do not be arrogant and so lie against the truth.

This verse (above) is the capstone of the previous verses of James 3:1-12, which speak of the power and destructiveness of the human tongue, which is equated with homocide in James 2:11. In other words, the "haughty eyes (proud) look, lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood" speak of the so-called brother who kills others with his words.

Proverbs 6:18 (NASB)
18 A heart that devises wicked plans,
Feet that run rapidly to evil,

The Book of James also addresses the motives of the heart, which finds expression in evil.

James 3:8 (NASB)
8 But no one can tame the tongue; it is a restless evil and full of deadly poison.

James 3:16 (NASB)
16 For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every evil thing

James 4:16 (NASB)
16 But as it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil.

Finally, James discriminates the difference between the lying tongue and the false witness, who spreads discord among the brethren.

Proverbs 6:19 (NASB)
19A false witness who utters lies, And one who spreads strife among brothers.

But first we must note one point. The term "who spreads" highlighted, above, in Hebrew is וּמְשַׁלֵּחַ, and occurs in the Piel Stem (intensive) Present Active Participle (Masculine Singular). That is, the triliteral stem שָׁלַח means to send, but in the intensive stem (Piel), the word means to disseminate, to send or spread out, or to shoot off (for example, arrows as in 1 Sam 20:20).

So in James we find the following passage in this regard ("shooting off the mouth") in the context of the false witness among brethren.

James 4:11 (NASB)
11 Do not speak against one another, brethren. He who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks against the law and judges the law; but if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge of it.
James 5:9 (NASB)
9 Do not complain, brethren, against one another, so that you yourselves may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing right at the door.

The "false witness" is not just about lying (Prov 6:17), but has to do when there is only one person who is accuses one other person before the presence of others (without the involvement of any second witness), which thus constitutes the "bearing false witness."

Deuteronomy 19:15-17 (NASB)
15 A single witness shall not rise up against a man on account of any iniquity or any sin which he has committed; on the evidence of two or three witnesses a matter shall be confirmed. 16 If a malicious witness rises up against a man to accuse him of wrongdoing, 17 then both the men who have the dispute shall stand before the Lord, before the priests and the judges who will be in office in those days.

The context in the verses, above, is about one person accusing one other person. Even though the accusations may be true, the accusing in the absence of the second witness constitutes false witnessing against ones neighbor. That is, James is condemning the accusations of the "one-on-ones." The Law of Moses demanded that at least two witnesses accuse the third party, because in such cases the problem would not be confined to one person against another, but against the collective interests of the wider community.


The lying tongue tells lies, but the false witness does worse: he can tell the truth, but in the absence of another witness (to testify against the third party), that person lies against the truth. That person is indicative of maliciousness, which spreads strife (like shooting arrows) among the brethren. In this sense, that person is the false witness, who promulgates discord (like shooting arrows) among brethren.

  • Problem: The malicious (חָמָס) witness (Dt 19:16) is not automatically false simply for having testified on his own. As v.18-19 show, the judge must inquire to determine if the witness is false (שֶׁ֫קֶר) or not (so malicious does not equal false). Further, when you say "Liars tell lies ... All liars are false witnesses, but not all false witnesses tell lies," I disagree, because (1) liars do not always lie (and all people lie sometime), and opposite you (2) "Not all liars are false witnesses (not all lies are about another), but all false witnesses tell a lie (else they are not false)."
    – ScottS
    Jul 10, 2014 at 23:02
  • @ScottS - Thank you for the comment. My understanding is that the witness is false not because he lies, but because his intent is malicious. For example, the woman caught in adultery. Jesus invoked the same principle. It was not that the woman was not guilty of adultery, but that the witnesses were malicious in their intent. When Jesus challenged anyone to cast the stone, they would have incurred the punishment of stoning upon themselves (Deut 19:19). That is, they accused the woman of adultery in the absence of her husband, who could have chosen to forgive and be reconciled with her instead.
    – Joseph
    Jul 11, 2014 at 0:23
  • I understand what you are stating your understanding is. I'm just not seeing how its supported by Dt 19:16-19, when it appears that one can be a malicious witness, yet not a false witness (and only if one is both does one incur the penalty themselves... i.e. speaking lies for malicious purposes). Jesus' challenge in Jn 8:7 was based on Dt 17:6-7 (the witnesses were to be the first to cast), it did not matter what Christ had to say (per their question v.5), because He could not condemn her without their testimony (v.9-11), not Himself being a witness nor a judge (at that time). Cont....
    – ScottS
    Jul 11, 2014 at 1:41
  • Christ's challenge of "without sin" reflected on the fact that if she was caught in the act as they said (v.4), then where was the man who was with her (who was also to be stoned per Lev 20:10 and Dt 22:22)? Somebody was lying, because either (1) she was not caught in the act, or (2) one of them was the guilty party with her and they all knew it, or (3) they intentionally disobeyed the law letting the man go and did not want to admit it. All involve a lie if they proceeded without the man. Anyway, this is not the place to debate, but I wanted you to know why I found the argument unconvincing.
    – ScottS
    Jul 11, 2014 at 1:46
  • @ScottS - Thank you for your comment. The malicious witness can tell the truth, and in this technical sense he is a false (שֶׁ֫קֶר) witness. Since no one stepped forth as the accusing witness to cast the first stone at the adulterous woman (Deut 17:6-7), there was therefore no witness to accuse the woman as an adulteress. If someone cast the first stone, he would have indicted himself as malicious (false witness), who would receive the same punishment intended on his victim (Deut 19:19). The key point is that malicious people try to use the Law for purposes other than was intended by the Lord
    – Joseph
    Jul 11, 2014 at 12:06

Question Restatement: What is the difference between "being a false witness," and having a "lying tongue"?

Answer: (A.) Throughout Scripture, the Hebrew term behind "witness", indicates a "person," not necessarily an act--and has an extremely legal connotation. (B.) For example : a false witness who lies in something as important as a legal proceeding, usually about another -- is something quite different than someone simply lying ...

Textual Examples having Legal Connotations:

Prov. 6:19 - יפיח כזבים עד שקר ומשלח מדנים בין אחים׃

NASB - A false witness who utters lies, And one who spreads strife among brothers.

Lev. 5:1 - ונפש כי־תחטא ושמעה קול אלה והוא עד או ראה או ידע אם־לוא יגיד ונשא עונו׃

Now if a person sins after he hears a public adjuration to testify when he is a witness, whether he has seen or otherwise known, if he does not tell it, then he will bear his guilt.

Is. 44:8 - אל־תפחדו ואל־תרהו הלא מאז השמעתיך והגדתי ואתם עדי היש אלוה מבלעדי ואין צור בל־ידעתי׃

NASB - Do not tremble and do not be afraid; Have I not long since announced it to you and declared it? And you are My witnesses. Is there any God besides Me, Or is there any other Rock? I know of none.’”

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