Troth and Lies

NIV Psalm 31:5 Into your hands I commit my spirit; redeem me, O LORD, the God of truth. NRSV Psalm 31:5 Into your hand I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me, O LORD, faithful God.

There’s an old-fashioned English word we don’t use much anymore: troth.  It’s related to truth, but it also means fidelity.  Truth and loyalty all bound up together in one word.  If we want to immerse ourselves in the language of the Psalms, it’s a word we might want to bring back to popularity.  In Hebrew, emeth is the same kind of word.  It means both truth and faithfulness.  In different English translations of the Bible you’ll find sometimes one, sometimes the other translation of emeth, depending on the context.  And often the different translations choose differently.

These faithful/truthful translators are relying on us to be aware that truth and faith are inextricably related to one another, even when we don’t always think of them that way in modern English.  Troth might help us do that.  Or think about the phrases where truth and faithfulness overlap: “to be true to one’s beliefs”, “a hi-fidelity recording”, “a faithful rendition of a piece of music”.  Accuracy, loyalty, and understanding start to get all mixed up together.

In the Psalms, the truth (about a person or a situation or God) can really only be known in the context of a trusting relationship.  Troth is essentially relational.

How different is this from a view that truth is just information and facts?  Is there truth in the data collected by surveillance, in smatterings of call logs, photos, or gps trails?

Now, you might be a little concerned about this kind of truth the Psalmist describes.  Do we really need more partisan truths conditioned by loyalty?  Or a world where who you know is the most important thing?  Perhaps we hope for truth stripped clean of encumbering power dynamics and messy human relationships.  What can we do but muddy up the real truth?

In fact, the Psalms agree wholeheartedly about the problems of partisan truths. But in the world of emeth, the Psalmist asks us to consider whether we can have it any other way, as humans.   In the Psalms, truth is not a commodity that can be possessed in differing quantities but a path to follow, beset by trouble on all sides.  In some Psalms, it’s unclear whether anyone is telling the truth.  Hence the Psalmist’s cry to the God of emeth to be rescued from the miry bog (see especially v 13-14 of Psalm 69).

And besides, it helps to see why the Psalms take lying so seriously.  Partisan partial truths whose intent is to harm fall right into the category of deceit in the Psalms.  Lies aren’t merely misinformation; they are false witness, unraveling the personhood of the one lied about.  In deceit, we are uprooted from the land of the living, says Psalm 52.  What’s more, just as emeth requires relationship with God, when we practice deceit we are de facto isolating ourselves from God, even denying God’s presence and care for the world.  Psalm 10 says, “In the pride of their countenance the wicked say, ‘God will not seek it out’; all their thoughts are, ‘There is no God.’… Their mouths are filled with cursing and deceit and oppression; under their tongues are mischief and iniquity.”  Psalm 15 tells us that to be in the presence of the Lord is defined by certain qualities, including truthfulness and avoidance of lying.

False witness isn’t just a biblical problem.  Mistaken identity, damaged reputations, and false witness are all frequently in the news.  Here are a couple stories just from this last week:

St Louis wrongful arrests – a long story about a culture of wrongful arrests and their negative consequences in St Louis

San Antonio 4 – news about the release of the San Antonio 4, women convicted of child molestation who have been released after more than a decade in prison due to faulty testimony.

In situations of deceit or false witness, how does the Church practice truth?


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