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Wisdom in cross-examining a witness before making judgment

Proverbs 18:17

17 The first one to plead his cause seems right,
Until his neighbor comes and examines him.

Proverbs 25:2

2 It is the glory of God to conceal a matter,
But the glory of kings is to search out a matter.


On October 15, 1894, a French army officer was arrested for treason. The officer,  army captain Alfred Dreyfus, was a career military man, an Alsatian Frenchman, and a Jew. He was accused of passing secret documents to a member of the German military. 

On November 1, 1894, a Paris newspaper broke the story with the headline, "High Treason: Arrest of the Jewish Officer, A. Dreyfus." The newspaper, La Libre Parole ("Free Speech”), headed by its editor, Edouard Drumont had sniffed out the story snd now trumpeted it with a preconceived verdict. The paper declared that Dreyfus had made a “full confession” and that there was absolute proof he had spied for Germany.

The story set off a firestorm of debate across France and the western world. With anti-semitism on the rise, and with tensions between France and Germany at near wartime levels, there was little incentive for the military to give Dreyfus the benefit of a doubt. 

Dreyfus was convicted on December 22, 1894 by a military tribunal that had met behind closed doors. The evidence was scanty, and Dreyfus had been unable to defend himself. By all accounts it was a true miscarriage of justice, with Dreyfus reportedly crying out:

I swear that I am innocent. I remain worthy of serving in the Army. Long live France! Long live the Army!

Stripped of his rank and his honor, Dreyfus was sentenced not to death but life in prison on the notorious Devils Island penal colony in French Guyana. For five years he languished in misery, fighting abuse and jungle disease, until an appeal could be made. Meanwhile, the “Dreyfus Affair” as it had come to be known, was tearing France apart with public opinion divided over support for Dreyfus. 

Notable French thinkers and celebrities took sides, with firebrand author Emile Zola penning an open letter titled, “J’accuse…!” (“I accuse!”) in the paper to Félix Faure, President of the French Republic. In it, Zola accused the government of anti-Semitism and the press of manipulating the public:

It is a crime to mislead public opinion, to utilize for a deadly task this opinion which has been perverted until it becomes delirious.–Emile Zola, “J’accuse!”

In 1899, after several appeals, Dreyfus’s conviction was reversed and he was allowed to return from imprisonment. He was reinstated to the army and served France bravely during WWI, before dying in 1935. 

History shows that not only is “The Dreyfus Affair” an example of shameful anti-semitism, it is also an example of trial by public opinion–and the importance of carefully examining witnesses before rendering justice.  

Long before the Third French Republic and the phenomena of mass media, King Solomon knew the wisdom of the proper questioning of witnesses. As a king he served as chief justice in the land, and regularly rendered verdicts deciding matters from trivial to national importance. 

One of Solomon’s earliest cases was to render justice between two women, each accusing the other of stealing her baby (I Kings 3:16-28). Instead of hearing out the first woman and jumping to a swift conclusion, Solomon carefully listened to both of the women before rendering a judgement that revealed which woman was the true mother of the baby.    

This incident is doubtless in Solomon’s mind as he instructs the young people of Israel:

17 The first one to plead his cause seems right,
Until his neighbor comes and examines him.–Proverbs 18:17

How often have you had a friend or a co-worker share a juicy tidbit of gossip with you that soon had you utterly convinced of someone’s guilt or hilarious humiliation? Such a rumor can be so convincing, usually because you want to believe it–or they simply sound so true considering who it is about. Think of a married couple at your church, and hearing salacious item like one of these:

“She mentioned that he comes home from work late some nights and it really bothers her.”

“I heard him say that her mother won’t stay out of their business.”

“Did you see the way she looked at him the other night? Her eyes were daggers!”

“They were both at the church dinner and he didn’t say a word to her the entire time.”

It is not difficult to imagine any such scenario in any marriage, but your brain reaches to connect dots and support such information. It certainly sounds like it could be true. Come to think of it, perhaps you too have suspected such things of them from time to time.

Before you know it, a conclusion is reached and gossip claims more victims. In all of these situations, your quick belief of them may actually be helping to create a situation that does not really exist. When such gossip and your support for it gets back to the husband or wife, it may cause an actual situation between them and do great harm to their relationship!

Gossip is one thing, false accusation is another. There are times in the life of the church, or among your friends and co-workers, that conflict occurs and someone is accused of wrongdoing, despite their innocence. Whether it is you or someone in your personal mission field that is wrongly accused, the damage can be great–and a careful response needed to ensure justice and healing. Herein lies the great task of the believer to seek the truth above all, as Solomon also writes:

2 It is the glory of God to conceal a matter,
But the glory of kings is to search out a matter.–Proverbs 25:2

God may possess the key to all mysteries, including the “mystery of His will” (Ephesians 1:8-9), but it is high honor for you to seek out the truth in a situation–especially when one person is accusing another of an evil or hurtful act. 

Tim Keller reminds us that what you hear from a single party, or witness, is almost never unbiased. It is natural and normal for you to begin to draw conclusions and to seek to believe one person’s testimony when you hear it–but there must be two sides to every dispute. You must keep an open mind for another persecutive because, “It is exceedingly rare for one person in a dispute to be able to represent the opponent’s point of view adequately.”

For justice to prevail, both accuser and accused must be given equal consideration. In Proverbs 18:17, Solomon employs legal terminology to make his point. The proverb reads almost like a law school instruction. “The first one to plead” is a direct reference to a prosecutor in a lawsuit. “Until his neighbor comes and examines him” refers to a defense attorney, seeking the facts. 

Like a defense attorney, when you hear an accusation or a rumor, you are called to probe the accusers with questions. You are basically using cognitive and analytical examination and testing in order to determine the truth behind the statements made. By doing this you may exonerate an innocent person, unmask a liar–and save yourself the pain of wrongfully choosing sides. 

God makes provision for this in His law, in that He directs Moses and Israel to require not one, but two witnesses of a crime or violation of the law. Not only does He state this in the Ninth Commandment, He spells it out in detail:

16 If a false witness rises against any man to testify against him of wrongdoing, 17 then both men in the controversy shall stand before the Lord, before the priests and the judges who serve in those days. 18 And the judges shall make careful inquiry, and indeed, if the witness is a false witness, who has testified falsely against his brother,–Deuteronomy 19:16-18  

Have you ever been falsely accused by someone? Have you ever been tried in the court of public opinion–or in the court of the church rumor mill? This can be devastating to experience, with your reputation tarnished and a lifetime of residual pain from the betrayal. It can also bring lasting harm to the church, the beautiful bride of Christ. 

For it is Jesus who went to the cross and died for her, in order to take her as His own. When her white innocence is stained with the dirty lies, it hearkens back to Jesus’s own treatment at the hands of those who falsely accused Him of blasphemy–against His own father. 

To make matters worse, those who accused Jesus, also made a mockery of this God-prescribed system of justice by bringing up not one, but two and more false witnesses to lie:

56 For many bore false witness against Him, but their testimonies did not agree.

57 Then some rose up and bore false witness against Him, saying, 58 “We heard Him say, ‘I will destroy this temple made with hands, and within three days I will build another made without hands.’ ” 59 But not even then did their testimony agree.–Mark 14:56-59 

In enduring this, Jesus was fulfilling the words of the prophet Isaiah:

7 He was oppressed and He was afflicted,
Yet He opened not His mouth;
He was led as a lamb to the slaughter,
And as a sheep before its shearers is silent,
So He opened not His mouth.–Isaiah 53:7

What are you to do when faced with a similar situation of your own? It can be difficult not to lash out, to face your accusers and demand justice. You may not be wrong in doing so, but you must be very careful when all of this involves the church. 

There are times when a vigorous defense by a believer who has been wronged can drag out and cause tremendous harm to a church. You must be wise and know when you must fight–and when you must show the humility that Christ displayed before His accusers.

Revivalist preacher Jonathan Edwards, a tremendous puritan light during the Great Awakening, was wrongfully accused in his church, and was ultimately fired. Through it all, he refused to defend himself, to the frustration of his friends. Edwards writes this testimony in his beautiful work, “Charity and its Fruits:”

Because we ought meekly to bear not only a small injury, but also a good deal of injurious treatment from others. We should persevere, and continue in a quiet frame, without ceasing still to love our neighbor, not only when he injures us a little, but when he injures us much, and the injuries he does us are great. And we should not only thus bear a few injuries, but a great many, and though our neighbor continues his injurious treatment to us for a long time.” – Jonathan Edwards, “Charity and its Fruits”

Edwards was eventually exonerated, but not before suffering greatly.

Do not let this happen to an innocent person in your church, your family, or in your personal mission field. The next time you have the opportunity to entertain a rumor or hear a grievance by someone who perceives they have been wronged, work with all faithfulness to determine the truth. Seek to hear both sides of an argument before you render judgement.

Someone’s marriage, life, or even the peace of the Bride of Christ may be at stake.


The Monday—Friday DEEPs are written by Mike Slay and this Saturday Deep is written by Matt Richardson. To subscribe to all the DEEPs click here:

The weekly study guides, which include the Monday–Friday devotionals plus related questions for discussion or meditation, are available for download here:

Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. ESV stands for the English Standard Version. © Copyright 2001 by Crossway. Used by permission. All rights reserved. NIV stands for The Holy Bible, New International Version®. © Copyright 1973 by International Bible Society. Used by permission. All rights reserved. KJV stands for the King James Version.

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