You shall not murder.
Exodus 20:13 ESV
With our study of the Sixth Commandment, we now officially move into the second half of the Ten Commandments. As we noted while discussing the Fifth Commandment, the final six commands apply directly to how we treat our fellow humans, whereas the first four consider how we relate to God. But while our focus is now horizontal, we must remain rooted in the vertical. We cannot properly love others without first properly loving God. In fact, as we will continue to see, each of these commands have their foundation in the character and attributes of God Himself.
While some have considered the order of the Fifth and Sixth Commandments odd, I believe that it is quite natural. The Fifth Commandment taught how we are supposed to relate with our first neighbors and those who gave us life, our father and mother. The Sixth Commandment now teaches that we are meant to value and honor the very reality of life given to us as image-bearers by our Creator. Let us, therefore, examine the Sixth Commandment.
DO NOT MURDER
The Sixth Commandment prohibits murder, the slaying of other image-bearers of God. We must begin, therefore, by asking: what is the biblical definition of murder?
We know that it does not include state-sanctioned executions or what we might call capital punishment. Even before the Mosaic Law, God declared to Noah that the shedding of blood was to be met with shedding of blood in return, and He kept this pattern into the formation of the nation of Israel. Such judgment was even occasionally dealt on a grand scale, as in Exodus 32 where Moses commanded the Levites to kill three thousand of their fellow Israelites who had worshiped the golden calf. Furthermore, Paul reiterates this application for the New Testament by reminding the Romans that God has given earthly rulers the sword of authority to enact justice.
We also know that it does not include killings in war so long as they are necessary. The Old Testament, of course, is littered with the military campaigns of the Israelites, many of which the LORD actively takes credit for their victories. The New Testament appears to continue this stance as evidenced by John the Baptist’s answer to the soldiers who were baptized by him. He simply warned them against using their position of power and authority to extort money, which implies that honorably serving as a soldier was not contrary to living a godly life in God’s kingdom.
Within the Torah, God also made provisions for accidental manslaughter by establishing cities of refuge where they could flee for safety from anyone who might avenge the person who was killed until they were able to be judged. However, if the manslayer was found guilty of reckless neglect (such as having been warned repeatedly of his ox’s violent tendencies yet failing to keep it locked up), the man was then put to death. Thus, unintentional manslaughter can be considered murder under this command, if the person is guilty of reckless neglect.
The most obvious meaning of murder, however, is intentional killing, whether premeditated or not. Thankfully, most people know the sinfulness of murder because of the ingrained moral law that God has etched upon our hearts. Yet we should also remember that murder does not need to be committed in person. For example, David orchestrated Uriah’s death so that he died in battle, but even still Nathan brought this message from the LORD, “You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword… and have killed him with the sword of the Ammonites” (2 Samuel 12:9). David did not touch Uriah himself, yet he was still guilty of murder.
Even still with this further understanding of murder, I assume that most of us have not experienced much temptation to actually take the life of another human being. We may, therefore, be prone to think that we don’t need to give much attention to the Sixth Commandment. Kevin DeYoung, however, wonderfully notes, “As he is apt to do, Jesus makes the one commandment we would have thought we were all going to feel pretty good about into one of the commandments we all feel pretty bad about” (104). Jesus does this by giving us the proper depth of this commandment. After emphasizing that He came to fulfill the law, not to abolish it, Jesus makes this declaration within His Sermon on the Mount:
You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.Matthew 5:21-26
Consider the weight of these words. Jesus purposely proclaimed them from a mountain in order to mirror the giving of the law at Sinai, and He then adds to the divine law, even the Ten Commandments themselves! He reevaluated the Sixth Commandment and applied it further than ever imagined. Jesus was clearly assuming a right of interpretation that could only belong to the author.
With this statement, Jesus takes the Sixth Commandment to the thought-level, to the very beginning of intent. He goes beyond the actual act of taking another’s life and narrows in upon the murder that is written across all of our hearts. He provides three examples of how we murder one another with our minds, hearts, and mouths.
The first violation is holding onto anger against our brother. I say holding onto anger because Paul further explains the danger of anger in Ephesians 4:26-27, “Be anger and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity for the devil.” Anger itself is not sinful, especially since we know that God Himself experiences anger; however, what we do with our anger very often is sin. In fact, holding onto anger against someone is a strong indication that we are refusing to forgive them, which we are called to do as those who have ourselves been forgiven. We must, therefore, let go of our anger quickly. Anger that we fuel in our thoughts is a breaking of the Sixth Commandment and an opportunity for the devil. Murder is the fruit of simmering anger, and brooding anger is the seed of murder. Both remain sin.
The second and third violations are both related to insulting our brother. The word that Jesus uses here for insulting is raca, which means empty or empty-headed; therefore, it was a slander against someone’s intelligence and competence. Calling someone a fool, however, was an attack on their character since the fool within the Bible is one who lacks life-giving wisdom because he does not fear God. Both murder a person’s name and reputation. Both are acts of slander. But while the first targets the person’s ability, the second takes aim at their piety.
Thus, we need not physically shed the blood of a fellow human to disobey the Sixth Commandment; we only need to kill with our hearts and with our mouths. With this as the standard of obedience, it would be safe to assume that we are all murderers. Harboring and speaking death upon those who bear the image of God.
THE GOD WHO IS LIFE
With each command comes an implication of obedience in addition to the immediate prohibition. As we’ve seen with the First Commandment, the positive implication of having no other gods is to love God with all our heart, soul, and might, and the Third Commandment calls us to hallow God’s name as we also avoid profaning it. Likewise, the Sixth Commandment also involves more than simply refusing to do harm.
The sinfulness of murder is rooted, as we have already mentioned in passing, in the imago Dei, the fact that we humans were made in God’s image. This means that we reflect aspects of God’s nature and character. As the life-giving Creator of all things, He breathed life into us and placed us within the Garden of Eden to care for the world that He had made. His first command for the first man and woman was to be fruit, multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it (Genesis 1:28). Thus, he gave them life and commissioned them to further fill the earth with life and His image.
Yet in Genesis 3 things go downhill quickly. The man and woman rejected God’s design and chose to disobey Him. Despite God’s warning that such disobedience would lead to death, they ceased to trust God’s words, and so they took their chances. But death did enter in. Death first came to their innocence, and it trickled down, rotting their relationship with one another and even with the earth itself. Eventually, death would also find their bodies, returning them to the dust from whence they came.
Yet even before life left their bones, death came upon them in another unexpected manner. The man and woman gave birth to two sons, Cain and Abel. One day when the brothers brought their offerings to the LORD, God took pleasure in Abel’s offering but not Cain’s. Anger brooded within Cain’s heart. God spoke to Cain, warning him of dangers of allowing his anger to give opportunity for sin. Cain, however, ceased to trust God’s words, and so Cain shed the blood of his brother.
Within one generation of the first sin, death came not just by the body’s inability to continue living; it came by the hand of an image-bearer. From stewards of creation to dealers of death, this is the devastating nature of sin. It corrupts from the inside-out, flipping all things upside down and inverting them. Though tasked with propagating life by being fruit, multiplying, and filling the earth, we quickly learned to do the exact opposite: to end life.
And, in a sense, we follow that pattern with everything. God gives us a good gift for enjoying life, but we turn it into an instrument of death. He gives us beautiful intimacy of sex within the covenant of marriage, but we wield it for death both against ourselves and others by divorcing it from its proper context. He grants us the privilege of owning things, but we make them our deities and seethe in silent anger whenever others have what we want. It’s all murder. Sin cannot do anything but kill. Its paycheck is always death. As sinners, we take things of life and use them for death. We boil young goats in their mother’s milk, kill babies in the safety of the womb, and call evil good and good evil.
Still the murderous nature of sin does not stop there. God did not leave humanity to our well-deserved consequences. Instead, He placed Himself within the very pages of the story by sending His only Son to become a man. Although He was the eternal Word by whom and for whom and through whom all things were created, Jesus lived sinless among us and upon the cross offered His own life as payment for our sins.
While preaching a sermon, Peter accused the people around him of killing “the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead” (Acts 3:15). Of course, some or even many in the crowd may have actually been among those shouted for Jesus’ death, but the reality also stands that Jesus died for our sins. As the song says, “Behold the man upon the cross, my sin upon His shoulders. Ashamed I hear my mocking voice call out among the scoffers. It was my sin that held Him there until it was accomplished.” Two thousand years later, I did not directly call for Jesus’ murder, but “it was the will of the LORD to crush him” as He was pierced for my transgressions (Isaiah 53:10). I, therefore, am responsible for the death of the Author of life.
After Abel’s death, God told Cain that his brother’s blood was crying out from the ground. Murdered blood cries out to the LORD for justice. Indeed, the souls of the martyrs cry out: “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth” (Revelation 6:10)? Yet Jesus, as very God of very God and the only human to remain sinless and innocent, has “sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (Hebrews 12:24). His blood does not cry out for retribution; instead, it purchases our redemption.
Jesus is the new and better Adam in every way. We corrupt the life-giving things of God and use them for death, but Christ takes tools of death, like the cross, and gives everlasting life. We receive good from God’s hand and yet scorn Him. Jesus receives scorn from us and yet saves. Risen from the dead, Jesus continues to be the Author of life not only because He upholds the universe by the word of His power but because He is the way, the truth, and the life. He is the fountain of living water, the first fruit of the resurrection, and the one is making all things new. Jesus is not only anti-murder; He is life. Recall, after all, Jesus’ prayer to the Father: “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3).
This command do not murder, therefore, does not simply call us to refrain from taking lives.
It calls us to place our faith in Him alone who is life. Is Jesus, therefore, your very life?
It demands that we walk as followers of Christ, carrying our cross and crucifying our sinful desires daily, that we murder our sin rather than one another. Are you putting to death the sins of your flesh?
It requires that we love those who hate us, that we bless those who curse us, that repay evil with good. Are you doing good to those who deserve evil?
It commands that do away with “all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander… along with all malice,” being instead “kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:31-32). Have you let go of your anger against your brother or sister? Are you murdering your own bitterness and wrath?
It demands that we would be a people who proclaim to others the excellencies of Him who called us out of death and into life. Have you drank from Jesus’ fountain of life so that from your heart flows a river of living water that calls for others receive eternal life in His name?
The God who is life died for rescue us from death. How can we not also pour out our lives for the sake of His glory and the good of those for whom He died?