“You shall not commit murder” (Exodus 20:13)
The sixth commandment was given to guard the sanctity of human life. Life was cheap in many ancient cultures. Unwanted or deformed infants were routinely exposed in Greek and Roman times. The brutal practice of gladiatorial combat to the death is frightening to read about in history books. Tyrannical rulers would have generals, friends, or even family members killed on the spot for the pettiest of offenses. Those were harsh and evil times.
Before we rush to congratulate ourselves on being more civilized, enlightened, and moral than those cultures, reflect for a moment on our own situation. 23,000 + people were murdered in the United States in 2015, and approximately 1.5 million abortions are performed annually in our country. There is good reason to think we have not come very far in our regard for human life.
Human life is sacred by virtue of the fact that it is in God’s own image. On the sixth day of the creative week, God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” (Genesis 1:27a). We honor God when we respect and preserve his image in one another; we sin against him by treating other human beings with contempt. Living by the rules calls for a healthy respect for human life.
Life is a gift from God, and only He has the authority to take life. Because we’re made in God’s image, murder is an attack against God: Genesis 1:26-27 (ESV) 26 Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” 27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.
Genesis 9:6 (ESV) “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.
The issue here is premeditated murder, which Jesus said could have its beginning in anger: Matthew 5:21-26 (ESV) “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ 22 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. 23 So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. 25 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. 26 Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
The Jews were allowed to defend themselves and the idea of self-defense is recognized in modern law: (Exodus 22:2 (ESV) If a thief is found breaking in and is struck so that he dies, there shall be no bloodguilt for him.
All nations make concessions for accidental death; but murder was a capital offense: Exodus 21:12-14 (ESV) “Whoever strikes a man so that he dies shall be put to death. 13 But if he did not lie in wait for him, but God let him fall into his hand, then I will appoint for you a place to which he may flee. 14 But if a man willfully attacks another to kill him by cunning, you shall take him from my altar, that he may die.
As Noah stepped out of the ark to become the new head of the human race, the Almighty called his attention to the sacredness of human life and stated the penalty which was to be exacted from anyone who might dare to take a human life without justification. “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for God made man in his own image” (Genesis 9:6). Anyone who shows such irreverence toward God as to shed innocent blood must pay with his own life.
(1) It is not enough to keep the Sixth Commandment as a precept, we must keep the Sixth Commandment in a broader context. If we are to view murder as so evil that we never wish to be tempted to kill someone, we must deal with those attitudes and actions which incline us toward murder, if not dealt with.
(2) Anger harbored against a brother can become a motive for murder. No one will ever know the number of murders which were the result of anger, but the percentage of such cases would be very high.
(3) Viewing a brother as inferior, as worthless, or as a liability to society is a motive for murder. “You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason with your neighbor, lest you bear sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord” (Deuteronomy 19:17-18).
“You have heard that it was said to the men of old, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be liable to the hell of fire” (Matthew 5:21-22).
The terms “Raca” and “fool” are not just evil because they are names which we call another. These names betray an attitude on the part of the name‑caller that the world would be a better place without those thus named. Many who have taken the life of another have done so thinking they have done society a favor.
Hatred of another human being is also an offense against the sanctity of life. Jesus taught that murder originates in a heart filled with hatred (Matthew 15:19). The Bible teaches that hatred is wrong of itself.
Hatred, strife, and malice are sins against personality. They have no place in the life of one who has committed himself to living by the rules of heaven.
(4) Irreconciled relationships and unresolved conflicts can lead to murder. The Lord applied His teaching on murder by urging His hearers to promote and hasten the process of reconciliation. Unresolved conflicts only intensify, sometimes to the point murder.
Finally, let us identify some of the things in our own society which constitute violations of the sanctity of human life.
First, and most obviously, murder is a violation of the eternal principle which underlies the divine rule about life. Our world has an element which has no conscience about cold-blooded murder. Terrorists break into international sports events and waste lives; civilian and military representatives of the United States are vulnerable to kidnapping and assassination in various parts of the world; senseless and brutal murders of elderly people take place in every city in our own nation.
Second, personal injury to another person is a violation of life’s sanctity. Mugging, rape, or other forms of bodily harm are wrong. So are racism, mockery, or other psychological attacks against others. To set oneself against another human being with the intent of doing injury of any sort is an offense against one’s own humanity.
Going a step further, Scripture teaches that we are obligated to lend our assistance to people in trouble. It is one thing not to harm another; it is still another to become involved in trying to help that person with his problem. “Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to do it” (Proverbs 3:27; cf. James 4:17).
Third, abortion is a form of deliberate and unjustified taking of life that our society has come to tolerate and defend. The vast majority of the million and a half abortions performed annually in this country are for the convenience of the mother. The child is simply unwanted or inconvenient.
Of course the fundamental issue with regard to abortion is this: What is human life? From a biblical perspective, anyone conceived of human parents is human. Or, to say it in scientific terms, any organism with a human genetic code must be regarded as human life. From conception forward, every cell in the body of a developing fetus bears a distinctively human genetic code.
Some Things NOT Prohibited by This Rule
The Law of Moses distinguished at least three types of homicide. First, there is premeditated murder. This is planning ahead of time, lying in wait, taking the person off guard, and slaying him. It is killing a person in the course of committing some other crime against him, such as the case just posited of killing someone while trying to rob him. This type of criminal act is discussed at Numbers 35:16-21.
Second, there is accidental homicide. If two men are working together and one unintentionally causes a rock to fall which crushes his partner to death, no act of murder is involved. Numbers 35:22-28 discusses this sort of accidental death and specifies the right of protection an individual would have against anyone who thought his act was a malicious one. He could flee to one of three cities of refuge in Israel’s territory and claim sanctuary from the city’s officials.
Third, there is what we call self-defense or justifiable homicide. ”If a thief is found breaking in, and is struck so that he dies, there shall be no bloodguilt for him” (Exodus 22:2).
Of these three types of homicide, only the first is specified by the sixth commandment. The following, then, are not prohibited by this rule for right living or the eternal principle of respect for life underlying it.
Police action is not prohibited. Peter teaches that Christians are to acknowledge the right of the state, its rulers, and their agents to punish wrongdoers. “Be subject for the Lord’s sake for every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right” (l Peter 2:13-14).
Participation in a justified war is not prohibited. In the New Testament, soldiers are not required to give up their careers in view of the appearance of the Christ (cf. Luke 3:14; Acts 10). To the contrary, remember that Romans 13 says the state is constituted for the purpose of executing God’s vengeance on evildoers.
What is a “justified war”? War is justified when a nation uses its military force to turn back a genuine threat to the security of its people and the protection of innocent people.
Capital punishment is not prohibited. The Old Testament not only permitted but required the death penalty for murder (Genesis 9:6), rape (Deuteronomy 22:5), kidnapping (Exodus 21:16), and several offenses against the theocracy of Yahweh in Israel (Deuteronomy 13:5; 17:2-7).
Moving to the New Testament, one finds that it upholds rather than repudiates the right of the state to enforce the death penalty for certain crimes. Both testaments were written by the same God, a God whose character does not change. He did not evolve from a brutal person in the Old Testament to a loving one in the New Testament. He has always been loving, but his love has never allowed him to ignore justice. So the civil circumstances identified in the Old Testament for the taking of life are acknowledged again in the New Testament.