Revisiting the Ten Commandments: 12. Command Six: No Murder
Ex 20:13 You shall not murder.
The Command: This sixth command is the first of the short-and-to-the-point ones that now follow. It does not say you shall not kill; it uses the word ‘murder’, premeditated, purposeful killing of another person. It is what Cain did to Abel: “Now Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let’s go out to the field.” And while they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him.” (Gen 4:8) This sixth command does not spell it out and does not specify what should happen to a murderer, it leaves that to other parts of Scripture.
Distinctions: In the Law there is a distinction between murder and manslaughter: “Anyone who strikes a man and kills him shall surely be put to death. However, if he does not do it intentionally, but God lets it happen, he is to flee to a place I will designate. But if a man schemes and kills another man deliberately, take him away from my altar and put him to death.” (Ex 21:12-14) In a day where absolutes appear a thing of the past, these laws come with a refreshing clarity: You will NOT murder, i.e. murder is wrong!
The Sanctity of Life: We should perhaps note that the indicators of God’s attitude towards the taking of life came before the Law of Moses, which we are noting was instituted in Exodus and has been since the primary law source for Israel. For example: “for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each man, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of his fellow man. “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man.” (Gen 9:5,6)
Note what this says:
i) A respect is demanded for human life,
ii) The reason for that is that humans are made in the image of God and
iii) Whoever sheds the blood of a human being shall have his blood shed.
The value of life thus seems a high priority and the reason for that is not some utilitarian reason such as ‘it makes for a stable society’ but that we are God’s design, made in his image and precious to Him. That creates a far deeper and more meaningful reason for the sanctity of life than anything else.
Grieve over such tragedies: Thus, although modern society is easy going about abortions, killing of terrorists, going to war to repulse an invader etc., if we had the heart of God we would see every violent death as a tragedy. Sometimes, in this fallen world where we are forced to choose between the lesser of two evils, they are necessary – as in the case of saving the life of an expectant mother, of shooting terrorists as the only way of saving possibly hundreds of others, and of going to war to repulse an invader – but nevertheless we should grieve over every life lost violently. It may be that because generally we do not feel like this, we have opted to do away with the death penalty completely and we allow abortions for a variety of social reasons. ‘Tragedy’ is not part of our modern vocabulary unless it appears on stage. Perhaps it need reviving.
I have commented in various places before that the stringent requirements of the Law of having at least two reliable witnesses and then the death penalty imposed by people who knew the guilty party by stoning, would make it such an horrific event that it would rarely happen. Stoning sounds shocking to the modern mind but we tolerate killings in modern societies that can no way stand up in comparisons with the order of life in Israel that was never perfect but certainly considerably better than our modern societies.
Comparisons: Compare that society with ours today. Compare that society, for example, to London where, when I wrote originally, the media had been excited that the murder numbers each year, in recent years, appeared to have fallen at last below three figures. Since then figures of murders in recent years have been 2017 – 116, 2018- 137, 2019 – 149. In New York, according to the New York Times, city officials have proudly claimed that it is the safest big city in the country, but in 2019 over 300 people were murdered. In 2019 there were 650 homicides in the UK and this appears to have fallen from 774 in 2018. In the USA in the middle part of the first decade of the 21st century murders fell from a total of over 15,000 to just under 13,000. In California alone in 2018 there were over 1700 murders. That is a lot of murders. In fact it is almost impossible to comprehend that number: Imagine a long line of people, the ones who were murdered last year, those numbers. And God says, “You shall not murder.” Murder, therefore, appears a symptom of a godless society, a society that is not good at conveying moral requirements, a troubled society.
Who is responsible? The first murder in the Bible was Cain killing Abel (see Gen 4); Cain was held responsible. Centuries later Uriah was put in a place where he was killed in battle on the order of David. David was held responsible even though he didn’t actually kill him. (2 Sam 11:14-16). However, what is fascinating is that in the Law there was provision made that if a murder took place and no one was found responsible, the elders of the community would need to come before God and go through an act of atonement (see Deut 21:1-9). Trying murderers is about bringing justice, about the victim having society stand up for him or her and for their name, but in this case, justice cannot be seen to be done, so what can be done?
This Law required those leaders of the community to be responsible before God for it (not that they did it) and so need to stand before God and declare before Him (and be accountable to Him) their innocence and the fact that despite having done all they could, they have not been able to find the killer and therefore they recognise that justice has not been done for the murdered person. It is a way, if you like, of upholding two things. First, there is the concept of justice and the need for it in society. For the Israelites they had to take a sacrifice and wash their hands in this holy activity before God as leaders of society taking responsibility before God for the bad things in society that they have not been able to resolve. But, second, there is the upholding the respect of the murdered person, the honour of their name and society stands before God and says to them we have had to let you down, and we’re sorry. That is what is behind this. If only we had this today!
A Look Back: Behind this sixth command is an inherent respect for human life that comes from heaven. When you study and read about the initial combatants last century in the First World War, and then later the Second World War, not only were the aggressive leaders guilty of mismanagement but above that they were guilty of a callous indifference to the death of men. I have never heard of the Kaiser, or generals on both sides being accused of murder and yet the callous and thoughtless sending thousands upon thousands of men to their guaranteed deaths must surely in the courtroom of heaven be just that. What did we say earlier was the definition of murder? The premeditated, purposeful killing of another person. The folly of sending the cavalry into the arms of death by machine gun during the First World War has been possibly one of the greatest examples of willful stupidity and callous indifference to the loss of life recorded in history. For this we each need the Cross.
The word ‘negligence’ cannot even be applied because that would almost give an air of respectability to it. Hitler’s use of the gas ovens even eclipses that and every person who joined in bringing that about was guilty of wanton murder. Today it is Jihadist terrorists. If a terrorist dies at the hands of interrogators who tortured him, it is still murder, slow, prolonged and possibly regretted, but still murder. All those people claimed they had reasons for it, but in the light of history and before the throne room of heaven, all such deaths are pure and simple murder and God says, “You shall not murder!” and all such people face the most serious accounting in heaven.
And So: The original series I titled as, ‘The Wonder of the Ten Commandments’? Why? Because they stand out like beacons in a sin-sick world and declare THIS is God’s will and if you disregard it – or try to excuse it – you WILL be held accountable. The clarity of these commands is simple and sharp and however much we wriggle to explain away our behaviour, unless it is the only option in a fallen world, we will be held accountable.
Remember, we who are Christians, Jesus said murderers will be liable to judgment – but so also will those who harbor anger against their brother (Mt 5:21,22). The inner attitude is wrong and it can develop from anger to revenge, to spite, to scheming, to who knows what. Don’t go down the slippery path. Get God’s grace not to go a further step down it. Do not murder – in reputation as well as literally.
Application: May I suggest we conclude this study praying something like, “Lord, please forgive us that in modern life we have trivialized murder and almost take it for granted. Please have mercy on us for we see it as an outworking of a society that has turned its back on you and is living with the consequences, and we desperately need your help to turn this society around. Amen.”