© Judson Press, Valley Forge, Pa 1983. Revised by the author 2001



Thou shalt no killNow we come to the most controversial commandment of all. Asked to name the Ten Commandments, most people would begin the list with "Thou shalt not kill," for it names the most obvious evil that God has prohibited. Obvious though the commandment's injunction may be to all cultures — biblical and otherwise — people today are not at all agreed on its scope and intention.

The Sixth Commandment is not a blanket interdiction against killing but, rather, a specific prohibition of murder, the intentional taking of a human life. Notice that I said human life. Animal Rights advocates go too far in applying this commandment to killing cows, chickens and pigs. Just as not all sex is adultery, so not all killing is murder. Old Testament history makes clear that the ancient Hebrews didn't understand this commandment as outlawing war or capital punishment but only personal blood vengeance. In this limited sense it is the least troublesome of the Ten Commandments. "Thou shalt not murder" bothers most of us about as much as if God had commanded, "Thou shalt not spit on the moon." We have never murdered anyone and don't intend to. Adultery, stealing, lying… ah, they are different matters! But more about them later.

Many people, when asked if they approved of sex and violence, would answer, "Yes and no!" In spite of all the violence in our world, few people approve of it. Only one person in a thousand has actually broken the Sixth Commandment in its narrow sense of murder. And many murderers are psychopaths incapable of feeling normal guilt for their bad behavior. So for murderers and non-murderers alike, the Sixth Commandment is the least troublesome of the ten.

As long as we stick to the primary reference of the Sixth Commandment, we are on safe, non-controversial ground. But we don’t need to buy a book or look up a site on the internet to find out that God doesn't approve of killing people. We therefore leave the safe garrison of the obvious to explore the deep forests and dark caves that surround this commandment. Before we set forth on our journey, I warn you there are snipers lurking in the darkness along the way ready to attack if we trespass their codes of behavior. I will try to be a reliable guide, but I confess that other guides, whose wisdom and Christian commitment I highly respect, would take you a different route.

The primary reference of the Sixth commandment is murder, the taking of a human life, which is as sacred as the breath of God that gave it (Genesis 2:7). But there are other ways of terminating life besides "murder most foul." Let us consider some miscellaneous acts that violate the sanctity of life in different ways.

All of life is sacred, including your own. You don’t choose the time and circumstances of your birth. And neither do you choose the time and circumstances of your death. Those matters belong exclusively to the Creator. "You do not belong to yourselves, but to God" (1 Corinthians 6:19). To take your life destroys what belongs to God and, furthermore, deprives others of the love and service you could have devoted to them. Suicide violates the Sixth Commandment.

There are other ways of shortening life that may be less violent but are just as effective. For instance…

Drugs, Alcohol, Cigarettes, and Gluttony
Alcohol is our nation's number-one killer drug. It kills far more people than heroin and cocaine. Fifty percent of all fatal car accidents involve drinking drivers. If there had been drunken drivers in Moses' day, there would probably have been eleven commandments. Alcoholism not only kills people dead; it kills them alive, which is worse! Nine million alcoholics suffer a living hell in the United States. They are breaking the Sixth Commandment by killing themselves and others.

So severe is the problem of alcoholism in our day that many Christians advocate total abstinence as the only responsible position. The Bible clearly commands temperance (1 Timothy 3:8; Titus 2:3) and condemns drunkenness (Proverbs 23:29-35; 1 Corinthians 6:9-10; Ephesians 5:18), but it does not insist on total abstinence. Jesus himself miraculously changed water into wine and was widely known as a wine drinker (John 2:1-11; Matthew 11:19; Luke 7:34). Although total abstinence from all alcoholic beverages is not required behavior for Christians, it may be a necessary precaution for many whose environment or biology is conductive to drunkenness, a mortal sin.

Alcohol is not the only "nonviolent" killer. Cigarettes are a lethal substance, too. The U.S. Public Health Service estimates that one million children now in school will die of lung cancer before they reach the age of seventy. Smoking may not keep you out of heaven. In fact, it may get you there sooner! 390,000 Americans die each year from the toxic effects of tobacco. That's the same number of fatalities as if three 747 jumbo jets, fully loaded with passengers, crashed every day for an entire year.

If this journey into the territory of miscellaneous acts of murder hasn't made you nervous yet, hang on to your hat. Around the corner there's another killer that looks like an old friend. Food kills people in two ways: either they don't have enough of it, or they have too much of it. Some of God's children die of starvation while others "dig" their own graves with their forks. They shorten their own lives by overeating and other people's lives by refusing to share the surplus of food. Those who indulge in drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, and gluttony commit suicide on the installment plan. It is a miscellaneous act of murder, a violation of the Sixth Commandment.

Since 1973 over 30 million human lives have been legally killed in the United States before they were born. While pro-life and pro-choice advocates debate the issue, the slaughter goes on. Instead of quarreling among ourselves, why not find ways of reducing the deaths? President Clinton said repeatedly, "Abortion should be legal, safe and rare." We spend all our time and energy arguing about its legality and safety. I think it's time to work together to make it rare. Pro-life and pro-choice people could finally agree on something: let's make abortion rare. How? One way would be to require every abortion clinic to give names of adoptive parents to their clients. Offer them pre and post-natal care and a loving home for the baby that is about to be aborted. Think of the lives that would be saved! Could it happen? Not likely, because people would rather defend a position than find a solution. So the killing goes on.

What does the Bible say about abortion? Not much. There is no direct statement in the New Testament and only one incidental reference to it in the Old Testament. Although the killing of an unborn child was not regarded as equivalent to murder by the Mosaic law, it was still considered a crime (Exodus 21:22-25). Christians today may differ in their political views concerning ways in which civil government should get involved in this issue, but all Christians should agree on the sanctity of life. Life is no accident. It is a divine gift. People dare not destroy what God has given.

The Sixth Commandment gets more and more controversial as we turn from the sanctity of embryonic life to the sanctity of criminal life. This brings us to an area where devout biblical scholars differ.

Capital Punishment
Now we enter territory that has seen a lot of changes since Moses’ day. Far from forbidding capital punishment, the Old Testament actually commands it for such crimes as adultery, sabbath breaking, dishonoring parents (Leviticus 20:10; Numbers 15:32-36; Deuteronomy 21:18-21) and, my favorite, arguing with the preacher (Deuteronomy 17:12). Thank God that's not the law today, or you might not be able to read this unless it were printed on asbestos!

Yes, times have changed. Old Testament laws governed a primitive society. Those laws have changed through the years by a gradual reduction of the kinds of crimes for which capital punishment is decreed. Are there any crimes in our modern age for which the death penalty is the proper punishment? Some Christians would say yes, and some would say no. An unrepentant Tim McVey certainly deserved to die for murdering innocent men, women and children when he bombed the Federal building in Tulsa. Like divorce and slavery, however, capital punishment may be one of those infringements on the divine will that the Bible did not immediately eliminate.

Some things I know for sure and some things I don't. I don't know for sure whether society would be better off with or without capital punishment. I do know I would rather live in a country where it is rare than in one where it is common. And I know for sure that God loves all sinners, even murderers, and offers them salvation through the shed blood of his Son Jesus Christ. And this I know for sure should be our main message to a lost and dying world.

Again we plunge deeper into territory that has changed since Moses' day. On the one hand, those ancient Hebrews were told not to murder. On the other hand, they were commanded to wage "holy" wars against the heathen — not just any wars, mind you, but only those wars specifically decreed by God. Christians have disagreed among themselves through the centuries over the conditions under which one can conscientiously engage in war. And in our generation another great change has occurred in this territory. Our generation is the first generation that has in its power the ability to be the last generation. The experts are almost unanimous: global nuclear war would be global nuclear suicide. Consequently, nearly everyone seems to be in favor of global nuclear disarmament. But the problem is that no nation wants to be the first to start disarmament. So nations go on madly stockpiling incredible arsenals of weapons that can kill both sides many times over.

To focus the issue more sharply, here's a puzzle for you. Two men are in a basement. A strong smell of gas is in the air. One has fifteen matches. The other has twenty matches. The question to answer is which one wins the game or is ahead of the other? If you can answer that question, you can answer the question of who is ahead in the nuclear arms race.

The nuclear arms race could destroy the human race. It seems clearer now than ever before that the only hope for this world's survival in the twenty-first century is for nations to trust God instead of armaments (Psalm 44:3-8; Zechariah 4:6).

We have come through many dangerous outpost in the territory surrounding the Sixth Commandment, but none is as "far out" as Jesus' command: "Love your enemies" (Matthew 5:44). John applies this saying directly to the Sixth Commandment, "Whoever hates his brother is a murderer…" (1 John 3:15). Now we are all caught. What started out as the least troublesome commandment has us in its grip.

Although we may never actually have killed anyone, let us confess that sometimes we read the obituaries with pleasure. While the law of Moses restrains the end result of violence, the law of Jesus restrains the beginning cause of violence. He stops not only the hand that is about to strike but also the heart that is about to hate.

Nearly everyone has been guilty of some form of miscellaneous murder. That's bad news. But the good news is that God loves us and still has a wonderful plan for our lives. Moses, David, and Paul were all murderers whom God rescued and restored to great blessing and service. What God did for them, he can do for us.

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