Exodus 20:13

what-are-ten-commandments_472_314_80Exodus 20

13 You shall not murder.

We come now to a commandment that serves as one of the fundamental building blocks of all just societies. This commandment undergirds the law codes of many lands and its violation consumes the courts of our own lands day in and day out in countless cases. We are speaking of the sixth commandment, most well known in the words of the King James Version, “Thou shalt not kill.”

In his novel The Unvanquished, William Faulkner writes of this commandment.

…if there was anything at all in the Book, anything of hope and peace for His blind and bewildered spawn which He had chosen above all others to offer immortality, Thou shalt not kill must be it.[1]

To be sure, there is much more of hope and peace in the Book than this, but Faulkner is correct that this commandment against killing is a foundational tenet of any society in which men and women have any hope of living together in peace and happiness.

Yet, what does it mean? “Thou shalt not kill,” sounds so very simple, but the moment we begin to get at its meaning or the moment we even ponder its application questions arise. Is it a ban literally on any and all forms of killing? Does the prohibition against killing include animals? Are there exceptions? What if I must kill to stop somebody else from killing? Can the state kill? Are soldiers violating the command in wartime.

On and on the questions go. Let us explore, then, this most crucial commandment.

Concerning the meaning of the “kill”: unlawful killing.

I am tipping my hand a bit at one of the issues surrounding this verse by quoting the English Standard Version translation.

13 You shall not murder.

Before we can get at what the commandment means, we need to understand exactly what the commandment actually says. In point of fact, it is not quite so simple as saying that the commandment means “you are never to kill.”

Philip Ryken points out that “the Hebrew language has at least eight different words for killing” and that the word used in Exodus 20:13, ratzach, refers to “the unjust killing of a legally innocent life.” Ryken translates the commandment as, “You shall not kill unlawfully.”[2]

William Propp argues that the translation, “Thou shalt not kill,” is “misleading” and “far too broad.” He points out that the verb rasah “means illegally to kill a human being” and translates the phrase, “Don’t murder.”[3]

Finally, Douglas Stuart says the word “kill” is “specific to putting to death improperly, for selfish reasons rather than with authorization (as killing in the administration of justice or killing in divinely ordained holy war would be)” and translates this commandment, “Never murder.”[4]

It is important to understand that these commentators are not hedging their bets, looking for some sort of loophole. They are actually trying to offer an honest translation based on how the Old Testament itself speaks of killing. And this much seems true: the Hebrew is not offering us a wooden, blanket ban on all killing in every circumstance.

The moment one says this today one is confronted with a very uncomfortable situation. Namely, those who do interpret this commandment as a blanket and simple prohibition against literally all killing tend to taunt those who argue for nuance in the text as being somehow secretly desirous of upholding structures of killing, almost as if those who argue against such a wooden translation somehow deep down very much want to kill or allow killing to satisfy some sort of primal bloodlust.

Speaking only for myself, I can clearly say that this is not the case. One may readily admit that the vast majority of killing in the world today and throughout human history has been a violation of the sixth commandment and yet hold that the sixth commandment does not actually forbid all killing in every case. That is certainly my position. I deplore the violence in the world today, even violence that purports not to be violating this commandment. In truth, almost all of it is in violation of this commandment. But that does not mean that all killing necessarily is so. 

In the 2014 Irish film “Calvary,” the following conversation takes place between the priest and one of his parishioners.

Father James Lavelle: I’ve always felt there’s something inherently psychopathic about joining the army in peacetime. As far as I’m concerned, people join the army to find out what its like to kill someone. I hardly think that’s an inclination that should be encouraged in modern society, do you? Jesus Christ didn’t think so, either. And the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” does not have an asterisk beside it, referring you to the bottom of the page where you find a list of instances where it’s okay to kill people.

Milo Herlihy: What about self defense?

Father James Lavelle: That’s a tricky one, all right. But we’re hardly being invaded, though, are we?

While Father James hints in the end that there might theoretically be some kind of exceptions, his take on the sixth commandment represents the kind of oversimplified interpretation I am speaking of: “’Thou shalt not kill’ does not have an asterisk beside it, referring you to the bottom of the page where you find a list of instances where it’s okay to kill people.”

But there are two problems with this way of approaching this commandment. First, as we have already seen, there is a linguistic problem. Namely, the Hebrew word used is more akin to the word “murder” than to the word “kill.” Second, the Lord Himself commanded His people to kill others at times. And third, there appear to be passages of scripture that allow and even call for killing in certain circumstances.

I say this in all honesty: I have long been attracted to the tenets of pacifism and absolute, across the board non-violence. I really am drawn to this. I very much want, and have long tried to figure out a way to say, that I am opposed to all war in every circumstance and to all killing in every circumstance. Regrettably, I cannot say that, and, it is on the basis of God’s Word that I cannot. Tragically, in our fallen world, sometimes killing is the most just thing to do, the thing that must be done in order to save those who are being ravaged by the violence of tyrants, and even occasionally the most necessary thing to do to insure peace.

But this much is clear: the exceptions are limited and our world appears at times to be nearly drowning in violence and killing. This commandment forbids the unlawful, unjustified taking of human life, and it simply must be reclaimed for our day.

Human life, bearing the image of God, is sacred, and the taking of it is only and ever justified when it is God who takes it or when it is taken in strict harmony with divine principles of justice.

It must be understood that the prohibition against murder does not arise in a vacuum or as some kind of mere anthropological necessity or sociological principle. No, it is given by God. Specifically, it is given by the God of Israel. In other words, it is given by the God in whose image all men and women are created.

Behind the sixth commandment is the biblical teaching of the uniqueness of man as a being bearing God’s image and as a being into whom God breathes life. In Genesis 1, we find the foundation of for this truth.

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.

Similarly, in Genesis 2, God breathes life into man.

7 then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.

Why is this significant? It is significant because it means that God holds the ownership papers for humanity, that man is uniquely special among all creation, and that the taking of human life is a very serious thing. In fact, only God can rightly take life or dictate the just taking of it.

This means that there is a powerful and terrifying statement of self-deification in all acts of murder and unlawful killing. In taking another life, the killer is essentially asserting that he is God in that moment. This can be seen in the words of the notorious serial killer Pee Wee Gaskins, who told a reporter this while he awaited execution on death row in South Carolina.

No one, and nobody, and no thing can ever touch me.

I have walked the same path as God.

By taking lives and making others fear me, I become God’s equal. Through killing others, I become my own Master.

Through my own power I come to my own redemption.

Once I seen the miracle light, I didn’t ever again have to fear or obey the Rules of no Man or no God.[5]

How terrifying: “By taking lives and making others fear me, I become God’s equal.” That is indeed what is behind all unjust taking of life.

The man who murders another man does so because, in that moment, he believes he has the right to do so. But that right belongs only and ultimately to God. Thus, the first crime in all acts of murder is the crime of blasphemy.

When the rich murder the poor by robbing them of life, they are asserting that they have a divine right to do so.

When the powerful murder the weak through violence or neglect, they are asserting that they can be God in that moment.

It was Pope John Paul II who made the phrase “the culture of death” famous, and now it is used widely to describe modern man. We are indeed a culture of death. From the ravages of the industrial war machine to the ravages of abortion to the violence of our entertainment culture, we are awash in death.

“You shall not murder.”

Jesus said we could violate this commandment without every actually touching another person.

Even so, it is easy for us to tell ourselves that we are not personally part of the culture of death, that we are not personally guilty of such atrocities.

“I have never murdered somebody,” we are tempted to say. “I have never taken a life.”

Would that it was that easy. Would that we could so simply sidestep the charge of guilt in regards to murder. And, if Jesus had not delivered the Sermon on the Mount, perhaps we could. But he did deliver the Sermon on the Mount and, in it, He said something very telling about this commandment. We read this in Matthew 5.

21 “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.

As He does throughout the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus raised the stakes on the commandments by internalizing them, by showing us that we could actually violate them inwardly without ever having physically touched another person. Specifically, Jesus says that we can be guilty of murder by being angry with another and by insulting and cursing another.

And how can that be? It can be because murderous rage and insults are seeking to do the same thing that murder itself is seeking to do: diminish and ultimately destroy another human being. At least there is an end to murder. You can only literally murder a person once. But it is possible to murder the character of a person time and time again.

And behind such rage and insults is the same blasphemous mindset that is behind murder. To insult another is not only to tear them down but to exalt yourself upwards. To rage against another is to presume that you are so much better than they are they have offended your delusions of deity. The opposite of, “You are a fool!” is, “But I am God.”

How easily we traffic in murder.

How easily we murder even in the house of God.

Consider the spiritual reality of what is at stake when you debase another, destroying their name, their character, and their reputation. There are many ways to kill a man, and the most common and vicious is through words.

“You shall not murder,” the Lord says to us. The opposite is also true: “You shall honor. You shall love. You shall esteem.”

“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit,” Paul writes in Philippians 2:3, “but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.” There is the cure for the murderous spirit: humility for yourself and value for others.

Is this not what Christ has done for us: humility for Himself and value for others? Yet Christ would have been and would be justified in punishing us all as murderers. He could have come to us in wrath and vengeance, and He would have been right to do so. Instead, He humbled Himself, even to the point of death on a cross, and lay down His life so that He could lift us up.

We are all forgiven murderers in Christ. In truth, He submitted Himself to our own murderous hands to redeem us from the punishment we rightly deserve. He paid the price for us.

“You shall not murder.”

By action.

By word.

By thought.

“You shall not murder.”

Value human life. Love human beings. Even the guilty ones, for we are all guilty. Even the unlovable ones, for we are all unlovable. Even the rebellious ones, for we are all rebels.

Love one another.


[1] William Faulkner. The Unvanquished. (New York: Vintage Books, 1990), p.216.

[2] Philip Graham Ryken, Exodus. Preaching the Word (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2005), p.616.

[3] William H.C. Propp, Exodus 19-40. The Anchor Bible. Vol.2A. (New York, NY: Doubleday, 2006), p.179.

[4] Douglas K. Stuart, Exodus. Vol.2. The New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2006), p.462.

[5] Donald Gaskins and Wilton Earle. Final Truth: The Autobiography of a Serial Killer. (Starr, South Carolina: Adept Publishers, 1999), p.229.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *