6th Commandment – Preserving and Protecting Life


“You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13/Deuteronomy 5:17)

The commandment people would seem least likely to debate and least likely to disobey is the sixth commandment. Most of us haven’t murdered anyone, and it’s difficult to justify murder by asking “who does it really hurt?” However, when you examine the words and what Jesus teaches about the commandment, we see that it is much easier to break than we might think. We need to consider how we can best avoid breaking the commandment through behaviors and  also loving our neighbors and seeking their flourishing.

The Letter of the Law – The Commandment Itself
This commandment is often misquoted as “you shall not kill” when it is actually “you shall not murder.” (A well-known place where this mistranslation appears is in the Westminster Shorter Catechism – a reminder that this document is not infallible, though still extremely useful). The Hebrew word used here is not the general word used for killing, but rather a word that means murder — that is, intentionally killing someone with no justification. This is important because it would seem to indicate that there are some forms of killing that are justified, such as actions of self-defense, defense of others (as one is seeking to preserve their lives), killing in war, or as punishment for taking the life of others – those actions do not fall under the meaning of this word. It forbids more than just first-degree murder, though. It does not refer only to the premeditated killing of someone, but intentional behavior that kills others. This would include suicide (the murder of one’s self) and abortion (the intentional killing of another human). We also see Old Testament laws (Exodus 21:28-29; Deuteronomy 22:8) that govern what behavior sets up the conditions for someone else’s death — even though they might not have been actively trying to kill the other (what we might call negligent homicide or manslaughter). Euthanasia would also be breaking this law, as it helps someone to take their own life. Therefore, rather than seeing the word as allowing for certain kinds of killing, we need to see it as applying to more behaviors than just first-degree murder as defined by our justice system. While all these actions are forbidden in the commandment, we also know that forgiveness is available through faith in Christ for any of these actions.

The Spirit of the Law – The Words of Jesus

Jesus famously shows that this commandment is not just about forbidding the actions discussed above in his Sermon on the Mount, as he says, “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” (Matthew 5:21-22). Therefore, it is not just the action of killing someone or doing things that lead to someone else’s death that is forbidden in this law, but the feelings that ultimately lead to such an action. The Heidelberg Catechism explains Jesus’s teaching on the heart of this commandment (also drawing upon Proverbs 14:30; Romans 1:29; 12:19; Galatians 5:19-21; 1 John 2:9-11; 1 John 3:15) this way in Q & A 106: 

Q. Does this commandment refer only to murder?
A. By forbidding murder God teaches us that he hates the root of murder: envy, hatred, anger, vindictiveness. In God’s sight all such are disguised forms of murder.

When we hear Jesus’s words, we come to realize that we actually have broken this commandment, as we all have harbored wicked thoughts about others. Keeping this commandment is really about getting to the root of the problem, which is our heart. It is not enough not to act upon the impulses, but rather to rid ourselves of these impulses that displease God because they neither reflect His character nor uphold the dignity of fellow humans who have been made in God’s image. 

The Implications of the Law – Other Behaviors That Break This Law
Recognizing that the law is not about any killing, but specific forms of killing, and that it is not just about the action itself, but those attitudes and actions that lead to its occurrence means that a number of other behaviors also would be forbidden in the commandment. Heidelberg Catechism Q & A 105 skillfully states some of them: 

Q. What is God’s will for you in the sixth commandment?
A. I am not to belittle, hate, insult, or kill my neighbor—not by my thoughts, my words, my look or gesture, and certainly not by actual deeds—and I am not to be party to this in others; rather, I am to put away all desire for revenge. I am not to harm or recklessly endanger myself either.

These words remind us that this commandment means we should not belittle or insult other people. This is something I think we need to remember in this moment in which there is so much anger and disagreement. When we insult or belittle others, we are breaking the sixth commandment (and putting God in a bad light by behaving as the rest of the world does). 

It also says that we are not to be “party to this is others”; this means that not only should we not insult or belittle people, but we should not applaud or support those who engage in this sort of behavior. We can disagree with people and should certainly express these disagreements publicly on matters of importance, but we should not do it in a way (or support it being done in a way) that does not offer the other person dignity as a fellow bearer of the image of God. As I reflected on what that means, I can’t help but wonder if the fact that my Facebook feed shows many people insulting others is indication that I give attention and look at these more than other posts (and thus it is showing me what I want to do). I might not write such posts, but am I being a “party to them”? Am I supporting things that lead to ill feelings towards others and even the death of others? 

A final element the Heidelberg Catechism helpfully points out in this answer is that we are not to put ourselves in harm’s way. Not only should we seek to promote, protect, and preserve the lives of others, we should also seek to preserve and protect our own lives. We need to love our neighbors, but also we need to love ourselves (and you can’t love others or yourself if you are dead). An easy way to love yourself and others is to avoid behaviors that threaten life. Therefore, the Westminster Larger Catechism notes that this commandment not only prohibits “sinful anger, hatred, envy, desire of revenge…provoking words, oppression, quarreling, striking, wounding, and whatsoever else tends to the destruction of the life of any” but also the “immoderate use of meat, drink, labor, and recreations” (Q & A 136). When you do not take care of your body (whether by consuming harmful things or in harmful measures – or by not getting enough sleep [see Westminster Larger Catechism Q & A 135] or do things that you know are putting your life at risk), you are breaking this commandment. Of course, we can’t live a life without putting ourselves at some risk (you risk your life every time you get into a car!), but we should think through our actions and know that if we are significantly increasing the odds that we or someone else could die because of what we are doing, we should probably not do it. Similarly, if we have knowledge that we can significantly decrease the chance of dying for us or someone else and we fail to act on this knowledge, we would seem to be guilty of breaking this commandment.

The Fulfillment of the Law – Virtues that Lead to Keeping This Commandment
The discussion of this law means that it is actually very easy to break this seemingly simple and straightforward command. We can then ask – how in the world can we keep it? As is often the case in the Ten Commandments, the Heidelberg Catechism gives us good guidance on this, as it notes in Q & A 107 that “God wants us to love our neighbors as ourselves, to be patient, peace-loving, gentle, merciful, and friendly toward them, to protect them from harm as much as we can, and to do good even to our enemies.” The Westminster Larger Catechism similarly says in Q & A 135 that keeping this commandment involves having “charitable thoughts, love, compassion, meekness, gentleness, kindness; peaceable, mild and courteous speeches and behavior; forbearance, readiness to be reconciled, patient bearing and forgiving of injuries, and requiting good for evil; comforting and succoring the distressed, and protecting and defending the innocent. Thus, rather than being consumed by envy, hatred, anger, and vindication, we are to be marked as patient and merciful people to our friends and our enemies. 

Essentially, we are to avoid the works of the flesh and have the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:19-24). It should not surprise us that the fruit the Holy Spirit produces in us would look like this, as God is one who is merciful and patient, with Jesus dying for us when we were enemies of God. Thus, the way to walk differently is by staying in step with the Spirit – the Spirit that is given to all those who believe in Jesus to transform those sinners whom God has justified so that they might become what they are already declared to be in Christ.

As I thought about this commandment and read these old words reflecting upon it, I couldn’t help but think that “charitable thoughts” towards others might be the key. Charity is more than giving others the benefit of the doubt, as the English word for “charity” often was used as a synonym for love. Do I think “lovable” thoughts about others, remembering God’s love for them as one of His creations (even if He deplores the sin that might mark their lives)? As we think charitable thoughts towards others, I think it changes how we treat them when we disagree with them, and also whether we want to help them out with our words and actions or push them away. We move from being murderers who take life away from others to those who preserve, protect, and promote the life of those around us – thus keeping the commandment itself as well as its spirit and implications.

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