This article clarifies the meaning of the sixth commandment, and highlights the difference between killing and murder.

Source: The Banner of Truth, 2002. 2 pages.

Killing and Murder

We live in an era of muddled thinking. More than once I have had people say to me that the sixth commandment ('Thou shalt not kill', Exod. 20:13) precludes the taking of life under any circumstances. I have even heard people say that it forbids the taking of animal life.

The renowned medical missionary, Albert Schweitzer, wrote a book along those lines, entitled Reverence for Life. It can be made to sound very spiritual and Christian, but the whole concept is actually more Buddhist than Christian.

The Bible makes it clear that murder is what is forbidden by the sixth commandment. The Eastern religions do not radically distinguish between human and animal life, but the Bible declares that it is man alone who is in the image of God and that therefore his life is uniquely precious (Gen. 1:16­28; 9:5-6; James 3:9). In the Old Testament, animals which divided the hoof and chewed the cud were regarded as clean and could be eaten (Lev. 11:2-3). So, for example, one could eat a cow but not a horse. In the New Testament, these food laws have fulfilled their function and so are abolished. In the new covenant, any foods can be eaten (1 Tim. 4:1-5). According to Scripture, one can also defend oneself or one's possessions from attacks by an animal. Hence, as a shepherd, David protected his flock from the bear and lion (1 Sam. 17:37). A righteous man cares for the needs of his animal (Prov. 12:10), but that does not mean that he equates human life and animal life.

Concerning human beings, the Bible is similarly nuanced. It never simply equates murder and killing. Manslaughter – the accidental killing of another human being – was not treated in the same light as murder (Num. 35; Deut. 19; Josh. 20). More significantly, the law declares that the punishment for murder is death (Exod. 21:12; Rom. 13:4). If all killing is murder, then this would mean that the punishment for murder is murder! Not so – murder is the deliberate taking away of judicially-innocent life, whereas killing is the deliberate taking away of any life. The former is always wrong; the latter may sometimes be justifiable.

Self-defence is thus allowed, although the Israelite was not allowed to kill in defence of his property (Exod. 22:2-3). Even the life of a thief is of more value than property. If a man breaks into my house at night, and threatens me or my family, the Bible allows me to kill him. But that does not apply if I catch him stealing my car. His life is worth more than my car. I may do all I can to try to stop him, but I am not allowed to kill him.

Similarly, the Old Testament laid down rules for the conduct of Israel's war against the Canaanites (Deut. 20:10-20). There was to be no unnecessary destruction, and women and children were to be treated differently from sword-wielding males. As Churchill put it: 'law-jaw is better than war-war.' If the same just aim can be achieved by other means, then the nation should not go to war. But if it is permissible to kill an individual who is threatening to kill you, it is similarly permissible to use force of arms against a nation which is threatening the nation to which you belong.

What, then, about Jesus' injunctions to love one's enemies and not to resist an evil person (Matt. 5:38-44)? Here Jesus is telling individual Christians how they are to conduct themselves in a fallen world. He is not offering a blueprint for action to a meeting of the United Nations. Gandhi was not interested in Christ's deity, atonement or resurrection and so misread the Sermon on the Mount as an agenda for social action. It is not that. The Bible's agenda for the state is that it should punish those who do wrong and commend those who do right (1 Pet. 2:14). In other words, the state is mainly concerned with justice. The Sermon on the Mount, on the other hand, goes beyond that. It gives us the full meaning of God's law and sets out the true nature of Christian discipleship. To the unbeliever – such as Gandhi – it is only a word of death and condemnation.

There is a terrible lack of moral perspective today. People become all moralistic about the killing of whales, but agitate for abortion and euthanasia. Morality has become very selective. In some circles, violence perpetrated by a Western nation is highly culpable, but dictatorships outside the West are applauded. We are not sure who God is, who we are, or what we should be doing on earth. Hence the confusion between killing and murdering. Or, to cite Sergei Levitzky: 'The relativization of the absolute leads to the absolutization of the relative.'

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