The Sixth Commandment
“You shall not murder.”- Deuteronomy 5:17
Life is the central concern of the sixth commandment, which is the subject of our study this week. Being well-known even outside of the covenant community, the prohibition against murder has been recognized in nearly all the law codes that have ever been written. Human beings have in many ways twisted the law of God written on our consciences, but we would be hard-pressed to find someone who would accept that it is right to kill an innocent person—someone who has not committed a capital crime.
The KJV’s translation of the sixth commandment is famous: “Thou shalt not kill.” Newer translations, such as the ESV, use the word murder instead of kill. There are good reasons for this, not the least of which is the fact that biblical Hebrew has many words that refer to inflicting death on another person. The original language distinguishes between several types of killing, some lawful and others unlawful. Capital punishment, for example, is a form of killing, but Scripture sanctions it (Gen. 9:6). Furthermore, the Israelites lawfully killed the Canaanites when the Lord brought His people into the Promised Land (Josh. 6). Most of the time, the term used in Deuteronomy 5:17 refers to unlawful killing, not death inflicted according to God’s command. So, murder is a good choice for the English translation.
Scripture regards murder as an especially heinous sin, probably because it is a particularly brazen assault on God Himself. Genesis 9:6 makes this connection, prescribing the death penalty for murder because “God made man in his own image.” The Lord takes human life seriously because we are more like Him than any other creature. We were created to reflect and proclaim His glory, so to kill someone who has not committed a capital crime is, by extension, an attempt to kill God Himself. In fact, what our legal system refers to as first-degree, premeditated murder was the one crime in Israel for which judges could never impose a punishment other than death. Numbers 35:31 explains that the ancient Israelites were to “accept no ransom for the life of a murderer, who is guilty of death.” Since God had to tell Israel expressly not to accept a payment other than the death penalty in the case of murder, there must have been other crimes for which Israel’s judges could substitute a penalty other than death even if death was prescribed. Such was not the case with the premeditated murder of legally innocent people.
Some have expressed legitimate concern as to whether capital punishment is always applied in a just manner under our legal system. That is far different, however, from saying that capital punishment is inherently unjust, oppressive, and barbaric. God, in His covenant with Noah that applies to all mankind, has told us that capital punishment is the required penalty for first-degree murder. We abolish it at the expense of human safety and obedience to our Creator.
Passages for Further Study
1 John 3:11–15