The Ten Commandments: The Sixth

The sixth commandment is “You shall not murder.” (Exo 20:13),[1] or, in the memorable KJV, “Thou shalt not kill.” The later vividly captures the word picture of the original, meaning, “to slay, or strike down”. The former is, however, more precise given occasions when taking life is authorized. Most famously, God told Noah after the flood, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed.” The reason: “for God made man in his own image.” (Gen 9:6) The unwarranted taking of life is rendered vile because of each individual human being having been created in God’s spiritual likeness. It is also that exceeding preciousness of human life that necessities a full application of justice to curb the homicidal tendencies of fallen humanity.

Before we go further though, we should note the indispensable light our Lord sheds on this commandment. Jesus makes it clear that the sixth commandment not only forbids outright murder, but also all hot emotions, insulting words, or antagonistic actions that tend to it (Mt. 5:22). “Anger” is singled out, not meaning righteous hostility to sin as such, but animosity toward other people: “For the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God.” (Jam 1:20, KJV) Positively, Jesus requires us not only to forego anger, but also to pursue reconciliation even as a prerequisite to offering worship to God (Mt. 5:23-24). In summary, the sixth commandment forbids everything that tends to devalue or destroy human life and requires everything that promotes the dignity of human beings as the crown of God’s creation.

In addressing particulars, we must begin by following our Lord’s direction and confronting the murderous tendencies of our own hearts. In his sermons on the Ten Commandments, Henry Bullinger singles out anger and envy as twin, deadly tendencies. Sinful anger is a sense of injury that intends to resolve itself to the hurt of the one who offended us. Reflecting on St. Paul’s warning, “Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil,” (Eph 4:26–27), Bullinger says:

Neither must we in any case suffer our adversary, the devil, to fasten his foot in our hearts, who doth through anger by little and little creep into our minds, and by continual wrath doth work out envy, by which he doth captivate and pervert the whole man, with all his senses, words, and works.[2]

Anger is a toxin that eats away at us as long as we hold it in, even if we do not actually allow it to spill out onto others.

The sixth commandment’s outward requirements should be understood expansively too. This would include manslaughter, or “causing human death through carelessness or negligence.”[3] In Israel’s civil laws, we find housing codes that specify fencing for flat roof tops where people walk and could be in danger of a deadly fall. We also learn of liability for a farmer whose ox gored someone as a repeated, and thus previously known behavior.

And while we began by noting that there are instances where the taking of life may be authorized by civil authority, we must think carefully about questions ranging from “just war theory” to the propriety of the death penalty in varying instances. Death row inmates also bear the Imago Dei. Jesus’ interaction with the Lex Talionis, or Law of Retaliation (Mt. 5:38-42, cf. Ex. 21:24; Lev. 24:20; Deut. 19:21), provokes a call to “go the extra mile”, which requires us to understand this principle of proportional justice as being intended to curb, not feed human vengefulness. At the same time, we cannot deny the institution of civil authorities “to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good,” (1 Pe 2:14), or fail to observe that they carry “a sword” (Rom. 13:4) for that purpose.

Finally, Jesus tells us, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” (Jn 10:10) He died to defeat death and to disarm “the thief [who] comes only to steal and kill and destroy.” He rose again, the Lord of life. His law is love, and his love is life. May he grant us grace to resist anger and promote life.

Steven McCarthy is the rector of Christ Church Anglican (South Bend, IN). He earned an M.Div. at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary (Pittsburgh, PA), and is a Th.M. student at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary (Grand Rapids, MI). He and his wife are native Michiganders. They have three young children.

[1] Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016), unless otherwise noted.

[2] Henry Bullinger, The Decades of Henry Bullinger: The First and Second Decades, edited by Thomas Harding (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1849), 301.

[3] ESV footnote for Ex. 20:13.


Steven McCarthy