The Sixth Command

What is the sixth command?

לֹ֥֖א תִּֿרְצָֽ֖ח׃ס

You shall not murder. (Exodus 20:13)


What does this verb “murder” mean?

There are three words generally used for killing in Hebrew הָרַג or מוּת see here and here respectively. The word used in the sixth command is רָצַח and is the word used to refer to what we call murder.


What principle lies at the heart of the sixth command?

The sanctity of human life.


Why is human life so sacred?

Because all humans are made in the image of God.


How do we desecrate God’s gift of life?

By all unjustified killing and by bringing any kind of injury to our neighbor.


What is a homicide?

A homicide is the broadest, possible term used to refer to any taking of one person’s life by another person.


What is murder?

Murder implies three things:

  1. A homicide,
  2. the intent to take that person’s life, and
  3. the absence of any just cause to do so.


What is first degree murder?

The degree of murder focuses more carefully on the intent (#2 above). First degree murder is often called “premeditated killing” and refers to a person engaging in some planning before actually committing the murder.


Was Cain guilty of first degree murder?

In order for Cain to have been guilty of this sin, it would have to be proved that he had planned the murder. Gen 4:8 reads: “And Cain told Abel his brother. And it came to pass, when they were in the field…” Many versions translate this differently: “One day Cain suggested to his brother, “Let’s go out into the fields.”” If this translation is correct, then it appears that Cain invited Abel to the field where he then intended to kill him. If this is correct, then Cain committed first degree murder. If Cain invited Abel to the field with no intent to kill him, then his murder was not of the first degree.


What is second degree murder?

This is the taking of a person’s life intentionally but without the planning or premeditation that is characteristic of first degree murder. Some times, people are accused of second degree murder when they kill another person while committing acts that are completely reckless and show complete disregard for human life.


What about cases of so called “felony murder”?

This is a controversial subject in ethics. The question pertains to those who are participating in a crime where murder is committed but they are not the ones who directly committed the act. For instance, when a man robs a banks, murders one of the employees, then flees in a car driven by an accomplice. Is this accomplice guilty of murder? Other cases involve one of the criminals getting killed as when two men rob a store and one of them gets shot by the store owner. Is the surviving criminal guilty of the murder of his partner?


What is manslaughter?

This kind of killing is typically divided between voluntary and involuntary.

  • Voluntary manslaughter would be when someone kills another person in a fit of anger or under some other kind of extreme provocation. Blackstone write: “So also if a man be greatly provoked, as by pulling his nose, or other great indignity, and immediately kills the aggressor, though this is not excusable se defendendo [in self-defense], since there is no absolute necessity for doing it to preserve himself; yet neither is it murder, for there is no previous malice; but it is manslaughter.”
  • Involuntary manslaughter is when persons are engaged in lawful acts but someone is killed as a result. Blackstone gives the example of two persons playing at sword and buckler, and one of them kills the other. “This is manslaughter, because the original act [i.e. the killing] was unlawful; but it is not murder, for the one had no intent to do the other any personal mischief.” In our own time, a very common instance of this is what is called “vehicular homicide” or “vehicular manslaughter” which is taking a person’s life while driving a car (often involving drunk driving).


Are these distinctions in the Bible?

Yes, they can be seen in Exodus: “He who strikes a man so that he dies shall surely be put to death. “But if he did not lie in wait for him, but God let him fall into his hand, then I will appoint you a place to which he may flee. “If, however, a man acts presumptuously toward his neighbor, so as to kill him craftily, you are to take him even from My altar, that he may die. (Exodus 21:12-14)  The situation in v12 and v14 is murder in the first degree. The situation in v13, however, is also a homicide, but the man may not be guilty for it. Hence, God provides a safe place for him to go until the case come to trial. This was why God established cities of refuge where those could flee who were guilty of manslaughter (Numbers 35:15; Joshua 20:1–9). These distinctions are repeated in Deuteronomy 19:4–13.


In which cases is taking a person’s life justified?

Killing that takes place in defending ourselves, our families, or our country is justified.  Also killing that takes place as a punishment for some crimes is permitted.


What are the principles of a just war?

The following principles as given us by the Catholic Catechism are generally agreed on in Christian circles. Paragraph 2309 teaches: “The strict conditions for legitimate defense by military force require rigorous consideration. The gravity of such a decision makes it subject to rigorous conditions of moral legitimacy. At one and the same time:

  1. the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;
  2. all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;
  3. there must be serious prospects of success;
  4. the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.

Murray Rothbard writes:

…a just war exists when a people tries to ward off the threat of coercive domination by another people, or to overthrow an already-existing domination. A war is unjust, on the other hand, when a people try to impose domination on another people, or try to retain an already existing coercive rule over them.   source

Some ethicists add to this that the war must be waged by a legitimate authority. It cannot be waged by private individuals.


May we find these principles in the Bible?


  • The first principle is that of a just cause which we find in Revelation 19:11 where Christ is pictured as a warrior who judges and wages war “in righteousness“.
  • The second principle is that the last resort. Think of Romans 12:18 where Paul teaches the Romans to “…so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.”
  • The third principle is that there be some probability of success. This is implied in Luke 14:31 which asks “what king, when he sets out to meet another king in battle, will not first sit down and consider whether he is strong enough with ten thousand men to encounter the one coming against him with twenty thousand?”
  • The fourth principle is that of a greater good to be obtained. Here we have Scripture teaching us that politicians ministers of God to work for the general welfare (Romans 13:4).
  • The principle of a legitimate authority is found in Romans 13:1 where we are taught that the authorities “which exist are established by God.”


Are there not also principles which should guide nations in the manner a war is fought?

Yes, Grudem lists the following:

  1. Proportionality in the use of force (Can no greater destruction be caused than is needed to win the war? Cf. Deuteronomy 20:10–12)
  2. Discrimination between combatants and noncombatants (Insofar as it is feasible in the successful pursuit of a war, is adequate care being taken to prevent harm to noncombatants? Cf. Deuteronomy 20:13–14, 19–20)
  3. Avoidance of evil means (Will captured or defeated enemies be treated with justice and compassion, and are one’s own soldiers being treated justly in captivity? Cf. Psalm 34:14)
  4. Good faith (Is there a genuine desire for restoration of peace and eventually living in harmony with the attacking nation? Cf. Matthew 5:43–44; Romans 12:18). Grudem, Ethics, 530.


What is capital punishment?

This is when a criminal’s life is taken as punishment for a crime he committed.  Such crimes are known as capital crimes.


For what crimes are people executed?

The most common is for murder.  Other crimes often included as capital crimes are kidnapping, rape, torture, and some forms of treason.


Is it not more consistent with the sixth command to ban capital punishment entirely?

On the contrary, the opposite is true. If someone takes another person’s life with no just cause, then to let this criminal go unpunished shows a tremendous disregard for human life.  Put another way, taking a person’s life is so serious a crime that it must be punished with the most serious of human punishments, and the murderer must lose his life.


What does Scripture teach with regards to capital punishment?

The key text is in Genesis:

And God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth.  “The fear of you and the terror of you will be on every beast of the earth and on every bird of the sky; with everything that creeps on the ground, and all the fish of the sea, into your hand they are given.  “Every moving thing that is alive shall be food for you; I give all to you, as I gave the green plant.  “Only you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood.  “Surely I will require your lifeblood; from every beast I will require it. And from every man, from every man’s brother I will require the life of man.  “Whoever sheds man’s blood, By man his blood shall be shed, For in the image of God He made man.  “As for you, be fruitful and multiply; Populate the earth abundantly and multiply in it.” (Genesis 9:1-7)


What are we taught in this text?

In this chapter, Noah and his family have just exited the ark and are now beginning to rebuild their lives after the judgment of the flood. God repeats the command He gave in creation, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth.” (cf Genesis 1:28) As God gives Noah this mandate, He also reminds Noah of the sanctity of human life.


Where do we see the sanctity of human life in this passage?

It is seen in the prohibition against eating blood and the establishment of capital punishment.


How does the prohibition against eating human blood show the sanctity of human life?

God allows Noah to kill and eat animals, but they are not allowed to eat anything with blood in it.  In these times, it was believed that one’s life was bound up with one’s blood.  This can be seen even much later in Deuteronomy 12:23 “Only be sure not to eat the blood, for the blood is the life, and you shall not eat the life with the flesh.”  By not allowing His people to eat blood, God taught them that even animal blood was sacred in a sense because it represented the life of that animal.


How does the establishment of capital punishment show the sanctity of human life?

Because God commands that anyone who takes a human life without just cause must lose his life. In other words, human life is so sacred that a murderer must be punished with the most severe of all punishments.


What reason is given here for the sanctify of human life?

Because humans were made by God in His Own image.  “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God He made man.” (Genesis 9:6)


How does Jesus interpret this command?

Jesus extends this command to forbid any bodily injury done to our neighbor either of ourselves or by the agency of others; as also to wish him evil, or to offend him by injurious language. We read this in Matthew 5:

You have heard that the ancients were told, ‘YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT MURDER’ and ‘Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.’ “But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, ‘You good-for-nothing,’ shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty [enough to go] into the fiery hell.  “Therefore if you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering. (Matthew 5:21-24)


Is Jesus teaching that all anger against our brother is sin against the sixth command?

No, Jesus only forbids all unjustified anger (cf Ephesians 4:26) just as we noted previously this command’s prohibition against all unjustified killing.


What principle does Jesus teach us above in v23?

First, that failing to make a good effort to reconcile with our brother who may have been offended by something we did is also a sin against the sixth command.  Second and more importantly, that even our good acts of worship are corrupted when we perform them with the guilt of this sin on our hands. Clarke writes (p104):

This is as much as to say, “Do not attempt to bring any offering to God while thou art in a spirit of enmity against any person; or hast any difference with thy neighbor, which thou hast not used thy diligence to get adjusted.” It is our duty and interest, both to bring our gift, and offer it too; but God will not accept of any act of religious worship from us, while any enmity subsists in our hearts towards any soul of man; or while any subsists in our neighbor’s heart towards us, which we have not used the proper means to remove. A religion, the very essence of which is love, cannot suffer at its altars a heart that is revengeful and uncharitable, or which does not use its utmost endeavors to revive love in the heart of another.


Leave a Reply

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

Scroll to Top