I don’t know who came up with the statement originally, but it’s been a helpful one to me sometimes in understanding the Bible (and really understanding anything with words). “Words are the buckets into which thoughts are poured and transferred from one mind to another.”
So what do spoken or written words or phrases mean? Well, they mean whatever the speaker means by them. Speakers can use the same words, same buckets, to communicate different thoughts. For example, a clerk might tell a customer who’s asking to speak with the manager, “I’m sorry, he’s out to lunch right now.” And a teacher, who notices a student in class not paying any attention, might say, “That kid’s out to lunch right now.” Same bucket (“out to lunch”), but different thoughts being put in it. I may try to communicate the thought of awesome or excellent by using the word “sweet”, and you might take that same bucket and pour into it to share with others a totally different thought, like sugary.
Well, the bucket of words in Exodus 20:13, “You shall not murder,” as most modern English versions have it, and “Thou shall not kill,” as the older translations have it, can be and has been variously understood. But what thought was God pouring into this bucket to transfer from His mind to the minds of His people?
Let’s first clarify…
What was not God’s thought with the sixth commandment
First of all, He was not referring to…
Shortly before God spoke this commandment God flew in a quail dinner for the people (Exodus 16). And after the giving of this commandment God would command them to kill various animals in the offering of various sacrifices.
Genesis 9 is clear about this. Noah and his family are leaving the ark, and God is giving them rules for living in this new world that’s been washed clean by the flood. He explains to them that for the first time man will be allowed to kill and eat animals. Genesis 9:3, “Every moving thing that is alive shall be food for you; I give all to you, as I gave the green plant.” But then at v5, “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. 6 Whoever sheds man’s blood, By man his blood shall be shed, For in the image of God He made man.” So mankind is given permission to take life from everything God created except people. God’s against the “killing” or “murdering” of people. And a reason, God said, was because people are made in His image. To strike out at another human being is to strike out at a bit of a reflection of God.
Another form of killing not in mind in the sixth commandment is…
Exodus 21:12 begins a list of several crimes that those guilty of them were to be put to death for.
Also, the sixth commandment is not talking about…
Killing out of self-defense or defense of others
Exodus 22:2-3a, “If the thief is caught while breaking in and is struck so that he dies, there will be no bloodguiltiness on his account.” A man was not to be regarded as guilty of violating the sixth commandment for killing a thief that was breaking into his house at night to protect himself or his family. Think about police officers and how sometimes it is a moral duty for them to kill someone for the sake of saving the lives of others. But Exodus 22:3 clarifies in the case of killing a thief, “But if the sun has risen on him there will be bloodguiltiness on his account.” I think it’s assumed the robbery happened at night. So if the killing happened after the sun had risen then it wasn’t out of defense; it was out of revenge or the desire to get back what was stolen. And revenge or getting back material possessions are not justifiable reasons to take a person’s life.
Another form of killing God was not forbidding is…
Killing in war
I know some would take issue with me on this. But it appears clear to me that killing in war was not something God was condemning with the sixth commandment. Soon after giving the sixth commandment God was going send the Israelites into war in the land of Canaan, because of the sinfulness of the Canaanites. When soldiers came to John the Baptists asking about what repentance would entail for them, John told them, “Do not take money from anyone by force, or accuse anyone falsely, and be content with your wages” (Luke 3:14). So he didn’t tell them to change professions, but rather to avoid the sins common among those in their profession. Cornelius, a Roman centurion, was never to our knowledge told to give up his military career in order to be faithful to God.
So clearly this commandment is more about the intentional malicious taking of life from another person. Our word “murder” rather than “kill,” I think is the best bucket to carry the idea.
Now, likely you feel pretty good about this instruction for living. I suspect you don’t consider yourself having a problem with murdering people. But we find in Scripture that…
Just as not all killings are murders, not all murders are killings.
Do you remember the principle that Jesus taught in the sermon on the mount about adultery? He said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’; but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” In other words you don’t have to actually be with another woman that’s not your wife sexually to commit adultery. You can commit adultery in your heart. The NT tells us the same is true about murder. Just before those statements about adultery that in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “You have heard that the ancients were told, ‘YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT MURDER’ and ‘Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.’ 22 “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” (Matt 5:21-22). If you hold anger, malice, bitterness in your heart toward your brother, or if you’re one who tries to tear him down and belittle him with your words, Jesus says you’re guilty before the “court.” Guilty of what? Murder? And before what court? Well, I know of no human court on earth that would try a man for just being angry with his brother or name calling. I think He must mean the Court with a capital C, the heavenly Court, God’s Court. And I think Jesus was saying that God finds you guilty of murder in your heart when you despise you’re brother, as He finds you guilty of adultery in your heart when you look at another woman to lust after her.
The apostle John certainly believed such to be the case. I John 3:15, “Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer; and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.” John was no idiot. He wasn’t saying that everyone who holds a grudge against someone is actually going to rise up and physically kill that person. There are lots of people who have hated their brother but never acted on it. John understands that murder in the sight of God can be an attitude as well as an action. It can take place in someone’s heart even though not in their deeds.
Perhaps this perspective helps us to understand the sense of James 4:2, a verse that used to puzzle me. It’s written to Christians who fighting and quarreling with one another. And then surprisingly James describes them as committing murder. I used to wonder, “Wow! Really? These Christians were that bad? They were literally physically slaughtering each other?” No. I think rather James learned something from his older half-brother about hostile attitudes toward others, that they amount to a form of murder in the eyes of God.
Now, why is this?
Why does God consider hatred to be murder?
Well, here’s some of my own reasoning about it. Suppose you and a person you truly hate happen to be among a small group of survivors shipwrecked on a uninhabited island. On this island the group happens to find buried treasure worth a fortune and agrees it will be shared equally by everyone in the group when you’re rescued. One day you and the group are having dinner together of various foods the group has gathered that day (fruits, nuts, fish, grasshoppers, whatever). Then you see the person that you hate pull out of his pocket some berries that he’s picked, berries that you know for a fact are lethal. But no body else knows they’re deadly and no body will know that you knew they were. And this guy you hate is about to eat the berries and in doing so make you significantly richer by leaving the group his share of the buried treasure. And what if somehow you even had a unmistakable message from God that said your attitude and treatment of this one guy won’t in anyway affect your standing with God? What if it would only be to your advantage to sit back quietly and let him eat the berries? What would you do? If you hate the guy, you’d murder him by sitting quietly. And God knows we would when we hate someone. And I think God judges us not just according the deeds we actually commit, but according to our hearts, according to what He knows we would and wouldn’t do in this or that circumstance. So hatred, bitterness, grudges against people make us murderers in the eyes of God who knows our hearts (Lk 16:15; I Sam 16:7).
What a sobering thought when we hold a grudge against someone, “God considers me a murderer right now.” And what a thought to clarify what ought to be at the very top of our to do list, John’s statement…
“and you know that no murderer has eternal life“.
My brothers and sisters, please don’t miss this. You can’t hold grudges and be right with God. You can’t keep resentfulness, hatefulness, bitterness in your heart and be right with God. It makes ridding our hearts of it the absolute most important and urgent thing for us to do no matter what we have going on in our lives.
What can we do to help us rid our hearts of any hate that might be there?
What sort of prayers should we pray? What perspectives should we gain? What thoughts and activities help us to love people we don’t like? Please share any answers you can think of.
– James Williams