You shall not murder.
The Ten Commandments have fallen out of favor in public life in the United States. There was a time when one could see them prominently displayed in many courthouses and even public schools. In generations past they were engraved in stone on public buildings. And yet the average American seems to have little use for or even knowledge of God’s everlasting moral law. Indeed, many find them (or would find them) offensive or of little use. For instance the first commandment violates our desire to determine for ourselves who or what we will worship. The third commandment is too limiting to our vocabulary. The seventh commandment is too restrictive of our lifestyle choices. The tenth commandment is a sure way to dampen one’s material ambitions. The only commandment which still seems to make sense in the minds of modern Americans is the sixth commandment: “You shall not murder.”
However, with a public approval rating as high as “You shall not murder,” we need only to dig a little deeper to find out that the sixth may be our favorite commandment to violate.
In Hebrew, the sixth commandment is expressed in only two words: lo ratzach, or “don’t kill.” It seems so straightforward, even narrow. While the tenth commandment requires a bit of soul searching (“In what ways do I desire to have things that belong to someone else?”) the commandment to not murder seems abundantly easy as a standard by which to judge our actions. We know whether or not we have murdered. And yet when we search the Scriptures we find that murder goes much deeper than the volitional action of taking another life.
Jesus made a direct connection between anger and murder. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said that “anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment” (Matthew 5:21-22). John Calvin called this “murder of the heart.” It reminds us of the fact that each of the commandments governs both our actions and our mind/heart. Long before murder becomes an evil act it exists as an evil thought. When we indulge our anger against others we inevitably see them as lesser persons making violence against them far more likely.
Christians have also traditionally held that the sixth commandment enjoins us to act positively on behalf of those who are vulnerable to violence. Martin Luther observed that, “this commandment is violated not only when a person actually does evil, but also when he fails to do good to his neighbor, or, though he has the opportunity, fails to prevent, protect, and save him from suffering bodily harm or injury.” Jesus illustrated this principle in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30ff).
It is a beautiful irony that Jesus was made subject to murder so that he might redeem murderers. He laid down his life to atone for the sins of those whose hearts are filled with anger. He became a substitute for those who failed to act in defense of another. He was the Lamb of sacrifice for violent men. For all these sins and more Jesus died. For us and our salvation the Father spared not the Son that he might redeem every sinner who believes.