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That Killer Instinct

Bent, Broken, But Unbowed (Murder)
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The Ten Commandments for Today

Once we hold God in contempt, it is short journey that brings us to holding in contempt those made in His image. Once we stop valuing God, we stop placing a value on what God has created.

Certainly, there were many other sins committed between the time Adam and Eve disrespected God and the moment their firstborn killed his brother. But there is a strong connection between a disrespect of God and the disrespect for the life of someone made in His image.

The King James Version of the 6th commandment, mentioned in Deuteronomy 5:17, is translated, “Thou shalt not kill.” In the New International Version, the verse is translated: “You shall not murder.” Either or the phrases should be impossible to misunderstood, right? But let’s break them down just a little bit more to help us understand exactly what we are talking about here—even if it seems inconceivable that someone might misunderstand!

To kill:

1) to murder, slay, kill

a) (Qal) to murder, slay

1) premeditated

2) accidental

3) as avenger (as payback)

4) slayer (intentional) (participle)

J. John states three reasons why we need to respect the sacredness of human life: “First, God alone has the power to give life and therefore is the only one authorized to take life away. Second, because we are made in the image of God, to take the life of another human is to destroy someone patterned after God and close to God’s own heart. Third, God made us to love together, each contributing what we have and are to others. Murder is the most brutal breach possible of that interlocked social life together” (Ten Laws of Love Set in Stone, page 103).

The 6th is one of the commandments that Jesus specifically quotes in His famous sermon on the Mount—one that He actually makes more difficult by His application of it. In much of my research on this commandment it was also interesting to note that, while emphasis was placed on what Jesus taught, the writers focused most of their attention on some of the thornier issues that have circulated about the command. How does “You shall not murder” apply to issues such as capital punishment, war, abortion, euthanasia and social justice?


The first recorded murder in Scripture, that of Cain killing his brother, ends up with an interesting twist. The story is told to us in Genesis 4 and is built around how the two sons approached God. “Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil. In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord.” (4:2, 3) We discover that Cain’s actions were fueled by anger because of something God did: “But Abel also brought an offering—fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The Lord looked with favour on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favour. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast.” (4:4, 5) Abel had done nothing wrong. The appropriate response would have been to make a course correction in his attitude toward God. But Cain did not. He was jealous of his brother and he was angry with God for accepting Abel’s offering and not his. When Cain didn’t make this course correction and change his approach to God, the Lord gave him a chance to repent, to make things right. God warned him of the danger in not responding correctly: “Then the Lord said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it’.” (4:6, 7). Notice that the choice was Cain’s.

Cain’s choice was to not make the required course correction but to let anger, and the resultant need for revenge, rule him. It appears that the murder was premeditated: “Now Cain said to his brother Abel, ‘Let’s go out to the field.’ While they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him.” (4:8). Though there were consequences for Cain, God did not require his death as punishment for his crime: “Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth.” (4:10-12). The punishment for capital murder would change later something that it seems Cain anticipated. When he heard God’s judgment Cain feared that others would kill him once they knew what he had done. “Today you are driving me from the land, and I be hidden from your presence; I will be a restless wandered on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.’ But the Lord said to him, ‘Not so; anyone who kills Cain will suffer vengeance seven times over.’ Then the Lord put a mark on Cain so that no one who found him would kill him.” (4:14, 15).

It was not until after the flood that God set in place the punishment for a capital crime: “And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each man, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of his fellow man. ‘Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood by shed; for in the image of God has God made man” (Genesis 9:5, 6, NIV).

These verses become pivotal to how we look at murder and its consequences, and to some of the thorny issues the arise from the command: “You shall not murder” (or kill).

1. It is God who demands the accounting.

2. It is man who carries out God’s sentencing.

3. It is because man is created in the image of God that his life has value.

The rest of the Old Testament confirms these instructions, adding very specific rules to be applied to murders, murderers and the application of the death penalty.

It prohibited compensation or reprieve of the murderer, or his protection if he took refuge in the refuge city, or even at the altar of Jehovah (Exod. 21:12, 14; Lev. 24:17, 21; 1 Kings 2:5, 6, 31). Bloodshed, even in warfare, was held to involve pollution (Num. 35:33, 34; Deut. 21:1, 9; 1 Chron. 28:3). It is not certain whether a master who killed his slave was punished with death (Exod. 21:20)…Striking a pregnant woman so as to cause her death was punishable with death (Exod. 21:23). If an animal known to be vicious caused the death of anyone, not only was the animal destroyed, but the owner, also, if he had taken no steps to restrain it, was held guilty of murder (21:29, 31). The duty of executing punishment on the murderer is in the law expressly laid on the “revenger of blood;” but the question of guilt was to be previously decided by the Levitical tribunal. In regal times the duty of execution of justice on a murderer seems to have been assumed to some extent by the sovereign as well as the privilege of pardon (2 Sam. 13:39; 14:7, 11; 1 Kings 2:34). It was lawful to kill a burglar taken at night in the act, but unlawful to do so after sunrise (Exod. 22:2, 3).” (Ungers Bible Dictionary, page 766).

You will notice that murder was not the only crime punishable by death. There were cities of Refuge established where people could go to escape who had committed an accidental murder and were being threatened with vengeance by family members of the victim. According to the commandment, the accused was still condemned to death, and could be killed by the “Avenger of Blood” if he didn’t get to the City of Refuge in time (Numbers 35:19). But before he could claim shelter in the city, he had to undergo a trial to prove that the murder was accidental. If he was acquitted of premeditated murder, he had to stay inside the city limits until the current High Priest died. If he strayed beyond the city limits the Avenger of Blood could kill him. Unger’s Bible Dictionary adds this fascinating note: “According to the rabbins, in order to aid the fugitive it was the business of the Sanhedrin to keep the roads leading to the cities of refuge in the best possible repair. No hills were left, every river was bridged, and the road itself was to be at least thirty-two cubits broad. At every turn were guide posts bearing the word Refuge, and two students of the law were appointed to accompany the fleeing man, to pacify, if possible, the avenger, should he overtake the fugitive.” (Ungers Bible Dictionary, page 208). This concept of cities of refuge pre-dates Moses and was common among the nations.

Accidental murder still carried a death sentence but there was a plan in place to commute that sentence. The Scriptures give us examples of God’s mercy in sparing the lives of people who committed premeditated murder, like Moses and David. The point is: punishment or mercy is God’s choice. It is important to consider the victims and their families, but in the end, it is God who is the most offended when a person created in His image, to whom He has given life, and from whom He is the only one permitted to remove life, has been killed.

The Old Testament is a bloody collection of books. There is no point denying it. There are times when we are told that God ordered the destruction of an army or of a city, including times when He sent pagan nations against His chosen people, Israel. There are times when killing happened without any indication that God had commanded it to take place, and times when the context makes it obvious that something happened that wasn’t at His command. God is sovereign over every detail and whether people like it or not, it is God’s right as Creator to do what He chooses with that creation.

R. Albert Mohler writes: “We must understand that ‘You shall not kill’ is not a blanket prohibition against killing. Instead it is a prohibition against unauthorized killing through murder or manslaughter. Whether by premeditated intent or by negligence, the taking of life is a matter of deadly significance, In Israel, if you are building a house, there is a warning to not fail to put a parapet around the roof as a safety precaution against someone falling off (Deuteronomy 22:8). If a death occurred because of your neglect of this duty, you bring bloodshed upon your house. Although there is no malice toward any particular individual, and thus no first-degree homicide, there is negligence and antipathy toward the entire human race by that negligence. According to the logic of Scripture, those who would fail to save a life are guilty of a crime against life…it is a rule against the taking of human life when that taking of that life is not explicitly authorized by God” (Words From the Fire, page 123).

When we love our neighbor we are going to do whatever is possible to not take his life from him. If we love God we are not going to harm what He created in His image, what He gave life to, and what only He has the right to take life from.


When we come to the New Testament, we find Jesus expanding the application of this 6th commandment. This happened in the midst of His famous Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:21-26. We think of the Ten Commandments as being strict—one of the reasons many reject them as being valid today. We prefer to emphasize the value of love—as we should. But we can’t ignore the connection between love and law. When we get to the summary Jesus gave of the core ten as given to us in the Old Testament: “Love the Lord your God…” and “Love your neighbor…” we think that we are getting off easy, not realizing that the summary statement is no way negates the original. His handling of the 6th is a prime example of how the demands of love in relation to the law, are even more stringent than the original commands.

But I think it is important to read the introduction to Jesus’ teaching on the 6th commandment. I think what the Lord says before he actually speaks to the “You shall not murder” question, puts to rest any discussion on whether the Ten Commandments should have survived post-Christ.

Most of us have no problem with the “You shall not murder” phrase. It’s a no-brainer, as they say. But Jesus’ expansion of the original command makes us realize that murder is not only the physical taking of a life, the “you shall not…” also includes what triggers the action: anger and hatred. Cain’s trouble did not begin with his murder of his brother, it began with what triggered it. In our relationships with our parents, dealt with in the 5thcommandment, the abuses we may have suffered, when unresolved, when left unforgiven, often result in anger and hatred and as a result cause us to break the 6th commandment as well as the 5th.

Matthew 5:21-26

You have heard it said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry at his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell. Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift. Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still with him on the way, or he may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer and you may be thrown into prison. I tell you the truth, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.

When we look back at the Old Testament examples, we see that the murders, the unauthorized killings are rooted in anger, hatred and revenge. And it is the root that we need to deal with because therein lies the first step toward the physical act. We find this same conclusion when Jesus comes to talk about adultery. He says that even to look at a woman lustfully is to commit the sin, (Matthew 6:28) and the same applies when it comes to murder. The emotion, the anger, hate, the desire for revenge, is as bad as the action of committing the murder.

It was Cain’s anger that grew into the hatred that ended up in the murder. God warned Cain to deal with the anger when He said: “‘Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it.’” (Genesis 3:6, 7, NIV). I don’t think God was referring simply to Cain’s bad choice in offerings. I believe God, knowing what was in Cain’s heart and what Cain was thinking of doing, warned him to consider where his thoughts were leading him and what his choices were.

The Lord reminds us in the passage in Matthew that we need to be careful not only with our attitudes but with our words as well. “Raca” is equivalent to “stupid,” “empty-headed” and other similar phrases meant to put others down. More often than not, these kinds of denigrating statements are said in moments of anger. We get angry and then we “kill” with our tongues. James warns us that the tongue is “…a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell…but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be.” (James 3:6, 8-10, NIV).

Notice that phrase: “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness” and its connection to the first four “God-ward” commands from the Old Testament. Our relationship with God, tied up in the first four commands, has a great deal to do with whether or not we can carry out the last six. The bottom line is NOT how people treat us or whether or not they “deserve” to be honoured or not “killed.” It is because they were created by God to be His image-bearers, that our attitudes toward them should change. Anger makes us forget the bottom line.

Ephesians 4:31, Colossians 3:21 are well-known verses that include instructions to us to be careful when it comes to anger. Proverbs is full of verses that talk about that particular subject (14:17, 21, 19, 22:24, 25:23; 29:22). Also see Ecclesiastes 7:9.

Ephesians 4:26 tells us that not all anger is sin in itself. Anger can be an emotion that shows that we care deeply about an issue. Anger is often mentioned in the Scriptures. Three hundred and seventy-five times it refers to God being angry. There is such a thing as righteous anger. We can be angry about injustice, sin, and a whole host of other things. But even our righteous anger can become unrighteous because sin does lurk on our doorstep just as it did on Cain’s. Which is why the passage says: “In your anger do not sin. Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold.” The longer we let even righteous anger percolate, the more likely we are to end up with anger that is no longer righteous and causes us to do things that we shouldn’t.

The second statement that Jesus makes in the Matthew passage is even stronger, and perhaps stranger. He says: “But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.” There are lots of verses, particularly in Proverbs, that refer to people as fools, so why is Jesus making a point of telling us not to call anyone “fool” and how is this connected to the murder commandment?

There are several different words used for “fool” in the original language of the New Testament that are expressed in one word in English. That sometimes causes us problem s in interpretation. The first word Jesus used, “Raca,” makes light of a person’s mental abilities. The second word, translated for us as “foo,l” is different and more serious. To call someone this kind of “fool” is to make fun of a person’s heart and character. The consequences to this kind of “character assassination” are much more severe.

This ties into the command against murder because, when I verbally try to destroy someone’s character by called them a “fool,” I am “killing” them in someone else’s eyes.

In other cases where the word “fool” is used, it refers to the lack of understanding on people’s part and isn’t used to degrade them, but rather to explain where they are in their journey. For example, one of the Psalms says, “the fool has said in his heart, there is no God” indicating a lack of spiritual understanding rather than calling into question their character or mental capacity.

The rest of the Matthew passage gives us instruction as to what to do when we fall into the sin of being angry with a brother and, as a result, have called him an idiot or worse. “But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell. Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.” Note the word “therefore.” A. Before you worship God again, go and ask that brother’s forgiveness. Your horizontal relationship affects the vertical one and vice-versa. B. In a case where things have gotten particularly nasty and your brother is now suing you for libel, then don’t wait for a court to settle things, go and straighten it out and ask for forgiveness and make restitution. Slander was severely punished in Bible times.

The idea here is that being angry at someone can lead to very bad things, to “murder” even if it isn’t a physical act of killing. J. John says: “God wants not only to stop the action of murder, he wants to go further and stop those things in our thought life that act as the seeds of murder.” (Ten Laws of Love Set in Stone, page 111).


But there are other things that have to be considered when it comes to the 6th commandment. The second part to Jesus’ summary statement tells us that we should love our neighbor. That instruction encompasses the last six of the Old Testament commands. Loving our neighbour can basically be described as not doing anything that would harm that neighbour.

“Do not harm” leads us to look at some tricky subjects including the issues of abortion, euthanasia and even the harvesting and then the destruction of human embryos. There are thorny questions that circle around the issue of abortion but the bottom line is that God gives life, life created to bear His image. He is the only One who has the right to take that life. Do we understand why He gives life in some cases, or why He takes it in others? No, we don’t. But that’s not necessarily something we need to understand.

J. John writes that, according to statistics in the US, 3 percent of all the abortions practiced are for convenience, or “retroactive contraception.” In other words, rape, incest, fetal handicap, or risk to the mother’s life only happens three percent of the time. He also tells this story: “Some medical students were attending a seminar on abortion where the lecturer presented them with a case study. ‘The father of the family has syphilis, the mother, tuberculosis. They have four children already. The first is blind, the second died, the third is deaf and dumb, and the fourth has tuberculosis. The mother is now pregnant with her fifth child and is willing to have an abortion if that is what you suggest. What would your advice be?’ The students overwhelmingly voted to terminate the pregnancy. ‘Congratulations,’ the lecturer responded. ‘You have just murdered Beethoven.” (Ten Laws of Love Set in Stone, page 107). Makes you think, doesn’t it?

There is no way to measure the pain, the guilt, the challenges, and the difficult decisions that are wrapped up in this issue of abortion. And no matter what the situation, the believers’ attitude and action has always got to be built around that second great commandment: “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.”

Another one of the thorny issues that comes out of this 6th command is that of euthanasia. The word literally means “dying well,” but has come to be used to mean the intentional intervention designed to lead to a person’s death. J. John distinguishes this from two other practices: a) allowing a person with a fatal illness to die in peace without subjecting that person to treatments that can’t save his or life, and b) using pain-killing drugs to control severe pain, even at the risk of shortening that person’s life. I have a friend who last fall, after talking to her family and her doctors, decided to stop treatment that couldn’t save her life from the cancer that was slowly killing her. This is not euthanasia. Euthanasia is my friend saying: “I’ve had it. Give me a cocktail of drugs that will finish me off quickly.” That is basically helping that person commit suicide.

There are all kinds of dangers and abuses possible in both these situations, the biggest of which is perhaps that of giving human beings the right to decide what valid human life is, and what it isn’t. God says that all that He has given life to is valid because it is life given to bear His image.

It also causes us to deal with the question of suffering and its value in our spiritual journey.

Another issue that sometimes comes up when we talk about murder is whether or not killing in war is justified. Some religious groups believe war is not justified and take the pacifist view, refusing to participate in the taking of life even in the defence of their country.

Some justify war by calling it “holy.” There are no “holy wars.” Wars grow put of greed, envy, prejudice, and too much testosterone in the room. However, what do we do about “joining up” when an enemy threatens? Is there a time when one evil is necessary in order to bring to an end a greater evil? It’s a huge question. We are told that we should, “as much as it is possible, live at peace with all men” (Romans 12:18). The “as much as it is possible” becomes critical.

Love your neighbor—do no harm.

How do we deal with the seeds of murder? What do we do about anger? Years ago I did a study on anger in which the author said something that clicked with me. He quoted James 4:1-3 and suggested that we often get angry because we don’t get what we want and that our anger is ultimately an anger against God. “The demandingness to have what we want when we want is ultimately rebellion against God—an arrogance that deigns more wisdom and control than the Creator of the universe has…we resent Him for putting us in what feels like an impossible situation.” (Anger, Dr. Larry Crab, page 36).

It’s important that when the seeds of murder begins to sprout that we look at why we are angry and be honest.

It’s important that we don’t respond in anger—that we allow a cooling off period, the “count to ten” idea. Walk away. Write your anger down, but don’t send the email. Tear it up and write another email. Resolve the issue if possible. Don’t let it simmer and boil over. But if it does boil over, ask for forgiveness and work things out.

God is the judge, jury and, if needed, the executioner. He told us: “Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Romans 12:19).

Forgiveness is a choice. Holding a grudge is a choice. Clara Burton, founder of the American Red Cross is quoted as saying when a friend reminded her of something someone had done to her in the past: “‘Don’t you remember?’ asked the friend. ‘No,’ replied Clara firmly, ‘I distinctly remember forgetting that.’” Ten Laws of Love Set In Stone: “When you squeeze a tube of toothpaste, what comes out is what’s in there. So it is with us. When we are squeezed, what comes out is what’s inside. If we are full of God, there will be evidence of that when we are squeezed” (page 117). The closer we get to obedience to the “Love God with everything you are” the closer we will get to the “Love your neighbor” part of the equation.

Even murderers can be forgiven. Check out Moses, David and Paul. When we think of them we don’t usually think of the crimes they committed but of how God made their lives count for His glory.

One of the most unusual stories to be told is that of Don Whiteside, who along with his wife, Rachel, served the Lord as missionaries for many years in Colombia, South America. It’s a story of a lot of grace and a few miracles.

Don first saw the inside of a jail in 1944. At the time he was fifteen and had tried to get into the army by lying about his age. Despite that, he managed to get into the merchant navy and by the age of sixteen he was an experienced sailor. At seventeen, he was thrown off his ship in Australia for threatening a shipmate with a gun and ended up in the U.S. army as a quartermaster. The television version of the inventive ways by which quartermasters “find” what their troops need wasn’t far from the truth in Don’s case.

The downward spiral continued when Don returned to Canada. He was arrested for passing counterfeit money and spent three months in the Guelph Reformatory. In 1951, Don was sentenced to six years imprisonment in Collins Bay Penitentiary for armed assault with intent to rob. He was only twenty-two years old.

Don was paroled in December, 1956. To please his relatives, and to keep the parole board happy, he began to attend Forward Baptist Church in Toronto. However, God had other plans. At Forward, Don met his future wife, Rachel. He also was exposed to the Gospel and one night after one of his conversations with Dr. Jack Scott, the pastor of the church, he asked Christ to forgive his sins and become the Saviour and Lord of his life. “I got down and prayed and asked Jesus Christ to come into my heart and save me from my sins…I really felt very little, but something truly happened deep inside me.”[1]

Everything began to change.

Don then completed the high school studies he had begun in prison and enrolled in Central Baptist Seminary. He taught school, served in several churches and went back to minister to convicts under the auspices of the Maria St. Mission in Toronto.

But Don’s heart was set on serving the Lord overseas. He applied for a visa to be a missionary in the Belgian Congo but was refused because of his criminal record. The same was true when he tried to apply for a visa to serve in Colombia, South America. No government would knowingly issue a visa to a criminal—not even Colombia! However, there was yet another miracle in the works for Don. In June, 1961, in an unusual and rare move, Don was granted a Queen’s Pardon personally signed by Governor General Vincent Massey. This meant that all the offenses he had committed and for which he had served time, were wiped out. The courts of heaven had expunged the record once, and now the courts of earth followed suit. The pardon meant that Don could apply for a visa with a clean criminal record in hand. There was no moment as exciting, except for the moment Don came to faith, as was that moment when he read on his police report: “The name of Donald Whiteside is not to be found in the records of this office.”

There is forgiveness AND a wiping clean of the record because of Jesus.

[1] The Evangelical Baptist, April 1968 from an article written by Allen Spraggett and reprinted with permission of the Toronto Daily Star, Ordination of an Ex-Convict.

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