Kevin DeYoung / Nov 13, 2016 / Exodus Exodus 20:13
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Sermon Summary / Transcript
Oh Lord, your word is a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our path. Shine into the dark places in our world and our own hearts. Give us grace to receive your word, and then to be doers of the word, not hearers only. It’s in Christ’s name that we pray. Amen.
This morning, we’re returning to our series on the book of Exodus. In the next few weeks, we’ll be moving through the second half of the Ten Commandments. The texts will all be short passages about big topics.
Today, we come to the sixth commandment:
You shall not murder. Exodus 20:13
There it is. That’s the entire sixth commandment. In Hebrew, it’s actually even shorter—just two words, in fact: “lo” (the negation—the “not”) and “ratsach” (“murder”). It seems like an obvious, uncontroversial commandment. If there was anything that could go unstated—which we would all, as human beings and good neighbors, assume to be the case—perhaps it would be this one. Surely people from all times and places could agree that we shouldn’t murder.
There are many ways that I am not an exemplary husband, but one of the ways in which I am truly commendable is the number of Jane Austen movies I’ve watched. There was a new one that came out early this year, called “Love and Friendship.” It was based on Jane Austen’s little-known novella “Lady Susan”. The movie was quite clever. As many of Austen’s stories do, it has a lot of rich, foolish people. One character in particular is the suitor of this woman’s young daughter. He’s wealthy and very goofy. The part is played terrificly.
In one scene, he’s trying to impress all of the people in the parlor with his knowledge of the Bible. He says, “This reminded me of many such accounts one learns in childhood. Perhaps the most significant in forming one’s principles is that of the old prophet who came down from the mount bearing the Twelve Commandments, which our Lord has taught us to obey without fail.” There’s a small murmur, and someone says, “Excuse me, I believe there were only ten.” Then he says, “Really? Only ten must be obeyed? Excellent. Well then, which two to take off? Perhaps the one about the Sabbath. I prefer to hunt. After that, it becomes tricky. Many of the ‘Thou shalt nots’–don’t murder, don’t covet thy neighbor’s house or wife–one simply wouldn’t do anyway, because they are wrong, whether the Lord allows us to take them off or not.”
It’s performed admirably in the movie, and it summarizes how many of us today think about the Ten Commandments. If we were to take one off, I think he speaks for many when he calls for removing the Sabbath. And if there’s one which we would assume is certainly to be obeyed, whether we take it off or not, it’s “Thou shalt not murder.”
Have you ever wondered why murder is wrong? Even if it’s universally assumed to be wrong in the Western world, why is that the case? You could probably go out and talk with anyone here in East Lansing, and 100 out of 100 would agree that murder is wrong. If you asked them why, they would probably say something like, “It’s just not right.” “Why not?” “Well, it’s not a very nice thing to do. We should treat each other like we want to be treated.” That’s true. There’s biblical precedent for that. They might even go a bit further and say, “If our society is really to function—if we’re to feel safe and flourish as human beings—we can’t just go around killing each other willy-nilly. We have to be protected from that.” When it comes down to it, most people would defend the rightness of this commandment by some form of utilitarian ethics. “Why is murder wrong? Because that’s just the way that things work best.”
Of course, that begs another question: who decides whether your life or mine is worth protecting? Who’s to say that your life being snuffed out wouldn’t make the world a better place? Most people think about this commandment utilitarianly, if they think about it at all. But, as Christians, we understand that the inherent worth and dignity of every human being is the foundation that this commandment is based upon. We see that in Genesis 9:5-6. It’s because the inherent worth and value of the image of God is present in each of us—marred by the Fall, but nevertheless still present—that murder is wrong. No matter their race or ethnicity, how they vote, their health or disabilities, their age or infirmities, or whether they are bothersome to you, every person in your life has inherent worth and dignity, since they are created in the image of God.
Only with biblical anthropology can the commandment to not murder be based on something deeper than utilitarianism. Only then can it be more than simply good advice on how we care for one another, and be something truly rooted in an inalienable right.
This morning, I want to ask three questions:
- What does the sixth commandment prohibit?
- How does this commandment speak into our cultural context? and
- How did Jesus deepen and transform this commandment?
What does the Sixth Commandment Prohibit?
Simply put, the sixth commandment prohibits taking innocent human life. The word that’s given in the ESV (“murder”) is a good translation. It’s more accurate than the phrase “to kill”. The Hebrew word is “ratsach”, which mostly occurs in the few passages in the Pentateuch which talk about cities of refuge—places where those who had committed unintentional manslaughter could flee to before vengeance fell upon their heads. Outside of those few passages, “ratsach” does not occur very often. But the word “qatal” (“to kill”) occurs hundreds of times. So there’s a distinction between the two words.
As we see in the Old Testament, the sixth commandment does not prohibit self-defense:
If a thief is found breaking in and is struck so that he dies, there shall be no bloodguilt for him, but if the sun has risen on him, there shall be bloodguilt for him. Exodus 22:2-3
In other words, if you had no other choice, and you had to defend yourself from an intruder as a last resort, you were not guilty. But then it says “if the sun has risen”—meaning that if you could see for yourself what was going on, and if there was any other way of doing this, you were guilty. Self-defense, then is not a violation of the sixth commandment.
We see in Genesis 9 that capital punishment was also not considered a violation of this commandment:
Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image. Genesis 9:6
Capital punishment for murder was not considered an assault on the image of God, but a defense of his image. Human life is so precious that the taking of it was to be punished severely.
The famous principle of “lex talionis”—“eye for eye, tooth for tooth, wound for wound”, stated in Exodus 21—was not cruel and unusual punishment. Gandhi once said, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind,” and we think, “Oh, that’s right. That’s not a very good law.” But within the context of the ancient Near East, this was quite a humane law. It said “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, and a wound for a wound” instead of “Your head for an eye, your family for a tooth, and your tribe if you offend me”. It set the precedent that the punishment must fit (and not exceed) the crime. Life for life—no less, and no more.
Even the New Testament says:
[Governing authorities are] God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Romans 13:4
Capital punishment was not considered a violation of the sixth commandment.
Neither was war, in certain circumstances. Peace is always the goal, of course, but war is sometimes necessary to defend peace. The Old Testament clearly did not prohibit warfare, since God sent Israel into battle and claimed to be a warrior God who fought for them. Again, we see in Romans 13 that the duly appointed state is to be the agent of God’s wrath and to protect the innocent.
As you may recall, when Jesus encountered the centurion, he did not tell him, “Go and sin no more—and, if you’re really going to follow me, quit being a centurion in the Roman army.” In Acts, Cornelius (the head of a regiment) was called a God-fearer. When some soldiers asked John the Baptist what they needed to do to repent, John did not say: “Resign from the evil Roman army. You can’t be a soldier and be part of the people of God.” Instead, he said, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusations. Be content with your wages. Be an honest, honorable soldier,” even in an army that often did repugnant things like the Roman army. So the sixth commandment did not prohibit that sort of killing—self-defense, capital punishment, and just wars.
But it did prohibit premeditated, intentional murder. We see this several times in the Old Testament, like the murder of the Levite’s concubine or wife, or the murder of Naboth for his vineyard. It prohibited intentional, but unpremeditated murder—what we would call voluntary manslaughter. It prohibited reckless homicide, or involuntary manslaughter—like someone who’s driving drunk and kills someone. They don’t set out to kill anyone, but do through their recklessness. There was a distinction in Israelite law between death that came by accident and death that was motivated by hatred. You can read about that in Deuteronomy 19. The Old Testament was wise in considering the intention behind the death.
This commandment forbid negligent homicide:
When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, that you may not bring the guilt of blood upon your house, if anyone should fall from it. Deuteronomy 22:8
When an ox gores a man or a woman to death, the ox shall be stoned, and its flesh shall not be eaten, but the owner of the ox shall not be liable. But if the ox has been accustomed to gore in the past, and its owner has been warned but has not kept it in, and it kills a man or a woman, the ox shall be stoned, and its owner also shall be put to death. Exodus 21:28-29
At first, these laws sound sort of strange. Most of us don’t go out in fear of oxen chasing us when we are on a walk. We’re not worried about having parapets on our roof. But we have laws in Michigan that say that you must have a fence around below-ground pools. You must protect people from falling into this, just like they protected people back then. In that day, the way to get cool at night was to go out on your roof. It was another living space. So God said, “Look, you have to care about your neighbor. You can’t just say, ‘Well, you fell off the roof. It’s your own fault.’ No, you are commanded to care about the well-being of your neighbor by putting a parapet around your roof.”
It’s similar with the ox. God says, “Look, if your ox goes ox-wild some day and just starts going after people, then that’s an accident. But if you knew that this was a crazy ox, and then he goes out and gores someone, you haven’t been doing your part to care for your neighbor. You will be put to death.”
In other words, the sixth commandment prohibited much more than just cold-blooded, pre-meditated murder. It prohibits killing or causing to be killed by our direct action or inaction any legally innocent person. That’s the answer to the first question.
How does the Sixth Commandment Speak to our Culture?
Certainly, the sixth commandment applies to us in all the same ways that we just saw. We still care about homicide, involuntary and voluntary manslaughter, and all of these technical terms. In addition, though, let me highlight three related areas that are particularly relevant (and sometimes controversial).
The Sixth Commandment Prohibits Suicide
There is almost no topic more painful than suicide for those who have experienced it with their family or friends. Suicide is a sin—not the unforgivable sin, but a sin. Of course, that’s not what I would lead with as a pastor going to visit a family who just lost a loved one to suicide. I’m not talking about my pastoral care strategy at the moment, but giving you the doctrinal foundation.
There may be extreme cases where a suicidal person has clearly lost control over his or her faculties, such as certifiable dementia or closed-head injuries. Such a person doesn’t have any sort of capacity for rational decision making. But in the majority of cases, we are right to see suicide, as tragic as it is, as a morally culpable and blame-worthy choice. For centuries, the church has consistently viewed suicide as a violation of the sixth commandment, since self-murder is still murder.
There are five instances of suicide in Scripture: Judges 9, 1 Samuel 31, 2 Samuel 17, 1 Kings 16, and Matthew 27. All of them are in the context of shame and defeat. Likewise, when more noble characters ask God to take their lives (like Jonah or Job), God clearly views their self-destructive requests unfavorably.
It seems like we hear far too often of famous movie stars, athletes, or entertainers who have committed suicide. Many people were understandably upset and saddened by Robin Williams’ death. There was much conversation and punditry, and people said things in a perhaps unhelpful way or with unhelpful timing. But one of the recurring themes was that there was no moral responsibility: “We all have our demons. We all have to face this. We shouldn’t put any sort of ethical blame upon suicide.”
For a moment, that sounds like a very compassionate thing to do—but it isn’t. Listen to a woman named Julie Gossack, who wrote in the Journal of Biblical Counseling ten years ago. She’s a wife and a mother who has suffered through the suicide of a family member five times. I can scarcely imagine that. She said this:
Suicide is not a genetic trait nor is it a family curse. Suicide is a sinful choice made by an individual. This statement is neither unloving nor disrespectful. It is the truth. I dearly loved my family members that committed suicide, but their choices were sinful and not righteous.
She goes on to say that she’s saying that precisely to be loving—that other people who might be considering taking their lives in such a dark place would, if there are no other restraints, perhaps be restrained by the law of God. Suicide might feel like the only way out, but Scripture tells us that God will never lead us into a situation where violating his commandments is the only option. We do not help struggling saints by refusing to tell them that suicide is displeasing to God. Lovingly spoken, in the right time, that may be one of the ways in which God jolts the suicidal soul back to better, saner, more righteous thinking. Your life is precious to God, even when you have concluded that it’s pointless.
The Sixth Commandment Prohibits Abortion
For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. Psalm 139:13
This psalm is speaking of this nascent life (which is truly life) within the mother. A few moments ago, I mentioned a law from Exodus 21: “An eye for an eye.” If you read the context there, it has to do with injuring a pregnant woman’s baby in the womb. There were punishments for doing so, because that life was considered life. Until very recently, the church has universally opposed abortion. There was a first century church manual called “the didache” (“the teaching”). It says, “Do not murder a child by abortion or kill a newborn infant”—two practices which were common in the ancient world. It was chiefly in the Judeo-Christian worldview, particularly in the early church, that children were valued and considered to need protection.
John Calvin says,
[F]or the fetus, though enclosed in the womb of its mother, is already a human being, and it is almost a monstrous crime to rob it of the life which it has not yet begun to enjoy. If it seems more horrible to kill a man in his own house than in a field, because a man’s house is his place of most secure refuge, it ought surely to be deemed more atrocious to destroy a fetus in the womb before it has come to light. John Calvin – Commentary on Exodus
Life begins at conception. That’s a scientific fact. Any embryology book will tell you that the life of each one of us traces back to the zygote—to the moment of conception. We didn’t become something different. We’ve all been formed from that original life, which is still us.
The only way to think that ending life in the womb is appropriate is to think that personhood begins at some other time than the beginning of biological life. Peter Singer, the infamous ethicist at Princeton, at least has consistency in his opinions. He’s argued that even after a child is born, it doesn’t become a human person until a certain number of months or years. Only then does it have the rights that are afforded to all of us as humans.
The Bible teaches—and, until very recently, everyone in the Western world agreed—that there is a profound and organic unity between body and soul, such that personhood exists wherever biological life exists. The ancient heresy gnosticism posited a dualism which said that you have a soul which is trapped in the prison house of the body—that your physical body and soul are two very different things which don’t have an organic unity. One is trapped inside and needs to be freed from the other. But we understand from a Biblical anthropology that, though they are two things, the body and the soul have an organic union. When your biological life begins, you also exist as a person made in the image of God, created to honor God, and with a life that deserves to be protected.
The Sixth Commandment Prohibits Euthanasia
In recent weeks, an assisted suicide law passed in Washington D.C. Many, particularly among African-American church leaders, spoke out against the law, considering that the net result will be elderly African-Americans in the district having their lives ended. Colorado also overwhelmingly passed an assisted suicide law this past week. There are many problems we could mention with the laws themselves. They require a diagnosis of a terminal disease or illness that will end your life in six months—but we could all tell stories of people who received such a diagnosis and lived far beyond it. Many of these laws don’t require notification of family members. They don’t specify which kind of doctor must diagnose you. An E.M.T. could give you this six months estimate. They also allow you to pick up your suicide drugs at your local pharmacy and administer them on your own. There are all sorts of problems that could be pointed out.
More important are the ethical problems with these laws. How can we try to prevent suicide among teenagers and young people and encourage it among the sick and elderly? Whenever I walk into the East Lansing high school, I see signs in the hallway: “Say No to Suicide” or “Thinking about Suicide? There is help.” How can you say that to a certain group of people and then put forward to another group of people that this is an option to consider? We are to do what we can to preserve and protect innocent life. We must not let our definitions of compassion cloud our thinking. This is very key, because that’s how the moral argument works. It gets confused.
I’m not talking about the termination of treatment, but the termination of life. Sometimes people hear that spiel about suicide and say, “Look, I don’t want to be put on a respirator. I don’t want to have a machine do my life for me.” That’s not what I’m talking about.
My grandfather passed away a couple of months ago at 91 years old. He went downhill very quickly. When he was in hospice care, they said to him, “Look, there are some things that we can do. We can force you get up and move around and give you some further treatments, and it might preserve your life for another four or five months. Or we can keep you comfortable, give you palliative care, and you can rest in your bed. You may not live more than a week or two.” He said, “I’m 91. I’ve lived my life. I want to rest. I don’t need to do all of that to preserve my life for four or five more months.” Many of us face those decisions, and we know loved ones who’ve had to face them. Those decisions are not wrong by any means. No, I’m not talking about the termination of treatment, but rather the direct termination of life.
The Netherlands, for example, was the first nation to allow for legal assisted suicide. What has happened over time is that voluntary euthanasia becomes involuntary. Why? Because when it becomes an option for you to end your life, insurance companies say, “Well, we aren’t going to pay for that to extend your life another six months or a year. You can just take these pills and end your life.” You become a burden to insurance providers, to the state, and to your family. We’ve seen that more and more requests in the Netherlands for assisted suicide have come from family members, not from the patients themselves.
During the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, Dutch physicians refused to obey orders by Nazi troops to let the elderly and the terminally ill die. In 2001, Holland became the first country to give legal status to doctor-assisted suicide. As Malcolm Muggeridge noted, it took only one generation to transform a war crime into an act of compassion.
Psalm 41:1 (NIV): “Blessed are those who have regard for the weak…” Not killing them, but providing comfort, help, and care for however long God would give them to live. The human person, created in the image of God, no matter their quality of life, their diagnosis, their age, their position in or out of the womb, the number of chromosomes they have, or their unique challenges or special needs, are deserving of life, and we should protect that.
How did Jesus Transform the Sixth Commandment?
I want to finish by moving from cultural analysis to heart analysis. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says:
You have heard that it was said to those of old, “You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.” But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, “You fool!” will be liable to the hell of fire. So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny. Matthew 5:21-26
Jesus deepens and transforms this commandment, helping us to understand its true significance. The sixth commandment not only prohibits violent acts of murder, but all violent emotions and intentions of the heart. David Powlison has a new book that’s very good called Good and Angry. Chapter 2 is entitled “Do You Have an Anger Problem?” It’s very clever. “Do you have an anger problem?” “Yes!” “Then turn the page to chapter 3.” That’s all of chapter 2. You and I do have an anger problem.
The Heidelberg Catechism says,
Q: What is God’s will for you in the sixth commandment? A: I am not to belittle, insult, hate, or kill my neighbor–not by my thoughts, my words, my look or gesture, and certainly not by actual deeds–and I am not to be party to this in others; rather, I am to put away all desire for revenge. The Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 105
That makes the sixth commandment considerably more difficult. When I say, “Do not murder!”, you’re thinking, “Yes, I’m glad I showed up this morning. I am good to go. I don’t murder. Bring it on, pastor!” Well, what about your thoughts, words, looks, and gestures? Have they ever belittled, insulted, or hated? Have you given party to those who do so?
The catechism also asks,
Q: Does this commandment refer only to killing? A: By forbidding murder God teaches us that he hates the root of murder: envy, anger, vindictiveness. In God’s sight all such are murder.
Here in the Sermon on the Mount, in verse 22, Jesus gives three deeper root causes of murder. First, he says everyone who is angry; then, whoever insults; and then, he speaks of denunciation—whoever says, “You fool!” The word in Greek is “moros”, from which we get our word “moron”, or “worthless person”. He’s saying, “You may be innocent of physical, outward murder, but what about your heart? What about anger? What about insults? What about denunciation?
To each of those, he gives three corresponding forms of judgment: “everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.” I don’t think we should read too much into these punishments, as if Christ were giving increasing punishments for increasingly vile offenses. Rather, I think he’s making one big point: you can be 100% murder free, but still face the wrath of God if your life is marked by anger, bitterness, invective, insult, and rage.
Notice that Jesus goes even farther. He gives two illustrations. What’s striking is that these illustrations don’t have to do directly with anger. He says, “What about your brother, when you go to the temple? You need to get right with him. Or what about your adversary in court?” He’s not speaking of everyone who might dislike us or is offended by us in life. If Jesus tried to be reconciled with everyone who didn’t like him, he wouldn’t have done anything else. He had lots of enemies. No, he’s talking about people who legitimately have something against us.
Jesus says that anger is so serious that you should not only do what you can to eliminate it in your heart, but also do what you can to prevent and alleviate it in others. The sixth commandment doesn’t just forbid physical murder, or even simply prohibit murder of the heart. It positively enjoins us to seek reconciliation.
Later in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus will say that we are to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. Socio-demographic categories are all we hear all about during the election. Everyone is a category: white evangelicals, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, uneducated, or working-class. Everyone gets a little category. If anything, this past week has shown us that none of us like to be put into a category, and have people in another category think they know everything about us and our category. But we all get placed somewhere. Jesus says that if you only love the people who like you, dress like you, root for the things you do, and vote for the people you do—well, everybody does that! But what about your enemies? What about the people who mistreat you? What about the people who don’t understand you? By condemning envy, hatred, and anger, the catechism says that God tells us to love our neighbors as ourselves, to be patient, peace-loving, gentle, merciful and friendly to them.
We hear so much about tolerance, which is really a very weak virtue. Next time someone says something about tolerance, say, “Look, I’m a Christian. God calls me to much more than tolerance. He calls me to positively love my enemies—to be friendly toward them, protect them from harm as much as I can, and to do good to them.”
Did you notice what Jesus said at the end of verse 26? “If you are this sort of angry fool, you will not get out until you pay the last penny.” If you insist on pouring out the cup of your wrath, there’s another cup for you to drink. As he is apt to do, Jesus makes the one commandment which we would have thought we were all going to feel pretty good about into one of the commandments that we all feel pretty bad about. Which one of us hasn’t been unrighteously angry this week? There is a way to be righteous in anger, but that’s not the way that most of us are angry. We show it in the way that we speak to our spouses, when we silently judge, when we explode to our children over the simplest things, and when somebody drives in front of us and goes too slow, and you would think that they had cursed your whole family for all time. Jesus says that you will not get out until you pay the last penny. That’s how serious anger is.
So what do we do? We’ve all had this cup of wrath at some point in our lives—if not so that others can see it, then in our hearts. We were fuming, scheming, steaming mad, drinking our bubbling, exploding cup of wrath. So what do we do? We look to the Garden of Gethsemane and find Jesus there with another cup. As he is facing his death on the cross, he says, “Father, if possible, take this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will but yours be done.” What’s the cup? It’s not the cup of our wrath, but of God’s wrath for sinners like us. It’s his righteous, perfect anger, directed toward people like us, who have so often displayed such unrighteous, unholy anger. And Jesus says, “If this is the only way, Father. I’ll take it.” We deserve that cup, but he took it upon himself. The only one who never violated any of the commandments and never committed murder in the least degree in his heart was murdered for angry murderers like us. We have all poured out the cup of wrath on one another, but only Jesus drank from that cup for us.
Let’s pray. Father in heaven, convict us of sin. Show us how we have fallen short of this and all your commandments. Lead us to the cross, where we can find mercy and grace from the one who lived the perfect life we could not live and faced the punishment we could not endure, so that in him we might know forgiveness, health, and newness of life. We pray in his name, amen.
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