Everyone knows the Bible says “Thou shalt not kill”—or does it? The sixth commandment is one of the most well known of the Ten Commandments, but also one of the most misunderstood and misused.
“You shall not murder.” (Exodus 20:13)
Some have tried to use the sixth commandment (Exod. 20:13) to promote pacifism, an ideology that sometimes goes so far as to argue that no violence is ever justified. But if we examine this commandment a little closer, we will see that God is not a pacifist.
What does the sixth commandment actually say?
Part of the confusion stems from the fact that some older translations of the Bible, most notably the King James Version, have translated the command using the word “kill,” which could lead to the misconception that all killing is always prohibited: “Thou shalt not kill.” However, the best modern translations, including the ESV, NASB, NIV, and others, use the word “murder.”
Our English Bible is accurate and reliable, but it’s interesting to note that the original Hebrew version of Exodus 20:13 is just two simple words, comparable to “No murder.” The first word is not debated, but the second word—ratsah in Hebrew—is more complicated. Biblical scholar Alan Cole explains that this word “is a comparatively rare word for ‘kill,’ and usually implies violent killing of a personal enemy . . . ‘murder’ is a good translation.” However, ratsah does go beyond the English meaning of “murder,” as the ESV footnote points out: “The Hebrew word also covers causing human death through carelessness or negligence.”
The sixth commandment against murder is not pacifism.
Commentator John Durham notes that the verb “occurs just over forty times in the OT, far less frequently than the more general term [hrg] ‘kill, slay, destroy,’ (more than 160 times) and the hiphil of [mwt] ‘cause to die, kill’ (more than 200 times).” He continues, explaining that the word “plainly refers to killing that can be understood to be murder (Psalm 94:6; 1 Kings 21:19), and some translators so render it (see NEB, for example); but [ratsah] can also refer to unintentional killing, ‘manslaughter,’ as in Deut. 19:3, 4, 6, and Josh. 20:3.”
Moreover, the sixth commandment is quoted several times in the New Testament (e.g., Matt. 5:21; Matt. 19:18; Rom. 13:9), and in each case the Greek word used by the inspired writers is phoneuo (to murder) rather than the more generic word for “kill.” In effect, the sixth commandment should be understood to prohibit murder, manslaughter, violent and unauthorized killing, and killing for personal vengeance.
What does the sixth commandment mean for us?
Here’s the big idea: the Bible distinguishes between killing and murder. This is important, because many people don’t understand the difference. The sixth commandment does not say, “Thou shalt not kill.” It does say, “Thou shalt not murder.”
Murder is a sin against a person and the God who made them. However, there are situations in which, sadly, the death of a person is both justified and necessary. Just a few paragraphs after giving the sixth commandment, for example, God allows for killing in self-defense (Exodus 22:2) and also instructs Israel to punish murderers with the death penalty (Exodus 21:12–14). Similarly, throughout Israel’s history we see that the prohibition against murder did not exclude God’s people from going to war when necessary (Exod. 17:16; Num. 31:1–3; 1 Sam. 15:1–3).
The Bible makes it abundantly clear that God’s prohibition against murder in the sixth commandment is not intended to apply to lawful taking of life, such as self-defense, capital punishment, and just war. At the same time, these decisions are complicated and painful, in part because courts, governments, and any system that includes sinners will have flaws. The answer, however, is not to reject a biblical framework of justice in favor of blind pacifism, but to work within the authority God has ordained and the means God has allowed to prayerfully and carefully align our imperfect efforts with the perfect will of God.
The Bible distinguishes between killing and murder.
God is the author of life and sovereign over death, and Romans 13:1–4 shows us that, to an extent, God delegates his authority over life to those lawfully appointed leaders—the state, or the “governing authorities” (Rom. 13:1). Sometimes, in order to encourage virtue, discourage vice, and reduce personal vengeance and anarchy, it is right for the state to take the life of a criminal or to use violence to defend against oppression and attack.
If someone tries to murder you, and you defend yourself with lethal force in order to protect the lives of you and your family, that’s not murder. When a police officer gets out of their car and suddenly comes under heavy fire, if they return fire and kill the person who’s trying to murder them, the officer is not guilty of sin.
Because human life is made in the image and likeness of God, we value human life greatly and any loss of life is occasion for grief. But engaging evil in order to protect others is not evil. That’s holy and just.
Jesus is not a pansy or a pacifist
One of the defining attributes of God’s coming kingdom is shalom—perfect peace untainted by sin, violence, or bloodshed of any sort. Such a kingdom is only possible if an all-powerful, benevolent Authority vanquishes his enemies. In other words, the Prince of Peace is not a pacifist.
God is the author of life and sovereign over death.
Those who want to portray Jesus as a pansy or a pacifist are prone to be very selective in the parts of the Bible they quote. But the God of the bloody Old Testament is Jesus Christ. When he became a man, he walked the earth as a working-class carpenter. The European, long-haired, dress-wearing, hippie Jesus is a bad myth from a bad artist who mistook Jesus for a community college humanities professor. But if we want to learn all about Jesus we have to read all that the Bible says about him. Here’s how Jesus will appear one day:
Then another angel came out of the temple in heaven, and he too had a sharp sickle. And another angel came out from the altar, the angel who has authority over the fire, and he called with a loud voice to the one who had the sharp sickle, “Put in your sickle and gather the clusters from the vine of the earth, for its grapes are ripe.” So the angel swung his sickle across the earth and gathered the grape harvest of the earth and threw it into the great winepress of the wrath of God. And the winepress was trodden outside the city, and blood flowed from the winepress, as high as a horse’s bridle, for 1,600 stadia (Rev. 14:14–20).
Today is a season of patience as Jesus Christ waits for people to come to repentance. Jesus is not a pansy or a pacifist; he’s patient. He has a long wick, but the anger of his wrath is burning.
Once the wick is burned up, he is saddling up on a white horse and coming to slaughter his enemies and usher in his kingdom. Blood will flow.
Then there will be peace forever as the Prince of Peace takes his rightful throne. Some of those whose blood will flow as high as the bit in a horse’s mouth for 184 miles will be those who did not repent of their sin but did wrongly teach that Jesus was a pacifist.
Jesus is no one to mess with.
For more on what God says about violence and murder, watch Pastor Mark’s latest sermon in the Ten Commandments series: