Returning to our examination of how the themes of the old covenant are fulfilled in the new, we pick up our study of the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20:13 with the sixth commandment. The prohibition against murder is foundational not only to regulating life in the covenant community but also for ensuring a just society.
It is important that we understand that this commandment refers to murder, not to all killing. Many of us probably have heard or memorized this statute as “Thou shalt not kill,” which is an acceptable translation. However, the term kill in English does not actually capture the full nuance of the Hebrew term, which is more akin to the specific act of unlawful killing, also known as murder. This command must refer to unlawful killing because there are, in fact, several occasions in Scripture where God orders His people to take the lives of others. Moreover, in certain cases killing is not only allowed, it is mandated.
Perhaps the best example of this is capital punishment. Early on in His dealings with mankind, the Lord revealed that those who shed innocent blood must themselves be put to death at the hands of the rightful authorities (Gen. 9:5–6). Our Creator puts such a high value on human life that those who take it unjustly forfeit their own right to live. By this statute, God tells us that respect for life, especially that of our neighbor, is to animate every ethical decision that we make. Other crimes may be punished less severely, but, at least in principle, the premeditated murder of another human being must always be repaid in kind with the execution of the murderer (Num. 35:9–34). Under the new covenant, the right to administer capital punishment is given to the state, not the church (Rom. 13:1–7).
Yet to say that we have kept this commandment if we merely refrain from murder would be to miss the spirit of this particular law. John Calvin reminds us that “in the Law human life is instructed not merely in outward decency but inward spiritual righteousness” (Institutes of the Christian Religion 2.8.6). The commandment deals with inward realities as well — in this case, those inner attitudes that, if left unchecked, will result in murder. When we seethe with rage that is unjust and unchecked, we have broken the sixth commandment (Matt. 5:21–26).