The sixth commandment is not properly translated, “You shall not kill.” Killing is not prohibited in every form by God, but only certain forms of killing are prohibited. For example, God commanded Israel in this same Law of Moses to kill the Canaanites in battle and take possession of their land (Deuteronomy 7:17-24).
Capital punishment is also commanded in the Mosaic Law for specific crimes. In Exodus 21 specific applications of the Ten Commandments are made and in verses 12-14 the death penalty is required for anyone who kills someone with premeditation. In verses 15-17 striking one’s parent and kidnapping are said to be capital offenses. These and other instances of invoking capital punishment are in accord with God’s decree to Noah in Genesis 9:5,6 and are obviously not considered “murder,” which is prohibited in this sixth command.
Murder refers primarily to premeditated and even unpremeditated slaying other than in war (the Hebrew word is used of both, Numbers 35:16-31 and Deuteronomy 4:42). The slaying of another, intentionally or unintentionally, other than for capital crimes or war, is prohibited by this commandment. Life is God’s gift and man is made in God’s image, a very precious gift indeed (Genesis 9:5,6). To steal that gift from another is a violation of God’s moral will. Every society on earth views it as such.
But this commandment should be viewed from a positive, more inclusive perspective. To state this command positively would be to say something like, “Preserve life.” It has application not only to personally refraining from violence but also to being one who doesn’t just stand by when life is in danger, but who gets involved to preserve the lives of others.
How might we be more that bystanders when an alcoholic neighbor gets in the car and drives away intoxicated? How do we help the pregnant girl who sees abortion as her only option? What application does this commandment have to preventing a depressed individual from committing suicide? How about when we know a parent is abusing children? Or when in war there are obvious atrocities, what do we do? All these situations and others are opportunities for us to live out the depth of this commandment and not remain bystanders.
There are difficult ethical questions bound up in this command. Is self-defense that results in the death of another considered murder? Is pulling the plug on a terminal patient wrong? Is careless driving that results in death worthy of severe punishment? Is there a justifiable war these days? Different parts of the body of Christ have given different answers to all these questions. Each must seek to honor this law of God.