Depending upon one’s age and location in the world one might have learned the sixth commandment as “You shall not kill” (Exodus 20:13). That is how the Authorized Version (KJV) translated it in 1611. In the pre-Reformation period, the Wycliffe Bible translated the commandment, “Thou schalt not sle.” The verb sle is Middle English for slay. Schalt, of course, is just a spelling variant of shall. In the early 16th century, Tyndale translated the 6th commandment as “Thou shalt not kyll.” Remember that English spelling varied until the 19th century. The American Standard Version followed the AV as did the Revised Standard Version in the mid-20th century. Since World War II translations (e.g., NASB, NIV, ESV), have tended to use murder instead of kill in Exodus 20:13. It is an interesting question why the translators of the AV used the verb to kill. The Tyndale translation, from which the AV borrowed heavily, only used the word murder twice. It used forms of kill much more frequently, even when the context referred to murder. Indeed, the AV used kill interchangeably with murder regularly. The verb to murder certainly existed but it might not have been used as frequently as we use it now. The AV was also influenced by the Vuglate, which used the verb occido, which may mean to kill or to murder.
The Hebrew verb used here (רצח) refers to manslaughter or murder. It is used 11 times in Numbers 35 in those senses. It does not refer to all taking of human life. Indeed, it is used many times in the Hebrew Bible and it seems to refer primarily to manslaughter or murder.
The equivocal translation “you shall not kill” is a little confusing but it is odd that people should think that “you shall not kill” would be absolute. The very same Torah teaches that sometimes, in some cases, some people are to be put to death. This was taught even before the law given to Moses at Sinai. Genesis 9:6 says
Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image (ESV).
Clearly, in both cases, the shedding of blood is the taking a human life. In the first case it is unjust and in the second it is sanctioned by God. This instruction ad command was given to Noah, after the fall. The protection of legally innocent human life is grounded in the reality that, even after the fall, humans are still image bearers. We need to distinguish between two aspects of the image of God: general and special. The special or spiritual aspect is, after the fall, destroyed and is only renewed by the free grace alone (sola gratia) of God, through faith alone (sola fide) in Christ alone, in union and communion with Christ.. As a consequence of our salvation and justification, the Spirit is at work in believers renewing them in the image of Christ, which gracious process shall only be completed in glory (2 Cor 3:18; Col 3:10; Eph 4:24; 1 Cor 15:49). Typically, the classical Reformed theologians speak of the image in the broader sense as having been defaced or obliterated, i.e., painted over. It is present but marred. The point of invoking the history of creation in Genesis 9:6 is to say that humans are still image bearers. The intent is not to say, in effect (as some have it), “We were created in the image but it was totally lost in the fall. Still, do not murder people.” Such an interpretation is strained and improbable. The purpose of reminding Noah that we were originally created in God’s image is to say that it remains true and therefore serves as the basis for the punishment of murderers.
The injunction against murder and the institution of capital punishment is grounded not in Moses but in creation. That is why even in the New Covenant the state is sanctioned to take life in the execution of justice. This is why Paul says in Romans 13 that the magistrate does not “bear the sword in vain.” One reason the magistrate bears the sword is to punish and swords are intended to take lives. That is why ancient soldiers carried them. They were not decoration.
I understand that it is trendy (again) to say that capital punishment is unjust and it would be were it applied unjustly but in the case where there is no doubt about the facts, as say in the notorious 1957-58 Starkweather case that Charlie Starkweather murdered and cooperated in the murder of 11 people. When the State of Nebraska took his life, that was the execution of a just sentence.
God, in the Mosaic covenant, not only commanded his people to drive out the Canaanites, as in Exodus 23, but sometimes the Lord sanctioned the large-scale taking of human life in military operations. The God of the Bible is not a pacifist. Our Lord Jesus never told soldiers to quit their jobs nor did he tell Pilate that he had no business punishing criminals. What Pilate and the other authorities did to Jesus was unjust because he was innocent and righteous but that did not mean that the authorities had no brief from God to take the lives of murders. There were, after all, a number of capital crimes in the Torah in which the taking of life was commanded as the punishment.
There are not two Gods in Scripture, a mean Old Testament God and a nice, sweet New Testament God. The fundamental declaration in Deuteronomy 6:4 is “Hear O Israel, Yahweh our God, Yahweh is one.” Paul alludes to this passage (known as the Shema, after the first verb in the verse) in Romans 3:30 as does James 2:19. Our Lord Jesus himself quoted the Shema in Mark 12:29. The same God who thundered at Sinai is our Lord Jesus Christ, God the Son incarnate (Heb 12:23–24).
In Heidelberg 105 we confess that, in the 6th commandment, God requires that
That I do not revile, hate, insult or kill my neighbor either in thought, word, or gesture, much less in deed, whether by myself or by another, but lay aside all desire of revenge; moreover, that I do not harm myself, nor willfully run into any danger. Wherefore also to restrain murder the magistrate is armed with the sword.
We list thoughts, words, and gestures because our Lord taught, in the sermon on the mount, that if we say to someone “You fool” we have already murdered him in our hearts (Matt 5:22). Truth be told, in our hearts, we all mass murderers are we not?
I think we all know about gestures.
In Heidelberg 106 we confess:
Does this commandment speak only of murder?
In forbidding murder, God teaches us, that he abhors the causes thereof, such as envy, hatred, anger, and desire of revenge; and that he accounts all these as murder.
In other words, the sixth commandment, like all the moral law demands that we love God with all our faculties and our neighbor as ourself, from the heart and not just with the hands or with the mouth, as it were. The catechism keeps pressing us:
But is it enough that we do not kill any man in the manner mentioned above?
No: for when God forbids envy, hatred, and anger, he commands us to love our neighbour as ourselves; to show patience, peace, meekness, mercy, and all kindness, towards him, and prevent his hurt as much as in us lies; and that we do good, even to our enemies (Heidelberg 107).
The true fulfilling of this commandment is not the mere absence of murder from our hands or even from our hearts but real love toward our neighbor—notice that we are not talking about warm feelings but love. Those are two distinct things. Sometimes we may have warm feelings toward our neighbor and sometimes we may not. Our feelings are beside the point. We are seeking to cultivate an attitude, a disposition, of patience, peace, meekness, mercy, and all kindness toward him. How does this work out? By seeking his good rather than his harm. We do this with our hands, our feet, our tongues, our keyboards, and our mobile devices. Our model is Christ. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return. When we are reviled, we bless (1 Pet 2:23; 1 Cor 4:12). That is the standard to which Christians, as private persons, are called.
As citizens in a twofold kingdom, however, we also have public duties. This is why we may serve on juries or as lawyers, judges, governors, or soldiers. In that public capacity, i.e., when we are not acting on our own behalf but on behalf of the public, with the authority of just laws, we may have a duty to do things that we may not do as private persons or citizens. When someone breaks into one’s house in the middle of the night, one have a duty as a citizen to protect the people in one’s house as much as lies within one. Public officials, in case the public is threatened or attacked, as, e.g., on 9/11, have a duty to protect and defend.
The Reformed churches are deeply indebted to the Augustinian tradition in many ways. Part of that inheritance is the Just War theory. We live in a fallen world but some causes are, relatively speaking, righteous. It was righteous to defend the free world against Fascism in the WWII. It was just to defend the free world against global Communism in the cold war. When, however, it is merely a matter of personal dignity or perhaps, as in the case of the early Christians and as it is for Christians in Africa, China, and in the Middle East, suffering for the sake of Christ, that is another matter. Christians are forbidden by Christ from murdering. We hope and pray that we shall never have to take the life of another for the sake of civil justice.
Some early English translations of the 6th commandment created some confusion in the modern period. What is not ambiguous, however, is the truth that Christians are the wholly-owned subsidiaries of Christ (1 Cor 6:20), who was murdered for us, that we might seek the life and well-being of our fellow image bearers. This reality ought to control us as we think about how to interact with other image bearers. Those who have been redeemed by Christ ought to seek both the general life (nature) and the spiritual life (grace) of their neighbors. We do the first by seeking justice (law) and mercy in the civil realm and we do the second particularly by the ministry of the gospel (grace), in the spiritual sphere.