The Pastors Pen
Killing vs. Murder
Pastor Doug Van Dorn
One of the few commandments that many Christians today are able to recite (when polled on the spot for
people like the White Horse Inn) is the commandment not to murder. Yet, many often use “kill” as a
synonym for “murder.” In this Pen I would like to look at the difference between killing and murder and
then take this knowledge and apply it to modern politics for this important election year (2008).
The sixth commandment states, “Thou shall not kill” (KJV, ASV, RSV) or “Thou shall not murder (ESV,
NASV, NKJV, NRSV, NIV). Note: It is interesting that the new versions of the KJV, ASV, and RSV all
say “murder” now rather than “kill.” The Hebrew reads simply lo’ tiratsach. The verb ratsach has no
equivalent in any middle eastern language. The TWOT lexicon states that “You shall not murder” is more
precise than the too-general “thou shall not kill.” Yet, the term may refer equally to premeditated murder
as well as accidental killing. It is because accidental manslaughter is included in the commandment that
the cities of refuge (Num 35) are provided for those who accidentally kill another person (see particularly
vs. 11). The verb also includes killing for revenge (Num 35:27, 30) and assassination (2 Kings 6:32). A
good English translation would be a word much narrower than “kill” but more inclusive than murder.
Since no such word exists, “murder” is the best choice.
There is a spirit of confusion that possesses many people in our day, tricking them into believing in
radical contradictions. On the one hand, abortion – premeditated heinous gruesome manslaughter against
the most helpless and innocent of society – is almost as easy to get as an ice cream cone at Dairy Queen.
On the other hand you have great moral outrage when America goes to war. “War is murder,” goes forth
the cry, “and murder is against God’s word.” Ironically, it is very often the same political party that
supports abortion but resists going to war. (Increasingly, this is happening in both parties today). Add to
this the idea of capital punishment being inhumane and a moral outrage and you have a most baffling
cocktail of ethical contradiction.
How does the sixth commandment help us here? One way it can is by considering that at the heart of the
commandment is the sanctity of human life. God took life so seriously that even when a person did not
intentionally murder, he was to flee to a city of refuge because he did not take enough precautions against
the loss of life! This leads to what John Frame calls a “doctrine of carefulness.” It is this doctrine that
bridges the Mosaic laws against murder and Jesus’ recalling OT prescriptions against hatred and verbal
abuse (see 1 Sam 25:9-42; 2 Sam 16:7-8; 19:16-23; Prov 12:18).
Another way is to let other Scripture inform our understanding of the sixth commandment. If we believe
that God’s word is not contradictory then we have to come to grips with how God could sanction both the
death penalty and warfare in Israel in spite of the fact that he told them not to murder. The word ratsach
is never used for the killing of animals or for killing in war.1 A common word for going off to war and
killing the people is herem. Herem warfare was commanded when totally destroying the Canaanites (see
Deut 7:2). That the words are not the same in Hebrew is a tipoff to us that the sixth commandment may
not refer to warfare.2
Likewise, capital punishment was the commanded penalty for a great many crimes: murder (Lev 24:17),
adultery (Lev 20:10), incest (Lev 20:11-14), bestiality (Ex 22:19), sodomy (Lev 18:22), rape (Deut
1 See John Frame, Doctrine of the Christian Life, p. 687.
2 It may, however, speak generally to an unjust war.
22:25), kidnapping (Ex 21:16), witchcraft (Ex 22:18), human sacrifice (Lev 20:2-5), incorrigible juvenile
delinquents (Deut 21:18-21), blasphemy (Lev 24:11-14), Sabbath desecration (Ex 35:2), false prophecy
(Deut 13:1-10) etc. Right after the flood God told Noah, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall
his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image” (Gen 9:6). Note the sanctity of human life as the
justification for capital punishment. All human beings are image bearers of God. We reflect God’s
nature. To kill a human is to deface the image of God. Likewise, to actively support abolishing the death
penalty is to deface the holiness of God. God gives the state as a chief agent of carrying out his wrath
against sin on earth. Romans says that the governing authorities are established by God and exist to
bring judgment. God gives them the sword (Rom 13:1-6). Why? Because he loves human life. It is
precious to him.
However, the “right to life” is not absolute. One can forfeit their own rights when they infringe upon the
rights of others. This is the lex talionis or “eye for an eye” principle. This runs contrary to much
contemporary thinking where the self is the kingpin of reality and is said to be able to run roughshod over
the rights of others without any due penalties. This is why capital punishment is not contradictory to the
sixth commandment, especially in the case of murder (life for life). The same is true of (just) warfare.
Sometimes it is necessary to stand against evil even when it means killing other human beings. It is not
my purpose to defend what is or is not a just war. I merely want to point out that God commands war and
capital punishment in the Scripture and so it must not be contradictory to the sixth commandment. Please
note that he does not do away with either in the NT (cf. Luke 14:31; Acts 25:11; Rom 13:4).
On the other hand, because life is precious to God, he even made laws concerning unborn babes that are
killed in the womb and cause a woman to miscarry (see Ex 21:22-25). Though these do not concern
abortion directly, they imply that human life is precious even in the womb. Over and over we read about
God caring for life in the womb (cf. Psalm 139:13-16; 51:5; Judges 13:3-5; Jeremiah 1:5; Luke 1:35). It
is one of the most absurd realities of our age that we think nothing of burning a fetus with salt or sucking
her apart with vacuums. Yet, who would ever go up to a pregnant deer or an expecting dog with a coat-
hanger to scrape away the “tissue” inside of it?
This sixth commandment is the central commandment concerning life. From womb to tomb, young to
aged, a society that calls good evil and evil good on this issue is hanging over a precarious eschatological
cliff. There is one party that openly supports abortion, sometimes supports euthanasia, is known for
opposing the death penalty and spawns many anti-war pacifists who think that no war is ever just… all at
the same time! Sadly the other main political party in this country is increasingly following down this
immoral path. This is why issues of life ought to inform who you will vote for come November. If a
candidate of any party cannot get things straight on this issue, where can they get them right? That goes
for taking innocent life to not taking guilty life as a just act of judgment.
When both major political candidates for President openly claim the name of Christ, I believe it is our
obligation as Christians to hold them to what the Scripture teaches. Life is precious to God. It is so
precious that murdering innocents and protecting criminals runs contrary to everything taught from
Genesis to Revelation. If one or both believe that human life is so cheap that they cannot follow the
principles of Scripture on this issue, is he (or anyone at a lower level of government) fit to serve the