The Sanctity of Human Life

6th of the Ten Commandments

By Harold S. Martin

A Bible Helps Booklet No. 227

Exodus 20:13 says, "Thou shalt not kill:" Human life is a deep mystery. Each cell that forms the various parts of the body has within it secrets which the powers of man cannot unlock. Even great scientists cannot tell us what life is. When we look at the reddish form of a tiny baby, and see its many functions operating perfectly, all we can do is gaze in amazement.

God is the author of life. He formed man's body out of the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, "and man became a living soul." Job says, "The spirit of God hath made me, and the breath of the Almighty hath given me life" (Job 33:4). And because God has given man life, He alone holds the prerogative to take it.

Death - is a tremendous doorway - a doorway through which man passes into one of two eternal destinies. God is the one who has the right to open that door and therefore the Commandment, "Thou shalt not kill." When a man takes the life of another, he puts himself in the place of God. He apparently believes that he can decide which persons are worth preserving and which are not.

The Sixth Commandment is a clear command to preserve human life. Some have twisted the Commandment to say that one should not even kill animals, nor any form of life. Albert Sweitzer, for example, the noted humanitarian in Africa, refused even to swat a fly in the operating room of his hospital. He refused to permit the killing of snakes on the mission property. And when they were building a road into the hospital, the workmen had to make it crooked in order to avoid trees. To cut down trees would be to destroy life.

Yet in the Bible, God instructed that thousands of sheep and doves should be killed and offered as sacrifices. There is a huge gap between the quality of human life and of animal life. Man's life is eternal; an animal's life is merely temporal. The needless slaughter of animals, of course, is unnecessary - but the Sixth Commandment does not forbid the killing of animals for food, or for sacrifices, or for other practical reasons. The matter of taking human life is a different thing.

1. Murder and Suicide

The Sixth Commandment prohibits the barbarous and inhuman act of murder. "Murder" speaks of deliberately going out after another fellow human being to take his life by violence. To kill another person (to eliminate him so that some advantage might be gained for the one who does the killing) is a gross evil. And yet the United States of America ranks first in the number of murders committed every year. In the city of Chicago alone, about twenty persons are shot and killed every weekend.

Violence seen on television programs is a big factor which promotes the idea that human life is cheap. The average child in America (between the ages of 5 and 13) sees the violent destruction of 13,000 human beings on television, and he becomes insensitive to human suffering. The U.S. Surgeon General one time reported that children who watch TV violence, soon become so in-sensitive to the value of human life, that when people are being killed-they giggle, and crack jokes, and even applaud the one doing the killing.

Not every killing of another person, of course, is murder. For example, accidental manslaughter is a case of killing which is not murder. A person is not guilty before God if he kills another accidentally. (God does not charge a person with murder when a life is taken without any intention to take it). In Old Testament times, God provided six Cities of Refuge scattered all over the land of Israel. If a person accidentally killed another, these were places to which that person could run and find refuge. The cities included Kedesh, Shechem, and Hebron - and were distributed in such a way that no one could ever be more than 30 miles from any one of them. The one who had accidentally killed another, was not held guilty before God or man, and later (upon the death of the high priest), was set free to return to his home unpunished. Should any of us ever be responsible for accidental death - we need to ask God to help us overcome the scars of grief; we must put the situation into the hands of God, and rest upon His merciful grace.

Another serious problem today (related to murder) is suicide. Suicide is self-murder. It is one of the most desperate crimes that can ever be committed. It involves running away from life and taking one's own life. It is really usurping a right that belongs to God alone.

In the Bible, there are only six recorded suicides. These were Saul, his armorbearer, Samson, Ahithophel, Zimri, and Judas. Notice what kinds of men they were. The Spirit had left Saul; Samson had followed the ways of the world; Judas betrayed the Son of God. These are hardly the kinds of persons a Christian will want to follow.

It is a sin to willfully, knowingly take one's own life. Undoubtedly, some have taken their lives while suffering from some form of insanity. The Scriptures don't speak directly about that kind of happening, but many Christians believe that God is merciful to those who, because of some mental lapse, commit such an act.

We need to keep in mind too that we can commit suicide by degrees. We can dig our graves with our teeth; we can shorten our lives by overworking; we can slowly commit suicide by drinking alcohol and using tobacco. Insurance Companies can give the facts. They flatly state that those who totally abstain from the use of alcohol and tobacco usually live longer. One who uses beer and liquor, lops 20 minutes off his life every time he takes a drink. And suicide is suicide, whether it is committed suddenly, or whether it is brought on slowly by degrees.

2. Nonparticipation in War

It is true that the 6th Commandment is not addressed directly to the problem of war. It speaks more directly of murder. Nevertheless, war must be regarded as evil. Even in the Old Testament, where the narratives are filled with accounts of war and bloodshed, the Psalmist glories in a God who will someday make wars to cease and will bring peace and justice to all the earth (Psalm 46:9). The Commandment in Exodus 20:13 speaks primarily of murder, but wars between nations involve murder - only it is the murder of the masses (by huge armies), instead of the murder of one person (by another person).

Back in the late 1940s, a soldier returned home from active duty in World War II. He was later on trial for having committed a murder in his home state of Wyoming. When the judge asked him why he had committed the murder, and what he hoped to gain by it, he said: "Over in Germany I killed lots of men for my country; couldn't you let me kill just one person for myself?" Whether it is a king who orders murder on a large scale, or a scoundrel who does it on a small scale-both are equally guilty of ignoring the sacredness of human life, and both violate the Sixth Commandment.

The purpose of war is to take human life, and countless innocent people always suffer. People are right now suffering in the Middle East, in Southeast Asia, and in parts of Africa - all because of unnecessary wars. What is the difference (for example) between throwing 500 babies into a fire, and throwing fire from an airplane on 500 babies? There is no difference. Yet multitudes who abhor the thought of throwing the babies into a flaming fire, approve of participating in warfare, and throwing the fire on the babies. When it comes down to fine points, most arguments for participating in war are really very superficial.

Cyprian (one of the early church leaders) used to say: "If murder is committed privately, it is a crime; if it happens with state authority, they call it courage. Yet in the eyes of God, human life is sacred, and to be instrumental in taking that life is damnable." The New Testament teaches believers in Christ to love their enemies, to show mercy rather than retaliation, and to live peaceably with all men. See Matthew 5:38-48 and Romans 12:18-21. Jesus said, "Blessed are the peacemakers" - and if peacemakers are blessed, then it follows that war-makers are cursed.

Some say, "But if you don't serve in the armed forces of your country, you want the protection of the government, but you don't give anything in return." The response is this: "By preaching the Gospel, and praying for rulers, and by encouraging obedience to the laws of the land, the nonresistant Christian indirectly does more for the country (to stabilize civil government), than he could ever do by serving in the army, by writing petition's to the nation's capital, or even by voting for an officer of the state.

War has always been a sinful activity. It sheds the blood of innocent victims; it makes orphans and widows of once happy people; it brings starvation and suffering to thousands of persons. Almost everyone agrees that war is not the solution to the world's problems, yet nations continue to go to war, the innocent continue to die, and peace among nations in our age is farther away than ever. The true Christian cannot participate in war between nations.

3. Abortion and Euthanasia

Abortion is the act of taking the life of an unborn child. In our day, hundreds of thousands of unwanted babies are being murdered before they have a chance to be born. There are several methods doctors used to abort an unborn child: Sometimes doctors use the suction method - a powerful vacuum device that breaks up the fetus into a mass of blood and tissue and sucks it out of the mother's womb into a bottle. Sometimes they use the chemical method. The doctor sticks a needle through the walls of the mother's abdomen, and injects a strong salt-water solution into the womb. The baby thrashes around for a few moments, and then dies. Soon after, labor starts, and the dead body is delivered. Sometimes other even more gruesome methods are used, and yet multitudes of women are told that an abortion is physically and morally no more serious than having a tooth pulled out.

The fetus of an unborn child must not be compared to a tooth. The Bible speaks of an unborn infant as a person. In Jeremiah 1:5, God spoke to the prophet and said, "Before you came forth out of the womb, I sanctified you, and I ordained you a prophet unto the nation." The Lord knew Jeremiah before he was born. If Jeremiah's mother would have had an abortion, it would have been Jeremiah who was killed. (The mother would not yet have known his name, but God had already named him). The unborn fetus being carried in a mother's body is a human-being-in-the-making, and therefore the expectant mother who consents to having an abortion has hands that are bloody with murder!

There are two basic reasons for abortions: First, men and women wish to escape the responsibility of having children. The couple may be living "high" on the income from two good jobs. All of a sudden the wife is expecting a child, and now the groceries and the furniture will have to be bought with one single salary. The answer? Abortion. Second, men and women wish to escape the consequences of sin. The primary purpose for many abortions is to hide sin. It may be the consequence of an office romance or the result of illicit activity in a parked car. The girl tells her partner in sin: "I'm expecting." The answer? "We'll hide it from your parents (or your husband); we'll arrange for an abortion." But each of us must remember that it is nothing short of murder to destroy an unborn, unwanted baby. To have an abortion is to violate the Sixth Commandment.

Another increasingly acceptable form of murder is "euthanasia," sometimes known as "mercy killing." Euthanasia speaks of gently releasing the bonds of life, especially for older people who might not be able to get well again. The purpose is to ease them out of their miserable existence. One doctor says, "I maintain that to take the life of those who are incurably ill, is being compassionate, intelligent, and humane."

Some reason (like the doctor cited above) that when a person becomes so sick that life is almost intolerable, it is an act of mercy to kindly and humanely take that life by inducing death. This sort of reasoning appeals to the emotions, and it might seem reasonable, but it is still a transgression of God's law. The doctor who practices euthanasia is actually placing himself in the position of "playing God"-and he himself is determining when it is a person's time to die.

4. Hatred and Anger

Our Lord not only condemns the outward act of killing; He also forbids the inner passion that prompts the act. The terrible act of taking a person's life is usually the climax of hatred and resentment and a desire for revenge. Jesus expanded the Sixth Commandment (like He did all the other Ten Commandments) to include the inner attitude of the heart. He who is angry with his brother shall be in danger of judgment, Jesus says, and he who calls his brother " a fool" (empty-headed or good-for-nothing) shall be in danger of the fires of Hell (Matthew 5: 21-22).

Some people live in almost constant hatred. They boil over inside with indignation even at the sight of certain other people. In the eyes of the law they are not guilty, because they have shed no blood, but not so with God! God looks not only on the outside, but also on the heart-and He counts one guilty of murder if he has murder in his heart.

One does not have to use a gun or a knife to break the 6th Commandment. David (for example) arranged for Uriah's death by merely using his pen and signing an edict. Pilate had a part in killing Jesus Christ, by mere silence. Many a wayward son brought an early death to his parents by living an ungodly life. Murder in the heart is often associated with pride and greed and jealousy and undue ambition, and even secret wishes.

Clarence Darrow said one time, "I've never killed a man, but I've read some obituaries with a kind of sense of glee." If that has been our experience, we had better engage in some deep repentance, and shed some bitter tears. In light of the Sixth Commandment, each of us needs to so live in communion with God, that anger and hatred and jealousy will be destroyed within.

5. Carelessness and Neglect

The Commandment "Thou shalt not kill" lays upon us many heavy responsibilities. We must think often about the sanctity of human life. Man is made in the image of God, and therefore a stab at a fellow human being is a stab at God. Human life is so sacred that we must even guard against carelessness which might endanger the life of another.

Many of us are automobile drivers. Thousands of people are killed in auto accidents every year. Many deaths are due to carelessness and neglect; streets and highways are race-tracks for many people; some fail to keep their automobiles in good mechanical condition; others are simply careless, violating traffic laws and disregarding speed limits. Those who deliberately drive recklessly, and fail to cultivate good driving habits, are potential killers. And many people lose their lives each year because daring and careless people take needless chances.

It is murder in the eyes of God when one kills another, if he fails to heed warnings and signs that are fairly given. If the owner of an ox (in Old Testament days) had been warned, and he knew that his ox was vicious - and that ox later killed someone - then the owner of the ox was held responsible. He was guilty of "murder by neglect" (see Exodus 21:29). Carelessness and neglect can lead to murder in the eyes of God.

The command "Thou shalt not kill" is just as full of meaning for the person driving on the highway as it is for the man who commits murder by violence. We read the Sixth Commandment and tend to think of an angry person mutilating the body of another, or to picture a uniformed soldier with a high-powered gun in his hand, peeking out of a foxhole. We need also to think of the man or woman or teenager with the steering wheel of an automobile in his hand, peeking through the glass of the windshield. Every year, thousands of people lose their lives, vanishing down a vale of tears and blood and broken bones, as a result of automobile accidents. Since the advent of the automobile in the early 1900s, twice as many people have been slaughtered on the highways of America, as all the American soldiers that have ever been killed on all the battlefields in which our nation has ever fought. May the Lord preserve all of us from carelessness on the highway.

It is important to be alert when driving and to always seek to stay within the limits of the law. Accidents can happen even to the most careful driver. There is something like human error. Sometimes we become victims of others who are careless with their driving habits. But if we stay within the limits of the law, and an accident does happen, we can be confident that it was God's will that it happened. On the other hand, if we disobey the law, and an accident occurs, we might regret the action the rest of our days.

The Commandment, "Thou shalt not kill" - has wide implications. Each of us needs to ask himself the question, "How am I living?" Am I dissipating my own life by careless habits? Am I helping to shorten the life of another? Am I harboring hatred which someday could lead to serious outward acts of violence? The eventual answer to violence and anger and murder, is a new nature implanted by the Holy Spirit through the new birth (Romans 5:1, 5). The ultimate corrective for strife and hatred and violence, is a new respect for human life, and a genuine love for other persons - and that comes through submitting our wills to the will of Jesus Christ (Hebrews 13:20-21).

May our hearts be cleansed by the grace of God so that grudges and feelings of hatred will be dispelled, and may the Lord give all of us such a frame of mind that there will not be one person in the entire world whom we have a disposition to hate. Christians need to join in the prayer of Alexander Whyte: "Oh God, let it not be ill with me when it is well with others. Let me have the Holy Spirit, a fresh anointing of His presence and power, to promote my brother's good."

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Robert Lehigh, Editor

P. O. Box 391

Hanover, PA 17331 U.S.A.

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