You shall not murder. – Exodus 20:13
I was recently offered the opportunity to teach a Bible lesson on Exodus 19-20 at my church, so I have been thinking a lot lately about the Ten Commandments. In particular, I have been thinking about the verse I have quoted above.
Are you surprised? After all, it seems like a pretty straightforward command—and one we all ought to be able to obey. But in his teaching on Exodus 19-20, John Oswalt reports how one of his professors used to tell students that if they think they have mastered a particular command, that simply means they do not understand it. I have become convinced this venerable saint was right.
Yes, it is important to observe what is said, and what is not said, in this covenant which functioned as Israel’s articles of incorporation. At a historical level, it reminds us of how basic God’s expectations were, and there is both profound beauty and a deep sadness inherent in these commands. After all, human history is littered with evidence of our inability to follow these basic instructions.
Nevertheless, these words—uttered by God himself—are suggestive of something greater. They point beyond themselves, drawing us into dialogue with prophets and wise people from many generations after these words were spoken. They call us to seek out a vision of human existence which is only barely glimpsed in their simple injunctions but which is revealed in stunning fashion through the incarnation, ministry, atoning death, and resurrection of Jesus our Lord.
As we reflect upon these commands in this way, it becomes apparent each one is more than a command. It is an invitation. We are being invited to consider how our own souls have been marred by the tendency to transgress God’s law and to consider how our transgressions are writ large across the fabric of human history.
I want to take you on just a tiny piece of my journey as I have considered what it means to repudiate “murder.” I could talk about the careful balance we have to strike between the impulse to die well and the impulse to take our death into our own hands. The Trinity Forum recently had a fascinating discussion on that topic, and we would do well to consider carefully how we work out these complex and difficult issues. At a more basic level, we could talk about how our current discourse on police reform obscures the need to confront our society’s addiction to violent crime. Addiction, greed, and jealousy are destroying whole segments of our society, and we in the church seem to lack both the will and the courage to address these problems well.
But I want to bring you along with me on a far more personal aspect of my journey. “You shall not murder” reminds me of how tightly I hold to my own life and how loosely I hold to the lives of others. But do I really have the wisdom to decide who should live and who should die? Do you? Do any of us?
Let me be clear, I am not talking about capital punishment here. Unlike most Bible scholars I know, I am convinced Scripture not only permits this practice but requires it. Sometimes, judges have to make hard decisions, and we owe them our gratitude and our support.
Likewise, I am also not talking about the necessary triage medical workers must sometimes perform in crises. We love doctors, nurses, respiratory and other therapists, paramedics, and the like because they work hard to save as many lives as they can and to alleviate the suffering of those who cannot be saved. But sometimes these professionals, too, have to make hard decisions about whose life can be saved and about how scarce resources will be allocated. And they, too, need our support and our prayers.
No, I am talking about me—my attitudes and my thoughts. It can be so tempting at times to wonder whether someone else’s life has any meaning. It is so tempting to wonder whether the world would be better off without a particularly odious politician or entertainer. It is tempting to wonder whether those who care for a suffering person bear a burden that is too heavy for them.
And yet, I sometimes cling to my own life (and my own comfort) with a ferocity which unnerves even me. I am a hypocrite—and an arrogant one at that!
Exodus 20:13 reminds me to notice what I am thinking about. It reminds me life and death are really God’s business, not mine. And that goes for my life, too. Granted, God has allowed me to steward certain parts of that responsibility. I exercise five times a week, and I try (unsuccessfully sometimes) to eat in a more responsible way than I did when I was younger. But I do not know the future, and I do not understand what God has in mind for His creation. It may be that He wants me to exit Earth’s grand stage soon, or it may be that He has a role for me to play in the human drama that is decades down the road.
And if I am not wise enough to manage my own journey through life, what makes me think I am wise enough to manage someone else’s journey? You see, I am convinced not all of our transgressions of the law come from violations of the prohibition against illicit desire (Exodus 20:17). That is certainly where a lot of them come from, but I am convinced we sometimes violate God’s law precisely because we are so arrogant as to believe we can put our hands on the steering wheel of history without driving immediately into a ditch. And this hubris is the part of my flesh that I must work to kill over the weeks, months, and years to come.