The following in Thomas Ridgeley's commentary on the Westminster Larger Catechism's Questions relating to the Sixth Commandment. I have omitted the footnotes and a rather lengthy editors note that appeared in the 1855 edition. Hopefully this commentary will prove to supplement Dr. White's timely response to John Piper's apparent denial of the Christians right and duty of defense of self and family. (link to Dr. White's article).
THE SIXTH COMMANDMENT.
QUESTION CXXXIV. Which is the sixth commandment?
ANSWER. The sixth commandment is, "Thou shalt not kill."
QUESTION CXXXV. What are the duties required in the sixth commandment?
ANSWER. The duties required in the sixth commandment are, all careful studies, and lawful endeavours to preserve the life of ourselves, and others, by resisting all thoughts and purposes, subduing all passions, and avoiding all occasions, temptations, and practices, which tend to the unjust taking away the life of any; by just defence thereof against violence, patient hearing of the hand of God, quietness of mind, cheerfulness of spirit, a sober use of meat, drink, physic, sleep, labour, and recreations, by charitable thoughts, love, compassion, meekness, gentleness, kindness, peaceable, mild, and courteous speeches and behaviour, forbearance, readiness to be reconciled, patient bearing and forgiving of injuries, and requiting good for evil, comforting and succouring the distressed, and protecting and defending the innocent.
QUESTION CXXXVI. What are the sins forbidden in the sixth commandment?
ANSWER. The sins forbidden in the sixth commandment are, all taking away the life of ourselves, or of others, except in case of public justice, lawful war, or necessary defence; the neglecting or withdrawing the lawful and necessary means of preservation of life; sinful anger, hatred, envy, desire of revenge, all excessive passions, distracting cares, immoderate use of meat, drink, labour, and recreations; provoking words, oppressing, quarrelling, striking, wounding, and whatsoever else tends to the destruction of the life of any.
The Duties Enjoined in the Sixth Commandment.
IN explaining this commandment, we shall first consider the positive part of it, or the duties required in it. We should use all lawful endeavours to preserve our own life, and the life of others; and consequently we should avoid all those passions, and other things, which may afford an occasion to take it away, and live in the constant exercise of the duties of temperance and sobriety, as to what respects ourselves, and of meekness, gentleness, and forgiveness of injuries, as to what concerns others. In this commandment it is supposed that life is the most valuable blessing of nature. Hence, to take it away, is to do the utmost injury which can be attempted against us. The valuableness of the life of man appears in four things. First, it is the result of the union of the soul with the body; which is the principle of those actions that are put forth by us as intelligent creatures. Hence, life is to be esteemed in proportion to the excellency of the soul; which is the noblest part of the creation, angels excepted. Again, nothing can compensate or satisfy for the taking away of the life of man, how much satisfaction soever may be given for the loss of other things. Further, man is the subject of the divine image; which supposes us to have a more excellent life than any other creatures in this lower world, and is assigned as a reason of our obligation to preserve life. Finally life is given and continued to us, in order that the most valuable ends may be attained, conducive to the glory of God, the advancement of religion in the world, and the promoting of our everlasting happiness. We may hence take an estimate of its excellency; and it contains the highest motive to us, to yield obedience to this commandment.
This leads us to consider the means which we are to use, to preserve our own lives, and the lives of others. As to the preservation of our own lives, we are not to rush presumptuously into danger of death, without a divine warrant; for to do so is to be prodigal of life. We are also to exercise sobriety and temperance, avoiding gluttony, drunkenness, lust, and all exorbitant passions; which tend to impair the health, as well as defile the conscience. Moreover, when occasion requires it, we are to have recourse to the skill of physicians, and make use of those medicines which may conduce to repair the weakness and decays of nature. As to our endeavours to preserve the lives of others, we are to caution them against those things which would tend to destroy their health, and, by degrees, their lives. We must also discover and detect all secret plots and contrivances which may be directed against them; and we are to support and relieve those who are ready to perish by extreme poverty, yea, though they were our enemies. We are also to defend those who are in imminent danger of death. Nevertheless, we must not use unwarrantable means, though it were to save our own lives. In times of persecution, for example, we are not to renounce the truths of God, or give occasion to the common enemy to revile them, or speak evil of them, by avoiding to suffer for the cause of Christ. Preferring a profession of the truth to the preservation of life, was that noble principle by which the martyrs whom the apostle speaks of were actuated. 'They were tortured, not accepting deliverance;' that is, when they were exposed to the most exquisite torments, and their lives offered them if they would deny Christ, they would not accept of deliverance on so dishonourable terms. Neither are we, at any time, to tell a lie, or do that which is contrary to truth, though it were to save our lives.
The Sins Forbidden in the Sixth Commandment.
We shall now consider the sins forbidden in this commandment. These are either the taking away of life, or the doing of that which has a tendency to take it away.
1. It is unlawful to take away the life of another. But this is to be considered with some exceptions or limitations. Life may be taken away in lawful wars. Thus we read of many wars begun and carried on, and much blood shed in them, by God's direction, and with his approbation and blessing; on which account, it is said that 'the war was of God.' Yet, when wars are proclaimed merely to satisfy the pride and avarice of princes, as in Benhadad's war against Ahab, or in the war of the Romans on the countries round about them, merely to enlarge their own dominions by ruining others, or in those which the devil excites and antichrist carries on against the church, for their faithfulness to the truth; the law of God is broken, and all the blood shed in them is a breach of this commandment. Again, it is no violation of this commandment, to take away the life of offenders, guilty of capital crimes, by the hand of the civil magistrate; for the doing of this is elsewhere commanded, and magistrates are appointed for that end. Further, it is no breach of this commandment, when a person kills another without design, or the least degree of premeditated malice. Yet the utmost caution ought to be used, that persons may not lose their lives through the carelessness and inadvertency of others. Moreover, in some instances, a person may kill another in his own defence, without being guilty of the breach of this commandment. But this is to be considered with certain limitations. If there be only a design or conspiracy against our lives, but no immediate attempt made to take them away; we are to defend ourselves, by endeavouring to put him who designed the execrable act out of a capacity of hurting us; and we are to do this by having recourse to the protection of the law, whereby he may be restrained, or we secured. This was the method which Paul took, when the Jews had bound themselves with an oath to slay him. He informed the chief captain of their conspiracy, and had recourse to the law for his safety. If, again, there be a present attempt made against our lives, we should rather choose to disarm the enemy, or flee from him, than take away his life. But if this cannot be done, so that we must either lose our own life or take away his, we do not incur the least guilt, or break this commandment, if we take away his life to preserve our own; especially if we were not first in the quarrel, nor gave occasion to it by any injurious or unlawful practices.
Here it may be inquired whether it be lawful for two persons to fight a duel, upon a set challenge or provocation given. Now, when a war between two armies may be terminated, and the shedding of much blood prevented by a duel, it is not unlawful; provided it be by mutual consent, and with the approbation of those on both sides who have a right of making war and peace; and if the matter in controversy may be thus decided, without tempting providence. We have a remarkable instance of this, in the duel fought between David and Goliah. It is unlawful, however, for two persons, each seeming too prodigal of his life, to give and accept a challenge, and in prosecution of it to endeavour to put an end to each other's life, merely to gratify their own passion or pride. This, though falsely called honour, will, in reality, render them vile in the eyes of God, and notoriously guilty of the breach of this commandment.
Here we may consider the wicked practice of those who have obliged the poor wretches, who were under their command, to murder one another for their diversion. This Joab and Abner did, when they said, 'Let the young men arise and play before us; and every one thrust his sword in his fellow's side.' There is also an unlawful diversion, which, though not altogether so barbarous and cruel, is, in some respects, a breach of this commandment, namely, when persons fight with and wound one another, without design of killing, merely to get a little money, while entertaining a number of unthinking persons with their folly. In this case they that fight, and they that look on, are equally guilty. Thus concerning the sin of killing one another.
We shall now explain two or three difficulties which occur in scripture, relating to the actions of some good men, who seem to have been guilty of the breach of this commandment, but really were not so. It is inquired, whether Elijah was chargeable with the breach of it in destroying Baal's prophets, when 'he ordered that none of them should escape; and he brought them down to the brook Kishon, and slew them there.' Now, it may be observed that it was not a small inoffensive error which these prophets of Baal were punished for; but apostacy from God. That the persons deserved the punishment they received appears from various considerations. They were the advisers and ringleaders of all Israel's idolatry, and the abettors and principal occasion of the violent persecution which then raged against the Lord's prophets and true worshippers. Again, had they only been false prophets, and not persecutors, they were, according to the law of God, to be put to death. Further, their punishment was inflicted after a solemn appeal to God, and an answer from heaven by fire, which determined, not only who was the true God, but who were his prophets, and consequently whether Elijah deserved death as an impostor, or Baal's prophets. Moreover, Ahab himself was present, and all his ministers of state, who had a right to execute justice on false prophets; and, it is highly probable, that they consented to their death, and that many of them had an immediate hand in it. Their acting thus might be occasioned by a sudden conviction in their consciences, proceeding from the miracle which they had just before observed, or from the universal cry of the people against the false prophets. The occurrence, therefore, was plainly of the Lord, to whom Elijah brought a great deal of honour, and was far from being chargeable with the breach of this commandment.
It is farther inquired whether Abraham's offering Isaac was a breach of this commandment. This is proposed as a difficulty by those who do not pay that deference to divine revelation which they ought, nor consider that God cannot command any thing which is contrary to his perfections, and that his people do not sin in obeying any command which is given by him. However, that this matter may be set in a just light, let it be considered that God, who is the sovereign Lord of life, may take it away when and by whom he pleases. Hence, Isaac had no more reason to complain of any wrong or injury done him by God, in ordering his father to sacrifice him, than any one else has who dies by his immediate hand, in the common course of providence. Again, Abraham could not be said to act with the temper and disposition of a murderer; which those have who are guilty of the breach of this commandment, who kill persons in a passion or out of envy or malice, being void of all natural affection and brotherly love. Abraham acted plainly in obedience to God's command. His hand was lifted up against one whom he loved as well as his own life, and it may be better; and, doubtless, he would rather have been, had God so ordered it, the sacrifice than the offerer. Further, he acted, as is more than probable, with Isaac's full consent. Hence some think that Isaac's faith was no less remarkable in the affair than that of Abraham. His willingness to be offered, evidently appears, from the fact that Abraham was in his feeble and declining age, and Isaac in his full strength; for it was not a little strength which was sufficient to carry wood enough to answer this occasion, which we read Isaac did. Besides, if Isaac had resisted, none was at hand to assist Abraham against him; and, doubtless, he would have striven in this matter as one who desired to be overcome. We must suppose, therefore, that the transaction was so far from being a breach of this commandment, that it was one of the most remarkable instances of faith in scripture; and that God's design in ordering it was, that it might be a type whereby he would lead Abraham into the glorious mystery of his not sparing his own Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, and of Christ's willingness to lay down his life a ransom for his people.
Some charge Moses with having been guilty of the breach of this commandment, in killing the Egyptian. But to vindicate him from this charge, let it be considered that the Egyptian whom he slew, not only smote an Hebrew, but did so wrongfully. As is observed in Acts vii. 24, there was no offence given or just reason for this injurious treatment; and to oppress or abuse one who is in a miserable condition, as the Hebrews were at that time, is an heinous crime in God's account. Moreover, to 'smite,' in scripture, is often taken for to 'slay;' so that it is not improbable, that the Egyptian slew the Hebrew; or if he did not, the injury he inflicted might be such as deserved death. Now, this punishment would have been executed in another manner, had not Israel been denied, at that time, the protection of the law. Again, Moses was, at this time, raised up and called by God, to be a ruler and a judge, to defend the cause of his oppressed people; and in this action he first began to fulfil his commission. The people, indeed, refused to own him, and seemed to join with those who designed him evil for his interference; but for this reason their deliverance was put off forty years longer, while he was an exile in the land of Midian. Now, to slay a public enemy and oppressor, and, as is probable, one who had forfeited his life, and to do this with a commission from God to act as a ruler and a judge over his people, cannot be reckoned a breach of this commandment. Thus concerning the violation of this commandment, as including the murdering of our neighbour.
2. This commandment is notoriously broken by those who lay violent hands on themselves. We have in scripture an account of no good man who was ever suffered to do this, but only of men of the most infamous character, such as Saul, Ahithophel, Judas, and others. This is a sin which is attended with many aggravations. It is to act as though our lives were at our own disposal. But they are to be considered as a talent which we are intrusted with by God to improve for his glory; and he alone has a right to dispose of them at his pleasure. Again, self-murder argues, and arises from, the highest discontent and impatience under the hand of God; which is contrary to that temper which we ought to exercise as Christians, who profess subjection to him. Further, it is contrary to nature and that principle of self-preservation which God has implanted in us. Indeed, he who does it, not only acts below the reason of a man, but does that which even brutes themselves are not inclined to. Moreover, it is a giving place to and a gratifying of the devil, who acts agreeably to his character, as a murderer from the beginning, when he tempts men to destroy both soul and body at once. Again, it is a presumptuous and bold resolving that, whatever measure of duty God has prescribed for us to fill up in this world, we will serve him no longer. If martial law punishes deserters with death, is there not a severe punishment due to those who do, as it were, desert the service of God by self-murder? Nothing is more certain than this, that if duty be enjoined by God, the time in which it is to be performed is also fixed by him, and not left to our own determination. Further, self-murder is a rushing hastily into eternity, not considering the consequence, nor the awful tribunal of Christ, before which they must immediately appear, and give an account of this, as well as other sinful actions of life. Finally, self-murder is done with such a frame of spirit, that a person cannot by faith commit his soul into the hands of Jesus Christ; for to do so requires a better temper of mind than any one can be supposed to have who murders himself.
Here it may be inquired, since, as was before observed, no good man was ever guilty of this crime, whether Samson did not break this commandment in pulling down the house upon his own head, as well as upon the Philistines. Now, Samson's life, at this time, was a burden to himself, useless to his brethren, a scorn to the open enemy, and an occasion of their ascribing their deliverance to their idol, and probably would soon have been taken away by them. These circumstances, though they would not, in themselves, have been sufficient to justify this action; yet might justify his desire that God would put an end to his life, and release him out of this miserable world; especially if the event would redound more to his glory than anything he could do for the future, or had done in the former part of his life. Besides, it plainly appears that God, in answer to his prayer, not only gave him leave to take away his own life, together with the lives of his enemies, but also wrought a miracle to enable him to do it. It was therefore a justifiable action, and no breach of this commandment.
3. We shall now consider the heinous aggravation of the sin of taking away the life of another unjustly, and the terrible judgments which those who are guilty of it have ground to expect. According to the divine law, this sin is to be punished with death, by the hand of the civil magistrate. Thus Joab, who had deserved to die for murders formerly committed, was slain according to David's order by Solomon; though he sought protection by taking hold of the horns of the altar. Many other crimes might be expiated by sacrifices, which God ordained should be offered for that end; but no satisfaction was to be accepted for this sin but the blood of the murderer. And it is a matter of dispute with some whether kings, who may pardon many crimes by virtue of their prerogative, can, according to the laws of God, pardon murder, without being supposed to extend their clemency beyond its due bounds? Again, God often gives up those who are guilty of the sin of murder to the terrors of a guilty conscience, which is a kind of hell upon earth; as in the instances of Cain, Lamech, and others. Further, such are followed with many remarkable instances of divine vengeance; so that the blast of providence attends all their undertakings. Thus David, after he had killed Uriah, was followed with such rebukes of providence, that the latter part of his life was rendered very uneasy; and what the prophet foretold was fulfilled, that 'the sword should never depart from his house,' that is, as long as he lived. Again, the judgments of God for this sin are often transmitted to posterity. Thus Simeon and Levi's murder of the Shechemites was punished in the tribes that descended from them; who, according to the patriarch's prediction, were 'divided in Jacob, and scattered in Israel.' Saul's slaying the Gibeonites was punished in David's time by a famine which it occasioned. "And the murders which the Jews had committed on the prophets in former ages, were punished in the destruction of their state and nation; when 'all the righteous blood that had been shed upon the earth, came upon them.' Further, the lives of murderers are often shortened, and they brought to the grave with blood. Thus Absalom perished by the just judgment of God, for the murder of his brother, as well as his other crimes. And in this the psalmist's observation holds true, that 'bloody and deceitful men shall not live out half their days.'
4. This commandment may be broken otherwise than by the taking away of the life of our neighbour. A breach of it may be committed by a person in his heart, when he has not an opportunity to execute his malicious designs, or is afraid to execute them on account of the punishment from men which will follow. Thus the apostle says, 'Whosoever hateth his brother is a murderer.' Of this we have an instance in wicked Ahab, who 'hated Micaiah, because he prophesied not good concerning him, but evil.' It is more than probable that his hatred would have broken forth into murder, could he have laid hold on the least shadow of pretence which might have put a colour on so vile an action. Jezebel also was guilty of this sin, who threatened to murder the prophet Elijah. The Jews, likewise, were guilty of it who were filled with malice against our Saviour; for which reason, they would have put him to death at that time, but they feared the people.
Moreover, while this sin reigns in wicked men, there are some instances of it even in good men. Thus David carried his resentment too far against Nabal, though a churlish and ungrateful man, when he resolved in his passion, not only to take away his life, which was an unjustifiable action, but to destroy the whole family, the innocent with the guilty. He was afterwards sensible of his sin in this passionate resolution; and blessed God for his preventing it, by Abigail's prudent management. There is another instance of sinful and unaccountable passion which cannot be excused from a degree of heart-murder, in Jonah; who was very angry because God was gracious, and spared Nineveh, on their repentance. In this fit of passion he desires that God would take away his life, justifies his anger, and, as it were, dares him to cut him off; which was as bad a frame as ever any good man was in. All this, too, took its rise from pride, lest some should think him a false prophet, who did not rightly distinguish between what God might do and would have done had they not repented, and what he determined to do, namely, to give them repentance, and so to spare them: I say, rather than be counted a false prophet, which it may be was a groundless surmise, he was angry with God for sparing it.
Here it will be inquired whether all anger is sinful, or a breach of this commandment ? Now, as the apostle says, 'Be angry and sin not;' the words imply that there may be anger which is not sinful, but which, on the other hand, may rather be styled a zeal for God. Of this kind was that anger which our Saviour expressed against the Scribes and Pharisees, when he calls them 'serpents, a generation of vipers;' and when he whipped the buyers and sellers out of the temple, on which occasion it is said, 'The zeal of thine house hath eaten me up.' The apostle also reproved Elymas the sorcerer, who endeavoured to 'turn away the deputy from the faith,' with words that seemed full of anger, when he addressed himself to him in this manner, 'full of all subtilty, and all mischief, thou child of the devil, thou enemy of all righteousness, wilt thou not cease to pervert the right ways of the Lord?' And Peter could not reprove that vile hypocrite, Simon Magus, when he offered to purchase the conferring of the Holy Ghost, without expressing some anger and resentment, as the cause required, when he said, 'Thy money perish with thee,' &c. Yet, that he might let him know that it was only zeal for God that provoked his anger, he gave him friendly advice to repent of his wickedness.
We may hence take occasion to inquire what the difference is between sinful anger or passion, and an holy zeal for God. Now, an holy zeal for God leads us rightly to distinguish between the person reproved, and his actions which give us occasion for reproof; so that we hate the sin, but not the person who commits it. Thus the psalmist says, 'I hate the work of them that turn aside.' But sinful anger is principally directed against the person with whom we are offended. Again, the honour of God is the only motive which excites holy zeal; but pride or evil surmise is generally the occasion of sinful anger. Thus Jehu's executing the vengeance of God in cutting off Ahab's wicked family, was right, as to the matter of it; yet it had a great mixture of ambition, pride, and private hatred of them, as those who he thought would stand in competition with him for the crown. Besides, he desired the applause and esteem of the people for the action, and therefore said to Jonadab, 'Come with me, and see my zeal for the Lord.' Hence, true zeal for God is attended with many other graces; and sinful anger with many sins. Further, holy zeal for God inclines us to express anger against his enemies with sorrow and reluctance, being grieved for their sin, and at the same time desiring their reformation and salvation; but sinful anger meditates revenge, is restless till it has accomplished it, and is pleased with having opportunities of executing it. Moreover, holy zeal sets aside or is not much concerned about injuries, as directed against ourselves; but considers them as they reflect dishonour on the name of God, or are prejudicial to his interest in the world. Thus David said concerning Edom, 'Happy shall he be that dasheth thy little ones against the stones;' when, at the same time, he professed that it was for Jerusalem's sake that he desired the ruin of his enemies, and not his own; for he says, that he 'preferred Jerusalem above his chief joy.' Sinful anger, however, designs or wishes evil to others, to promote our own interest and advantage.
We shall now consider the aggravations of sinful passion. It unfits a soul for holy duties. Accordingly, our Saviour advises his people, first to 'be reconciled to their brethren, and then come and offer their gift.' If we attempt to reprove sin, or persuade to duty, in a passion, it will tend to take away the force and hinder the success of the arguments we use. Sinful anger will occasion sorrow and shame, when reflected on in our most serious thoughts. It will expose us to Satan's temptations, and occasion a multitude of sins; and accordingly is called by the apostle, a 'giving place to the devil.' It magnifies the smallest injuries, and excites our resentments beyond their due bounds. We do not consider, as we ought to do, that the injuries done against us are very small when compared with the sins we commit, whereby we dishonour God. Further, sinful anger is opposite to a Christian temper, very much unlike that frame of spirit which our Saviour has recommended concerning loving our enemies, and is also contrary to his example, 'who when he was reviled, reviled not again,' Finally, as it is a stirring up of our own corruptions; so it tends to stir up the corruptions of others, and provoke them to sin, as one flame kindleth another, and so increaseth itself.
We shall further inquire how we are to deal with those whom we converse with, who are addicted to passion or anger. We are to exercise a calm, meek, and humble disposition, bearing reflections with patience, and replying to them with gentleness; especially when it is more immediately our own cause, and not the cause of God, which is concerned. 'A soft answer turneth away wrath.' 'He that is slow to wrath, is of great understanding.' Let us take heed, also, that we do nothing which tends to stir up the passions of any. If a superior is disposed to be angry, let us prudently withdraw from him. If it be an inferior, let us reprove him with faithfulness. If it be an equal, let us take away the edge of his anger, by meekness, love, and tenderness towards him, having compassion on his weakness. Let us bear injuries without revenging them, and 'overcome evil with good.'