A Laymen’s Commentary on the Large Catechism: Fifth Commandment

O Lord, you have searched me and known me!
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
    you discern my thoughts from afar.
You search out my path and my lying down
    and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
    behold, O Lord, you know it altogether.
You hem me in, behind and before,
    and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
    it is high; I cannot attain it.

Where shall I go from your Spirit?
    Or where shall I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there!
    If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!
If I take the wings of the morning
    and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
10 even there your hand shall lead me,
    and your right hand shall hold me.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
    and the light about me be night,”
12 even the darkness is not dark to you;
    the night is bright as the day,
    for darkness is as light with you.

13 For you formed my inward parts;
    you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
    my soul knows it very well.
15 My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
    intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
16 Your eyes saw my unformed substance;
in your book were written, every one of them,
    the days that were formed for me,
    when as yet there was none of them.

17 How precious to me are your thoughts, O God!
    How vast is the sum of them!
18 If I would count them, they are more than the sand.
    I awake, and I am still with you.

19 Oh that you would slay the wicked, O God!
    O men of blood, depart from me!
20 They speak against you with malicious intent;
    your enemies take your name in vain.
21 Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord?
    And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?
22 I hate them with complete hatred;
    I count them my enemies.

23 Search me, O God, and know my heart!
    Try me and know my thoughts!
24 And see if there be any grievous way in me,
    and lead me in the way everlasting!

(Psalm 139)


The Fifth Commandment.

Thou shalt not kill.

What does this mean?–Answer.

We should fear and love God that we may not hurt nor harm our neighbor in his body, but help and befriend him in every bodily need [in every need and danger of life and body].

(Small Catechism)


These are the holy Ten Commands
Which our Lord God placed in our hands
Through Moses, His own servant true,
When he to Mount Sinai drew.

Thou shalt in sinful wrath not kill,
Nor hate, nor render ill for ill;
Be patient and of gentle mood,
And to thy foe do thou good.

God hath giv’n us all these commands
That thou thy sin, O child of man,
Might know, and also well perceive
How unto God man should live.

Help us, Lord Jesus Christ, for we
A Mediator have in Thee.
With works we’d perish from the path;
They merit but endless wrath.
Kyrieleis! (TLH 287/LSB 581)


The Fifth Commandment.

179] Thou shalt not kill.

180] We have now completed both the spiritual and the temporal government, that is, the divine and the paternal authority and obedience. But here now we go forth from our house among our neighbors to learn how we should live with one another, every one himself toward his neighbor. 181] Therefore God and government are not included in this commandment, nor is the power to kill, which they have, taken away. For God has delegated His authority to punish evil-doers to the government instead of parents, who aforetime (as we read in Moses) were required to bring their own children to judgment and sentence them to death. Therefore, what is here forbidden is forbidden to the individual in his relation to any one else, and not to the government.

182] Now this commandment is easy enough, and has been often treated, because we hear it annually in the Gospel of St. Matthew 5:21ff, where Christ Himself explains and sums it up, namely, that we must not kill, neither with hand, heart, mouth, signs, gestures, help, nor counsel. Therefore it is here forbidden to every one to be angry, except those (as we said) who are in the place of God, that is, parents and the government. For it is proper for God and for every one who is in a divine estate to be angry, to reprove and punish, namely, on account of those very persons who transgress this and the other commandments.

With the foundation laid by the 4th Commandment, we can go forward to the rest of the 2nd Table of the Law.  As discussed in the previous commandment it is especially important to rightly understand the Three Estates and the Two Kingdoms. It is clear from Scripture that the government is not beholden to the 5th Commandment but rather has been given the right to punish evil (Romans 13:1-7).  Even in the Old Testament the estate of the family was to use the estate of the government to punish (Deuteronomy 21:18-21).  This is because God is aware that even parents can abuse their children, thus He delegates the severest punishments to the government, not to parents.  This of course does not mean that parents cannot punish their children physically (as in spanking) but rather severe punishments (such as hard labor and death) are limited to the government.  Note also that this does not mean that the government cannot abuse this authority either.  Certainly the government abuses this authority by legalizing abortion and euthanasia, as well as engaging in unjust wars.  The government has not been given the sword to act with injustice and evil, but rather to punish evil.

Instead, the 5th commandment forbids us acting as individuals to cause harm to our neighbor outside of our vocations.  Jesus preaches about this in the Sermon on the Mount in no uncertain terms (Matthew 5:17-26).  We are to do no harm to our neighbor nor are we to be angry with or hate him.

183] But the cause and need of this commandment is that God well knows that the world is evil, and that this life has much unhappiness; therefore He has placed this and the other commandments between the good and the evil. Now, as there are many assaults upon all commandments, so it happens also in this commandment that we must live among many people who do us harm, so that we have cause to be hostile to them.

184] As when your neighbor sees that you have a better house and home [a larger family and more fertile fields], greater possessions and fortune from God than he, he is sulky, envies you, and speaks no good of you.

Thus by the devil’s incitement you will get many enemies who cannot bear to see you have any good, either bodily or spiritual. When we see such people, our hearts, in turn, would rage and bleed and take vengeance. Then there arise cursing and blows, from which follow finally misery and murder. Here, now, God like a kind father steps in ahead of us, interposes and wishes to have the quarrel settled, that no misfortune come of it, nor one destroy another. And briefly, He would hereby protect, set free, and keep in peace every one against the crime and violence of every one else; and would have this commandment placed as a wall, fortress, and refuge about our neighbor, that we do him no hurt nor harm in his body.

186] Thus this commandment aims at this, that no one offend his neighbor on account of any evil deed, even though he have fully deserved it. For where murder is forbidden, all cause also is forbidden whence murder may originate. For many a one, although he does not kill, yet curses and utters a wish, which would stop a person from running far if it were to strike him in the neck [makes imprecations, which if fulfilled with respect to any one, he would not live long]. 187] Now, since this inheres in every one by nature and it is a common practise that no one is willing to suffer at the hands of another, God wishes to remove the root and source by which the heart is embittered against our neighbor, and to accustom us ever to keep in view this commandment, always to contemplate ourselves in it as in a mirror, to regard the will of God, and with hearty confidence and invocation of His name to commit to Him the wrong which we suffer. Thus we shall suffer our enemies to rage and be angry, doing what they can, and we learn to calm our wrath, and to have a patient, gentle heart, especially toward those who give us cause to be angry, that is, our enemies.

The commandment against murder is necessary because we live in a sinful world (Galatians 1:1-4). In fact, the first sin recorded after the Fall is one of murder, illustrating how fast and far humanity had fallen in such a short span.  After all the first human born in the world ends up being a murderer (Genesis 4:1-16).

Thus envy, hatred, and anger have existed in our hearts since the beginning. God intervenes in this commandment to stop the quarrel and coming destruction we wreak on ourselves. This is to restrain us so we do not harm our neighbor in his body.  After all, no one wants to suffer, especially bodily harm.  We should recall the summary of the second table, the Golden Rule, and remember to do to other people as we would want done to ourselves (James 1:19-27).  In this, we see our failure to even begin to keep this commandment and must flee to God for mercy.

188] Therefore the entire sum of what it means not to kill is to be impressed most explicitly upon the simple-minded. In the first place, that we harm no one, first, with our hand or by deed. Then, that we do not employ our tongue to instigate or counsel thereto. Further, that we neither use nor assent to any kind of means or methods whereby any one may be injured. And finally, that the heart be not ill disposed toward any one, nor from anger and hatred wish him ill, so that body and soul may be innocent in regard to every one, but especially those who wish you evil or inflict such upon you. For to do evil to one who wishes and does you good is not human, but diabolical.

189] Secondly, under this commandment not only he is guilty who does evil to his neighbor, but he also who can do him good, prevent, resist evil, defend and save him, so that no bodily harm or hurt happen to him, and yet does not do it. 190] If, therefore, you send away one that is naked when you could clothe him, you have caused him to freeze to death; if you see one suffer hunger and do not give him food, you have caused him to starve. So also, if you see any one innocently sentenced to death or in like distress, and do not save him, although you know ways and means to do so, you have killed him. And it will not avail you to make the pretext that you did not afford any help, counsel, or aid thereto, for you have withheld your love from him and deprived him of the benefit whereby his life would have been saved.

191] Therefore God also rightly calls all those murderers who do not afford counsel and help in distress and danger of body and life, and will pass a most terrible sentence upon them in the last day, as Christ Himself has announced when He shall say, Matt. 25:42f : I was an hungered, and ye gave Me no meat; I was thirsty, and ye gave Me no drink; I was a stranger, and ye took Me not in; naked, and ye clothed Me not; sick and in prison, and ye visited Me not. That is: You would have suffered Me and Mine to die of hunger, thirst, and cold, would have suffered the wild beasts to tear us to pieces, or left us to rot in prison or perish in distress. What else is that but to reproach them 192] as murderers and bloodhounds? For although you have not actually done all this, you have nevertheless, so far as you were concerned, suffered him to pine and perish in misfortune.

It is just as if I saw some one navigating and laboring in deep water [and struggling against adverse winds] or one fallen into fire, and could extend to him the hand to pull him out and save him, and yet refused to do it. What else would I appear, even in the eyes of the world, than as a murderer and a criminal?

We should do no harm to our neighbor in thought, word, or deed.  Anger and hatred are forbidden by this commandment.  As are revenge and vigilantism.  If you are to seek justice, do so through the courts.

More than that we should help our neighbor when we see him in trouble and constantly do good to him.  This includes defending our neighbor from harm if he is being attacked, such as a father defending his family. This also includes some forms of self-defense, such as a father defending himself against bandits or murders who would take his life.  In this case, he is not just defending himself but also his family who need him to fulfill his vocation to continue to protect and provide for them. In general, though we are to turn the other cheek and suffer the wrong.  This is especially in instances of persecution and martyrdom were we are to suffer as Christ suffered (Matthew 5:2-11, 38-42, John 15:18-25, 1 Peter 2:18-25).

We are also to help our neighbor in our vocations. This can even involve doing harm to a person for their own good or the good of others. Such as a father disciplining his children, a doctor who cuts a person to heal them, or a soldier who kills an enemy combatant to defend his country.

In general, we are to help the poor, the needy, the widows, and those in prison.  All these things are what the Lord has commanded of us as Christians to do (James 2:14-26).  He will judge us for them (Matthew 25:31-46).

193] Therefore it is God’s ultimate purpose that we suffer harm to befall no man, but show him all good and love; 194] and, as we have said, it is specially directed toward those who are our enemies. For to do good to our friends is but an ordinary heathen virtue, as Christ says Matt. 5:46.

195] Here we have again the Word of God whereby He would encourage and urge us to true noble and sublime works, as gentleness, patience, and, in short, love and kindness to our enemies, and would ever remind us to reflect upon the First Commandment, that He is our God, that is, that He will help, assist, and protect us, in order that He may thus quench the desire of revenge in us.

196] This we ought to practise and inculcate, and we would have our hands full doing good works. 197] But this would not be preaching for monks; it would greatly detract from the religious estate, and infringe upon the sanctity of Carthusians, and would even be regarded as forbidding good works and clearing the convents. For in this wise the ordinary state of Christians would be considered just as worthy, and even worthier, and everybody would see how they mock and delude the world with a false, hypocritical show of holiness, because they have given this and other commandments to the winds, and have esteemed them unnecessary, as though they were not commandments, but mere counsels; and have at the same time shamelessly proclaimed and boasted their hypocritical estate and works as the most perfect life, in order that they might lead a pleasant, easy life, without the cross and without patience, for which reason, too, they have resorted to the cloisters, so that they might not be obliged to suffer any wrong from any one or to do him any good. 198] But know now that these are the true, holy, and godly works, in which, with all the angels, He rejoices, in comparison with which all human holiness is but stench and filth, and, besides, deserves nothing but wrath and damnation.

Remember that our neighbor includes our enemies (Matthew 5:43-48).  Our neighbors are those around us.  We need not go seeking a neighbor in distant lands.  Our neighbors are right here, both friends and enemies.

When we act in our vocations and help those in need we are being the Mask of God to those people.  God works through means, which includes us fallen human beings.  As such there are plenty of good works to do (Galatians 5:16-26).  There is no need to go looking for something special.  Our daily vocations have abundant good works to do.

This commandment is especially given for those most in need of this protection and love, our children and the most vulnerable. For human life begins at conception and continues on even through death to the life everlasting (Psalm 139).  As such we must take great care with the modern technologies that allow us to toy with the very foundations of life.  We must reject and condemn all uses of that technology to destroy or distort life, such as abortion and embryonic stem cell research.  We must be careful and discerning with the coming storm of genetic manipulation which promises to remove some diseases but also comes with the possibility of widening the gulf between the natural abilities of people artificially, as well as creating tailor-made children who are just toys of their parents.  We must use technology to do good not evil, and we must treat people at all stages of life as human beings, not objects or burdens.

We also must remain open to life and the Lord’s gift of children, rather than artificially preventing them out of greed or comfort.  We must not go the opposite route and make an idol out of having children such that we go to any length to have them, manufacturing children and casting whatever is additional aside.  We must remember that the Lord is the Author of Life.  He decides when it is the right time to grant or refuse children (Psalm 127, 128).

Likewise, at the end of life, we should treat those who are dying with dignity and care.  Mercy killing is still murder.  Death is never a good thing to be desired, but the most wrong thing.  Our Lord is the arbiter of when death comes to us (Deuteronomy 32:28-43).  Our comfort at death is Christ’s transformation of death into the gateway to everlasting life.

With all that said we also should not unnaturally extend our lives.  We will all die.  Draining our wealth and time into extending life in the here and now is a fool’s errand which can destroy resources of family members trying to help, as well as create unnecessary pain for the one who is given maybe a few more weeks of life.  Not to mention the sin of vanity involved in attempts to remain forever young.  As Christians we are to be comfortable with aging and dying, knowing that it is coming, never actively seeking it but rather seeing death as but a portal to life immortal.  Our lives are to be used to serve our neighbor and love God, not for a selfish clinging to life when our Lord is clearly calling us home to Him (Philippians 1:19-30).

We should not do any of these works to show off or to gain approval from men.  We should not expect recompense in this life.  In fact, obeying this commandment may lead to you getting taken advantage of.  It may not be the best thing for you in terms of your own body and life.  As Christians, we are never to seek our advantage or comfort at the expense of our neighbor.  We are to inconvenience ourselves for them.  If evil comes upon us for doing good, so be it.  The Lord will repay. Following the Law is not a pleasant road for our sinful flesh in this fallen world.  Just look at the example of Christ, who gave up all, even His life for us.  How much more should we serve our neighbor and not look for our own advantage and vanity (Matthew 23).

We are not to make up works to do as if they were better than what God commands in His Ten Commandments.  The works of this commandment are true and holy.  Do not try to dull the sword of this commandment by calling them “evangelical counsels” as the monks in Luther’s day did with regards to the Sermon on the Mount.  Christ is not giving mere recommendations on how to live a good life.  He is speaking the Law, that we must follow to be considered holy (Isaiah 64).

Lord of all nations, grant me grace
To love all people, ev’ry race;
And in each person may I see
My kindred loved, redeemed by Thee.

Break down the walls that would divide
Thy children, Lord, on ev’ry side.
My neighbor’s good let me pursue;
Let Christian love bind warm and true.

Forgive me, Lord, where I have erred
By loveless act and thoughtless word,
Make me to see the wrong I do
Will grieve my wounded Lord anew.

Give me the courage, Lord, to speak
Whenever strong oppress the weak.
Should I myself the victim be,
Help me forgive, remembering Thee.

With Thine own love may I be filled
And by Thy Holy Spirit willed,
That all I touch, where’er I be,
May be divinely touched by Thee. (LSB 844)

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