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Anger and Its Offspring: The 6th Commandment

Deuteronomy 5:17 ­– God: The Center of It All – May 3, 2020


In the 50s there was a notorious criminal Charles Starkweather. Rough childhood. He was bullied at school. Very poor. By 19 he was an angry young man. At some point he lost it. He ended up killing a lot of people.

He was arrested and tried. His father wanted him to declare himself insane to escape the death penalty. He told his father, “If I want to make my atonement with God and be electrocuted, that’s my business.” A year later that’s how he died. For many people Charles Starkweather represented the end of the 50s and the beginning of the 60s, a decade of unrest.

Charles Starkweather’s anger and murder left a trail of carnage across multiple states and affected the lives of so many left to grieve the loss of someone they knew and loved.

It’s a vivid picture of sin and its consequences. It’s a vivid demonstration of what the 6th commandment forbids. It says, “You shall not murder.”

But we’ll see Jesus connect murder and anger. Murder is the offspring of anger. You don’t start with murder. You start with anger.

Even if you’re anger doesn’t progress all the way to murder like Charles Starkweather it can leave a trail of carnage across all your relationships, your family, your friends, your church, everywhere you go.

We’re all affected by the sin of anger. David Powlison wrote a book called Good & Angry. His second chapter is called, “Do you have a serious problem with anger?” The chapter has one word in it, “Yes.”

It might be that we’ve never murdered with a knife. Sinclair Ferguson calls anger “murder without knives.”[1] 

Sermon: (1) The Basic Meaning of the 6th Commandment; (2) Jesus Teaching on the 6th Commandment; (3) Understanding and Repenting of Sinful Anger


I. The Basic Meaning of the 6th Commandment

The 6th commandment is four words in English, two words in Hebrew: “You shall not murder” (Deut 5:17). The 6th-8th commandments are all two words in Hebrew, “Not + verb.”

What are we not to do in the 6th commandment? “Murder.” First time this word is used in the OT is in Exod 20:13, first giving of the Decalogue.

It’s more specific than “you shall not kill.” When Cain “killed” Abel (Gen 4:8) the verb there is more general and is used more often (harag). The word in the ten commandments (Exod 20:13; Deut 5:17) is more specific and is used less. It means “any form of unlawful or unauthorized killing.”[3]

“Unlawful or unauthorized” means taking a life when it’s not right to do so. When the government accused, tried, sentenced, and executed Charles Starkweather they took his life. But it was lawful for them to do that. It was authorized. They had the God-given authority to do this.

But when Charles Starkweather took all those lives, it was “unlawful” and “unauthorized.” It was against God’s law and he lacked the authority to do it. It was “murder” and sinful.

Killing a person is a terrible sin because a human life is so significant. A person is unique in all the created universe as the one created thing made in the image of God. And so to unlawfully take the life of a person is an act of wicked brutality.

God himself gives us this perspective. After the flood of Noah, God gave a short set of commands for all humanity. One was to “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen 9:7). But the other speaks to the sin of murder and why it’s so offensive:

Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image. (Gen 9:6)

That’s the basis for the 6th commandment. Because “God made man in his own image,” it was a very big deal to “shed the blood of man,” to take away the “life” (v. 4) of a person.

The sinful and premeditated taking of a life is wrong whether that person is in the womb or in the very eldest seasons of life.

Psalm 139 captures this truth for the womb:

For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. (Ps 139:13)

The power of this verse is in the pronouns. When I was in my mother’s womb, I was not an it or a thing. I was a “me.” “You knitted me together in my mother’s womb.” I was still me as far back in the womb as you can go. That’s when God “knits us together.”

Because of the preciousness of a life, even taking a life accidentally is a big deal. It’s not a sin or crime at the same level as murder, but it’s still a big deal. The OT law gives us these distinctions.

In Deuteronomy 19 there are three types of killing. Type 1: Involuntary manslaughter.

This is the provision for the manslayer, who by fleeing there may save his life. If anyone kills his neighbor unintentionally without having hated him in the past— 5 as when someone goes into the forest with his neighbor to cut wood, and his hand swings the axe to cut down a tree, and the head slips from the handle and strikes his neighbor so that he dies—he may flee to one of these cities and live. (Deut 19:4–5)

The accident described here is very specific. But it’s a situation where the person was clearly not guilty of murder. Or even negligence.

But still he is to “flee to one of these cities and live.” His future and his family’s future is instantly changed. He has to live in one of the “cities of refuge” until the current high priest dies (Num 35:28). Then he can return to his home.  

Type 2: Murder.

But if anyone hates his neighbor and lies in wait for him and attacks him and strikes him fatally so that he dies, and he flees into one of these cities… (Deut 19:11)

What is forbidden by the 6th commandment is Type 2 here, premeditated murder. “Hates” and “lies in wait” and then you kill. Type 1 is a tragedy, but Type 2 is a heinous offense.

That leads to Type 3: Capital punishment.

The elders of his city shall send and take him from there, and hand him over to the avenger of blood, so that he may die. 13 Your eye shall not pity him, but you shall purge the guilt of innocent blood from Israel, so that it may be well with you. (Deut 19:12–13)

When someone commits premeditated murder, there is a dramatic and forceful response by the community. The elders actually hand the murderer over to “the avenger of blood.” The “avenger” is the person entrusted by the victim’s family with killing the murderer.

This is a place where the need for justice requires the absence of “pity.”

The laws of a culture do not always match the law of God, even when it comes to the “unlawful and unathorized killing” of a person. Many things are legal in our culture that are not moral or lawful or right: Abortion, in certain states assisted suicide is allowed, at times wars or military actions are unjust.

But no matter what the culture declares to be legal or illegal, as Christians we fight for life and to be pro-life in a comprehensive way. From conception to the last breath, we fight for life. We are willing to sacrifice and to pursue extraordinary measures if it seems there is hope. Life is sacred. Life is precious. Basically, until there’s no reasonable hope, we fight for life.

There’s no age you reach where as Christians we ever say you’re no longer useful and therefore we’ll no longer fight for your life. Just like there’s no stage of development of a person where we decide that finally you’re ready for us to fight for you.

To be against “unlawful and unauthorized killing” is closely connected to our Christian commitment to be comprehensively pro-life.

But this commandment has even more to say to us when Jesus teaches on it.

II. Jesus Teaching on the 6th Commandment

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus taught about life in the kingdom of God. How are we to live as God’s people in God’s kingdom. What the King asks of us in his kingdom.

During Jesus’s teaching he takes several of the ten commandments and intensifies them. There’s a pattern of Antitheses, contrasts: “You have heard it said…but I say to you.”

The first one he teaches on is the 6th commandment:

“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.” (Matt 5:21–22)

He’s not denying that murder is wrong and makes you “liable to judgment.” He’s saying just because you stop short of murder you’re not necessarily innocent.

Jesus is condemning the whole family tree of anger. Sinful anger by itself is condemned. The anger gives birth to sinful words: “insults” (“numbskull,” BDAG); “You fool!” (“You idiot!”). These words deserve “the hell of fire.” And yes, if anger keeps growing it turns into violence and “murder.” And that makes you “liable to judgment.” The whole bloodline of sinful anger is wrong and “liable to judgment.”

It doesn’t mean sinful anger is just as bad as murder. It means sinful anger is worse than you think.

In the movie Father of the Bride Steve Martin plays George Banks. In the movie he’s talking to his future son-in-law about his daughter Annie the guy’s going to marry. He says,

“Annie is a very passionate person, and passionate people tend to overreact at times. Annie comes from a long line of major overreactors. Me, I can definitely lose it. My mother, a nut. My grandfather, stories about him are legendary. The good news, however, is that this overreacting tends to get proportionately less by generation, so your kids could be normal.” 
Father of the Bride[4]

In the moment it’s a funny scene and we laugh along with the Steve Martin character. But David Powlison points out how much anger is minimized here. It’s just being “passionate” and an “overreactor.”

But anger is far more destructive than those words reveal. Powlison says,

In real life, anger is the reaction that incinerates marriages and disintegrates families. It energizes gossip and guns down classmates. It divides churches, turns friendship into enmity, and erupts in road rage. It is the stuff of every form of grievance and bitterness. The fact that some of us overreact in less colorful ways does not mean that those who are quiet are not angry. Anger is also the basic DNA of complaining, brooding, irritability, and bickering. The “shoes” of problem anger are like a pair of open-heeled bathroom slippers. One size really does fit all. The crucial issues in anger touch every one of us. 
David Powlison, Good and Angry[5]

We like to think the Charles Starkweathers of the world are totally unlike us. His crime left a trail of carnage from Nebrasks to Wyoming—but he’s a psychopath.

Powlison reminds us that the “basic DNA” of anger leaves just a big a trail of carnage—“incinerates marriages and disintegrates families…”

Maybe you haven’t talked to your best friend in ten years, your first marriage ended because of your anger, you’ve left several churches because you get offended easily. You’re alienated from your children.

No state government will execute you for it, but the trail of destruction is there.

David Powlison defines anger as saying “I’m against that”:

What common thread runs through every form of anger, whether good or bad? At it’s core anger is very simple. It expresses “I’m against that.” It’s an active stance you take to oppose something that you assess as both important and wrong. You notice something, size it up, and say, “That matters…and it’s not right.”
David Powlison, Good and Angry[6]

Murder is when that feeling of “I’m against that” takes over and your opposition to the person means killing them is the only right response.

“I’m against that” reminds us that anger can be a force for good. Sometimes what we’re against is something that is truly wrong and harming others. Our emotional response of “I’m against that” provokes us to respond and do something helpful.

COVID-19 has provoked a lot of “I’m against that!” reactions.

For some of you the quarantine has gone on for too long: “The government’s gone too far! I’m against that!”

For others of you the quarantine didn’t start earlier: “The government didn’t act sooner! I’m against that!”

Is it sinful anger to feel “I’m against that” in this case? That will depend on how much it consumes you, what emotions, thoughts, words, and actions it provokes you to do. Will it be a motivating force for righteous words and deeds?

Or will it put you on the ladder Jesus is talking about: Anger — insults — “You fool!” — murder. You might get off before you reach “murder,” but you’re on the same ladder.

III. Understanding and Repenting of Sinful Anger

In the book of Jonah, God approaches the bitter prophet Jonah. He’s just preached throughout the city of Nineveh and the city repented. They turned to the Lord. And Jonah was furious.

He hated the Ninevites and the fact they were spared judgment because of their repentance. Jonah was like an anti-evangelist, preaching but hoping his listeners would reject his message and go to hell.

Jonah felt passionately “I’m against that” when he saw the Ninevites spared.

But God approaches Jonah in his bitterness with a question:

And the LORD said, “Do you do well to be angry?” (Jonah 4:4)

God is asking him, “Do you do well to be “Against That”?”

God’s question could be asked to any one of us in our anger. It's a good question to hear God asking you. Because not all anger is right. “Do you do well to be angry?” In the case of Jonah the answer was NO.

In the moment the answer always feels like a YES. “Of course I’m right to be angry! Do you know what she said to me? Do you know what my boss did to me?”

Clearly we need help to really understand our anger. “Do you do well to be angry?”

David Powlison used a set of questions to get to the bottom of this. Eight questions to “take your anger apart and put it back together.”[7]

To take it apart, 4 questions.

What is my situation? (Detailed scenarios)
How do I react? (Tendencies)
Why do I react this way? (Motives)
What are the consequences?

What is my situation? (the when, where, at what, and with whom of your experience of anger)—over-eating and your anger is self-hatred…

How do I react? (your typical words, thoughts, actions of anger)

What are my motives? (The million-dollar question: Why do you get angry?)

What are the consequences? (What happens to you, your relationships, your world when you give in to anger?)

To put it back together in a godlier way, 4 more questions:

What is true? (Apply God’s Word; Ps 23)
How do I turn to God for help? (Talking to God, not others, not yourself)
How could I respond constructively? (A better path than you took)
What are the consequences of faith and obedience? (If I take the better the path)

Imagine these in the moment when you’re trying to change your reaction. Or imagine this after the fact if you’re trying to do better the next time.

What is true? (Taking God’s Word and applying it. Try Psalm 23)

How do I turn to God for help? (“Angry people always talk to the wrong person.” The other person, themselves, but not to God)

How could I respond constructively in this situation? (In the moment or later, consider a better and more constructive reaction)

What are the consequences of faith and obedience? (If you reacted well or if you had, what were the consequences?)


As we close we need to think about another side of anger.

Charles Starkweather told his father, “If I want to make my atonement with God and be electrocuted, that’s my business.”

Starkweather thought that if he allowed himself to face the death penalty, that would somehow “make my atonement with God.” Starkweather was completely wrong about this.

Facing the death penalty was only about his earthly justice. Heavenly justice is a whole other matter.

Starkweather’s greatest problem at that moment was not his own anger. It wasn’t the anger of the judge and jury. Or “the system.” His greatest problem was the anger of God.

When the Bible talks about God’s anger it uses phrases like “the wrath of God”—his intentional, consistent, passionate opposition to sin. It is God’s “I’m against that” when it comes to unrepentant sin.

His anger is the most terrible anger of all because it can do the most damage. Remember Jesus’ words:

Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. (Matt 10:28)

Killers can only touch our bodies. God can reach our souls.

And sinful anger is one of those sins against God that provoke his anger. Murder? Definitely. But sinful anger as well. It is “liable to judgment” Jesus told us. And “The wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23).

Where is deliverance from judgment for your sinful anger? You have to get out of your head any idea of self-atonement. Some contract where if you’re nice for a long time it makes up for things. It’ll never happen.

You need a greater redemption. A greater protection from the wrath of God.

The only one who can protect you from the wrath of God…is God himself. Jesus Christ the Son of God is the only one who can save you from the wrath of God. But only Jesus. There’s atonement in Jesus, but not in anything you can do by yourself.

The gospel of John tells us:

Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him. (John 3:36)

The really good news is that this salvation is not just about what happens when you die. Salvation in Jesus also means the Spirit is alive in you.

With the Spirit in you the fruit of the Spirit will be possible:

Instead of bitterness? Joy. Instead of anger? “Love…peace, patience, kindness.”

Instead of losing it constantly? “Self-control.”

Not a light-switch. It’s progressive over time. As you go deeper in Christ, the fruit of the Spirit will go deeper in you.




[1] See also Springsteen’s “Nebraska.”

[2] Ferguson, Kingdom Life in a Fallen World.

[3] Christopher Wright, Deuteronomy, NIBC (Hendrickson, 2007), 78.

[4] Cited in Powlison, Good & Angry, 8.

[5] Good & Angry (New Growth, 2016), 8.

[6] Ibid., 38, 39.

[7] Good & Angry, chp 13.