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God’s Word for You

Numbers 10:8-10 War and killing

by Pastor Timothy Smith on Thursday, July 29, 2021

8 Aaron’s sons, the priests, will blow the trumpets. This will be a permanent regulation for you and for your descendants. 9 When you go out into battle in your own land against an adversary who attacks you, you will sound the signal with the trumpets. Then you will be remembered before the LORD your God, and you will be saved from your enemies. 10 Also at the times when you rejoice, at your appointed festivals and at the New Moon, you will blow the trumpets over your burnt offerings and over the sacrifices of your fellowship offerings. They will serve as a memorial for you before your God. I am the LORD your God.

We have seen that the hammered silver trumpets were primarily for signaling, and here the signals are expanded beyond the movements of the nation under the Glory of the Lord and the sacrifices in the tabernacle. Here we see that they were also used for festival celebrations, and, according to verse 9, for going to war.

The doctrine of war and taking human life confuses many Christians. If the commandment says, “You shall not kill,” doesn’t that mean we shouldn’t go to war? Well, the commandment doesn’t merely say, “Don’t kill.” It says, “Do not murder.” The generic Hebrew word for kill is qatal, but the word in the commandment is ratsah (Deuteronomy 5:17). A literal translation of Psalm 62:3 would be, “Will all of you murder him, this leaning wall, this tottering fence?” Ratsah is the word we will visit in Numbers 35 and the laws about the murderer.

God alone has the right to end a human life. “I put to death, I bring to life” (Deuteronomy 32:39); “From each man, I will demand an accounting for the life of his fellow man” (Genesis 9:5). But God allows the government to act in this way in his place; even an ungodly government. “He does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:4).

Under the government, the holy Scriptures allow for the taking of human life under three conditions. The first is the punishment for murder, or capital punishment. Under Moses, this was also the punishment for idolatry (Deuteronomy 13:6-9), certain sexual sins such as homosexuality (Leviticus 20:13), kidnapping (Exodus 23:7), blasphemy (Leviticus 24:16) and some other acts, but today is mainly reserved for murder or the national crime of treason, as happened with Quisling, the Prime Minister of Norway who acted on behalf of the Nazis and took over the Norwegian government until he was removed from office and executed in 1945.

The second is self-defense. If someone attacks you and you defend yourself and the attacker dies, this is not a sin (Exodus 22:2), although law enforcement might be suspicious of the circumstances. This does not take into account whether you somehow invited or provoked the attack, etc. The contents of the heart matter to God, not merely our actions. “Do not hate your brother in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in his guilt” (Leviticus 19:17).

Third comes war, or more properly, a just war. That is to say, a war in which a nation is responding to an attack or honoring a treaty; not simply trying to obtain more elbow room. It is especially about this that many people become confused about the Bible. How could God command his people to go to war and still say “Thou shalt not kill”? The meaning of “murder” and the inevitability of war in a sinful world are part of the answer. God also ordered nations to be wiped out that might lead his people into idolatry and unbelief. He even told his people why he would allow this warfare to go on for many years:

“I will send the hornet ahead of you to drive the Hivites, Canaanites and Hittites out of your way. But I will not drive them out in a single year, because the land would become desolate and the wild animals too numerous for you. Little by little I will drive them out before you, until you have increased enough to take possession of the land” (Exodus 23:28-30).

God’s commands about such wars against heathen nations do not apply today. A Christian may not attack a person of another religion simply because they are going to hell. For one thing, that would end that soul’s time of grace, and Christ commands us to reach out with the gospel, not exterminate unbelievers. We can learn a lot from St. Paul, who used every opportunity to find new pulpits to preach from, even on trial for his life (Acts 23:1, 25:12, 26:1, 27:24, 28:19). “I do not hide your righteousness in my heart. I speak of your faithfulness and salvation. I do not conceal your love and your truth from the great assembly” (Psalm 40:10).

But what about when my government commands me, or another citizen, to kill an enemy in a war? At the time, I would not be violating the Fifth Commandment, but obeying the Fourth and others including the Ninth and Tenth. While individual Christians might be uncomfortable carrying out an execution ordered by the State, or even harming someone in self defense, the burden of taking lives in war is something that many, many of your countrymen have had to wrestle with. Some handle it with grace; others suffer. Still others are troubled in other ways. Keep them in your prayers.

Exceptions to the Fifth Commandment are for the most part things that God has given into the hands of the government. According to the Bible, what does God want us to do? “Let us love one another, for love comes from God” (1 John 4:7). “Get rid of all bitterness, rage, and anger… Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Ephesians 4:31-32). “Forgive your brother from your heart” (Matthew 18:35). And also: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink” (Romans 12:20). So God wants us to be patient, kind, and forgiving from our hearts toward everyone. He wants us to help and befriend everyone in every bodily need. As Paul so carefully said to the Colossians (3:13): “Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.”

In Christ,
Pastor Timothy Smith

Pastor Tim Smith

About Pastor Timothy Smith
Pastor Smith serves St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in New Ulm, Minnesota. To receive God’s Word for You via e-mail, please contact Pastor Smith.


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