The next laws that we find in Exodus 21 are laws regarding murder and accidental homicide. Exodus 21:12 says,
12 He who strikes a man so that he dies shall surely be put to death.
This law did not begin with Moses, but with Noah in Genesis 9:5, 6. Other than God's command not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil at the beginning, this was really the first law that God made man responsible to enforce.
I have observed in the newspapers many cases of murder. I do not recall at any time seeing any relatives of the murder victim who did not believe in the death penalty. It is one thing to talk about whether or not the courts should enforce the death penalty, and quite another when you become the victim.
God's law is primarily about justice. God's law upholds the victim's rights and sees to it that the victims are awarded justice according to the crime committed. On the other hand, God's law is not devoid of mercy, though the path to obtaining mercy must certainly be in a lawfully-prescribed manner.
Joab Murders Abner
Even the manner and timing of executing the sentence of the law has much to do with the mercy factor. For example, when King David's general, Joab, murdered Abner (2 Sam. 3:27), David did not execute Joab. Instead, we read in 2 Sam. 3:28, 29,
28 And afterward when David heard it, he said, I and my kingdom are innocent before the LORD forever of the blood of Abner the son of Ner.
29 May it fall on the head of Joab and on all his father's house; and may there not fail from the house of Joab one who has a discharge, or who is a leper, or who takes hold of a distaff, or who falls by the sword, or who lacks bread.
David passed sentence upon Joab, but he was not executed until after the death of David. On his deathbed David told his son Solomon in 1 Kings 2:5, 6,
5 Now you also know what Joab the son of Zeruiah did to me, what he did to the two commanders of the armies of Israel, to Abner the son of Ner, and to Amasa the son of Jether, whom he killed; he also shed the blood of war in peace. And he put the blood of war on his belt about his waist, and on his sandals on his feet. 6 So act according to your wisdom, and do not let his gray hair go down to Sheol in peace.
Some have been critical of David, saying he must have gotten senile in his old age. But Solomon's purpose in executing Joab is explained in 1 Kings 2:31,
31 And the king said to him, "Do as he has spoken and fall upon him and bury him, that you may remove from me and from my father's house the blood which Joab shed without cause.
In other words, the house of David would remain under the curse of Joab's murder indefinitely, if David did not carry out the death penalty sentence of the law. It would never do for Jesus Christ, a descendant of David, to be born under such a curse.
Even so, this did foreshadow Jesus being born under the law (i.e., under the curse of the law) for the murder that was committed by Adam himself. Not only did Adam kill himself by eating of the forbidden tree, but he also killed all of his descendants, all of whom were born mortal.
This brings to light a deeper problem, which is also very relevant to our present discussion of murder and the death penalty law. Adam was told that if he ate of the forbidden tree, he would die that day (Gen. 2:17). We know, however, that he did not die that day, but 930 years later (Gen. 5:5).
Adam's death was deferred to a later time. His Word was still fulfilled, in that Adam immediately became mortal. More than that, with God a day can be a thousand years (Psalm 90:4). It is up to God to decide how to apply the law, and when the judges on earth enforce God's law, it is their responsibility as well to determine the mind of God and apply the law accordingly.
Why Was Joab's Judgment Deferred?
There are mitigating circumstances in everything, and these are the things that can change the application of the law in various cases. The New Testament calls it being led by the Spirit. Only the Holy Spirit can fine tune the way in which we apply God's law. In Joab's case, the mitigating circumstances were that technically speaking, there was still a state of war between the house of David and the house of Saul (i.e., his son, Ishbosheth). Joab no doubt felt that he was innocent, because in war, one is allowed to kill the enemy without being brought up on murder charges.
Secondly, Joab's brother, Asahel, had been killed by Abner in the battle of Gibeon. The Bible makes it clear that Abner was very reluctant to kill Asahel in the battle, but that Asahel gave him no choice (2 Sam. 2:22). Joab was avenging his brother by committing murder under the guise of war-time laws. It was not the right thing to do, but technically, going only by the strict letter of the law, he was legally not guilty. However, he was indeed guilty of going against the king's heart and mind in this matter.
So David made it clear that Joab bore full responsibility in this murder. Yet David did not execute Joab that day, but deferred his judgment to a later time. In doing this, David did not put away the divine law, but applied it by the leading of the Holy Spirit.
The same principle holds true today with prisoners who are guilty of premeditated murder. Our courts have no love for God's law, and only a minority of judges pray for divine guidance. You and I are unable to change this by ourselves. But we do get letters from prisoners who have received sentences for premeditated murder. They ask if they have committed an unpardonable sin. Is there no word of comfort for them?
Yes, there is. Because the judges usually have little or no use for God's justice, but have established their own, God has seen fit in recent years to allow them only a limited ability to impose the death penalty. Usually, only a particularly heinous murder draws the death penalty. This has served to extend murderers mercy and time to repent and learn of His ways. Jesus' death on the cross gave mercy to a murderer and robber named Barabbas (Mark 15:7).
Barabbas and Adam
Bar-Abbas means "son of the Father." Luke 3:38 says that Adam was the son of God, the Father. Barabbas is an allegorical representative of Adam. Jesus' death on the cross freed Adam and his children from the death sentence of the law.
The fact is that Adam could not possibly know the full consequences of his disobedience, for he had never yet experienced sin and death. In one sense, this is the same principle by which children and adults are treated differently when crimes are committed. Adam was yet a child, experientially speaking. So God showed him mercy by imposing upon him a slow death called "mortality." That way, he would be able to produce children that would allow the plan of God in history to continue.
How God Judged David for His Murder
David's sin with Bathsheba is quite well known among those who have studied the Bible. Adultery itself was punishable by death, but worse yet, David committed murder by having her husband killed in battle.
David's prayer of repentance is recorded in Psalm 51. The way that God judged David was quite unlike that which was prescribed in the law. David and Bathsheba's son paid the price for this sin (2 Sam. 12:15-18).
In this case God allowed David to pass sentence upon himself, rather than to simply impose the death penalty upon him. This gives us another way in which God's mind works in the application of His lawful judgments. God sent Nathan the prophet to him with a story about a poor man whose one lamb was taken by a rich man and butchered in order to feed his guest. What was to be done about this?
5 Then David's anger burned greatly against the man, and he said to Nathan, "As the LORD lives, surely the man who has done this deserves to die. 6 "And he must make restitution for the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing and had no compassion."
Nathan then said, "Thou art the man!" David repented, but nonetheless, four of his sons ultimately died, because David had pronounced that sentence upon himself. He made restitution for the "lamb" fourfold. Those sons were (1) the unnamed baby mentioned earlier, (2) Amnon in 2 Samuel 13:29, (3) Absalom in 2 Samuel 18:14, and (4) Adonijah in 1 Kings 2:24, 25.
One can only speculate what might have happened if David had been less hypocritical in his "righteous indignation." Even so, the principle of law has been laid down that God often will allow men to judge themselves. This principle is related to the law in Matt. 7:2, which tells us that as we judge, so shall we also be judged by the same standard of measure.
This is another method by which God brings mercy to the sinners. David had opportunity to obtain mercy, but it was lost in his judgmental attitude. He should have prayed about this judgment first, but he assumed the answer was obvious. Answers are not always obvious, nor are murder cases always what they seem on the surface. Those who attempt to implement the divine law need the infilling of the Holy Spirit and to pray for divine wisdom in order to judge as God would judge.
To be a true biblical judge, one must not only know the law, but also to have the mind of God in its application.
Must All Murderers Be Executed?
The law appears on its surface to demand the death penalty for all who are guilty of first-degree murder. Yet we have already seen how this sentence may be imposed in more merciful ways. Usually, this is to give them time to repent, for God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that all should repent.
The next question before us is whether it is an absolute requirement under God that murderers be executed--at least at some point in time. The law of God, as we said earlier, is about justice. It is about giving restitution and satisfaction to the victims of injustice, in order to recompense them fully for their losses.
In the case of theft, the judge must impose the law of restitution upon the thief, forcing him--by slavery, if necessary--to repay his victims at least double. The judge has no right to forgive the thief. Only the victim has the right to forgive.
Thus, if the judge sentences a thief to repay his victim $10,000 for stealing $5,000, justice has been awarded to the victim. At that point the victim has the option of demanding the full payment or forgiving some or all of it. There is no law demanding that the victim receive the full $10,000 from the thief. It is simply treated as a debt owed to the victim. The victim can release the debtor or not, and the law will uphold that right to the letter.
But what about the case of murder? Numbers 35 says,
24 then the congregation shall judge between the slayer and the blood avenger according to these ordinances. . . .
31 Moreover, you shall not take ransom for the life of a murderer who is guilty of death, but he shall surely be put to death. 32 And you shall not take ransom for him who has fled to his city of refuge, that he may return to live in the land before the death of the priest. 33 So you shall not pollute the land in which you are; for blood pollutes the land and no expiation can be made for the land for the blood that is shed on it, except by the blood of him who shed it. 34 And you shall not defile the land in which you live, in the midst of which I dwell; for I the LORD am dwelling in the midst of the sons of Israel.
It seems plain that all murderers must die at some point for their sin. Of course, as we have already shown, this does not necessarily mean that they must die immediately.
Secondly, take note that the law above is spoken to the "congregation" that is called to judge between the murderer and the blood avenger (gaal, the "kinsman-redeemer" of the victim, not someone who wants revenge).
The "congregation" is obviously not the whole nation or the whole Church, but their representatives at the trial. Today we call them the jury, and in biblical days they served much like a committee of judges.
So we understand that Moses was instructing the judges on how to conduct a murder trial. He tells them that they are not to impose any sentence other than the death penalty for premeditated murder. The judges are then to give the murderer into the hand of the kinsman-redeemer, as we read in Deut. 19:12,
12 then the elders of his city shall send and take him from there and deliver him into the hand of the avenger of blood, that he may die.
This shows that the kinsman-redeemer is given life-and-death authority over the murderer. Once this is done, the judges have completed their duty of dispensing justice. It is assumed that the murderer will be put to death, for this is normal in cases like this. But this does not necessarily mean that the kinsman-redeemer MUST impose the death sentence upon the murderer. It is merely in his power to do so, for the judges have passed the sentence of death upon him.
It would be unlawful for a kinsman-redeemer to collect money (ransom) from the murderer. Otherwise, justice might be thwarted, because if the murderer were wealthy, there would certainly be a temptation to use the situation to become wealthy. This, then, would be unjust to the murderer's children, for whatever wealth he owned should rather be his children's inheritance. To give up his estate would be to make his children liable for his own guilt.
But some will say, "Does not the blood of the innocent pollute the land unless the murderer's blood is shed?" It is my view that injustice pollutes the land, especially when a murder has been committed, and the judges do not do their duty in giving the murderer into the hand of the redeemer.
If only the shed blood of the murderer can keep the land from being polluted, then how is it that Joab's blood was not shed until after David had died? How is it that David's blood was not shed? Was David's kingdom polluted? This was God's perfect judgment upon David, and yet David was not executed. It is true, of course, that four of David's children died violent deaths, but if we are to take the law literally, the only way to expiate the blood upon the land would be by the blood of the murderer himself (Num. 35:33, quoted earlier).
The Authority of the Kinsman-Redeemer
It seems to me that the precedents indicate that the law was merely putting it into the hands of the victim's near kinsman, and that the law would fully uphold his right to execute the murderer.
In the case of David's murder of Uriah, the Hittite, it would seem that Uriah had no near kinsman in the land. He was obviously from the land of the Hittites. In such cases, God Himself would take the role of the kinsman-redeemer, even as He said He would do if men oppressed the widows, orphans, or strangers in the land. Exodus 22:21-24 says,
21 And you shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. 22 You shall not afflict any widow or orphan. 23 If you afflict him at all, and if he does cry out to Me, I will surely hear his cry; 24 and My anger will be kindled, and I will kill you with the sword; and your wives shall become widows and your children fatherless.
Widows, orphans, and foreigners generally have no one to plead their cause in order to obtain justice for them. So in such cases, God Himself becomes their redeemer, acting as their guardian. David himself makes reference to this law when he writes in Psalm 27:10,
10 For my father and my mother have forsaken me, but the LORD will take me up.
This was written, no doubt, while David was running away from King Saul. If David's parents had attempted to help him during that time, they might have lost their life and their land inheritance. They really had no choice but to forsake David for a time. But during that time, God became his defense, his kinsman-redeemer.
In the same manner also, the overcomers, who represent the Davidic Company during the Pentecostal Age (Saul's Kingdom), are orphans and strangers. Thus, they fall into the same category as David and are under the direct covering of their Kinsman-Redeemer, Jesus Christ. The representatives of Saul disdain such people as rebels and outlaws, but God has become their covering.
This special relationship also gave David an unusual attitude toward King Saul--the man who was trying to kill him. In any case of attempted murder, it is certainly lawful for a man to defend himself. It was David's lawful right to execute Saul when God gave him into David's hand. But David did not do so, because David knew the mind of God and knew that it was not Saul's time to die. He knew that God would end the persecution when His purposes had been fulfilled.
Just because one has a lawful right does not mean that one must exercise that right. The victim always has the discretion to be merciful, and those who are led by the Spirit are led in a higher way. This does not put away the law. It merely shows that men have learned to apply it by the mind of God. God is just, but He IS LOVE. He allows many of His children to suffer at the hands of evil doers in order to teach them how to truly love as God loves.
Loving the lovable is easy. Loving those who kill you is a bit harder. Not all who experience injustice and abuse at the hands of men will rise to be a Davidic Overcomer. But I am convinced that no one can become an Overcomer who has not experienced abuse and learned to rise above it in the power of Love and Forgiveness.
When Stephen was stoned, with Saul consenting unto his death, we read in Acts 7:59, 60, and 8:1,
59 And they went on stoning Stephen as he called upon the Lord and said, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!" 60 And falling on his knees, he cried out with a loud voice, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them!" And having said this, he fell asleep.
1 And Saul was in hearty agreement with putting him to death.
Stephen had every lawful right to hold their sin of murder against them. If he had done so, the law would have backed him 100%. But then, Stephen would have pronounced judgment upon Saul as well. If he had done so, then many years later, when Saul was stoned, he would have died, and his ministry would have ended at the little town of Lystra (Acts 14:8-20). But Stephen's attitude was that of David. He had the right to commute the sentence.
So the Pentecostal Church Age had opportunity to rule a complete 40 Jubilees unto the time appointed for that Church to give way to the next Church of the Feast of Tabernacles and the Davidic phase of God's Kingdom.