Anger and the Sixth Commandment

Anger and the Sixth Commandment

William Perkins
Exposition of Christ’s Sermon on the Mount
3rd Branch, 1st Example, Matthew 5:21-22.

Ye have heard that it was said of old, Thou shalt not kill, for whosoever killeth, shall be culpable of judgment” (v. 21). Our Savior Christ having laid down His preface, does here begin His interpretation of the law, being indeed the only true Doctor of His church; and herein especially He does meddle with the second table, beginning first of all, with the sixth commandment, touching murder. In the handling whereof, He observes this order: first, He sets down the false interpretation of this law, by the scribes and Pharisees, in this verse; secondly, He shows the true meaning of it (v. 22); and lastly, He propounds rules of concord and agreement between those that be at variance (vv. 23–26).

Part 1

For the first, the Exposition. “Ye have heard”; that is, you Jews which now hear Me, whether scribes, Pharisees, or others. You have heard, that it has been said of old; that is, by your ancient teachers, the old scribes and Pharisees, who have expounded this law unto you. And that this phrase must be understood of the ancient Jewish teachers, may plainly appear, because in the next verse He opposes His own teaching thereunto, and would have these His hearers, that before had learned a false interpretation of this law, from their old teachers, now to learn of Him, the true exposition thereof. The law is this, “Thou shalt not kill.” The exposition of the ancient Jewish teachers was this, “for whosoever kills shall be culpable of judgment”; that is, whosoever lays violent hands on another, to take away his life (for they knew no other murder, neither did they extend this commandment to forbid any sin, but actual murder) “shall be culpable of judgment”—shall be held guilty of murder, both in the courts of men, and also before the judgment seat of God, where he shall receive the deserved punishment thereof. This was the interpretation of the Jews.

Antiquity no infallible mark of truth.

Here first observe, that antiquity is no infallible mark of true doctrine, for this exposition of this commandment was ancient, received from ancient teachers, and yet Christ, the Doctor of truth, rejects it, as false and corrupt. Therefore the argument which the papists use, for the establishing of their religion, drawn from antiquity, is of no effect.

How the Pharisees expounded the Law.

Secondly, by these words of Christ, “ye have heard, it hath been said of old,” we may easily gather, after what manner the scribes and Pharisees expounded the law; namely, they left the Scriptures, and followed the interpretation of their ancient teachers. But here Christ checks and reproves this manner of teaching; and therefore the like cannot be warrantable among us at this day, whereby we see that kind of teaching reproved, wherein every point is fluffed out with the testimonies of fathers, schoolmen, and human writers. And here also is discovered a wicked and dangerous practice of the papists, who refer all deciding of controversies, and interpretation of hard places of Scripture, to the church and to the fathers. If we say that fathers often dissent, and the church may err, then they send us to the pope’s breast. But if this course were safe, then the Jewish teachers might have had a good defense against this charge of Christ, for they had both church and fathers on their side, and the high priest that was then in place. Indeed the fathers must be reverenced, as lights of the church in their time, and their testimonies duly regarded, wherein they agree with the written Word, but for the confirmation of the truth in man’s conscience, and for the edifying of the soul in the graces of the Spirit, the Word of God has the only stroke. By it alone God’s children are begotten, and born anew to a lively hope, and by it alone they are fed and nourished in the faith, yea, by it alone they are confirmed and established in the truth.

Man’s natural conceit of keeping the commandments.

Thirdly, in these Jewish teachers, forbidding nothing as a breach of this law, but the outward sin of murder, and on the contrary approving of those as keepers of this law, that kept their hands from this actual crime of blood, and by consequent worthy of life everlasting, behold a plain picture of every natural man, for is not this the common opinion, that unless a man kill another, he breaks not this commandment? And so for the rest, if he abstains from the outward actual gross sins of stealing, adultery, and false witness bearing, then he keeps those commandments, though his heart be never so full fraught with envy, malice, theft, covetousness, falsehood, etc. But let us observe Christ’s reproof of such erroneous interpretations of God’s law, as a means to school our hearts from such value conceits.

Part 2

But I say unto you, whosoever shall be angry with his brother unadvisedly, shall be culpable of judgment; and whosoever saith unto his brother, Raca, shall be worthy to be punished by the council; and whosoever shall say, fool, shall be worthy to be punished by hell fire” (v. 22). Exposition. Here our Savior Christ propounds the true interpretation of this commandment: “But I say unto you”; that is, whatsoever you have heard the scribes or Pharisees teach you from themselves, or from their fathers, it is nothing, let them not deceive you, for I that am the Lawgiver and Doctor of My church, and therefore best know the meaning of My own law. I say otherwise unto you: “whosoever is angry with his brother, etc.” Here Christ lays down three kinds of murder, and three degrees of punishments for the same.

Three Degrees of Murder.

First Degree.

The first degree of murder is anger, not anger simply, but rash and indiscreet anger towards a brother. And by “brother” He means: first, one Jew with another, to whom Christ spoke; secondly, one neighbor with another, whether Jew or Gentile, for by creation we are all brethren, having one Father which is God, as Adam is called the son of God (Luke 3:38).

Second Degree.

The second degree of murder, is calling his brother Raca. Some expound this word Raca, an idle or empty brain; others, an evil man; others take it to signify a loathsome man, one to be spit at, as we by spitting use to show our contempt. But these interpretations cannot so fitly stand, for then the third degree of murder and this second, should be one and the same, for to call a man empty brain, evil, or loathsome, and to call him fool, are equal in degree. Now Christ’s intent is to set down distinct degrees of murder, as is evident by the distinct degrees of punishment adjoined thereunto. A more fit exposition is this, that Raca has no perfect signification, but is only an interjection of indignation, whereby a man does not slander or revile his brother, but only in gesture shows the contempt and anger of his heart against him, as when in English we say, “fie,” “tush,” or such like, which words are not open railings, but only outward signs of the inward anger and contempt concealed in the heart. So that the meaning is this: he that is angry with his brother, and expresses his anger either in gesture or countenance, by frowning looks, gnashing of teeth, or by imperfect speech, as “tush,” “fie,” “pish,” or such like, he is guilty of murder. The third degree of murder is, when a man does show his anger against his brother by open railings, and reproachful names, expressed in these words, “whosoever shall call his brother fool.” And all these three degrees are beyond the interpretation of the Jewish teachers, who only condemned actual killing by this commandment.

Courts among the Jews.

Now to these several kinds of murder, Christ adds distinct degrees of punishment. The first is, “to be culpable of judgment” for unadvised anger; the second is, “to be worthy to be punished of a council,” for outward signs of this anger; and the third is, “to be worthy of hell fire,” for reproachful names or railings. And here we must understand, that Christ speaks not properly, in setting down these degrees of punishment, but figuratively alluding to the custom of punishing offenders used among the Jews. For they had three courts: the first was held by three men for mean matters, and other cases of small importance; the second was held by three and twenty men, wherein were determined matters of great importance, that could not be decided in the first court, as matters of life and death, and it was kept in the chief cities of the land; and the third court was held at Jerusalem only, called the court of the seventy-two, from which none might appeal to any other. In it were all weighty and great causes determined, and this court is here called “a council.” Now Christ alluding hereto, says to this effect:

Look as among you Jews there are different courts, and some matters are adjudged in your courts of judgment, and others in the council at Jerusalem, so God also has His judgment, and His council. Those that are rashly angry, shall undergo God’s judgment; and he that makes known his anger by speech or countenance, shall be punished more grievously and undergo a deeper judgment, as it were by the Lord’s council; but he that shall by open revilings and railings, show forth his malice against his brother, as by calling him fool, or such like, he shall be worthy the most grievous judgment and torment of hell fire,” alluding to the highest degree of torment among the Jews, which was burning. For before their government was taken from them by Herod, the Jews used these four kinds of punishments: hanging, beheading, stoning, and burning.

Further, the words translated “hell-fire,” are properly the fire of Gehenna, for there was a place near to the suburbs of Jerusalem called Gehenna, which is a compound Hebrew word, signifying the valley of Hinnom, wherein was a place called Topheth (Jer. 7:31), where the idolatrous Jews, following the horrible superstition of the nations about them, used to burn their children unto Molech, for which fact the place became so odious to the godly, that to aggravate the heinousness of this crime, they used this name to signify and betoken the place of torment appointed for the reprobate, whereupon in Christ’s time, Gehenna, and the fire of hell, were in signification all one. Now in this valley the Jews used to burn their malefactors, and unto this kind of judgment Christ alludes, meaning not simply hell fire, the torments of the damned, but a more grievous and greater kind of punishment than the former, because it was a higher degree of sin. So that Christ’s meaning is this:

Howsoever your scribes and Pharisees teach you, that there is no murder but actual killing, and that it only deserves condemnation, yet I which am the Lawgiver say unto you, that as you have divers punishments in several courts for divers offenses, as hanging, stoning, and burning, so God has divers degrees of punishments for the several breaches of this commandment. He that is rashly angry, is worthy of judgment; and he that gives out any show of his anger in gesture, shall be punished more grievously; but he that shows forth his anger by railing and reviling, shall endure the most grievous punishment of all.

First, whereas Christ here makes degrees of punishments for diverse sins, the papists hereon would build their distinction of sins into venial, and mortal. Venial sins (say they) are light sins, as bad thoughts, vain speeches, and such like, which do not deserve damnation, but some temporal punishment only, such as were allotted to civil courts among the Jews. For here (say they) Christ only makes open railing and reviling of our brother, such a heinous sin as deserves hell fire. But this distinction cannot here be grounded, for Christ does not appropriate condemnation to this term of “hell-fire,” but He has reference thereto in every phrase that here imports a punishment as: to be culpable of judgment for unadvised anger, is to deserve condemnation in hell fire; and to be punished by a council, for testifying anger by outward signs, is to deserve condemnation, but yet in deeper degree; and to be worthy to be punished with the fire of Gehenna, for open railing, is to deserve condemnation also, but yet in a deeper measure than the former. For as among the Jews by the sentence of their courts, some offenses were punished by beheading or hanging, greater offenses by stoning, and the greatest by burning, all which punishments differed in degree, and yet everyone was death, so before God, lesser sins deserve lesser condemnation in hell fire, and greater sins deeper damnation, and yet every sin deserves damnation, for the “wages of sin,” be it never so little, “is death” (Rom. 6:23). Christ here makes degrees of punishment, according to the degrees of sin, and yet so, as every sin is mortal, deserving damnation, and none venial in itself.

Rules for the expounding of the Law.

Secondly, we may here observe two excellent rules for the expounding of the moral law. First, that under one sin named in a commandment, are forbidden all sins of the same kind, with all the causes thereof, for Christ in expounding this sixth commandment, does not only condemn actual murder, but even rash anger in the heart, and all signs thereof in countenance and gesture, with all railing, and reviling speeches, as breaches of this commandment, and the like He observes in those rules which follow. Rule 2. To the breach of every commandment there is annexed a curse, albeit it be not expressed, for Christ here setting down the breaches of this sixth commandment threatens condemnation to the least breach thereof, saying, he that is unadvisedly angry with his brother, shall be culpable of judgment. Is it not then a wonder to see, how ignorant people do use the commandments for prayers, when as indeed (if they could perceive it) they are God’s thunderbolts to throw their souls to hell for every sin they commit?

Advised anger not unlawful. How lawful anger may be discerned.

Thirdly, Christ condemning unadvised anger as a breach of this law, gives us to understand, that advised anger is not unlawful. True it is, that all anger is not sinful, for Christ was oftentimes angry with the Jews [Mark 3:5], and the apostle bids us “to be angry, but sin not” [Eph. 4:26]. If any here ask, how we may discern between godly anger, from that which is evil and unadvised, I answer two ways: first, by the beginning of it, for good anger proceeds from the love of him with whom we are angry. Now love is the fulfilling of the law, and therefore anger proceeding from love and guided thereby, cannot be a breach thereof, but evil anger proceeds from self-love, from dislike or hatred of the party with whom we are angry. Secondly, we may discern it by the end. Good anger is for God’s glory against sin, because God thereby is dishonored, and for our brothers’ good, but evil anger wants these ends, and intends private respects. It is quickly moved; it continues long; and also carries with it a desire of revenge.

Anger must be bridled.

Fourthly, seeing unadvised anger, with the sign thereof, is a breach of this law, deserving death; hereby we are admonished to beware of this headstrong affection of anger, and betimes to restrain and bridle the same. It has a bad beginning, and an evil end, and thereby we become murderers. Now that we may overrule it, so as it prevails not against us, first, we must lay to our hearts this commandment of God, forbidding rash anger, as a bar to stop it. Secondly, we must remember, how lovingly and mercifully God deals with us every day, in forbearing and forgiving us; and therefore we ought to be like-minded towards our brethren (Eph. 4:31–32).

Signs of despite are degrees of murder.

The second branch of sin here condemned is, “to say unto our brother, Raca,” whereby we may see that every gesture expressing rash anger, and spite of heart towards another, is murder before God: casting down the countenance towards him, which God reproved in Cain (Gen. 4:6); frowning or nodding the head, or shaking it in contempt, as the Jews did to Christ (Matt. 27:39); and contemptuous laughter and deriding, hence Ishmael’s jeering at Isaac, is called persecution (Gal. 4:29) [Gen. 21:9]. The like may be said of all signs of contempt in words as “fie,” “tush,” and “pish”; and to (thou) a man in disdain, for otherwise a superior may thou his inferiors; so also when a man contemptuously takes a thing in snuff, though he says nothing, but flings away with a heart rising against his brother. All these and such like tokens of contempt, and disdain, are here condemned for murder of heart.

Make conscience of gesture.

Therefore it stands us in hand, to make conscience of every gesture of our body, of the casting of our eyes, of our laughter, and of all passionate words, lest thereby we show any contempt or anger towards our brethren.

If it be said, how can every gesture expressing rash anger or contempt be murder, seeing the law permits a widow to “spit in the face of her husband’s brother, or next kinsman,” even “before the elders of the city, if he refused to raise up seed unto his brother” [Deut. 25:7–9].

Answer. First, the Lord might command her so to do, thereby to manifest His great dislike of want of love in him towards his dead brother. Secondly, I answer, the words may as fitly be translated thus, “and spit in his sight,” that is, spit on the ground before his face, that he might see her, and that seems to be the true meaning of that place, for it was very unseemly for anyone, much more for a woman, so publicly to spit in a man’s face. And in that sense is the word used in the same book (Deut. 4:37), where God is said to bring Israel out of Egypt “in his face,” that is, “in his sight.”

Abuses of the tongue.

Secondly, under this branch of murder by sign of contempt, are many abuses of the tongue most justly condemned, as first, bitterness of speech, when men that be at variance, give out hard and grievous words one against another. These are as “pricks of swords” [Prov. 12:18], as the wise man says; and therefore the Holy Ghost charges us, that “all bitterness, anger, and wrath be put away from us” [Eph. 4:31]. Secondly, all wrangling and contentious speech between parties disagreeing, when as neither will yield, but each one will think to have the last word: “Do all things without murmuring and reasoning [KJV: disputings]” (Phil. 2:14), for that springs of choler and stout stomach, clean contrary to meekness and patience, a fruit of the Spirit. Thirdly, “crying” [Eph. 4:31] also is here forbidden, whereby men or women being at variance in private speeches, do through choler and malice lift up their voices, that they may be heard afar off. This is a fruit of raging anger, and fury. Fourthly, threatening speeches are also here condemned, when as men from an inward dislike and rage in their own private cause, do give out menacing words against others. Masters are forbidden thus to deal with their servants [Eph. 6:9], much less then may one brother thus threaten another. Fifthly, all kinds of girding and taunting others by privy and close nips [private hurtful words], is here condemned, although there be no open railing, for thereby men seek to disgrace their brethren, and to gladden their own hearts by grieving others, which is more than to say, “Raca.”

Third Degree.

Reviling terms forbidden.

The third degree of murder is, in reviling terms, calling our brother “fool,” or such like. This also is a sin against the ninth commandment, by robbing him of his good name, for one sin in divers respects may be against many commandments. It is a breach of this sixth commandment, in that hereby we grieve and trouble our neighbor, and so far as a reproach can go, make him weary of his life.

Upon the ground of this degree of murder, be all grievous practices of men against their brethren, justly condemned for bloody practices, as first, usury, whereby men bind their brethren to return gain, for the bare loan of money or other goods, which naturally yield no increase, without all respect to their necessity, or to the success of the employing of it. Hereby many are brought to great poverty. Reviling terms do nothing so much as pinch the poor, as this oppression. Secondly, the hoarding up of corn till times of dearth, that thereby they may gain the more. These men make a private gain of God’s common judgment upon the poor. Indeed it is not unlawful in time of plenty, to lay up store against a time of dearth, but to do it with the hurt of the poor, is to suck their blood, and to eat up God’s people, as when men keep their garners [food storage] full, and suffer the poor to starve. The peoples’ curse lies on such (Prov. 11:26). Thirdly, fighting and striking by private persons, or by others in private causes, for they wound or weaken the body of their neighbors, which is more than to grieve him by reviling speeches. Fourthly, the detaining the food of the soul, by those that cannot, or will not preach, is a damage against eternal life; and therefore Paul to clear himself from blood in this behalf, said, “he kept nothing back” (Acts 20:26–27). Fifthly, to give offense by word or deed, whereby others are occasioned to fall. This is “uncharitable walking,” whereby we do as much as in us lies, “destroy him for whom Christ died” (Rom. 14:15). As this is cruel in all, so especially in public persons, as magistrates, ministers, parents, masters, and such like, because their practices are rules to their inferiors. They are like lights in a haven which guide the ships that sail by night, which standing amiss, lead the ships upon rocks and sands, and so cause shipwreck.

True uses of this law. Search our hearts.

Having seen the true meaning of this law expounded by Christ, let us here further observe, how He restores the true use thereof. We must not think that He did only here intend the rectifying of our judgments for understanding, and not also strike at the reformation of our hearts and lives for practice. Touching the use of this law therefore, Christ here teaches us two things: first, to descend into our own hearts, and there to search how we have broken this commandment, as whether we have borne in our hearts any malice against our brother, and whether we have expressed the rash anger of our hearts by speech or gesture, or have any way wronged him by reviling terms, or other injuries against his life. If we have, Christ tells us we are murderers.

Judge ourselves.

Secondly, Christ setting down the curse to every degree of murder, teaches us, upon due examination of our hearts, finding ourselves guilty in any degree, to cast down ourselves before the Lord, to accuse and condemn ourselves, crying out that all shame and confusion belongs unto us. This we must do, that by the view of our miseries, we may be moved more earnestly to sue for mercy. And indeed if we examine our hearts, and our behaviors thoroughly, we shall find that we are all murderers. For though we may be free from actual killing, yet our consciences will tell us that the motions of wrath and malice, and the signs of unadvised anger have broken forth, both in our words and gesture. For who can say, he never snuffed at another by way of contempt or dislike? Who can clear himself from deriding and disgracing others? Now these things and such like, make us guilty of sin against the law, and so subject to the wrath and curse of God, which must be fulfilled, though heaven and earth should pass away. This undoubtedly is our miserable and woeful case in ourselves. And there is no way to escape this curse, but only this: we must humble ourselves before God, and confess against ourselves the murder of our hearts, declared in our gesture, speech, and behavior; then we must labor to be grieved for these sins, for which end we must apply unto ourselves God’s fearful judgments due unto us for them. Thirdly, we must earnestly sue unto God for mercy and pardon, as for life and death, like as poor prisoners do, when the sentence of death is to be pronounced against them; yea, we must cry with sighs and groans that cannot be expressed, and give the Lord no rest, till He sends into our consciences the comfortable message of mercy and pardon by His good Spirit. This done, we must labor in our callings for the time to come, to procure and further the welfare and safety of our brethren, as well as our own. We must not seek ourselves, but the common good, eschewing those things that may grieve our brethren, and doing those that may be good and comfortable unto them, that so by new obedience we may show forth thankfulness for God’s mercy and favor towards us.

Fourth Degree.

Actual killing.

Hitherto we have handled the three degrees of murder, which Christ condemns by this law, beyond the doctrine of the Jewish teachers. Besides these, there is a fourth degree here condemned, which is actual killing. This Christ does not here name, because He takes it for granted, even by the doctrine of the scribes and Pharisees. Now because it is the main sin of this commandment, therefore here it is to be handled, which we will do thus: first, we will show when killing is murder, and when it is not; and then handle the kinds thereof.

When killing is allowed.

Point 1. For the first, killing is not always murder, for sometimes a man has power given of God to kill, and it is no sin. Now God gives a man power to kill three ways: first, by the written Word, thus princes and governors, and under them executioners, are allowed to kill malefactors that deserve death, and thus soldiers are warranted to kill their enemies in a lawful war; second, by an extraordinary commandment, and so Abraham might lawfully have killed his son, if the angel of the Lord had not stayed his hand [Gen. 22:2, 10–11]; third, by an extraordinary instinct, which is answerable to a special commandment, and so Phinehas slew Zimri and Cozbi, without guilt of murder [Ps. 106:30–31]. But killing is murder, when men of their own wills, without warrant from God, slay others, and this sin is plainly and directly forbidden in this commandment.

The kinds of killing.

Point 2. The kinds of killing be two: either voluntary or casual. Voluntary killing is, when a man kills of purpose and intent, and this sin is so heinous, that it “defileth the land” [Num. 35:33] where the blood is shed, till it be purged by the blood of him that shed it. And this purpose to kill is twofold: either with deliberation and sore desire of revenge, as when a man has carried a grudge in his heart long before; or without deliberation, when a man without all former malice is suddenly carried by fury and anger to slay his brother. [Margin: Manslaughter is murder.] This second kind of killing is distinguished from that which is upon deliberation, by the name of manslaughter, and also favored by the laws of some countries, because it is not done of set purpose, but through sudden anger before the blood be cold. But God’s law makes both of them murder, and admits “no recompense for the life of the murderer” [Num. 35:31]; nay, beside it adjudges the murderer to eternal death, both in soul and body. To this voluntary murder, we must refer those that give commandment, counsel, or help unto the murderer, for he that commands is the principal agent, and the murderer is his instrument. Again, it is voluntary murder to strike another, though with purpose only to wound, if death follows thereon, and that also which is committed by a drunken man, for his will is free, though sense and reason be blinded.

Casual killing. The signs thereof.

Casual killing, commonly called chancemedly [random], is when a man kills another, having no purpose to do him hurt. The presumptions of casual killing be these: first, if a man kill another, having no ill will or anger towards him, nor to any other for his sake, neither is moved thereto by covetousness, or any affection; secondly, if he be doing the lawful duties of his particular calling; thirdly, if he be well occupied, doing some lawful work beside his calling; and lastly, if he be doing a thing which he ordinarily practices, keeping his usual place and time. And albeit this kind of killing, if it be merely casual, is no sin, yet the party committing it, in old time was bound to come to his answer, thereby to purge and clear himself from suspicion of murder; as also to avoid the hatred and danger of the friends of the party killed; and lastly, to keep and maintain the hatred of murder among God’s people. Now this sixth commandment, is not to be understood of casual, but of voluntary killing. And this also must be observed, that Christ gives the name of murder to all the occasions thereof, that He might breed in our hearts a hatred of them all, as of murder itself.

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