There is so much slaughter of people and animals in the early books of the Bible, and yet one of the Ten Commandments is “Thou shalt not kill.” I wonder why God did not kill the inhabitants of the land which He had chosen for the Israelites instead of instructing them to kill all the people, even the little ones.

The issues raised by our correspondent are important and clearly spring from a very desirable feeling of compassion and humanity. If we did not have some feeling of drawing back at the thought of putting others to death, there would surely be something seriously wrong.

Perhaps we should first consider the commandment: “Thou shalt not kill.” There is a weighty seriousness attached to the ten commandments. Inscribed by the finger of God on unyielding stone; borne down from the mount by one of God’s greatest servants, Moses, the servant of God, and solemnly placed within the ark in the Most Holy place, all should tremble before this solemn divine list of injunctions and prohibitions.

The commandments were clearly intended to establish principles relevant to individual servantsof God in the conduct of their personal lives. Those injunctions which commanded the Israelite to “Honour thy father and thy mother” and declared “thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife” clearly spoke personally to each individual. Yet it can scarcely be doubted that general principles intended to circumscribe the behaviour of the nation as a whole are also intended.

So “Thou shalt not kill” was to have strict application, subject only to any overriding divine commandment. Such a commandment is recorded in Deuteronomy 20:16–18, “But of the cities of these people, which the Lord thy God doth give thee for an inheritance, thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth. But thou shalt utterly destroy them; namely, the Hittites, and the Amorites, the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; as the Lord thy God hath commanded thee: That they teach you not to do after all their abominations, which they have done unto their gods; so should ye sin against the Lord your God.”

There are overriding principles by which Yahweh operates in His dealings with men. He always acts in accordance with His own declaration concerning Himself given to Moses: “merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth …” In the case of the people in the days of Noah, Peter tells us that “the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah”. Only when their iniquity and violence had reached such a level that it could no longer be borne did God act in judgment. So with the people of Canaan. God declared to Abraham concerning his seed, the children of Israel, that “in the fourth generation they shall come hither again: for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet full.” The Amorites were evil in the days of Abraham, yet God in mercy would wait hundreds of years until that iniquity was “full”, when it had reached a level where divine forbearance could be extended no longer.

God did command His people to destroy the Canaanites in exercise of His judgment. Yet it was God who overthrew the city of Jericho, reinforcing to Israel that He was leading and directing that judgment. Likewise in that notable day when “the sun stood still, and the moon stayed, until the people had avenged themselves upon their enemies … there was no day like that before it or after it, that the Lord hearkened unto the voice of a man: for the Lord fought for Israel” (Josh10:12–14). The work of judgment was God’s work. He led Israel, but expected them to agree with His judgments and participate in the battles to seize their inheritance.

When Christ returns and goes forth to subdue the world with the immortal saints at his side, he will expect us to agree with his judgments and participate in destroying God’s enemies. The Psalmist declares that “the Lord taketh pleasure in his people: he will beautify the meek with salvation” (Psa 149:4). But he continues: “Let the high praises of God be in their mouth, and a two-edged sword in their hand; To execute vengeance upon the heathen, and punishments upon the people; To bind their kings with chains, and their nobles with fetters of iron. To execute upon them the judgment written: this honour have all his saints. Praise ye the Lord.” See also Revelation 15:2,4; 16:5,7.

This grim task of judgment will be the responsibility not only of Christ but of us his followers. God is always right and always just, whether acting in mercy, or in judgment. He will expect us to agree and act in concert with him in the age to come, just as He expected Israel to agree, and act in concert with him in days gone by.