The story is told of a three-year-old girl with a pet tortoise. One day, the tortoise would not emerge from its shell, so the concerned little girl took the reptile to her mother. When her mother could not coax the animal out, she concluded that it must have died. Carefully placing the tortoise in a box on the kitchen counter, she sat down to explain to her daughter what had happened.

The little girl was devastated. She spent the day in tears, weeping in despair and disbelief that her beloved pet would never return to her. At last, to the mother’s great relief, her husband arrived home from work. He was quickly tasked to console their daughter.

Finding the little girl still in tears, her father suggested that they hold a funeral for the tortoise. Realising that she did not understand the concept, the father explained that a funeral is like a going away party. When she still did not understand, the father explained that it would be like a birthday party: There would be cake and ice cream, and all her friends would come over and say nice things about the tortoise. The little girl cheered up for the first time that day.

Meanwhile, in the kitchen, her mother heard movement in the box. Glancing in, she found the tortoise alive and well, trying to escape from the box. She hurried to her daughter with the animal to break the good news. The girl’s face brightened, but then it dawned on her that, with the tortoise still alive, the party would be cancelled. “Mommy,” she said, “let’s kill him.”

That story is probably fictitious, but its lesson is pointed: We are often all too willing to do what must be done to remove all obstacles to getting what we want. In its most drastic form, this results in murder. From the dawn of human history, people have shown a willingness to shed innocent blood to protect their own interests. But this is inexcusable, for the shedding of innocent blood is one of the things that God is specifically said to hate—and one that his children should hate too.

When it comes to the third of the seven sins that Solomon lists, we might immediately feel a sense of relief. After all, most reading this have probably never committed murder—at least, not in the technical sense. If murder is the cold-blooded, premeditated ending of another person’s life, most can honestly plead not guilty—until we consider the full teaching of the Scripture on the matter.

Our text speaks of “hands that shed innocent blood” (Proverbs 6:17). The “blood” is “innocent” not because it is without sin, but because it has not committed a capital crime, which would warrant death. (I assume capital crimes here; it is beyond the scope of this article to consider the biblical teaching on capital punishment.) The immediate emphasis is on “hands” that shed such “innocent blood,” but, as we will see, sins of the heart that eventually lead to sins of the hand are equally in view when the full testimony of Scripture is considered.

What does it mean to “shed innocent blood”? Most directly, murder is in view. The Bible is clear on this point: “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13). It ought to go without saying—though it sadly must be said—that murder includes the taking of the most innocent of lives: those of unborn children in the womb. Performing, receiving or encouraging abortion absolutely makes one guilty of shedding innocent blood. If that was all that the Bible said about shedding innocent blood, this would be a far briefer article. But there is more. Jesus made it clear that murder is committed not only with the hands, but also with the heart. Since most readers are probably not guilty of shedding blood with their hands, I want to focus for our purposes on what it means to shed blood with the heart.

The basic principle that underlies God’s hatred of shedding innocent blood is our sinful tendency to injure others. And it is as possible to commit this sin with the heart as with the hands.

The most direct nonphysical manifestation of this sin is unwarranted anger. Anger is sometimes justified, but ours rarely so. Our anger usually falls into the category of which Jesus warned: “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgement.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgement; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire” (Matthew 5:21–22). Unchecked anger sometimes leads to physical murder (see Genesis 49:6), but even if it doesn’t, mistreating others in anger amounts to the same thing.

Hatred is a connected sin, which often arises from anger. Thomas Watson called hatred “a vermin which lives upon blood.” Ezekiel said of Mount Seir, “Because you have had an ancient hatred, [you] have shed the blood of the children of Israel” (Ezekiel 35:5, NKJV). It was hatred in the heart that produced blood-shedding hands.

Envy, similarly, is closely connected in Scripture to murder (see Galatians 5:21, NKJV). When Joseph’s brothers were envious of him, they plotted his death (Genesis 37:20). Cain’s murder of Abel proceeded, in part, from jealousy.

These things—anger, hatred and jealousy—are closely linked in Scripture to murder, and we see in the examples given how they can produce murder. But since few readers will be guilty of physical murder, we do well to consider what other forms of injury these sins might produce—forms that are effectively murder of the heart if not of the hands. In what ways might anger, hatred and jealousy drive us to injure others? Let’s briefly consider three manifestations of “heart murder.”

First, we can be guilty of heart murder in our thoughts. The apostle John said it as clearly as anyone: “Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer” (1 John 3:15). If you harbour malice and bitterness in your heart and mind toward others, you are guilty of shedding innocent blood. We are called to love others, not to hate them.

Second, we can be guilty of heart murder in our speech. Jesus said that our speech flows from what is in our heart (Matthew 12:34). If you harbour hatred and bitterness in your heart, it will manifest itself in hateful and bitter speech. We gossip and backbite and slander those for whom we harbour hatred in our heart. In fact, when Jesus identified anger with murder in Matthew 5, he showed how that anger manifests itself in speech: “Whoever insults his brother” and, “Whoever says, ‘You fool!’” (vv. 22). Such speech, which flows from an attitude of the heart, is tantamount to bloodshed.

Third, we can be guilty of heart murder in our writing. Again, this is a manifestation of what is in our hearts, but here it flows in what we write rather than what we verbalise. This is illustrated in 2 Samuel 11, in which David “wrote a letter to Joab” instructing him, “Set Uriah in the forefront of the hardest fighting, and then draw back from him, that he may be struck down” (vv. 14–15). David’s pen was the ultimate tool of Uriah’s murder. Our sin in this regard may not be as blatant, but when we use the written word (email, social media, texting, etc.) to malign others, we have become guilty of innocent blood.

This is a most serious sin. It is an affront to God, who created all people in his image (Genesis 9:6). Bloodshed is a sin that cries to God from the ground (Genesis 4:10), and while heart murder is not exactly equivalent to hand murder, the principle remains. Innocent bloodshed is a devilish sin, for he was a murderer from the beginning (John 8:44). Ultimately, it is a sin that invites God’s wrath (see 2 Kings 24:4).

If we recognise heart murder within us toward others, how do we counter it? Let me briefly make three suggestions.

First, pray for the person who is the object of your heart murder. Common wisdom in Jesus’ day advised people to love their neighbour and hate their enemy. Jesus countered this thinking with this command: “I say to you, Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:43–44ff). Do not pray judgement upon them, but pray for God’s kindness on them, and for a change of attitude in your own heart toward them.

Second, find something good to do for them. Again, Jesus spoke these countercultural words: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you” (Luke 6:28). One sure way to overcome bitterness toward others is to serve them. Pray that God would give you opportunity to serve those who hate you, and then take the opportunity to do so.

Third, exercise your mind to think the best of those whom you are tempted to murder in your heart. One characteristic of Christian love is that it “believes all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7), looking for the best in those whom God loves. Rather than harbouring bitterness, think the best about those you are tempted to dislike.

Love always trounces hatred. “Better is a dinner of herbs where love is than a fattened ox and hatred with it” (Proverbs 15:17). And the ultimate motivation for countering hate with love is that it gives evidence that we are “sons of [our] Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45).