The Fifth Commandment : Honour your parents
Honour your father and your mother (Exodus 20:12)
As we looked at the first four commandments, we saw that they have a vertical component in that they address our relationship with God. Jesus emphasised this when He told us how – and to what extent – we’re to love God.
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. (Mark 12:30)
He further expounded on the spiritual intent of the law when He said, The most important [commandment] is, Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: You shall love your neighbour as yourself. (Mark 12:29-31)
The remaining six commandments have a horizontal element in that they have a bearing on how we relate to our fellow man.
So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets. (Matthew 7:12)
So now we come to the fifth commandment: Honour your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. (Exodus 20:12)
It’s both interesting and highly significant that the first commandment dealing with our human relationships should start in the home. This highlights the importance God places on the family unit and on the hierarchy it contains.
History and background
Before we begin to study this commandment in detail, it’s worth taking a few moments to examine the context.
The Israelites had only just left Egypt after generations of slavery and, consequently, they knew nothing about autonomy or self-rule. God had purposed that Moses was educated and trained up within the Egyptian royal household so his skills could be used to lead the children of Israel out of slavery in Egypt to Canaan – the Promised Land.
As God’s chosen people, this new, fledgling nation was to be a theocracy. This is very clear from the first four commandments that are centred on God. In fact, strictly speaking, even the fifth commandment centres on God because He is our self-proclaimed heavenly Father. No human father deserves honour as much as our heavenly Father and yet the Bible shows that we often fail to honour and respect Him as we ought.
A son honours his father, and a servant his master. If then I am a Father, where is my honour? And if I am a Master, where is my fear? (Malachi 1:6) (Sometimes translated as, And if I am a Master, where is my respect? )
Just as God’s chosen people were to live under a theocracy, so also must we. This is made abundantly clear from Jesus’ teaching when He said, If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:26)
This verse was quite problematic for me as a young Christian because it seems diametrically opposed to the fifth commandment. It was some time before I came to realise that the context here is the cost of discipleship. As revealed by the first four commandments, God simply has to be first and foremost in my life, no matter what the cost.
Once again the notion of a marked hierarchy is reinforced. It’s not a question of loving God, then parents, then family etc. but rather of loving God so completely that our love for others pales into insignificance in comparison. If I have to choose between God and family, and even my own life, I must choose God. Fortunately, that price is not required by most of us and, indeed, we’re exhorted to honour and esteem others, especially our parents, above ourselves.
So the fifth commandment effectively links the first group of commandments to the second. It demonstrates how learning respect and honour within the family honours God as our heavenly Father.
A promise of reward
This commandment comes with a promise and Paul spoke about it in his letter to the church at Ephesus.
Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. Honour your father and mother (this is the first commandment with a promise), that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land. (Ephesians 6:1-3)
For the Israelites, ‘the land’ was none other than Canaan; the land that God had promised to His chosen people. If they would honour God as they ought, they would prosper in this land for generations. Of course, as we read Old Testament history, we see that they did not honour God and so they suffered the inevitable consequences of exile and slavery.
What lessons can we learn from this today? What does it mean that that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land? All God’s commandments are given for His glory and our benefit, but this one particularly underlines the blessings that obedience brings for us in ‘our land’ as individuals, within our family, our Church and in society in general.
The stability of any society is a reflection of the stability of its families. Our primary learning takes place in the home and children who are not taught or required to honour and respect their parents and to live within the hierarchy of the family often go on to have disciplinary issues at school, in the workplace, at Church and in society in general.
It’s a most loving thing, and very much in the best interests of everyone, for respect, honour and obedience to be taught and appropriately enforced in the home. Learning to obey this commandment helps us establish a lifetime pattern of respect for authority.
It’s worth noting that there’s no time limit on this commandment. In other words, honour and respect for our parents is to continue all their lives. This makes perfect sense in that there’s no better way to teach the next generation to honour their parents than to set the example of honouring our own parents. We all learn more effectively by what we see and experience rather than by simple instruction – however valid that instruction may be.
I’m very blessed in that God gifted me wonderful parents. There was plenty to admire and respect and every good reason to honour them and any disobedience or lack of respect on my part came from my own inherent sin and rebellion. While the words ‘father and mother’ clearly refer to our physical or perhaps adoptive parents, the word ‘parent’ can refer to any older related person. This was probably most often translated in my childhood circumstances as the requirement to respect my elders.
This fifth commandment is frequently, and I think correctly, expanded to apply to all figures in authority. Indeed, this is underlined by Peter in his first letter.
Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honour everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the emperor. (1 Peter 2:13-17)
God wants us to learn to honour everyone… (1 Peter 2:17) and He requires us to submit to authority, For there is no authority except from God. (Romans 13:1)
Checks and balances
God’s word is wonderfully balanced and we learn that privilege and responsibility come hand in hand. Yes, children are required to honour, respect and obey their parents (and their leaders and elders) but parents (and leaders and elders) are also required to be honourable.
Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. Honour your father and mother (this is the first commandment with a promise), that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land. Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. (Ephesians 6:1-4)
Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged. (Colossians 3:21)
How might we provoke our children? How might we discourage those who are under our care or authority? We may need to examine ourselves in the light of Scripture to determine whether or not we are honourable or if our life and public testimony is riddled with inconsistencies and contradictions.
As an adult and hopefully mature Christian, parent or not, I’m fully responsible for the example I set to children and also to those who are young in their faith. I’m to be a role model and teacher for them. No-one in any position of authority (parental, teaching, leadership) or simply by dint of age and experience can expect to be honoured or respected if their testimony is full of inconsistencies and their life is dishonouring to God.
In Titus 2, we read: But as for you, speak the things which are proper for sound doctrine: that the older men be sober, reverent, temperate, sound in faith, in love, in patience; the older women likewise, that they be reverent in behaviour, not gossips, not given to much wine, teachers of good things – that they admonish the young women to love their husbands, to love their children, to be discreet, chaste, homemakers, good, obedient to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be blasphemed. (Titus 2:1-5)
God doesn’t condone repressive, heavy-handed leadership in at home, at Church or anywhere else. In fact, He holds parents, teachers, leaders and anyone in authority or public ministry to a stricter judgment.
Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. (James 3:1)
It’s a real challenge when we perceive a lack of honour in our parents, elders and leaders. What do we do then? Clearly we can’t force others to be honourable. However, the Bible teaches us that, as far as possible, unless it actually counteracts God’s laws, we should respect authority.
Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honourable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. (Romans 12:17-18)
The fifth commandment : Honour your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.
There’s no doubt that we’re to honour our parents but parents and, indeed, anyone in a position of authority, are obliged to act honourably.
If we are dishonourable in our daily life, we make it hard for the upcoming generation to comply with this commandment. And if we fail to honour and respect our parents, just one time, we break this commandment.
Guilty as charged.