Deuteronomy 5:16 (Honor your father and mother)

The Ten Commandments really give us a blueprint for who we are apart from sin.  They are a guide to our true selves if we did not live in a world horribly altered by sin or if we were not conceived in sin.  They show life in God’s image.

As such the Law is a picture of the nature of God.  God is faithful, holy, loving, kind, true, and completely content in Himself.  These are the attributes reflected in the Commandments.  The Ten Commandments are law and covenant but also a roadmap for imitating God.  They are a path to godliness.

In that way they are the Old Testament version of the Fruit of the Spirit.  The Fruit of the Spirit in our lives is evidence of walking by the Spirit – of walking with God and becoming like Him.  Fruit of the Spirit is just another way of saying ‘character of God’.  When we walk with God we take on more and more attributes of His character – and His character shows itself in our lives through obedience to the Ten Commandments.

The fifth commandment is a clear example of this point.  Jesus said repeatedly when He was on earth that His purpose in coming was to do His Father’s will and to glorify Him (Jn 4:34, 8:49-50, 17:4).  Jesus honored His Father in all things, and even when facing the cross deferred to His Father’s will (Matt 26:39).

Honor Your Father and Your Mother
The last six commands address horizontal relationships.  It is notable that the first of these final six is the only one stated positively and the only one that names a specific relationship (relationship is implied in the seventh commandment).  God obviously sees the role of parents and family as vitally important to the success of the covenant and the stability of the nation.

It is interesting to notice what this commandment does not say.  It does not say to obey your parents.  It does not say to like or love your parents.  It makes no mention of good or bad parents or whether or not they are worthy of honor.  It does not mention an age where obedience to it is no longer required and gives no contingencies at all that would allow people in certain circumstances to disregard it.

The command is straightforward.  Honor your father and your mother.  This is true for the child of eight who has to obey and for the child of 48 who has to esteem and appreciate.  The word for honor means to respect, glorify or venerate.  Every child of every age and every circumstance is responsible to accord this to his parents.

This is the only command associated with a specific promise.  The first two commandments have a curse and a blessing connected to them, but they do not have the clear promise of the fifth.  The promise is the Deuteronomic Principle – obey the Law and live long and prosperously in the land.  This is really the same promise associated with all the commandments and is the basis of the covenant.  However, just as the warning of the third commandment (which is the same warning associated with all the commandments) highlights the gravity of what it addresses, so the blessing of this command highlights the important place it holds in the culture of God’s people. 

The promise seems to be corporate rather than individual.  If the nation honors its parents it will live safely and prosperously in the land.  If it does not it will not.  The reason for this is probably explained in 6:6-7.  God tells the people they are to focus on the words of the Law day and night and teach them diligently to their children.  If the parents teach the children the covenant and if the children honor their parents by abiding by what they are taught, then the covenant will be honored and the blessing of the covenant will be enjoyed.

It is interesting that nothing is said here about the parents’ responsibility.  This command falls completely on the children.  The promise is what directs us to the parents – it comes to pass only if they are teaching the Law to their children.  If the children do not honor their parents they will not abide by the covenant and will suffer as a result.  The nation’s future is really dependent on the parents’ diligent teaching and the children’s obedient acceptance.

The covenant which God made with His people at Sinai drew them all into a believing community in which the family’s spiritual values played an important role.  The education of the children was entrusted to believing parents and just as the father and mother were to share the truth faithfully with their children, so the children were to receive the truth gratefully from their parents. 
– Raymond Brown, The Message of Deuteronomy

Paul quotes this command in Ephesians 6:2-3 and also says that children should obey their parents.  He also adds a command to the fathers.  He says the fathers are not to provoke your children to anger; but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.  The second half of what he says – bring them up in the instruction of the Lord – is really a restating of Deuteronomy 6.  Fathers are to diligently teach their children the ways of God.  However, the other instruction is entirely new and puts a responsibility directly on the father.  Do not provoke your children to anger.  What seems to be his intent is to warn fathers against using their authority so harshly that they alienate their children and sever the relationship (in that culture fathers wielded absolute authority over the family – much more so than in western culture).

Severing the relationship between parent and child makes fulfilling the promise of the fifth commandment impossible.  If the father drives his child away then the ability to influence that child toward obedience to the covenant goes away too.  The father’s authority must be wielded in a way that does not drive his child away from the faith.  It is impossible to pass along the faith to one who is provoked to anger.  It is impossible to influence someone with whom there is no relationship.

Thought: It can be hard to know how to apply Paul’s teaching.  A rebellious child tends to see all demands placed on him as unreasonable.  He feels exasperated or provoked to anger by any correction that comes from his parents.  However, what Paul says in a parallel passage in Colossians 3:21 is instructive.  He says not to exasperate our children that they may not lose heart.  We violate Paul’s words when we lose sight of the end goal of bringing our kids into the discipline and instruction of the Lord and simply want them to stop making our lives difficult.  When our parenting is more about our authority and comfort rather than our children’s salvation and sanctification, we can exasperate them and endanger the ability to impact them for the faith.  If we parent out of anger and irritation rather than love and mercy, we can cause our children to lose heart: “If nothing I do is right, why bother?”  The one who loses heart has no relationship to guide him to God. 

Our kids’ perspective on God is shaped in a large way by their relationship with us.  If we are quick to anger and intolerance, we form in them a perspective that says God reacts in the same way.  We can turn our kids away from God by behavior that causes them to see Him as harsh and unmerciful. 

When Paul quotes the fifth commandment in Ephesians he states it along with a slightly altered promise.  He does not mention the promise of longevity in the land but simply states that it may be well with you and that you may live long on the earth.  Just like the promise of 5:16, Paul’s promise is meant corporately rather than individually.  There is nothing here that points to an individual being able to claim this as a predictor of long life.  Instead, it likely points to the stability of society that comes when this command is obeyed.  If a society is marked by children honoring the authority and teaching of their parents, it enjoys the stability of a lawful and moral populace.  [Which points to what happens in society when children no longer honor their parents – or when there are no parents to be honored because of the breakdown of the family.  Societies marked by few examples of obeying the fifth commandment are societies marked by lawlessness and immorality.]

The fifth commandment has a large impact on the promise and curse of the first two.  God promises to visit the sins of the fathers on the third and fourth generation of those who hate Him (5:9).  For people who violate the first two commandments, they can expect to have their children and grandchildren down to the fourth generation continue to violate it also.  However, if the fifth commandment is obeyed and parents diligently teach their children to worship God alone, the curse goes away and instead God can show lovingkindness to thousands of those who keep His commandments (5:10).

As noted above, nothing is said here about honoring only the parents who deserve it.  In that way it is consistent with other biblical admonitions on authority.  The Bible always commands us to honor the authority in our lives because it is placed there by God – never because the authority itself earns our respect or submission.  We honor our parents because of the role God gives them in our lives.  Whether they are honorable does not enter into consideration.

Thought: This means for some the fifth commandment becomes a difficult proposition.  How do we honor an abusive or distant or absent parent?  How do we honor a parent who does not or did not care for us or show us love?  While this is extremely delicate, it really comes back to the second greatest commandment – love your neighbor as yourself.  God never tells us to love others because they deserve our love.  That is not how God loves.  We love others because we look at God and understand the love He has for us.  We love others because our need for love is met in God.  When our focus is on God rather than our parents, we can honor them in the strength God provides.

And that is the second key to obeying this (and any) command.  We can honor unworthy parents only in the strength of the Holy Spirit.  If we walk in our own strength we stand no chance of honoring those who do not deserve it.  When we walk by faith instead of sight we can honor others based on the relationship we have above rather than the one in front of us.

We also must remember the forgiveness and mercy we enjoy in the gospel.  When we preach the gospel to ourselves we are able to extend that forgiveness and mercy to others.  No one is in more need of forgiveness than we are and when we live continually under that assumption we can treat others as God treats us rather than as they deserve.

It is also instructive that God does not tell us to like our parents.  We do not have to like them or condone their lives in order to honor them.  We simply concentrate on God and on His sovereign decision to give us the parents we have.  We remember that He does not make mistakes and that He loves us perfectly and completely.  We focus on the honor we give to God by honoring the parents He placed in our lives.

It is evident from Jesus’ words in Matt 15:3-9 that this commands extends to adult children and financial provision for their parents.  For the child who has a healthy relationship with loving parents it is important to remember the sacrifices those parents made for him.  Anyone watching a mother with an infant knows how much tenderness and care she showers on the child.  Everything for that child is provided by the parents.  As a child grows he becomes more independent, but until he leaves the home as an adult he continues to depend almost entirely upon his parents for his daily provision.  As such it is certainly not unreasonable for the grown child to then return the favor to older parents in need of physical or financial help.

Thought: Any Christian whose greed gets in the way of helping his needy parents does not understand this commandment or its importance in showing the love of God in his life.  The one who – like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day – figures out ways to not help his parents because he does not want to sacrifice his own wealth is one who shows he worships comfort and materialism rather than God.  He not only violates the fifth commandment but violates the first two as well (see the notes for Deuteronomy 5:11-15 for a discussion of how it is impossible to violate just one command).

God makes sure the people know the importance of this commandment.  In Exodus 21:17 He elaborates on it by saying, “And he who curses his father or his mother shall surely be put to death.”  In Deuteronomy 21:18-21 He gives an illustration of a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father or his mother.  He instructs the people to stone the son to death and remove the evil from your midst.  We are not to take the fifth commandment lightly – God is serious about our honoring Him by honoring the father and mother He places in our lives.

Honor your father and your mother (no contingencies). 

Children, obey your parents in the Lord.

Fathers, bring up your children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord – and do not provoke them to anger such that they lose heart.

If parents diligently teach their children the words of the Law (gospel) such that the children grow up in the instruction and discipline of the Lord, then obedience to the fifth commandment provides stability in society and loving families in the community of faith.  The one who honors his earthly father and mother honors his heavenly Father.

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