The Fourth Commandment: Lesson 10
When it comes to the fourth commandment we are comfortable with its implications for children, but perplexed when it comes to the implications for adults. How do we, as adults, show honor to our parents? What are our continuing obligations? What about parents who are difficult, absent, abusive, or even dead? What are the limitations on this commandment? These are great questions and as we go along, we will attempt to come to satisfying conclusions.
In this lesson we want to explore the benefits God promises to those who obey His commandment. Yet this means we also need to take a hard look at the ugly consequences He promises to those who disobey. When it comes to the relationship of children to their parents, the Bible holds out sweet promises of blessing but also terrible threats of judgment.
A Commandment With Promise
The Ten Commandments play a crucial role in our world: They teach human beings how to live in the way God means for us to live. The God who created us reveals his law to direct us to the fullest, most satisfying lives. These commandments tell rebellious and disordered people how to live in submission and order. The fourth commandment, then, speaks to people prone to rebel against authority—all of us, that is—and says, “Honour thy father and mother, as the Lord thy God hath commanded thee, that thou mayst live a long time, and it may be well with thee in the land, which the Lord thy God will give thee.” (Deuteronomy 5:16).
Did you notice that God attaches blessings to this commandment? Writing centuries later, the Apostle Paul is sure to point these out when he addresses the young children in the congregation at Ephesus. He says, “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is just. Honour thy father and thy mother, which is the first commandment with a promise: That it may be well with thee, and thou mayest be long lived upon earth.” (Ephesians 6:1-3). Packed into these two sentences are three reasons children must honor their parents as well as two great promises to those who do so.
Why should children honor their parents?
First, because nature demands it. Paul says simply, “this is right.” This is the way God has created humanity, so that children honor their parents. All humans in all of time have this knowledge and this expectation.
Second, because God’s law demands it. Paul quotes the fourth commandment to show that God demands honor as an important part of his revealed will for humanity.
Third, because the gospel demands it. Paul tells children to obey their parents “in the Lord.” Those who have been baptised in Christ are called to follow him in everything. The gospel assures children they can joyfully honor their parents and the gospel gives them the motivation to actually do so.
God’s blessing for those who obey the fourth commandment takes shape in two forms: a long life and a good life.
What happens to those who heed nature, law, and gospel to honor their parents? God blesses them: “…that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.” God’s blessing for those who obey the fourth commandment takes shape in two forms: a long life and a good life. These blessings are both a motive to obey and a natural consequence of such obedience.
A Long Life, A Good Life
The Ten Commandments were given by God to a particular people in a unique context. In that day living long and living in the Promised Land were the ultimate proofs of divine blessing. These were signs that people were in God’s favor, that they were experiencing the promised good life that comes with faithfulness to their covenant obligations. On the other hand, a shortened life or a life lived in exile were the ultimate proofs of divine disfavor, that they were experiencing the curses that come with breaking their covenant obligations.
We need to understand, as did the Israelites, that these promises were not guarantees. God did not mean to communicate “Honor your parents and I guarantee you will live to see at least eighty birthdays.” Neither did he mean to communicate, “If you have a short life it is proof you have dishonored your parents.” Rather, he meant to point to the truth that those who honor their parents generally experience a better life than those who do not. Why? Because those who honor their parents are doing things God’s way, living in the way God created humans to live.
Do you want to live with the favor of God upon you? Would you like to feel the blessing and the good hand of God upon your life? Then obey his commands. He points also to a hidden benefit: Honoring our parents helps complete our transition to adulthood. As we deliberately seek ways to honor our parents, we begin to reciprocate the love they have given us since the moment of birth. We complete the relationship by reaching out in love to them just as they have always reached out to us. The love, the care, the honor, is now mutual, just the way God intends it. We have grown up.
A Short Life, A Miserable Life
While the fourth commandment lays out the terms of blessing for obedience, it implies the consequences for disobedience. These consequences are spelled out in greater detail elsewhere in the Bible, first in the civil law and then in the Old Testament’s wisdom literature.
As God revealed the law that would govern the nation of Israel, he included a penalty for those who would flagrantly and unrepentantly violate the fourth commandment. It may shock us to realize this was the same penalty as for murder and other horrendous crimes:
“He that striketh his father or mother, shall be put to death. He that curseth his father, or mother, shall die the death.” (Exodus 21:15, 17).
“He that curseth his father, or mother, dying let him die: he hath cursed his father, and mother, let his blood be upon him.” (Leviticus 20:9).
“If a man have a stubborn and unruly son, who will not hear the commandments of his father or mother, and being corrected, slighteth obedience: They shall take him and bring him to the ancients of his city, and to the gate of judgment, And shall say to them: This our son is rebellious and stubborn, he slighteth hearing our admonitions, he giveth himself to revelling, and to debauchery and banquetings: The people of the city shall stone him: and he shall die, that you may take away the evil out of the midst of you, and all Israel hearing it may be afraid.” (Deuteronomy 21:18-21)
To think that today we expect rebellion from our children and teenagers! To think that today we think so lightly of this kind of defiance! God’s law shows just how seriously God takes the fourth commandment. How is it then that we treat it so flippantly?
The book of Proverbs further displays the horror and consequences of dishonoring parents:
“He that afflicteth his father, and chaseth away his mother, is a son that causeth shame, and bringeth reproach.” (Proverbs 19:26).
"He that curseth his father, and mother, his lamp shall be put out in the midst of darkness." (Proverbs 20:20)
“The eye that mocketh at his father, and that despiseth the labour of his mother in bearing him, let the ravens of the brooks pick it out, and the young eagles eat it.” (Proverbs 30:17).
Though portrayed in poetic language, the picture is clear: There are the sweetest blessings stored up for those who obey the fourth commandment and there are the most terrible judgments stored up for those who do not. God expects and demands that children will honor their parents.
The Duty of Honor
You and I do not live in ancient Israel. We are no longer under the civil laws of God’s nation. Yet God’s blessings still extend to us. After all, Paul freely assured the children of Ephesus that God would bless them as they honored their parents. They would acknowledge, as we do, that the promise of land is no longer valid. (Did you notice how in Ephesians 6 Saint Paul quotes the Old Testament but leaves out the part about the land the Lord your God is giving you?) But the general rule remains: If we live in God’s ways we receive God’s favor; if we defy God’s ways we forfeit God’s favor. We owe our parents the duty of honor and it works like this: Honor God by honoring your parents and expect it will go well with you; dishonor God by dishonoring your parents and expect it will not. It’s the way God has structured his world.
God extends his blessing to those who honor their parents. The Bible places no limitation on this. There is no indication that the duty of honor expires when we become old or married or financially independent. There is no indication that it is nullified when our parents are unfair or unkind or even impossible or full-out abusive. We will discuss this more in future lessons, after we have turned to the matter of obedience.
But for now, let me leave you with this: Do you want to be blessed? Do you want to experience God’s favor? Then honor your parents. As far as I can see, it’s that simple, that straightforward. God stores up blessings to dispense to those who obey this command.