A Commandment With A Promise

The Question: I was reading Ephesians the other day. It said that honoring your parents is the first commandment that comes with a promise: that you will live a long earthly life.

Is this to be taken literally? Does it mean your life could be shortened if you don't? Or does it simply mean you will enjoy your life if your relationship with your parents is a good one?

The Response: Excellent questions. They bespeak a sincere desire to discover the riches found in the Scriptures. I believe this is the first time that anyone has raised these issues. Good for you!

The passage to which your questions refer is:

1 Children, obey your parents in the Lord: for this is right.
2 Honour thy father and mother; (which is the first commandment with promise)
3 That it may be well with thee, and thou mayest live long on the earth.
—Ephesians 6:1-3

Is this to be taken literally? I believe that it is. You appear to have drawn very near to full understanding. Perhaps a trip back in time, to eavesdrop on what transpired between Moses and the Lord atop Mount Sinai, will help clarify the issues.

For generations, the Hebrew people had lived and worked as slaves in an absolute monarchy. They had no experience of self-governance, no training in civil administration and no idea of how to live as an independent people in their homeland. Imagine, if you will, what chaos would have existed in the Promised Land had God simply told Moses to lead them into Canaan and turned them loose.

And so God halted the wanderers at the base of Mount Sinai and called Moses up to the summit for a consultation. In their meeting, the Lord gave Moses two tablets upon which He had written the Ten Utterings, or Commandments, that would provide the legislative foundation for the theocracy that would be established in the Promised Land. Ten rules hardly seem sufficient to cover all the requirements of a theocratic nation. Jewish scholars and students of the Scriptures posit that the individual Commandments of the Decalogue are more like categories into which all the other 603 laws given in the Torah, or Pentateuch, might be placed. The Decalogue has two clear divisions. The first, in Exodus 20:2-11, deals with man's relationship to God. The second, in verses 12-17, addresses man's relationship to his community. In just ten short rules, God established solid protection for true theology, true worship, His name, the Sabbath, family honor, life, marriage, property, truth and virtue.

The 5th Commandment is what we are looking at in this post:

Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee.--Exodus 20:12

Notice that this is the first of the six commandments that govern man's relationship to his community. I do not believe that to be an accident or a coincidence. I believe the Lord placed it in this position because it is the foundation upon which all the following commandments must be built. The key to social stability is reverence and respect for parents and their authority. Readers who have raised or who are raising children surely can attest to the importance of training a child to be obedient and respectful of authority: first the parent's; later the teacher's; then the boss's; and so on to include respect for the authority of the laws of the land and of those who enforce those laws. Ultimately, a child needs to be respectful to the will and authority of God Himself. And it all begins with teaching the child to honor his parents. If national Israel were to be a workable reality, her people would have to be law-abiding. Bear in mind that those who had been led out of Egypt had no experience of law in a free society; those who were gathered at the base of Mount Sinai would wander until they died, and those who would actually enter the Promised Land and establish the Hebrew theocracy would have been born on the trail and raised as wanderers. How could such people, with such limited administrative and legislative experience raise up a nation if there were no respect for God, the Leader of the theocracy, and for law and order?

So what about the 'promise' of long life for those who honored their fathers and mothers? When given, the promise primarily linked the command to life in the Promised Land. God knew what problems the Hebrew people would have to deal with; and the difficulties of colonizing a land wrested from another people. I expect He did not want His Chosen People to have to deal with juvenile delinquency and other problems resulting from the behavior of adults who had been poorly raised. In any case, as is made crystal clear farther along in the Scriptures, God did not want His people to tolerate juvenile delinquency or rebellion within the borders of the Promised Land. What is juvenile delinquency but outright disrespect for parents and authority?

"That's fine," you might say, "but what has all this got to do with promise of a long life?"

God was tough on juvenile crime; so tough that, in fact, He established the death penalty for some juvenile crimes, as this passage shows:

18 If a man have a stubborn and rebellious son, which will not obey the voice of his father, or the voice of his mother, and that, when they have chastened him, will not hearken unto them:
19 Then shall his father and his mother lay hold on him, and bring him out unto the elders of his city, and unto the gate of his place;
20 And they shall say unto the elders of his city, This our son is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton, and a drunkard.
21 And all the men of his city shall stone him with stones, that he die: so shalt thou put evil away from among you; and all Israel shall hear, and fear.
--Deuteronomy 21:18-21

Wow! Talk about strict! So that's what the promise really involves; not years added to one's life span, but a promise that the life span will not be truncated due to disobedience. In other words, be a good kid and grow up to be a law-abiding adult and you will live out your days and finally die a normal death. However, if you are an unruly kid or grow up to be scofflaw, expect your life to be cut short.

God was so serious about this that parental disrespect is given as one of the reasons that lead to the Babylonian exile:

6 Behold, the princes of Israel, every one were in thee to their power to shed blood.
7 In thee have they set light by father and mother: in the midst of thee have they dealt by oppression with the stranger: in thee have they vexed the fatherless and the widow.
8 Thou hast despised mine holy things, and hast profaned my sabbaths.
-- Ezekiel 22:6-8

Does God still expect children to honor their parents, now that we are under grace? You betcha, He does. Paul made that clear in the Ephesian passage we are looking at, and Christ Himself spelled it out for us:

For God commanded, saying, Honour thy father and mother: and, He that curseth father or mother, let him die the death.-- Matthew 15:4

For Moses said, Honour thy father and thy mother; and, Whoso curseth father or mother, let him die the death:--Mark 7:10

I hope this helps you to grasp what the Lord is saying to us in Ephesians 6:1-3. There is something else in that passage that bears thinking on, and that is what the Lord expects of parents:

And, ye fathers, provoke not your children to wrath: but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.-- Ephesians 6:4

God bless you in your efforts to draw near to Him through the Scriptures.

January 2005

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