Exodus 20:12

what-are-ten-commandments_472_314_80Exodus 20

12 “Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.

In his novel East of Eden, John Steinbeck wrote about the ways in which children often become disillusioned with their parents as they get older.

When a child first catches adults out – when it first walks into his grave little head that adults do not have divine intelligence, that their judgments are not always wise, their thinking true, their sentences just – his world falls into panic desolation. The gods are fallen and all safety gone. And there is one sure thing about the fall of gods: they do not fall a little; they crash and shatter or sink deeply into green muck. It is a tedious job to guild them up again; they never quite shine. And the child’s world is never quite whole again. It is an aching kind of growing.[1]

There is truth in those observations. Part of growing older is coming to terms with the humanity of our parents. Of course, while that is happening, your parents are trying to come to terms with the humanity of their children. We all must come to terms with our imperfections: parents with their children’s and children with their parent’s.

In popular culture, you can find this sentiment in Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young’s classic song, “Teach Your Children,” in which the singers encourage parents to be understanding with their children but also children to be understanding with their parents.

You, who are on the road must have a code that you can live by.

And so become yourself because the past is just a good bye.

Teach your children well, their father’s hell did slowly go by,

And feed them on your dreams, the one they fix, the one you’ll know by.

Don’t you ever ask them why, if they told you, you would cry,

So just look at them and sigh and know they love you.

And you, of the tender years can’t know the fears that your elders grew by,

And so please help them with your youth, they seek the truth before they can die.

Teach your parents well, their children’s hell will slowly go by,

And feed them on your dreams, the one they fix, the one you’ll know by.

Don’t you ever ask them why, if they told you, you would cry,

So just look at them and sigh and know they love you.

Yes, we are all human and none of us are perfect. Parents must be patient and understanding with their children. Children must be patient and understanding with their parents. Even so, there is a divine order to the family, and that divine order says that parents, while imperfect, are still parents, and children, while imperfect, are children. Thus, our equal standing as sinners does not negate the God-ordained structure of the family. That structure and the integrity of the family is acknowledged and safe-guarded in many ways, not the least of which is the fifth commandment’s call for children to honor their parents.

The honoring of parents is essential to our personal and corporate survival and flourishing.

The wording of the commandment is fairly straight-forward.

12 Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.

There does not seem to be much controversy on the basic meaning of honoring your parents. “The Hebrew of the text is clear,” writes Patrick Miller, “and the translations agree on its meaning. In Hebrew, “honor” (kabbēd) seems to carry the freight it carries in English.”[2] Thus, to honor is to esteem, duly respect, and behave toward our parents in ways consonant with these attitudes. It is something profound and something significant.

To honor is not merely to act nicely. In Intruder in the Dust, William Faulkner has a character say, “After all a man ought to be kind even to his parents now and then.”[3] The fifth commandment says decidedly more than that. It is not talking about occasional niceness. It is talking about something much deeper, something God-honoring, parent-honoring, and people-sustaining.

Victor Hamilton helps us get at the meaning of “honor” by pointing to the biblical antithesis of honoring.

The command to “show respect to/ honor” one’s parents has its negative counterpart in Lev. 20: 9, “If anyone curses [better, “dishonors”] his father or mother, he must be put to death.” The verbs “honor/ kābēd” and “curse, dishonor/ qālal” are opposites. This can be observed by the fact that kābēd means “be heavy” and “honor,” while qālal means “be light” and “dishonor.” These two verbs occur in the same verse to describe the polar opposites of how one responds to the Lord: “Those who honor me I will honor [both times kābēd], but those who despise me will be disdained/ dishonored [qālal]” (1 Sam. 2: 30).[4]

To honor, then, is to do the opposite of disdaining. It is a substantive respecting, appreciating, and uplifting of our parents. We might ask why this commandment is the first commandment of the second table of commandments. Why is honoring our parents listed before, say, the command not to murder?

There are many reasons why, and our curiosity on this point reveals how little we understand the crucial and fundamental nature of the family to the survival of a people. We are commanded to honor our parents so that God’s gift of parents is rightly acknowledged, so that a sense of gratitude is rightly maintained, and so that the people of God can flourish through the survival of the institution of the family.

Many argue that the fifth commandment is actually a bridging commandment that connects the first four commandments dealing with our relationship with God and the five that follow this commandment dealing with our relationship with our fellow man. In other words, the fifth commandment has one foot in the four that precede it and another foot in the five that follow it. There is a theological component to honoring our parents. Namely, in honoring them we honor the God who gave them to us. Furthermore, in honoring them we are expressing gratitude for the good gifts of God.

What is more, the honoring of parents serves as a kind of glue or adhesive that keeps the basic unit of society, the family, in tact and that, in turn, keeps all of these units, all of these families, in harmony one with another. The rejection of our parents results in societal fragmentation and, eventually, the weakening and destruction of the people of God. This is why the Bible so frequently calls for parents to raise their children in the Lord and calls for children to honor their parents. What is more, this is why the Bible so often pronounces truly dire warnings upon those who would harm or neglect their parents.

Jesus called for and demonstrated the honoring of parents.

One of the ways we can approach the meaning of the fifth commandment is through observing how Jesus, in fact, honored it. He did so in a number of unique and telling ways.

Jesus condemned the ways that the Pharisees were leading others to neglect their parents.

In Matthew 15:3-9, Jesus responded to a challenge from the scribes and Pharisees concerning His disciples’ failure to observe certain of the traditions surrounding hand washing by offering His own challenge surrounding the fifth commandment.

3 He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? 4 For God commanded, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ 5 But you say, ‘If anyone tells his father or his mother, “What you would have gained from me is given to God,” 6 he need not honor his father.’ So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God. 7 You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: 8 “‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; 9 in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’”

What Jesus was condemning was a loophole developed by the religious elites whereby grown children could avoid materially supporting their parents by pronouncing that they were giving their goods to God instead of to their parents. In this way, in the name of God, they were harming their parents. Interestingly, in doing so, they were violating both tables of commandments, the vertical and the horizontal. This practice was condemned in Proverbs 28:24, “Whoever robs his father or his mother and says, ‘That is no transgression,’ is a companion to a man who destroys.”

Specifically, Jesus was calling the Pharisees out for a practice that was hypocritical and wicked. Generally, however, in so doing, Jesus was pronouncing judgment on all who would seek to find ways around honoring their parents as they should.

Jesus honored His parents by refusing to elevate them above the Father.

Jesus also honored His parents in ways that we might find surprising. For instance, as a boy, He once ultimately honored them by doing something that caused them anxiety. We find this fascinating episode in Luke 2.

41 Now his parents went to Jerusalem every year at the Feast of the Passover. 42 And when he was twelve years old, they went up according to custom. 43 And when the feast was ended, as they were returning, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. His parents did not know it, 44 but supposing him to be in the group they went a day’s journey, but then they began to search for him among their relatives and acquaintances, 45 and when they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem, searching for him. 46 After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. 47 And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. 48 And when his parents saw him, they were astonished. And his mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been searching for you in great distress.” 49 And he said to them, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” 50 And they did not understand the saying that he spoke to them. 51 And he went down with them and came to Nazareth and was submissive to them. And his mother treasured up all these things in her heart.

Notice that Mary moved from worry to a sense of wonder. She “treasured up all these things in her heart.” What was Jesus doing in this instance? He was honoring His parents by honoring God more than His parents.

Many people think their children should honor them by idolizing them, by elevating them above everything else, potentially even above God. By staying behind in Jerusalem, Jesus caused His parents to worry, but He did so in service of a greater good: He showed that God alone is the object of our ultimate affections.

The same dynamic can be seen in Matthew 12.

46 While he was still speaking to the people, behold, his mother and his brothers stood outside, asking to speak to him. 48 But he replied to the man who told him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” 49 And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 50 For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

Once again, Jesus does something that undoubtedly caused His mother a measure of anxiety and possibly even pain, but He did so in order to once again stress the appropriate order of our affections. In doing so, He was ultimately honoring His mother. He honored her by putting her second to the Kingdom of God.

While in neither of these instances was Jesus having to refuse to do something sinful that His parents were asking Him to do, the principle nonetheless applies to these unfortunate possibilities. Put another way, Christ’s prioritizing of the Father over His earthly parents certainly establishes the principle that we must always obey God over man, even over our own parents.

In other words, if our parents ever ask us to rebel against God, to do something ungodly, or to indulge in God-dishonoring behavior, we must refuse. In other words, “honor” does not always mean “obey,” if obedience to our parents results in disobedience to God. Like Jesus, we honor our parents most when we refuse to elevate them above God.

Jesus honored His parents by offering practical provisions for His mother.

Practically speaking, Jesus also obeyed the fifth commandment by making provisions for the care of His mother. He did this while on the cross. His words in John 19 reflect one of the “seven last words from the cross.”

26 When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” 27 Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home.

What was Jesus doing in saying this to John and to His mother? He was providing a home for His mother. He was making sure that she, Mary, was going to be ok. He honored His mother by doing this.

While children are called to honor parents whether or not their parents “deserve” honor, parents are likewise enjoined to strive to be parents who do, in fact, deserve it.

It is clear that we should honor our parents whether they “deserve” it or not. But it is also clear that parents should strive to be parents who do, in fact, deserve it. The Bible says many things to parents in this regard. In Ephesians 6, however, Paul articulates a challenge to parents fast on the heels of quoting the fifth commandment.

1 Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. 2 “Honor your father and mother” (this is the first commandment with a promise), 3 “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.” 4 Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.

Here, Paul challenges fathers (and mothers, by extension) not to “provoke your children to anger.” There are many ways that parents can do this. First, parents can provoke their children to wrath by being neglectful, abusive, and poor parents. Even parents in the Church can fall into this category. Philip Yancey points to Ernest Hemingway as an example of this.

Hemingway knew about the ungrace of families.  His devout parents – Hemingway’s grandparents had attended evangelical Wheaton College – detested Hemingway’s libertine life, and after a time his mother refused to allow him in her presence.  One year for his birthday, she mailed him a cake along with the gun his father had used to kill himself.  Another year she wrote him a letter explaining that a mother’s life is like a bank.  “Every child that is born to her enters the world with a large and prosperous bank account, seemingly inexhaustible.”  The child, she continued, makes withdrawals but no deposits during all the early years.  Later, when the child grows up, it is his responsibility to replenish the supply he has drawn down.  Hemingway’s mother then proceeded to spell out all the specific ways in which Ernest should be making “deposits to keep the account in good standing”:  flowers, fruit or candy, a surreptitious paying of Mother’s bills, and above all a determination to stop “neglecting your duties to God and your Savious, Jesus Christ.”  Hemingway never got over his hatred for his mother or for her Saviour.[5]

There can be no wonder why Hemingway hated his mother and her Savior, given her harshness and manipulative ways. Another example is the hatred that Evelyn Waugh managed to distill in his son through various acts of selfishness and cruelty. The following is from his grandson, Alexander Waugh, who is reflecting on his father’s feelings about the death of Evelyn Waugh.

If Papa’s autobiographical account is to be trusted, the news of his own father’s death, on Easter Sunday 1966, came to him as a relief: “Just as school holidays had been happier and more carefree when my father was away, so his death lifted a great brooding awareness not only from the house but from the whole of existence.” He was actually grateful to his father for going when he did. “It is the duty of all good parents to die young,” he used to tell us. “Nobody is completely grown up until both his parents are gone.” Samuel Butler believed that every son is given a new lease of life on the death of his father.

Of his own father [Samuel] Butler wrote: “He never liked me, nor I him; from my earliest recollections I can recall no time when I did not fear and dislike him. Over and over again I relented towards him and said to myself that he was a good fellow after all; but I had hardly done so when he would go for me in some way or other which soured me again.”[6]

Yes, there is seemingly no end to the examples of fathers who drove their children to wrath. Here is famed author Pat Conroy writing about his father (around whom he framed the novel The Great Santini) in Atlanta magazine after his father’s death. The bitterness is palpable:

I have never met anyone who hated his father as much as I did mine, although the landscape of America is piled high with the stories of boys undone by the reckless ineptitude of men who were recently just boys themselves. The word “father” remains one of the darkest, bitterest words I employ in my work, and I have yet to write about a good one. The two most frightening words I carry from my childhood come back to me trilled by my sister Carol’s voice: “Dad’s home”…I did not believe a single one of his children would choose to attend his funeral. I used to dream of spitting on his body in the funeral home, spitting into the center of his dead, embalmed face again and again, until my mouth was dry. These were the happy daydreams of my childhood.[7]

Fathers and mothers, we are imperfect, to be sure. We should admit such and not be afraid to admit such to our children. But may we never treat our children in such a way that they fantasize about our deaths or, even more tragically, that they do not feel led to the Lord God because of our failed witness.

Another way we can drive our children to wrath is by suffocating them, by being what we call today “helicopter parents.” Al Mohler put it like this:

Coddled by a generation of baby boomers, today’s parents have turned into hyperprotectors…As one college student lamented to his counselor, “I wish my parents had some hobby other than me.”[8]

Perhaps you are aware of this phenomenon: stifling, suffocating parents who absolutely dominates every single aspect of the lives of their children. Educators are increasingly speaking about this. There is even a phenomenon now of parents going to college with their children, getting apartments near their child’s school so that he or she can come home every night to mom and dad. Professors increasingly complain of children who expect them to speak to their parents on cell phones about issues that, in the past, the student would have been expected to navigate.

As a pastor, I have seen this happen too many times, and it grieves me deeply. I have seen children flee overbearing parents enough to know that that very real damage can be done if we do not appropriately prepare our children for adulthood.

These are but two examples of the ways in which we can drive our children to wrath and cause them to be disillusioned. Again, no parent is perfect, and the fifth commandment does not hinge upon a parent being so. Even so, the harmonious fulfillment of it does hinge upon it. We should strive to live our lives in such a way that our children do indeed want to honor us!

Children, honor your parents.

Parents, be the type of people your children want to honor.


[1] John Steinbeck. East of Eden (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2002), 20.

[2] Miller, Patrick D. (2009-08-06). The Ten Commandments: Interpretation: Resources for the Use of Scripture in the Church (Kindle Locations 3493-3494). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

[3] William Faulkner. Intruder in the Dust. (New York: Vintage Books, 1991), p.32.

[4] Hamilton, Victor P. (2011-11-01). Exodus: An Exegetical Commentary (Kindle Locations 11163-11171). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[5] Philip Yancey.  What’s So Amazing About Grace.  (Grand Rapids:  Zondervan Publishing House, 1997), p.38.

[6] Alexander Waugh, Fathers and Sons: The Autobiography of a Family. (Kindle Location 324-332,370-373) Kindle Edition.

[7] Atlanta, June 1999, p.72-73; 139-143.

[8] R. Albert Mohler, Jr., Culture Shift: Engaging Current Issues With Timeless Truth (Colorado Springs, CO: Multnomah Books, 2008), p.82,86.

4 thoughts on “Exodus 20:12

  1. How would this strike my own parents if they heard it and how would it strike my own children? Ouch, I don’t always like what you preach but I can hardly worm my way around the sharpness of conviction in whatever form it comes in to my own heart and life. Thanks, Wyman……….oh, Magoo, you’ve done it again….I needed it.

  2. Pingback: Exodus | Walking Together Ministries

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *