Exodus 20:12 (ESV) … “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.”
Why should children respect their parents? For many reasons. Parents deserve to be honored for the many sacrifices they make on behalf of their children. They deserve to be listened to because of their wealth of life experience. There is also the simple fact that keeping the fifth commandment glorifies God, which is reason enough. The Bible says, “Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord” (Col. 3:20). It also says that honoring one’s parents is the right thing to do: “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right” (Eph. 6:1).
These are all good reasons to keep the fifth commandment, but the reason given in the commandment itself is that honoring our parents serves our own best interest: “Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you” (Exod. 20:12). The Apostle Paul said this was “the first commandment with a promise” (Eph. 6:2), and the promise is intended to give special encouragement to children. God knows how hard it is to obey our parents. He also knows that children find it easier to obey when they are promised a reward; so the fifth commandment comes with the promise of long life in God’s land.
This promise had special meaning for the Israelites. They had just been brought out of the land of slavery, and God had promised to lead them to a new and better country. One way they could ensure they would keep living in the Promised Land was to honor their fathers and mothers in the faith.
This general promise should not be taken as an automatic guarantee that children who obey their parents will live to be ninety. Nor does it necessarily mean that someone who dies young is guilty of breaking the fifth commandment. For reasons of his greater glory, God sometimes allows people to meet what we consider an untimely end, even if they almost always obeyed their parents. Many providences determine the length of a person’s life. But the promise still stands: Children who honor their parents receive the gift of life.
Here it helps to know that when the Bible talks about living long in the land, it is not simply talking about how old people are when they die. The expression “live long in the land” is a Hebrew phrase for the fullness of God’s blessing. It means to have an abundant life. This is confirmed by the New Testament, which says, “ ‘Honor your father and mother’… that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth” (Eph. 6:2, 3). Anyone who wants to live long and prosper should honor his mother and father.
There is one more reason to keep the fifth commandment, and it may be the most important reason of all: Parents have a God-given responsibility to teach their children how to know and serve God. But children will not learn those lessons if they do not respect their parents; so keeping the fifth commandment is essential to God’s plan for passing down the faith. Of all the ways children honor their parents, the most important is listening to what they say about God and the way of salvation.
Spiritual instruction is a responsibility for both fathers and mothers. Solomon said, “Listen, my son, to your father’s instruction and do not forsake your mother’s teaching” (Prov. 1:8), and “My son, do not forget my teaching, but keep my commands in your heart, for they will prolong your life many years and bring you prosperity” (Prov. 3:1, 2). These words are a commentary on the fifth commandment. Solomon repeats the promise of long life and prosperity and ties it specifically to Biblical teaching in the home. This is the heart of the fifth commandment: receiving the gift of life by respecting our parents in the faith. Today God commands us to honor our fathers and mothers because this is how many people first come to know Jesus Christ.
Learning God’s plan for the family sometimes brings sadness and disappointment to people who never had a good family background. Is a person who was not raised in a Christian home at a spiritual disadvantage? In a way, yes. We are always damaged by the sins of others, including the sin of parents in not raising their children “in the training and instruction of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4). But God is gracious, and by the saving work of his Spirit he adopts orphan sinners into the best and most important family of all: the family of God.
The Bible gives every child of God this precious promise: “Though my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will receive me” (Ps. 27:10).