The Ten Words: The Fifth
Honor your father and your mother. That’s the command, the fifth, in God’s Ten Commandments. It’s simple in what it commands and yet profound in its good and necessary implications. It is the only commandment that comes with a promise, “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.” And yet it is also uniquely situated at the head of “the second table” implying its importance for every other command that comes after it. As Tim Challies puts the matter in his excellent little book The Commandment We Forgot, “it is a commandment for the home, church, and workplace, providing a stable foundation for all of society.” For all society, indeed! Here is a word from the Lord wherein His wisdom for mankind starts small as a tiny seed within the loving context of the home but which, in its fullness, reverberates with ever-widening blessing to the surrounding world. So how are we to understand the fifth commandment? Lets look.
First, what it prescribes. The imperative is to honor, in the Hebrew kabad, meaning to treat as important and weighty, to revere, and glorify. Paul, as he cites the fifth commandment in Ephesians 6:1, understands that to honor necessarily means to obey. Who are we to honor and obey? Our father and our mother. This honor of course springs from love as it is natural for a child to love his or her parents, but that is not the only motivation. There is also a duty here based in the God-given authority of the parent.
The puritan William Gouge is wise when he says that within the home both love and authority ought to be present. “So complete and so warm is a parents’ affection towards their children, as it would make children too bold and insolent if there were not authority mixed in to work fear, and so supreme and absolute is their authority over them, as it would make children like slaves to dread their parents, if a fatherly affection were not mingled with there to produce love. But both these joined together make a very good combination. Love, like sugar, sweetens fear, and fear, like salt seasons love, and thus to join them both together, makes a loving-fear or a fearing-love which is the basis of children’s duties.”
Second, it’s placement. Richard Baxter in his Family Catechism wisely asks, “Doth this commandment belong to the first table, or the second?” He answers this way: “If we may judge by the subject, it seemeth to be the hinge of both, or belong partly to each. As rulers are God’s officers, and we obey God in them, it belongs to our duty to God; but as they are men, it belongs to the second.” The fifth commandment does act as a hinge between the two tables of the Law. Children will learn to honor and obey God (commandments one through four) by learning first to honor their parents. It is a child’s mother and father that he first sees as loving providers and rulers and guardians over his life, in essence, the mother and father acting as vice-regents of God’s authority over the child. Respect and reverence then for the highest authority, namely God, is nurtured within the nursery of the family.
But in like manner, a child’s ability to love and serve his neighbors will likewise be first fostered and taught in his duty to his parents. As William Ames puts it, “Honor has first place among the duties owed to our neighbor... It is the bond and foundation of all other relationships of justice to be maintained towards our neighbor.” What Ames is getting at is something quite profound and well attested to in Reformed literature but sadly quite forgotten today, namely this: that the fifth commandment is not limited in its scope to just the child-parent relationship. There are God given authority structures outside of the parent-child relationship, and thus there are other areas of life where the principles of the fifth commandment still apply.
For example there is a husbands authority over his wife and thus her duty to honor her husband (Eph. 5:22-24), the civil authority of magistrates over citizens and thus the citizen’s duty to honor the king (Rom. 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-17), and an elders’ authority over the congregation and thus the church member’s duty to honor his pastors and elders (Heb. 13:17). In God’s perfect wisdom, he has given the fifth commandment as the means whereby we learn to honor all right authority through our submission to parents.
Again, William Gouge is quite brilliant on just this point and worth quoting at length. “The family is a seminary [or nursery] of the church and nation... In families all sorts of people are bred and brought up, and out of families they are sent into the church and nation. The first beginning of mankind and of his increase was out of a family. God first joined in marriage Adam and Eve, made them husband and wife, and then gave them children. Thus, husband and wife, parent and child (which are parts of a family), existed before magistrate and subject, minister and people, which are the parts of a nation and a church... A family is a little church and a little nation, or at least a living representation of these, whereby trial may be made of those that are fit for any place of authority or subjection in church or nation. Or, rather, it is like a school where the first principles and grounds of government and subjection are learned, and by which men are fitted to greater matters in church or nation. The apostle declares that a bishop who cannot rule his own house is not fit to govern the church (1 Tim. 3:5). So we may say that subordinates who cannot be subject in a family will hardly be brought to yield such subjection as they ought in church or nation.”
Third, its promise. If we learn to honor our father and our mother (as well as all other God-given authorities), then what has God promised? Exodus 20:12 says, “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.” Here we see the blessing that springs forth from the wisdom of God’s word. The book of Proverbs is replete with examples of disobedient children incurring upon themselves the curses of cause and effect: habitually disobedient children grow up to be rebellious adults who, more often than not, die young or else live severely deformed and broken lives. Conversely, Proverbs 3 verses 1-2 couldn’t be clearer: “My son, do not forget my teaching, but let your heart keep my commandments, for length of days and years of life and peace they will add to you.”
The Westminster Larger Catechism’s examination of the fifth commandment, questions 123-133 (arguably the best insight of the commandment ever written), gives this answer to the question of what is promised by God in the fifth commandment: “The reason annexed to the fifth commandment, in these words, That thy days may be long upon the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee, is an express promise of long life and prosperity, as far as it shall serve for God's glory and their own good, to all such as keep this commandment.” Johannes G. Vos, commenting on this answer and applying it more broadly to society and culture reminds us that with “the general requirement of the fifth commandment being respect for authority in human society, it is clear that where this commandment is obeyed, conditions which make for long life and prosperity will exist. On the other hand, where respect for legitimate authority is lacking, a greater or less degree of anarchy or lawlessness will prevail in human society, and this will tend toward conditions which shorten life and interfere with prosperity. Thus, in the providence of God, obedience to the fifth commandment will bring about a general increase of length of life and prosperity in society.”
These are sobering words, and ones which ought to make us increasingly champion the goodness and perfect wisdom contained in this fifth word from God as we honor Him supremely, our Heavenly Father.
Stephen Unthank (MDiv, Capital Bible Seminary) serves at Greenbelt Baptist Church in Greenbelt, MD, just outside of Washington, DC. He lives in Maryland with his wife, Maricel and their two children, Ambrose and Lilou.
 Tim Challies, The Commandment We Forgot (Cruciform Press, 2017), p. 5
 Joel R. Beeke and Paul M. Smalley, Reformed Systematic Theology, vol. 3: Spirit and Salvation (Crossway, 2021), p. 919
 Whereas Exodus 20:12 places the father first and the mother second, this does not imply that honor ought to be given more to the father than to the mother. Leviticus 19:3 reverses this and places the mother first.
 William Gouge, Building a Godly Home: A Holy Vision for Raising Children, volume 3 (Reformation Heritage Books, 2014), p. 2
 Richard Baxter, A Puritan Catechism For Families (Lexham Press, 2017), p. 243
 William Ames, The Marrow of Theology, 2.17.13; quote found in Joel R. Beeke and Paul M. Smalley, Reformed Systematic Theology, vol. 3: Spirit and Salvation (Crossway, 2021), p. 922
 William Gouge, Building a Godly Home: A Holy Vision for Family Life, volume 1 (Reformation Heritage Books, 2014), p. 19-20
 Johannes G. Vos, The Westminster Larger Catechism: A Commentary (P&R Publishing, 2002), p. 360