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

This Commandment to honor parents is much broader in its scope than appears at first glance. It is not to be restricted to our literal father and mother, but is to be understood of all our superiors.

The end of the Precept is that since the Lord God desires the preservation of the order He has appointed, the degrees of preeminence fixed by Him ought to be inviolably preserved. The sum of it therefore will be that we should reverence them whom God has exalted to any authority over us, and should render them honor, obedience, and gratitude…. But as this precept is exceedingly repugnant to the depravity of human nature, whose ardent desire of exaltation will scarcely admit of subjection, it has therefore proposed as an example that kind of superiority which is naturally most amiable and least invidious, because that might the more easily mollify and incline our minds to a habit of submission.1

Lest any of our readers—in this socialistic and communistic age, when insubordination and lawlessness is the evil spirit of our day—demur against this wider interpretation of the Commandment, let it be pointed out first, that since "honor" belongs primarily and principally to God, that secondarily and derivatively it pertains also to those whom He has dignified and made nobles in His kingdom, by raising them above others and bestowing titles and dominion upon them. Therefore they are to be revered by us as our fathers and mothers. In Scripture the word "honor" has an extensive application, as may be seen from 1 Timothy 5:17; 1 Peter 2:17, etc. Second, observe that the title "father" is given to kings (1 Sam. 24:11; Isaiah 49:23), masters, (2 Kings 5:13), ministers of the Gospel (2 Kings 2:12; Galatians 4:19).

Wherefore it ought not to be doubted that God here lays down a universal rule for our conduct: namely, that to everyone whom we know to be placed in authority over us by His appointment, we should render reverence, obedience, gratitude, and all the other services in our power. Nor does it make any difference whether they are worthy of this honor or not. For whatever be their characters, it is not without the appointment of the Divine providence that they have attained that station, on account of which the supreme Legislator has commanded them to be honored. He has particularly enjoined reverence to our parents, who have brought us into this life.2

It scarcely needs to be said that the duty enforced here is of a reciprocal nature—those of inferiors implying a corresponding obligation on superiors—but limited space obliges us to consider here only the duties resting on subjects to their rulers.

Duties Required

Of Children to Parents

Children are to love and reverence their parents, fearful of offending out of the respect they bear them. A genuine filial veneration is to actuate children so that they abstain from whatever would grieve or offend their parents. They are to be subject to them—mark the blessed example which Christ has left (Luke 2:51). "Children obey your parents in all things, for this is well-pleasing unto the Lord" (Colossians 3:20). After David was anointed for the throne, he fulfilled his father's appointment by tending his sheep (1 Samuel 16:19).

They are to hearken to their instructions and imitate their godly practices (Proverbs 6:20). Their language must always be respectful and their gestures indicating submission—though Joseph was so highly exalted in Egypt, he "bowed himself with his face to the ground" before his father (Genesis 48:12); note also how King Solomon honored his mother (1 Kings 2:19). As far as they are able and their parents have need, they are to provide for them in old age (1 Timothy 5:16).

Of Citizens to Magistrates

Rulers and magistrates whom God has set over us are His deputies and vicegerents, being invested with authority from Him: "by Me kings reign" (Proverbs 8:15). God has ordained magistracy for the general good of mankind, for were it not for this, men would be savage beasts preying upon one another. Do not the fear of magistrates restrain those who have cast off the fear of God? Are they not afraid of temporal punishments? We should be as safe among lions and tigers as among men.

They are to be honored in our thoughts, regarding them as the official images of God upon earth (Ecclesiastes 10:20). They are to be revered in our speech, supporting their office and authority; of the wicked it is written, "they are not afraid to speak evil of dignities" (2 Peter 2:10). We are to obey them: "Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord's sake: whether it be to the king, as supreme; or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of evil-doers, and for the praise of them that do well" (1 Peter 2:13-14). We are to render "tribute to whom tribute is due, custom to whom custom, fear to whom fear" (Romans 13:7). We are to pray for them (1 Timothy 2:1-2).

Of Servants to Masters

Servants are to obey their masters: "Servants obey in all things your masters according to the flesh: not with eyeservice as menpleasers, but in singleness of heart fearing God" (Colossians 3:22). They are to be diligent in duty, seeking to promote their master's interests: showing all good fidelity" (Titus 2:10; Ephesians 6:5-7). They are to patiently suffer their rebukes and corrections—"not answering again" (Titus 2:9). So strictly has God enjoined them to a quiet submission to their masters that even when a servant has given no just cause for rebuke, yet he is to silently suffer the groundless anger of his master:

1 Peter 2:18-19 Servants be subject to your masters with all fear: not only to the good and gentle, but also to the froward. For this is thankworthy, if a man for conscience toward God endure grief, suffering wrongfully.

O how far have we wandered from the Divine standard!

Of People to Pastors

Finally, we should mention pastors and their flocks, ministers and their people, for between them also is such a relation of superiors and inferiors as brings them under the direction of this Fifth Commandment. "Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you" (Heb. 13:17). Christ has so vested His servants with authority that He declares "He that heareth you heareth Me; and he that despiseth you despiseth Me" (Luke 10:16). So again, "Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially they who labor in the Word and doctrine" (1 Timothy 5:17): this "double honor" is that of reverence and maintenance—"Let him that is taught in the Word communicate unto him that teacheth in all good things" (Galatians 6:6; 1 Corinthians 9:11). How solemn is the warning of, "But they mocked the messengers of God and despised His words and misused His Prophets, until the wrath of the LORD arose against His people, till there was no remedy" (2 Chronicles 36:16).

Promised Blessing for Obedience

To this precept is added the promise as a motive and encouragement to obedience: "That thy days may be long upon the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee."

  1. First, as an Old Testament promise, this is to be regarded typically of the eternal life promised by the Gospel—as Canaan was a figure of heaven.

  2. Second, as it is repeated in the New Testament (Ephesians 6:2-3; 1 Peter 3:10), it is often God's way to lengthen out an obedient and holy life.

  3. Third, but all promises of earthly blessing must necessarily imply this condition: they shall be literally fulfilled to us if this would promote our eternal happiness—otherwise they would be threatenings and not promises.

In His mercy God often abridges this promise and takes His beloved unto Himself.

Taken from Studies in the Scriptures, Vol. 20, No. 7, July 1941.


  1. ^John Calvin.
  2. ^Ibid.

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