The purpose and meaning of the Fifth Commandment
The primary focus of the Fifth Commandment is the importance of learning to respect our parents and others as both children and adults.
“Honour your father and your mother: that your days may be long upon the land which the LORD your God giveth you.” Exodus 20:12
The Fifth Commandment introduces us to a series of Commandments that define proper relationships with other people. Six of the Commandments (the fifth through the 10th) serve as the standards of conduct in areas of human behaviour that generate the most far reaching consequences on individuals, families, groups and society. Our abuse and exploitation of each other is appalling. The intensity and magnitude of the violence among ourselves is inexcusable. We desperately need to reverse the horrifying results of our inability to get along with each other. We need to learn how to work together harmoniously in every area of life to build stable, loving and lasting relationships.
Establishing the rudimentary principles by which workable relationships can be built is the objective of the last six Commandments. They define with stark clarity the areas of behaviour in which human nature creates the biggest roadblocks to peace and cooperation. They provide us with the guidance we need to remove those roadblocks. The Fifth Commandment sets the tone for the last six. It addresses the importance of our learning to treat each other with respect and honour.
Learning respect for others
Learning responsibility for our own conduct and character is the beginning of good relationships. Our character, which drives our conduct begins to form during our childhood. It is during our formative years that our attitudes governing our personal desires in relation to the desires and needs of others is shaped and moulded. That is the primary focus of the Fifth Commandment: the importance of learning to respect others while we are still children.
The Fifth Commandment shows us from whom and how the fundamentals of respect and honour are most effectively learned. It guides us to know how to yield to others, how to properly submit to authority and how to accept the influence of mentors. That is why the apostle Paul wrote: “Honour your father and mother; (which is the first Commandment with promise;) 3 That it may be well with you, and you may live long on the earth.” Ephesians 6:2-3
Learning to obey this Commandment helps children establish a lifetime pattern of respecting proper rules, traditions, principles and laws. Honouring others should be a normal, natural habit learned during youth. The universal application of this important biblical principle is plain. We read: “Honour all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the king.” 1 Peter 2:17. It all begins with the respect and honour we show our parents.
The role of a parent
God places the primary responsibility for teaching children the basic principles of life directly on the shoulders of parents. The ability of mothers and fathers to succeed in this responsibility depends significantly on how much they in turn submit to God's instruction and teaching and show love and respect for Him. Remember, four Commandments that emphasize the importance of a personal relationship with God precede the Commandment to give honour to our parents. After all, God is our ultimate Parent. Notice how God challenged the spiritual leaders of ancient Israel: “A son honoureth his father, and a servant his master: if then I be a father, where is mine honour? and if I be a master, where is my fear?…” Malachi 1:6. As our Creator God is the Father of us all.
We who are parents should first think of ourselves as children as in the children of God. It is just as important for us to respect and obey our heavenly Father as it is for our children to respect and obey us. Only then is it possible for us to fully grasp our role as the spiritual leaders of our children. When we first honour and obey God, we set the proper example for our children. They can then develop habits of respect and obedience by observing our example and applying what they are taught. Children internalize beliefs and behaviours best if they see a strong continuity between the example and the instruction of their parents and teachers.
The missing link in child-rearing
God's instruction to parents makes this clear: “And you shall love the LORD your God with all thine heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. 6 And these words, which I command you this day, shall be in thine heart: 7 And you shall teach them diligently unto your children, and shall talk of them when you sittest in thine house, and when you walkest by the way, and when you liest down, and when you risest up.” Deuteronomy 6:5-7. The implication is clear: Only when we hold right principles in our hearts can we as parents successfully instil them in our children.
Throughout the Bible, especially in the Proverbs, we find many instructions and principles about how we should treat and honour each other. We should regularly discuss these in our families and apply them to the real life situations our children face every day. These discussions should be interactive allowing the children to freely ask questions that we as parents should help them resolve using biblical principles as thoroughly and accurately as possible (Deuteronomy 6:20-21). It is by treating children with dignity and respect in an interactive process that they learn how they should treat others and why their attitudes and behaviour should reflect love and concern for them. Parents who assist their children in searching God's Word to verify the foundation of the family's values are teaching them how to rely on God's judgment instead of trusting their own emotions, whims and desires.
Children and especially teenagers search for their own place in society. They need guidance, instruction and love and reassurance. Parents should not ridicule them. Paul cautions parents and especially fathers not to “provoke not your children to wrath: but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.” Ephesians 6:4. Parents need to carefully combine a firm insistence that their children obey the rules of courtesy and respect with an abundance of patience and gentleness. This loving combination is the missing link in child rearing.
Helping children establish their identity
Children need constant encouragement and frequent acknowledgment of their successes and achievements. Above all, they need plenty of love and praise to help them develop a strong personal identity that reflects a positive and hopeful outlook toward life. Keep in mind that children do not all respond to different types of praise in the same way. Some can better develop a positive outlook when praise focuses on them and on their abilities and areas of competence rather than on individual achievements. Praise focused heavily on accomplishments only such as grades in school may engender an unhealthy sense of insecurity. Some may perceive that they are acceptable only if they perform exceptionally and that they are loved only when their efforts are perfect. This type of praise may have the opposite effect from what was intended.
As parents, we should rejoice with our children in their achievements. We should share their successes. But we should be careful to direct our praise specifically toward them as individuals. We should tell them when we are pleased with them. This bolsters their confidence that it is possible for them to please us and God. They perceive themselves as being acceptable and appreciated. It gives them hope in their future and assurance in their own identity. They are then far more likely to have confidence in us as parents and return to us the praise and honour that fulfils the Fifth Commandment. It is their beginning of a proper and positive relationship with the rest of humanity and ultimately with God.
Honouring our parents as adults
Honouring our parents doesn't cease when we become adults. It is a lifetime commitment. As they get older this may include physically caring for them and, as necessary, helping financially support them. Jesus criticized those in His day who neglected making appropriate provisions for the care of their elderly parents. “And he said unto them, Full well you reject the Commandment of God, that you may keep your own tradition. 10 For Moses said, Honour your father and your mother; and, Whoso curseth father or mother, let him die the death: 11 But you say, If a man shall say to his father or mother, It is Corban, that is to say, a gift, by whatsoever you mightest be profited by me; he shall be free. 12 And you suffer him no more to do ought for his father or his mother; 13 Making the word of God of none effect through your tradition, which you have delivered: and many such like things do you.” Mark 7:9-13
We and our children should be sure we do not neglect honouring our grandparents. They have contributed significantly to our lives, and most grandparents cherish their grandchildren. We should find opportunities to spend time listening to and asking questions of our grandparents. Conversations with them are like treasures because they help us better understand and appreciate our origins. Grandparents love for their grandchildren to show interest in them. Children who honour and love their grandparents broaden their understanding of people and life.
Reaping the benefits
When Moses reviewed the Ten Commandments with the people of Israel, he commented on another blessing, in addition to long life, for keeping the Fifth Commandment: “Honour your father and your mother, as the LORD your God has commanded you; that your days may be prolonged, and that it may go well with you, in the land which the LORD your God giveth you.” Deuteronomy 5:16
We the children are the beneficiaries when we honour our parents. This is the Commandment with the wonderful promise that life will go better for us if we simply obey it. Families are the building blocks of societies. Strong families build strong societies and nations. When families are fractured and flawed the sad results are tragic and reflected in newspaper headlines every day. Any individual or group, including whole nations that understands the importance of strong families reaps the reward of an improved relationship with and blessings from God.