The Fourth Commandment speaks of God’s gracious care for family and society. “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long upon the land which the Lord your God is giving you” (Exodus 20:12). Martin Luther comments on the promise in the Large Catechism: “What a great, good, and holy work is here assigned to children.” He summarizes this with: “they revere their parents as God’s representatives.” His counsel to the children is: “You should rejoice from the bottom of your heart and give thanks to God that he has chosen and made you worthy to perform works so precious and pleasing to him.”
This commandment, however, does not speak only to the family as husband, wife, and children. It speaks of a much wider family as well. Luther observes that all who govern “stand in the place of parents and must derive from them their power and authority to govern. They are all called fathers in Scripture because in their sphere of authority they have been commissioned as fathers and have fatherly hearts toward their people.”
All of the other commands in the second table of the law (5-10) describe how an orderly society, both family and state, must work: you are not to murder, violate the sanctity of marriage by adultery, speak falsehood, desire or take your neighbor’s goods, property, or workers.
These laws did not originate when God gave the commandments through Moses on Sinai, but were given by God in his creation of the world and mankind. Luther notes that the first three commandments are devoted to God and our relationship to him. “Now follow the other seven, which relate to our neighbor.” Luther locates these commands in what is called “natural law”: “If we had no father or mother, we should wish, on account of this commandment that God would set up a block of wood or stone that we might call father or mother.”
So the fourth commandment does not only speak of obedience to parents: “This commandment also makes it our duty to superiors or those who govern us in society. [God] goes so far as to derive all governing authority in this command of God.”
Luther thinks, of course, of St. Paul’s words in Romans 13: Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God and likewise to 1 Peter 2:13-14: Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake, whether to the king as supreme, or to governors, as to those who are sent by him for the punishment of evil does and for the praise of those who do good.
This is a part of the Lutheran doctrine of the two kingdoms. Christians live in two kingdoms at once — the kingdom of the right, where God’s children live by faith in his promises and honor the true God through faith in the gospel, and the kingdom of the left, which is the earthly kingdom, where the believers live alongside all mankind and are ruled by law, by threat, and by reward. Both kingdoms are created by God. The earthly kingdom too belongs to the fourth commandment, so Luther observes that “we have introduced three kinds of fathers in this commandment: fathers by blood, fathers of a household, and fathers of the nation.” And then he proceeds to add a fourth: “there are also spiritual fathers,” that is, those who “watch over their souls”; those who teach the law to bring the hearers to repentance and proclaim the gospel to comfort and restore them. In this, these Pfarrer [fathers], as pastors are called in German, are spiritual fathers, whose care for the believers are rooted in the fatherly care of the Good Shepherd.
So we see that the fourth commandment includes a great deal, from the family to the nations. If the law, in the form of the commandments, is a fence, it is a protecting fence protecting God’s most precious institutions: family and society. The law simply describes to the children of God how he wants them to be, and he thereby keeps them under his wings as a hen has her chicks under her wing.
And yet, this same law does some other things, too. The fourth commandment, too, shows us our sin. While it teaches the children of God how the Father wants them to live in this world, it is also the mirror that condemns disobedience so that the gospel can speak the voice of love and forgiveness. By the same token, God intends his law to keep order in the world so that the gospel can come as a blessing. Many do not want to be “fenced in,” restricted by moral law from doing what they want to do — as in “it cramps my style.” But the law serves to protect even those who do not believe in God and makes possible a “a quiet and peaceful life in this world.”
The Fourth Commandment
Honor your father and your mother, that it may be well with you, and that you may live long on the earth.
What does this mean?
We should fear and love God, so that we do not despise our parents and superiors, nor provoke them to anger, but honor, serve, obey, love and esteem them.
Rev. Erling T. Teigen
Bethany Lutheran College