Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 5: Harmony of the Law, Part III, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
16. Honor thy father and thy mother, as the Lord thy God hath commanded thee; that thy days may be prolonged, and that it may go well with thee, in the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.
16. Honora patrem tuum et matrem tuam, quemadmodum praecepit tibi Jehova, Deus tuus: ut prorogentur dies tui et ut bene sit tibi super terram quam Jehova Deus tuus dat tibi.
I am not ignorant that the Tables of the Law are usually divided in a different manner; 1 for those, who make only one of the first two Commandments, are obliged finally to mangle the last. Thus the prohibition of God to covet either our neighbor’s wife or his house, is foolishly separated into two parts, whereas it is quite clear that only one thing is treated of, as we gather from the words of Paul, who quotes them as a single Commandment. (Ro 7:7.) There is, however, no need of a lengthened discussion here, since the fact itself explains how one error has grown out of another; for, when they had improperly hidden the Second Commandment under the First, and consequently did not find the right number, they were forced to divide into two parts what was one and indivisible. A frivolous reason is assigned by Augustine why they comprised the First Table in three commandments, viz., that believers might learn to worship God in the Trinity, and thus to adore one God in three persons. By inconsiderately trifling with such subtleties, they have exposed God’s law to the mockeries of the ungodly. Josephus 2 indeed rightly enumerates the Commandments themselves in their proper order, but improperly attributes five Commandments to each Table; as if God had had regard to arithmetic rather than to instruct His people separately in the duties of charity, after having laid down for them the rules of piety. For up to this point the rule of rightly serving God has been delivered, i.e., the First Table embraces a summary of piety; and now the Law will begin to show how men ought to live with each other, otherwise one Table would have been enough, nor would God have divided his Law without a purpose. But whereas piety 3 and justice comprise the perfect rule for the direction of our lives, it was necessary to distinguish these two parts, that the people might understand the object of the Law, of which we shall again speak hereafter.
Exodus 20:12. Honor thy father Although charity (as being “the bond of perfectness,” Col 3:14) contains the sum of the Second Table, still, mutual obligation does not prevent either parents or others, who are in authority, from retaining their proper position. Nay, human society cannot be maintained in its integrity, unless children modestly submit themselves to their parents, and unless those, who are set over others by God’s ordinance, are even reverently honored. But inasmuch as the reverence which children pay to their parents is accounted a sort of piety, some have therefore foolishly placed this precept in the First Table. Nor are they supported in this by Paul, though he does not enumerate this Commandment, where he collects the sum of the Second Table, (Ro 13:9;) for he does this designedly, because he is there expressly teaching that obedience is to be paid to the authority of kings and magistrates. Christ, however, puts an end to the whole controversy, where, among the precepts of the Second Table, He enumerates this, that children should honor their parents. (Mt 19:19.)
The name of the mothers is expressly introduced, lest their sex should render them contemptible to their male children.
It will be now well to ascertain what is the force of the word “honor,” not as to its grammatical meaning, (for כבד, cabad, is nothing else but to pay due honor to God, and to men who are in authority,) but as to its essential signification. Surely, since God would not have His servants comply with external ceremonies only, it cannot be doubted but that all the duties of piety towards parents are here comprised, to which children are laid under obligation by natural reason itself; and these may be reduced to three heads, i e., that they should regard them with reverence; that they should obediently comply with their commands, and allow themselves to be governed by them; and that they should endeavor to repay what they owe to them, and thus heartily devote to them themselves and their services. Since, therefore, the name of Father is a sacred one, and is transferred to men by the peculiar goodness of God, the dishonoring of parents redounds to the dishonor of God Himself, nor can any one despise his father without being guilty of an offense against God, (sacrilegium.) If any should object that there are many ungodly and wicked fathers whom their children cannot regard with honor without destroying the distinction between good and evil, the reply is easy, that the perpetual law of nature is not subverted by the sins of men; and therefore, however unworthy of honor a father may be, that he still retains, inasmuch as he is a father, his right over his children, provided it does not in anywise derogate from the judgment of God; for it is too absurd to think of absolving under any pretext the sins which are condemned by His Law; nay, it would be a base profanation to misuse the name of father for the covering of sins. In condemning, therefore, the vices of a father, a truly pious son will subscribe to God’s Law; and still, whatsoever he may be, will acknowledge that he is to be honored, as being the father given him by God.
Obedience comes next, which is also circumscribed by certain limits. Paul is a faithful interpreter of this Commandment, where he bids “children obey their parents.” (Eph 6:1; Col 3:20.) Honor, therefore, comprises subjection; so that he who shakes off the yoke of his father, and does not allow himself to be governed by his authority, is justly said to despise his father; and it will more clearly appear from other passages, that those who are not obedient to their parents are deemed to despise them. Still, the power of a father is so limited as that God, on whom all relationships depend, should have the rule over fathers as well as children; for parents govern their children only under the supreme authority of God. Paul, therefore, does not simply exhort children to obey their parents, but adds the restriction, “in the Lord;” whereby he indicates that, if a father enjoins anything unrighteous, obedience is freely to be denied him. Immoderate strictness, moroseness, and even cruelty must be born, so long as a mortal man, by wickedly demanding what is not lawful, does not endeavor to rob God of His right. In a word, the Law so subjects children to their parents, as that God’s right may remain uninfringed. An objection here arises in the shape of this question: It may sometimes happen that a son may hold the office of a magistrate, but that the father may be a private person, and that thus the son cannot discharge his private duty without violating public order. The point is easily solved: that all things may be so tempered by their mutual moderation as that, whilst the father submits himself to the government of his son, 4 yet he may not be at all defrauded of his honor, and that the son, although his superior in power, may still modestly reverence his father.
The third head of honor is, that children should take care of their parents, and be ready and diligent in all their duties towards them. This kind of piety the Greeks call ἀντιπελαργία, 5 because storks supply food to their parents when they are feeble and worn out with old age, and are thus our instructors in gratitude. Hence the barbarity of those is all the more base and detestable, who either grudge or neglect to relieve the poverty of their parents, and to aid their necessities.
Now, although the parental name ought, by its own sweetness, sufficiently to attract children to ready submission, still a promise is added as a stimulus, in order that they may more cheerfully bestir themselves to pay the honor which is enjoined upon them. Paul, therefore, that children may be more willing to obey their parents, reminds us that this “is the first commandment with promise,” (Eph 6:2;) for although a promise is annexed to the Second Commandment, yet it is not a special one, as we perceive this to be. The reward, that the days of children who have behaved themselves piously to their parents shall be prolonged, aptly corresponds with the observance of the commandment, since in this manner God gives us a proof of His favor in this life, when we have been grateful to those to whom we are indebted for it; whilst it is by no means just that they should greatly prolong their life who despise those progenitors by whom they have been brought into it. Here the question arises, since this earthly life is exposed to so many cares, and pains, and troubles, how can God account its prolongation to be a blessing? But whereas all cares spring from the curse of God, it is manifest that they are accidental; and thus, if life be regarded in itself, it does not cease to be a proof of God’s favor. Besides, all this multitude of miseries does not destroy the chief blessing of life, viz., that men are created and preserved unto the hope of a happy immortality; for God now manifests Himself to them as a Father, that hereafter they may enjoy His eternal inheritance. The knowledge of this, like a lighted lamp, causes God’s grace to shine forth in the midst of darkness. Whence it follows, that those had not tasted the main thing in life, 6 who have said that the best thing was not to be born, and the next best thing to be cut off as soon as possible; whereas God rather so exercises men by various afflictions, as that it should be good for them nevertheless to be created in His image, and to be accounted His children. A clearer explanation also is added in Deuteronomy, not only that they should live, but that it may go well with them; so that not only is length of life promised them, but other accessories also. And in fact, many who have been ungrateful and unkind to their parents only prolong their life as a punishment, whilst the reward of their inhuman conduct is repaid them by their children and descendants. But inasmuch as long life is not vouchsafed to all who have discharged the duties of piety towards their parents, it must be remembered that, with respect to temporal rewards, an infallible law is by no means laid down; and still, where God works variously and unequally, His promises are not made void, because a better compensation is secured in heaven for believers, who have been deprived on earth of transitory blessings. Truly experience in all ages has shown that God has not in vain promised long life to all who have faithfully discharged the duties of true piety towards their parents. Still, from the principle already stated, it is to be understood that this Commandment extends further than the words imply; and this we infer from the following sound argument, viz., that otherwise God’s Law would be imperfect, and would not instruct us in the perfect rule of a just and holy life.
The natural sense itself dictates to us that we should obey rulers. If servants obey not their masters, the society of the human race is subverted altogether. It is not, therefore, the least essential part of righteousness 7 that the people should willingly submit themselves to the command of magistrates, and that servants should obey their masters; and, consequently, it would be very absurd if it were omitted in the Law of God. In this commandment, then, as in the others, God by synecdoche embraces, under a specific rule, a general principle, viz., that lawful commands should obtain due reverence from us. But that all things should not be distinctly expressed, first of all brevity itself readily accounts for; and, besides, another reason is to be noticed, i.e. that God designedly used a homely style in addressing a rude people, because He saw its expediency. If He had said generally, that all superiors were to be obeyed, since, pride is natural to all, it would not have been easy to incline the greater part of men to pay submission to a few. Nay, since subjection is naturally disagreeable, many would have kicked against it. God, therefore, propounds a specific kind of subjection, which it would have been gross barbarism to refuse, that thus, their ferocity being gradually subdued, He might accustom men to bear the yoke. Hence the exhortations are derived, that people should “honor the king;” that “every soul should be subject unto the higher powers;” that “servants should obey their masters, even the froward and morose.” (Pr 24:21; 1Pe 2:13; Ro 13:1; Eph 6:5; 1 Pet. 2:14, 18.)
See Becon’s Catechism, part 3, (Parker Society’s edition,) p. 60, et seq. See also Bullinger’s Decades, (Parker Society,) vol. 1, p. 212; and Hooper’s Early Writings, (Parker Society,) pages 349-351; and Calvin’s Institutes, lib. 2. cap. 8, Section 12. It appears that this error may be traced to Augustine, (Quaest. in Exodus 71, and Ep. ad. Jan. 119,) who, without omitting the Second Commandment, divided the precepts of the First Table into three, on the supposition that their number was allusive to the Trinity. He, however, contradicts himself elsewhere, (Quaest. Vet. et Novi Test., lib. 1:7;) but Peter Lomb. adopts his erroneous division, and separates the Tenth Commandment into two parts. (Lib. 3, Distinct. 37 and 40.)
See Jewish Antiq., book 3. chap. 5. Section 5. In sect. 8 it is added: “When he had said this he showed them two tables, with the ten commandments engraven upon them, five upon each table; and the writing was by the hand of God.”
“La piete que nous devons a Dieu, et l’equite que nous devons a nos prochains;” the piety which we owe to God, and the equity which we owe to our neighbors. — Fr.
There is a delightful illustration of this point, which will occur to many, related in More’s Life of Sir Thomas More, ch. 6. Section 5, — “Now it was a comfortable thing for ante man to behold how two great rooms of Westminster-hall were taken up, one with the son, the other with the father, which hath as yet never been heard of before or since, the son to be Lord Chancellor, and the father, Sir John More, to be one of the ancientest Judges of the King’s Bench, if not the eldest of all; for now he was near 90 year old. Yea, what a grateful spectacle was it, to see the son ask the father’s blessing every day upon his knees, before he sat in his own seat, a thing expressing rare humility, exemplar obedience, and submissive piety.”
“Let us consider what is meant by the Gentiles’ ἀντιπελαργεῖν, which is to requite one good turn with another; and especially to nourish and cherish them, by whom thou thyself in thy youth was brought up and tendered. There is among the Gentiles a law extant, worthy to be called the mistress of piety, whereby it is enacted that the children should either nourish their parents or else lie fast lettered in prison. This law many men do carelessly neglect, which the stork alone, among all living creatures, doth keep most precisely. For other creatures do hard, and scarcely know or look upon their parents, if peradventure they need their aid to nourish them; whereas the stork doth mutually nourish them, being stricken in age, and bear them on her shoulders, when for feebleness they cannot fly.” — Bullinger’s Second Decade, Serm. 5, Parker Society’s edit., vol. 1, p. 272. See also Hooper’s Early Writings, Parker Society’s edit., p. 359. “Follow the nature of the cicone, that in her youth nourisheth the old days of her parents.” — Plin., lib. 10 cap. 23, Nat. Hist.
The Fr. concludes the sentence thus: “et ainsi nous sont comme maistresses pour nous apprendre a recognoistre le bien que nous avons receu de ceux qui nous ont mis au monde et elevez;” and so are, as it were, our mistresses to teach us to repay the benefits of those who have brought us into the world and reared us.
This famous sentiment of antiquity is found in the Elegies of Theognis, some 500 years B.C., —
Pa>ntwn me<n mh< fu~nai ejpicqoni>oisin a]riston,
Mhd j ejsidei~n aujgav ojxe>ov hjeli>v.
Fu>nta d j o[pwv w]kiva pu>lav aji`>daw perh~sai
Kai< kei+sqai pollh<n gh~n ejpamhsa>menon. — 425-428.
It is also reported by Plutarch, in his Παραμυθητικὸς προς Απολλώνιον, by whom, as well as by Cicero, it is called the reply of Silenus to Midas, — “Affertur etiam de Sileno fabella quaedam: qui cum a Mida captus esset, hoc ei muneris pro sua missione dedisse scribitur: docuisse regem, non nasci homini longe optimum esse; proximum autem, quamprimum mori.” — Tusc Quaest. 1:48. “Ex quo intelligi licet, non nasci longe optimum esse, nec in hos scopulos incidere vitae; proximum autem, si natus sis, quamprimum mori, et tanquam ex incendio effugere fortunae. Sileni quae fertur fabula, etc.” — Consolatio. Lactantius refers to the latter passage, De falsa sapientia, Section 19. “Hinc nata est inepta illa sententia, etc.”
“Pars justiciae non postrema.” — Lat. “Une partie de la justice, qui nous devons tous garder;” a part of righteousness which we ought all to observe. — Fr.