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The Tables of the Ten Commandments: Observations from Ephesians 6

August 2, 2012

Continuing in S. Lewis Johnson’s series through Ephesians, a look at Ephesians 6:1-4 and some interesting observations concerning the fifth commandment.

The fifth commandment is mentioned here by Paul:  Honor your father and mother, that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.  So we consider the set of ten commandments, which are in two categories or “tables.”  The first set concerns the vertical relationship, man toward God, and the second set the horizontal relationship of man to man. Some teachers see the division as four toward God, and six – starting with this 5th commandment – toward man.  Here Dr. Johnson points out more background, that the Jews thought differently: that the fifth commandment is in the first table of commandments focused toward God:

But the Jews had a different idea.  They felt that that fifth commandment, “honor thy father and mother that thy days may be long upon the land the Lord thy God giveth thee” was a commandment that had relationship to the Lord first, and to men, second.  And so they divided the first two tables of the law into the first five commandments which were commandments with the Godward stress, and then the last five, the tables with the manward stress.

Now evidently, the Apostle, being a Jewish man would have taken it that way, and if that is so, then this “honor thy father and thy mother” is something that is to be looked at as something that is directed not toward our neighbors but to God himself.  In other words, this is a commandment whose major emphasis is Godward:  honor thy father and they mother that thy days be long upon the earth which the Lord thy God giveth thee; so that the children’s obedience to the parents is to be to their parents as if it were an obedience to the Lord, which tells us a whole lot about what parents ought to be, because parents represent God to the children.  No child will ever learn to obey God who does not first learn to obey his parents.  He must learn what obedience is.

The first commandment with a promise:  some point to the second of the ten commandments as also containing a promise, but that one includes rather a statement of the character of God.  If it’s the first, what are the second and other commandments with a promise?  Perhaps Paul was thinking beyond just the Decalogue, to the full Mosaic law.  Or, Paul may have meant first in rank (greatest), rather than first in order-sequence.

S. Lewis Johnson also makes an observation of some difference, which, it turns out, is an English translation issue in the KJV, NIV, and NASB versions, but not in the ESV (which of course was not available in SLJ’s day).  As he notes, in the King James Version Paul’s wording is slightly different in retelling the fifth commandment:  from that you may live long in the land to live long on the earth.  Dr. Johnson mentions this difference, uncertain as to exactly what Paul may have meant, yet wisely concluding:

 But at any rate, we do know this:  that obedience of children to parents, the proper relationship between the members of a family, in a certain society, is the mark of a stable community.  It’s the mark of a stable family.  It’s the mark of a stable nation.  And it may be that the Apostle, by broadening it out, is simply saying that when obedience of children characterizes a society, then you can expect that society to have the blessing of the Lord.

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