by Richard T. Ritenbaugh
CGG Weekly, June 25, 2021
"No person was ever honored for what he received. Honor has been the reward for what he gave."
Honor is a word that often fails to receive its due in this casual age. Its modern sense tends to lean toward "recognition" and "celebration"—for instance, the Kennedy Center Honors or even the honor given to parents on Mother's Day and Father's Day—rather than to the profound "esteem" and "deference" those who came before us considered it to mean. Dictionaries define its verb form as "to hold in high respect, revere," which is a good, basic definition, but it only hints at its distinguishing sense.
Perhaps this underlying connotation is best seen through an example. In a court of law, lawyers, jurors, and defendants are expected to address the judge as "Your Honor." The title is a sign of respect, not necessarily to the individual wielding the gavel, but to the judge's function as the gatekeeper of the law within his jurisdiction. In this example, the word's legal and moral roots emerge.
When speaking about an honorable man or woman, we imply this principled sense, as we mean that the person under discussion possesses a keen perception of and strictly adheres to what is legally or morally proper. An honorable person will never lie or cheat to advance himself at his workplace. A man or woman of honor would abhor the idea of passing on information given in confidence. Honorable people do not surrender their principles at the first sign of adversity. The honorable keep their word, pay their debts, and fulfill their vows.
God commands us in Exodus 20:12, "Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long upon the land which the LORD your God is giving you." (Deuteronomy 5:16 also contains this fifth commandment, adding after the phrase about length of days, "and that it may be well with you . . ..") The Hebrew term underlying "honor" is kābēd (Strong's #3513), a primitive root word that literally means "to be heavy, weighty, or burdensome," but the Old Testament authors rarely use it in its literal sense (see I Samuel 4:18; II Samuel 14:26 for the two exceptions).
Most often, kābēd carries a negative connotation of heaviness, describing Pharaoh's hard heart (Exodus 7:14), Israel's dull hearing (Isaiah 6:10), Jacob's dim eyes (Genesis 48:10), and Moses' weary hands (Exodus 17:12). In addition, it portrays the burden or gravity of work (Exodus 5:9), conflict (Judges 20:34), slavery (I Kings 12:10), and famine (Genesis 41:31). Sometimes, God's hand is "heavy" in His punishment of sin (see I Samuel 5:6, 11; Psalm 32:4).
Even so, kābēd can have positive connotations too. When we read in Genesis 13:2 that "Abram was very rich," the Hebrew says he was "very heavy" in cattle, silver, and gold. The idea of weightiness turns positive when kābēd is used figuratively to imply something or someone noteworthy or impressive. It is often rendered as a form of "glory" when describing God and His transcendent character, which returns us to God's intent in the fifth commandment.
Where the Bible uses kābēd positively in reference to individuals, it focuses on the person's reputation. A person could be "heavy" or "weighty" because of his high position in society due to his birth, power, or wealth, and so worthy of a kind of honor. Such prominent people were often assumed to have done something right: "So [David] died in a good old age, full of days and riches and honor [kābôd]" (I Chronicles 29:28). However, the Bible cautions that we should not honor those who do not deserve it (Proverbs 26:1, 8 compared to 21:21; 22:4; 29:23; 31:25).
People in positions of responsibility and power—especially those placed by God, like human parents—should receive the honor due them. God gives them weighty responsibilities over the lives of His people, so they should receive "weighty respect" or honor in return. In Romans 13, the apostle Paul writes in a similar vein: "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" (Romans 13:1). He concludes his remarks with, "Render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes are due, . . . honor to whom honor" (Romans 13:7). Thus, we should honor those in authority, if only for the sake of their office.
Many are quick to point out that the fifth commandment charges us to "honor" our parents rather than "obey" them, a distinction worthy of serious contemplation. Paul likewise does not tell us to obey the governing authorities but "submit" or "be subject" to them. The takeaway is that we must always honor our parents, especially in those areas in which they excel and do what is right, but God does not compel us to obey them in all cases.
Again, Paul helps to clarify the fifth commandment's meaning. He instructs the Ephesians: "Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. ‘Honor your father and mother,' which is the first commandment with promise: ‘that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth'" (Ephesians 6:1-3). Here, he uses "obey" but conditions it with "in the Lord." The Holman Christian Standard Bible catches the sense of his meaning: "Children, obey your parents as you would the Lord, because this is right" (emphasis ours).
Paul cannot be advocating unquestioning obedience because such a charge would imply that a child should blindly follow a parent's every order, even sinful ones. The qualifying phrase, "in the Lord," provides the scope of a child's obedience to a parent: He must obey a parent's orders as long as they comply with God's Word. If a child chooses to disobey a sinful parental command—say, to lie or break the Sabbath—he must submit to the consequences of his refusal, but he has fulfilled his first responsibility to love God and obey Him (Matthew 22:37). While important, his parents are, in comparison, secondary loyalties (Matthew 22:39).
The moral undertone of "honor," then, surfaces in the fifth commandment. God desires that we honor the honorable. We should certainly respect our parents' God-given positions of authority and responsibility, but it is especially appropriate to honor them for their integrity and faithfulness to what is right, which many of them endeavored to pass on to the next generation, if only through their example. Those sound principles and behaviors they taught, if followed out of respect for them and God behind them, will provide us a well of wisdom from which we can draw as we move along the path of life, prolonging and enhancing our days.