This wise father sent this in from outside the US:
I have a son (now 7 years old) who loves the Lord and is learning about Him.
Some time back he really took hold of the verses in Ephesians 6:1-3 about the need to obey his parents, and he really latched onto the promise of living long on the earth.
Recently my boy discovered that the apostle James was executed while still a young man (Acts 12:2). So my son has been troubled about putting this together, how was it that James was executed while still a young man although presumably he did obey his parents?
I tried to explain to him that Jesus told his followers to expect persecution, and that God called James to a better place.
I really enjoy reading your website, and I wonder if you have any good insights on this question. It's an honest question from my 7-year old, who has a tender heart and loves the Lord. And I want it to stay that way!
I dug around a little and sent this back to him:
The general principles which apply are probably these:
1. In the ancient world, ‘honor’ included elderly care for one’s parents, after they no longer could manage a farm or business. There was no “Social Security” or “Retirement Plans” back then, so the ONLY way people could ‘live long’ was by having their adult children care for them. Cf:
“In the ancient Near East it is not the religious heritage but the fabric of society that is threatened when there is no respect for parental authority and filial obligations are neglected. Violations would include striking parents, cursing parents, neglecting the care of elderly parents and failing to provide adequate burial. (Ex 20.12)” [Bible Background Commentary, Old Testament”
2. This principle—by itself—would make the principle read something like this: “Honor (provide) your parents, so THEY will LIVE LONG on the land”.
3. But one of God’s main principles in our lives is “you reap what you sow” and “do onto others as you would have others do unto you”. God supports this principle, through society, family, providence, etc. This means that if a grown child HELPS his/her parents to LIVE LONG (“sowing” this loving investment in their parents), then God will see to it that the child’s OWN CHILDREN help THEM to LIVE LONG (“reaping”), in some fashion. By setting the example of caring for one’s elderly parents, then one’s OWN children learn the importance of this—and the system ‘trickles’ down.
4. Even though we often have Govt-based elderly care programs (e.g. Social Security and Medicare in the US), adult children often help their elderly parents manage these and sometimes supplement these, as feasible. And primarily, treating elderly parents with respect (not always accorded to the elderly in ‘industrialized’ cultures) promotes an important sense of worth, health, connectedness—itself an important contribution to longer lifetimes in Western culture.
5. In addition to this elderly-care reality embedded in the text, the general way the verse is understood is more along the lines of ‘obedience as fostering self-discipline’—an important contributor to long-life itself:
“The promise for those who obey their parents is that they enjoy a prosperous and long life on the earth. This states a general principle that obedience fosters self-discipline, which in turn brings stability and longevity in one’ life. (Stated conversely, it is improbable that an undisciplined person will live a long life. An Israelite who persistently disobeyed his parents was not privileged to enjoy a long, stable life in the land of Israel. A clear example of this was Eli’ sons Hophni and Phinehas [1 Sam. 4:11].) Though that promise was given to Israel in the Old Testament, the principle still holds true today.” [Bible Knowledge Commentary]
6. There is also a negative side to this—at least in ancient cultures (OT and NT). If a person did NOT honor/obey/cooperate with their parents (especially when they became adults still living in the multi-generational households of those times), the parents sometimes had to KICK THEM OUT –to safeguard the family living and provision. So, for example, adult children who squandered needed family resources on liquor and overeating (Deut 21.20f) were to be tried by the courts and executed!
“When a breakdown of family coherence occurred and a son refused to give his parents the obedience and support they were entitled to, it became a threat to the community as a whole. The language used here makes it clear that a repudiation of the covenant is involved. The references to gluttony and drunkenness are considered indications that the son is beyond reform. Due process includes parental witness of the offense, and then a communal form of execution is prescribed. This offense is as grave a threat to the covenant as worshiping other gods. Mesopotamian law also defends the rights of parents, but only extending to disinheritance or mutilation. The legislation limits the authority of the parents in that they have to bring such a matter before the elders rather than having the freedom to act independently.” [The IVP Bible background commentary : Old Testament (electronic ed.) (Dt 21:21). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.]
This is not dealing with ‘small and infrequent’ disobedience—as is obvious from the text—but rather with the RESULT of a steady stream of dishonorings…
So, that’s the background for the commandment:
1. God will see to the care of (via some form of reap/sowing blessing, typically—but not invariably-- through their OWN children) those who oversee/see to/are involved in the care of their parents.
2. A childhood of obedience builds a character that tends to live longer than one lacking self control.
3. A history of disobedience can lead eventually to behavior which produces shorter lives.
Now, the exceptions (e.g., Stephen, James) can be seen as ‘special tasks’ assigned by God, and accompanied (as you mentioned) by ‘early check-in’ at the very presence of God. Many jobs in our world are known for such higher-than-normal risks (e.g., soldiers, policemen, firemen – all with VERY IMPORTANT jobs!). But most jobs do not have this much risk (e.g., teachers, office workers). But it is important to point out that these are exceptions—and for God’s own children—“good” exceptions.
The best example of this is Jesus—God’s own perfectly obedient, perfectly honoring Son. Because He was so perfect, the Father could allow Jesus to give up His perfect life for other people’s welfare—like a soldier or fireman might choose to do. If Jesus had NOT been obedient, then He would have been ‘disqualified’ for the job at the Cross, but He could still have been qualified to be a good farmer, carpenter, or any other longer-living job. It is just that this special job needed to be done, and so God the Father let His perfect Son do it.
[It is important, however, to make SURE that longer-living jobs are not DEMOTED below shorter-living ones! Abraham, Moses, David, and the Apostle John all lived very long lives—and they all had VERY special jobs to do. Jesus, Stephen, John the Baptist, and Paul & Peter lived shorter-than-normal—because of the special jobs God gave them to do. Not all ‘important jobs’ require martyrdom.]
So, one possible way to word this (for a 7ish yo) might be something like this:
“You know how the other day you asked me why James didn’t live a long time and went to Heaven early to get his first really BIG HUG from GOD in PERSON (smile), although he probably obeyed and honored his mom and dad? I think it’s because God had a very special JOB for him to do. You know how soldiers sometimes die younger than most people, because they are helping defend other people from harm? And how volunteer firemen sometimes die while they are saving the lives of other people? Well, even though MOST OF THE TIME the important things God wants us to do in our lives—like learning at school, helping others in our jobs, growing a family—are not dangerous, there are a FEW things that might be different from this.
“We don’t know much about how God used James’ early death to do good, but another example is in Acts also—the case of Stephen being killed as a young man. Stephen’s early death had a big impact on one very special person in the crowd, who later because the Apostle Paul. He started many new churches and wrote THIS MUCH (show them how much of the NT was written by Paul) of God’s love letter to us—the New Testament.
“But you know, the best example of a special job like this is Jesus. He was a perfect child to both his earthly parents and his heavenly Father, and yet He died on the Cross while he was still a young man. But his death was the thing God used to pay for our sins, so we could have a warm and safe friendship with God the Father. He took our punishment for our sins—so we would not have to—and to do this He had to give up his life early and go on to Heaven.
“It’s a little like if somebody pushed you out of the way of a car which was gonna run over you, and they get run over instead of you. They were good people—they wouldn’t have tried to save somebody if they weren’t—and they probably obeyed their parents when they were growing up. But they decided to give up their long-life to help SOMEBODY ELSE have a long-life, by being hit by a car instead of them. [You may have to visualize this a little better than this is worded, but the principle should be easy to get across].
“But you should probably remember that those types of assignments or jobs from God are special and don’t happen very often. The New Testament mentions hundreds and hundreds of good people [pick some visual for them—“more people than were at the soccer game last Sunday” or “at the parade last week”], but not this many (hold up both hands—10) had those kinds of jobs to do. And some other people in the bible had very special jobs too, and they lived LONGER LIVES than most people do TODAY. Remember the story of Moses? And King David—the one who fought Goliath? They lived very long lives and did many special things for God, too.”
Anyway, these are just my thoughts and some ideas for you to turn over in your thoughts about this—hopefully there’s something in here you can use, friend—Bless you, Glenn
He wrote back a week or so later with this:
I'd like to thank you again for sending this. I really appreciate it.
I talked to my son about it, and afterwards he drew a picture of James going to heaven.