Why do people die prematurely, even though they honor their parents? Doesn't this contradict God's promise of long life in Exodus 20:12?


It is indeed correct that God promises long life to those who honor their parents. We must understand, however, the correct meaning of this promise.

Exodus 20:12 states: “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 adds: “Honor your father and your mother, as the LORD your God commanded you, that your days may be long [AV: PROLONGED], and that it may be well with you in the land which the LORD your God is giving you.”

This commandment is specifically repeated, as binding on the church, in Ephesians 6:1-3: “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.'”

The Nelson Study Bible comments: “The benefits of respecting one’s parents would be long life and success.” Similarly the New Bible Commentary: Revised: “Long life is promised as an incentive to obedience (cf. Eph. 6:2). Honour to parents is limited by the honour due to God, who is supreme. Both allegiances are perfectly combined in Christ (Matthew 10:37; 19:29; Luke 2:49, 51; John 19:26, 27).”

But we must note that Jesus Christ did not live a long physical life. He died when He was only 33 years old.

Matthew Henry’s Commentary tries to get around this obvious problem, by trying to limit God’s promise to the people living in Canaan at that time: “[God] mentions his bringing them into Canaan. A long life IN THAT GOOD LAND is promised particularly to obedient children.” However, Paul later quoted this Old Testament passage in Ephesians 6:1-3, without limiting it to the land of Canaan (As the New King James Bible and most translations render the passage in Ephesians 6:3, Paul speaks about children living long on the EARTH). Further, Isaiah stated, while still in the Promised Land: “The righteous perishes, And no man takes it to heart; Merciful men are taken away, While no one considers That the righteous is taken away from evil. He shall enter into peace; they shall rest in their beds, Each one walking in his uprightness” (Isaiah 57:1-2).

Again, we find that a righteous person [who honors his parents] sometimes dies prematurely, to be taken away from evil.

To properly understand God’s promise of a long life to respectful children who honor their parents, we need to consider three different possibilities:

(1) Even though some may appear to live righteously and to keep the Fifth Commandment, they really don’t–in God’s eyes. As the Nelson Study Bible explains: “Care of one’s elderly parent was a basic element of social responsibility and godly piety in Israel… People who were faithless to God in disregarding their parents would not last long in the new Promised Land.” The New Testament makes clear that a believing man or woman should look after and take care of their parents (1 Timothy 5:4, 16; compare Mark 7:10-13).

In addition, some who die, without having enjoyed long lives, might have kept the Fifth Commandment, in a general way, but they might have violated other commandments of God. But God’s law is a package, and can’t be looked upon in an isolated fashion. James tells us that when we violate one of God’s commandments, even though we keep the rest, we have still violated God’s entire law (James 2:8-13). When we do that, we cannot expect God’s protection in dangerous situations, or His intervention to save us from premature death.

The same is true in respect to God’s promise in Malachi 3:10. God promises us physical blessings if we pay His tithe to His Church. We cannot expect being physically blessed by God, if we refuse to obey His commandment to tithe (verse 9). In other words, one is under a curse who refuses to pay God’s tithe to God’s Church, and decides to either not tithe at all, or to deposit God’s tithe in a personal private savings account. But, even if a person tithes diligently–like the Pharisees did in Christ’s time–he still can’t expect that God will bless him financially, if he violates other laws of God. These could be laws regulating sound financial principles, as well as spiritual laws.

Again, we must emphasize that God’s laws, statutes and judgments are a package, to be kept in their entirety. This is not to say that we will keep them perfectly–we will slip and fall, but we can obtain God’s forgiveness upon our repentance, and move on (1 John 1:8-9). The righteous may fall seven times, but he will rise up again every time (Proverbs 24:16).

On the other hand, somebody who flagrantly disobeys God’s laws–who practices a wrong way of life–can’t expect to be blessed by God, if he “keeps” one of his laws (such as the Fifth Commandment or the Tithing Law). Since he is intentionally violating the rest of God’s laws, his heart is not right with God. However, we read in Acts 17:30 that God may overlook the time of IGNORANCE; and that He therefore may bless someone who comes to the understanding of the knowledge of the truth regarding ONE commandment, and responds to God by obeying it.

(2) As mentioned before, in properly understanding Exodus 20:12, we must realize that God may decide to override His general promise of long physical life, under certain circumstances. It was preordained that Christ’s life on earth would be short–even though He kept all of God’s laws perfectly. Also, God may sometimes decide to let a righteous person die, to save him from the evil to come, as the righteous will be resurrected to eternal life within the next second of his consciousness (compare 1 Corinthians 15:50-54).

(3) The fact that the righteous will inherit ETERNAL life provides a third way of looking at God’s promise in Exodus 20:12. When God resurrects a righteous person to eternal life, He will give him the land or the earth to possess forever (compare Matthew 5:5; Psalm 37:11; Isaiah 57:13; 60:21). Please note that both in the Hebrew and in the Greek, the words for “land” and “earth” are the same; i.e., “erets” in Hebrew and “ge” in Greek. When we read in Exodus 20:12 that the one who honors his parents will be living long in the land, it can also be understood to mean that he will live long on the earth–as an immortal spirit being. The implication is, of course, that if we refuse to keep God’s commandments, and especially the one enjoining us to honor our parents, we will not obtain eternal life–we won’t live long on the earth or in the land which God has promised to Abraham and his spiritual descendants (compare Romans 4:13-25; Galatians 3:29).

God has indeed promised long life to those who obey Him. A special blessing is expressed for those who honor their parents. It is not an unconditional promise in the physical realm, as God may deem fit to override His promise for special, individual reasons. Barring this, we can rely on God’s promise of long life in this flesh–and, more importantly, life everlasting in the Kingdom of God.

Lead Writer: Norbert Link

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