Tuesday, January 11, 2011

On which Tablet is the Fifth Commandment?

"Honour your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you” (Exodus 20:12).

I have just finished preaching on the subject of worship at the Grace Ministers’ Conferences in South Africa. It was a wonderful time of fellowship and mutual encouragement with many pastors who have become very dear ministerial colleagues over the years. However, as in times past, when I have had to deal with the subject of worship, I was again faced with the need to put before them my understanding of worship as it is taught in the first five commandments of the Decalogue.

When I initially taught on worship from the Ten Commandments and said that they were divided into two sets of five commandments each I was sure that I got this from John Calvin. However, a few years later an American friend, with a far more formidable library than mine, told me that Calvin divided the Ten Commandments into the usual four-and-six category (i.e. four commandments on our relationship with God and six on our relationship with one another). I rushed back to my library and found that he was right. I searched the rest of my few books on the Ten Commandments and found that all of them had the four-and-six category. I have since asked myself the question, “Where on earth did I get this five-to-five category?” I have tried to change, but have miserably failed. So, I am writing this blog for two reasons: (1) To explain why I find the five-to-five category more satisfying, and (2) To find out from those with more formidable libraries if you know anyone else who has divided the Ten Commandments into two sets of five commandments each. I would hate to be the only one doing so, since the Holy Spirit could not have only revealed this to me!

Is this the right division of the Ten Commandments?
Let me be quick to state that when it comes to the content of the fifth commandment, whether it is put under the first or second tablet (I am using the word “tablet” to simply signify whether it is part of the “greatest commandment” as described by our Lord, or as part of the second greatest commandment), I have found that we are all saying the same thing. Everyone agrees that it deals with godly submission to parental authority. So, all are agreed that it is about a vertical relationship. The commandment is further applied to civil and church authority in a secondary sense.

However, herein lies my problem. Firstly, I find a clear thread running through the first five commandments and it is all related to a vertical relationship. I find it rather forced to put submission under loving my neighbour. I say so because my parents are not my neighbours! In obeying them, I am not doing to them as I would love them to do to me. It seems to me that the only reason why commentators have put the 5th commandment under the second tablet is because it talks about our relationship with human beings rather than God. However, as you shall observe, these human beings are standing as God’s regents in society—rather than as our neighbours. Our parents stand between God and us in a way that no one else does—literally from birth. Rebellion against them was a capital offence (Exodus 21:15, 17, Deuteronomy 21:18-21). The authority of parents and rulers is to be guarded because they are God’s agents on earth (Exodus 22:28, Romans 13:1-2).

Or is this the right division of the Ten Commandments?
When the Ten Commandments were being given, parents were the centre of authority. It was the patriarchal period. Israel was beginning to be organised as a nation and thus went into the judges and kings period. Even then, the phrase “father and mother” was generically applied to rulers (Genesis 45:8 and Judges 5:7). At this point it was the elders, who represented the wider parental authority, who were in charge of Israel. God had entrusted his worship into their hands. Thus in this commandment public worship was being secured by ensuring submission to godly leadership.

Secondly, there is such a close connection between the 4th and 5th commandments that I often wonder why commentators put them on different tablets. The 4th addresses heads of homes (i.e. parents) and tells them to ensure that worship is maintained in the household, while the 5th addresses the children and tells them to honour their parents as they seek to implement the worship of the true God. So, the two complement each other. In fact, it becomes clear when one notices the promise given to the children—“that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.” Why such a promise? It is not because the children are doing well in loving their nearest neighbours, but because they are honouring their parents as they pass on true religion to them. It was when a generation in Israel abandoned the true religion that their parents had passed on to them that God sent them into captivity. So, it was all related to the first tablet, i.e. loving God.

Thirdly, there is a beautiful symmetry in the two “tablets” which we miss when we divide them into four-and-six. Notice how the 1st and the 6th commandments (i.e. the first on each tablet) are the most important. Once you are wrong on the object of worship (the 1st commandment), then even if you are right in the ordinances (the 2nd commandment), the reverence (the 3rd commandment), the day (the 4th commandment), and the custodians of worship (the 5th commandment), it is all useless. You are worshipping the wrong object! Similarly, with respect to the second tablet, if you murder a person (the 6th commandment), you cannot commit adultery with them (the 7th commandment), you cannot steal their goods (the 8th commandment), you cannot lie to them (the 9th commandment), and you cannot envy what they have (the 10th commandment). They are dead!

Ultimately the issue of "tablets" is not the ultimate issue
This beautiful symmetry can also be seen as you work upwards on each tablet. The last commandment on each tablet has been put there in order to secure the top four. Because religion has a given-ness to it, when children honour their godly parents, they will most likely observe the resting day as a day of worship (the 4th commandment), be reverent in worship (the 3rd commandment), observe only the ordinances of worship prescribed by God (the 2nd commandment), and worship the only true God (the 1st commandment). Similarly, because sin is a matter of the heart, when a person jealously guards his heart with contentment, he is more likely to treasure integrity (the 9th commandment), respect the possessions of his neighbour (the 8th commandment), only engage in sex in God’s legitimate context (the 7th commandment), and preserve the life of his neighbour (the 6th commandment). Isn’t this what James teaches? “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel” (James 4:1-2).

However, having said all this, it is not my intention to upset the apple cart. I share this blog because I want to find out from those of you with more formidable libraries if any commentator sees what I have seen. As I said at the Grace Ministers’ Conference, the difference is more of awkwardness than content and purpose. It is like a man who is addressing an important gathering on a cold day but who has buttoned his jacket wrongly. Since he is feeling warm, the jacket is fulfilling its purpose. However, his wife, sitting in the front row, is totally embarrassed as she sees her man improperly dressed in front of such an august assembly!


  1. Apparently the 5/5 split is the traditional Jewish one, being found, for example, in Philo's "Decalogue" (http://www.ecmarsh.com/crl/philo/book26.htm), Josephus' "Antiquities of the Jews" (Book III, Ch 5, last sentence: http://reluctant-messenger.com/josephusA03.htm), and in Jewish art.

    Rooker in "The Ten Commandments: Ethics for the Twenty-First Century" (p 12: http://books.google.com/books?id=1WUzUAdWRVUC&pg=PA12) has a very brief discussion.

  2. With regards to who else hold your position, in consultation with google (the world's e-librarian), it seems that traditional Judaism holds to that position. Refer to the following:
    Most of the puritans and those of reformed/protestant persuasion seem to lean towards the 4-6 division.

  3. Thanks for the feedback. I feel VERY relieved upon discovering that the Jews themselves to whom the Ten Commandments were initially given seem to have seen what I have seen so many thousands of years later! Now the onus is on those who prefer to button their jackets differently to show why they prefer it the other way around. Thanks a lot!

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  5. Interesting discussion, I have always seen it as 4/6, simply because the 4 are directed to the invisible Almighty who is beyond comparing to anything earthly. Our parents are the visible most immediate neighbours who will affect how we interact with everything else. Save for the miracle of grace, they would even affect how we relate to God. While I agree with that lofty position for parents, I will still relegate them to the human levels- as some have said 6 as a number usually represents man (cf 6 labour days, beast 666, hence 6 commands), while 7 God (cf tabernacle articles). Well these are my immediate thoughts without delving deeper. Mulenga Bwalya

  6. I have just had a pleasant surprise. I have a small reading group in my church and we are presently reading John Stott's Basic Christianity. This week we are reading chapters 5 and 6 in readiness for discussion this coming Saturday. Guess what I found in chapter 5? Here it is:

    "This fifth commandment still belongs to the first half of the law which concerns our duty to God. For our parents, at least while we are children, stand towards us in loco Dei: they represent God's authority."

    Why didn't someone draw my attention to this Christian classic written by one of Christendom's most respected Bible teacher and commentator?

  7. As an interesting note, Romans 13:8-10 says that Commandments 6-10 are summarized as "love your neighbour as yourself." Paul did not include the Fifth Commandment there. I have heard it said that the first four Commandments relate to the church, the fifth to the family, and the last five to "government" (as God's institution granted authority over society in general)--God's three institutions on earth.

  8. Hi brother Conrad,

    I am in Colombia and this is a great article, I have been studying more deeply the ten commandments and this that you wrote is gives me a better understanding of the division of the Decalogue, I will be reading you more continuously and I hope to translate some of your writings that some people in my country desires to read in spanish.

    God keeps blessing you and your family,

  9. Now that the truth has come out. Why are we not keeping the fourth commandment????? Please lets discuss this.