God Deals Justly with Individuals
18 Then the word of the Lord came to me, saying, 2 “What do you mean by using this proverb concerning the land of Israel, saying,
‘The fathers eat the sour grapes,
But the children’s teeth are set on edge’?
3 As I live,” declares the Lord God, “you are surely not going to use this proverb in Israel anymore. 4 Behold, all souls are Mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is Mine. The soul who sins will die.
5 “But if a man is righteous and practices justice and righteousness, 6 and does not eat at the mountain shrines or lift up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel, or defile his neighbor’s wife or approach a woman during her menstrual period— 7 if a man does not oppress anyone, but restores to the debtor his pledge, does not commit robbery, but gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with clothing, 8 if he does not lend money on interest or take increase, if he keeps his hand from iniquity and executes true justice between man and man, 9 if he walks in My statutes and My ordinances so as to deal faithfully—he is righteous and will surely live,” declares the Lord God.
10 “Then he may have a violent son who sheds blood and who does any of these things to a brother 11 (though he himself did not do any of these things), that is, he even eats at the mountain shrines, and defiles his neighbor’s wife, 12 oppresses the poor and needy, commits robbery, does not restore a pledge, but lifts up his eyes to the idols and commits abomination, 13 he lends money on interest and takes increase; will he live? He will not live! He has committed all these abominations, he will surely be put to death; his blood will be on his own head.
14 “Now behold, he has a son who has observed all his father’s sins which he committed, and observing does not do likewise. 15 He does not eat at the mountain shrines or lift up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel, or defile his neighbor’s wife, 16 or oppress anyone, or retain a pledge, or commit robbery, but he gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with clothing, 17 he keeps his hand from the poor, does not take interest or increase, but executes My ordinances, and walks in My statutes; he will not die for his father’s iniquity, he will surely live. 18 As for his father, because he practiced extortion, robbed his brother and did what was not good among his people, behold, he will die for his iniquity.
19 “Yet you say, ‘Why should the son not bear the punishment for the father’s iniquity?’ When the son has practiced justice and righteousness and has observed all My statutes and done them, he shall surely live. 20 The person who sins will die. The son will not bear the punishment for the father’s iniquity, nor will the father bear the punishment for the son’s iniquity; the righteousness of the righteous will be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked will be upon himself.
21 “But if the wicked man turns from all his sins which he has committed and observes all My statutes and practices justice and righteousness, he shall surely live; he shall not die. 22 All his transgressions which he has committed will not be remembered against him; because of his righteousness which he has practiced, he will live. 23 Do I have any pleasure in the death of the wicked,” declares the Lord God, “rather than that he should turn from his ways and live?
24 “But when a righteous man turns away from his righteousness, commits iniquity and does according to all the abominations that a wicked man does, will he live? All his righteous deeds which he has done will not be remembered for his treachery which he has committed and his sin which he has committed; for them he will die. 25 Yet you say, ‘The way of the Lord is not right.’ Hear now, O house of Israel! Is My way not right? Is it not your ways that are not right? 26 When a righteous man turns away from his righteousness, commits iniquity and dies because of it, for his iniquity which he has committed he will die. 27 Again, when a wicked man turns away from his wickedness which he has committed and practices justice and righteousness, he will save his life. 28 Because he considered and turned away from all his transgressions which he had committed, he shall surely live; he shall not die. 29 But the house of Israel says, ‘The way of the Lord is not right.’ Are My ways not right, O house of Israel? Is it not your ways that are not right?
30 “Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, each according to his conduct,” declares the Lord God. “Repent and turn away from all your transgressions, so that iniquity may not become a stumbling block to you. 31 Cast away from you all your transgressions which you have committed and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! For why will you die, O house of Israel? 32 For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone who dies,” declares the Lord God. “Therefore, repent and live.”
Lament for the Princes of Israel
19 “As for you, take up a lamentation for the princes of Israel 2 and say,
‘What was your mother?
A lioness among lions!
She lay down among young lions,
She reared her cubs.
3 ‘When she brought up one of her cubs,
He became a lion,
And he learned to tear his prey;
He devoured men.
4 ‘Then nations heard about him;
He was captured in their pit,
And they brought him with hooks
To the land of Egypt.
5 ‘When she saw, as she waited,
That her hope was lost,
She took another of her cubs
And made him a young lion.
6 ‘And he walked about among the lions;
He became a young lion,
He learned to tear his prey;
He devoured men.
7 ‘He destroyed their fortified towers
And laid waste their cities;
And the land and its fullness were appalled
Because of the sound of his roaring.
8 ‘Then nations set against him
On every side from their provinces,
And they spread their net over him;
He was captured in their pit.
9 ‘They put him in a cage with hooks
And brought him to the king of Babylon;
They brought him in hunting nets
So that his voice would be heard no more
On the mountains of Israel.
10 ‘Your mother was like a vine in your vineyard,
Planted by the waters;
It was fruitful and full of branches
Because of abundant waters.
11 ‘And it had strong branches fit for scepters of rulers,
And its height was raised above the clouds
So that it was seen in its height with the mass of its branches.
12 ‘But it was plucked up in fury;
It was cast down to the ground;
And the east wind dried up its fruit.
Its strong branch was torn off
So that it withered;
The fire consumed it.
13 ‘And now it is planted in the wilderness,
In a dry and thirsty land.
14 ‘And fire has gone out from its branch;
It has consumed its shoots and fruit,
So that there is not in it a strong branch,
A scepter to rule.’”
This is a lamentation, and has become a lamentation.
Chapter 18 talks about fairness in judgement. The Jewish people had the proverb stated there in v.2 about the son's teeth being set on edge by the sour grapes eaten by the father, and there are times where that is true, in this life. However, God is talking about eternity here. He's not talking about death in this life - everyone's earthly body dies. He is talking about our spiritual life. In our spiritual life, we do not inherit either our father's righteousness or unrighteousness - we are responsible for our own actions. Rayburn says the following:
The influence of Israel’s historic theology is obvious here. When the church goes bad, she invariably holds in her mind some of the theology she once believed. They may have jettisoned other parts of it, but the echo of better times can still be heard in her speech. God is just so he should not act unjustly. They remembered that. What is more, he does visit the iniquity of the fathers upon the children. That is often enough said in the Bible, as it is famously in the second commandment. It is worth remembering, however, that though we read there that the Lord will visit the sins of the fathers upon the third and fourth generation of those that hate him, he shows mercy to the thousandth generation of those who love him and keep his commandments. There is not an equivalence here. The Lord is more magnificently merciful. Mercy is what he delights to show.
But, as the prophets made perfectly clear, the principle of fathers’ sins being visited upon children is valid. Judah’s conquest and the exile of many of her people to Babylon was the conclusion of generations of Israelite unfaithfulness to Yahweh.
In the Bible, the warning that God will visit the sins of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation is intended as a warning to parents, to take seriously the implications of their conduct upon their children and grandchildren! It is not and was never intended to be an excuse for children, as if they can escape responsibility for their sins by blaming their parents or, worse, blaming God.
To acknowledge the moral and spiritual connection between generations is hardly the same thing as saying that one person is being punished for another person’s sin or that an innocent group has suffered the penalty that only the guilty group deserved. Indeed, the largest part of the confusion of the Jews who were repeating this proverb about the fathers eating sour grapes was that they imagined themselves innocent! They quoted the proverb as if it were solely the parent’s sins that had brought catastrophe upon them. Fact is, they were enthusiastically complicit in all their parents’ sins. It makes all the difference in the world that they were in fact guilty – willingly, persistently, unrepentantly guilty – of the very same sins their fathers committed. They too were idolaters, as Ezekiel has already said many times.
Moving on to Chapter 19, the lamentation speaks of downfall, not only of the kings but of the people as a whole. As Jeremiah bluntly reminded them, if tempted to blame their troubles on their leaders:
“The prophets prophesy lies, and the priests rule by their own authority, and my people love it this way.” [5:31]
The prophets condemn the people repeatedly for their love of sin and never excuse them because their leaders have led them into and encouraged that love. As true as it is that the moral and spiritual convictions and example of a people’s leaders are vastly influential in shaping the convictions and behavior of the people as a whole, it is also true that people usually get the leadership they want or deserve and rather easily adapt to the moral position of the people above them.
What we have in the interesting juxtaposition of Ezekiel chapters 18 and 19 is one pole of another of those dialectics that we find everywhere in the teaching of Holy Scripture. Here we are warned about false leadership and reminded that we are not excused because our sins are encouraged or ignored or minimized by the leaders of our church. Judah was going to hell and to a significant degree the Bible lays the fault for that at the feet of her kings, priests, and prophets. But that fact did not excuse the ordinary Israelite from his or her responsibility to be faithful to the covenant the leadership had betrayed. Chapter 18 poignantly reminds the Jews that they are not hostage to the unbelief of those above them, whether in their family or their country and that an individual’s repentance – even against the winds and tides of the nation’s unbelief – will obtain Yahweh’s forgiveness and eternal life. The truth was being proclaimed and heard, the Lord had not left his people without the truth: it is up to every individual to give answer in faith and obedience. Chapter 18, in effect, calls upon individual Israelites to repudiate the leadership of their church and nation. Chapter 19 reminds them why: that leadership is under divine judgment and is taking the country and the people down with them.
Tomorrow's scripture focus: Ezekiel 20.