“The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” This cynical saying, repeated among the Old Testament community in Ezekiel’s day, was not pleasing to the Almighty. Although it was certainly true that sin did have serious consequences for future generations (Exodus 20:5), this “proverb” from Ezekiel 18:2 was shared among the exiles in order to evade responsibility for their bad choices. The point of these clever words was to shift guilt away from themselves and toward their forefathers. With that in mind, the Lord insisted that His people take two matters to heart. First, “all souls are mine,” both the fathers and their children. Second, “the soul who sins shall die.”
Transgression was always defined according to God’s Law. The Lord stood against idolatry, adultery, oppression, and robbery. He called His people to be generous to others in need and to seek justice in all their dealings with one another. Those who obeyed Him were to be counted as “righteous.” They would “surely live.” But their observance of God’s commandments would not automatically be transferred to their children if those sons and daughters rejected the good example of the men and women who came before them. Concerning the person who did “abominations; he shall surely die; his blood shall be upon himself.”
If a wicked person had a son who dedicated himself to the Lord’s Law, that child would live. If an obedient father had a descendant who rejected God’s statutes, that young man would die. Furthermore, even a good person who changed his ways in the middle of his life and began to pursue evil would face the consequences for his recent rebellion. On the other hand, an evil man who repented should expect that the Lord would forgive him; “he shall surely live; he shall not die.”
This declaration of individual responsibility need not have been surprising to anyone, yet the people of God were offended by Ezekiel’s words. They said, “The way of the Lord is not just.” God’s response: “Is My way not just? Is it not your ways that are not just?” Strange accusations against Jehovah were only another example of absurd moral deflection. A better plan for the children of a holy God would have been an honest assessment of their guilt followed by sincere repentance. The Lord called for them all to find “a new heart and a new spirit.” They needed to change “lest iniquity be your ruin.” The God of Israel was not rooting for their death, “so turn, and live.”
While it is very clear to us today that we do not have the perfect holiness necessary to win eternal life, the Lord Himself has become “sin” for us so that “in Him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:20-21). Also, we have come to appreciate that the Holy Spirit alone can shine the light of heaven into our souls so that we might have peace with God forever (2 Corinthians 4:5-6). Nonetheless, each of must recognize that the time for avoiding the truth about our misbehavior is long past. As those who are grateful for Jesus and the Holy Spirit, we should take action every day to turn toward our God. It will not help us to blame our problems on sinners who lived long before us. God has given us the grace to change. He is ready to forgive the repentant right now.
Prayer from A Book of Prayers
Father God, we have such foolish sayings that pass among us as if they were from Your Word. Please forgive us for our lack of careful attention to the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. You demand holiness from Your people. The righteous man will truly live according to Your Word. Such a man will live. Father, what will become of us, for we have sinned against You? Where is our perfect obedience? We have heard of the good news that Your Son lived and died for us. Our Savior has suffered for our iniquity. Since we have received so great a salvation, will we now be fools and commit horrible sin? Will we tempt You in this? Take away the foolishness of Your children. The injustice that we do, will it now lead to death? The right course for us is very clear. We will confess our sins to You. We will repent and turn from all of our transgressions. Do not let our iniquity destroy us. Grant to Your people a new heart for You, that we might attend to Your good Word.