Editor’s note: The next few articles are from Ezekiel chapter 18. I’m not sure if I had ever heard or taught a lesson on this chapter before, so I hope that you will join me as we hopefully all learn something new.
In the 1800’s, Alexandre Duma wrote a story called The Corsican Brothers, where each of two brothers feels the pain of the other. While this concept might have seemed like fun to squabbling siblings who heard about this story (as a chance to return the pain they experienced upon another), others may have felt that the same thing happened to them through other means: where one sibling always seemed to get punished for what another one had done.
Apparently, the latter feeling wasn’t new. In the book of Ezekiel, millennia before Mr. Duma wrote his well-known story, God gave a prophecy to the priest Ezekiel, talking about something that the Israelites were saying:
The word of the LORD came to me: “What do you people mean by quoting this proverb about the land of Israel:
“ ‘The parents eat sour grapes,
and the children’s teeth are set on edge’?
Ezekiel 18:1-2 NIV
Notice the context of this chapter. The word of the LORD has come to Ezekiel. If your translation uses small caps for “LORD”, remember that this means the specific name of God. This is important to differentiate Him from other so-called gods of this world.
In this word from God, we have a saying that might sound a little unusual: The parents eat sour grapes (which I think that we can picture OK), but something happens to the children. Multiple translations [KJV, NIV, NASB 1995] say that their teeth “are set on edge”. The newest NASB says that their teeth “have become blunt”. And, the New Living Translation says, “their children’s mouths pucker at the taste”.
Regardless of exactly what is happening here, though, the rest of the chapter helps us see that the point of this proverb is that the parents are doing something, but their children experience the results. Matthew Henry wrote, “sometimes unjust reflections occasion just vindications; evil proverbs beget good prophecies”. That is, this saying (which God is quoting from the people of Israel) is wrong, but it gives God a chance to explain what is right.
Before we get too much further into the chapter, let’s consider the principle behind this saying. In general, I think that we would agree with the concept that, if a parent does something wrong, the children shouldn’t be punished. Conversely, if a child does something wrong, his or her parents’ responsibility is limited to what they can control. Sometimes, children do the wrong things as a result of bad or negligent parenting, but other times, parents have done what they can to help their kids, yet their children still choose a different path.
On the other hand, there are times when parents’ choices (like uncontrolled anger, drug abuse, or poor money management) directly have a negative effect on their children. However, these are case where parents cause harm to their children, not a situation where God – being all-knowing and loving – is punishing children for their parents’ sins.
In Ezekiel’s time, the Israelites may have been protesting that it didn’t seem fair to punish children for what their parents did (or are doing), and we would probably agree…if that was indeed what was going on. That is, it seems that the Israelites were complaining that they were being punished for their ancestors’ sins, and if that were the case, they might been justified in doing so if they had been righteous (although bad things still happen to so-called “good people”, but that’s a much more complicated topic),. However, I suspect that they were still living unrighteously (including making this statement), and were just using their precedessors’ sins as an excuse or smokescreen. [Ref. Henry]
Having said that, I encourage you to read Exodus 20:4-6 (which you might recognize as being from the Ten Commandments). This passage makes it sound like this proverb is true: that God punishes children for their parents’ sins. However, a commentator [Bailey, p.220] echoes what I suspected: that this passage in Exodus is talking about “the passing down of sinful patterns of life from parent to child”. When parents teach their children to sin, and the children do not break the cycle, sin continues from generation to generation, and punishment from a holy God should be expected.
As Matthew Henry wrote, “God does not punish the children for the fathers’ sins unless they tread in their fathers’ steps…”.
Continuing on to the next couple of verses, God makes it clear how things actually work when it comes to justice: if you sin, you die.
“As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, you will no longer quote this proverb in Israel. For everyone belongs to me, the parent as well as the child—both alike belong to me. The one who sins is the one who will die.
Ezekiel 18:3-4 NIV
So, is it still true today that death is the consequence for all who sin? Yes, the necessary result of sin is still death, as we learn in Romans 6:23. And, this isn’t just a new concept: the Israelites of Ezekiel’s time could have had access to this same point, when it was made in Proverbs 10:16, and – to some extent – in Deuteronomy 24:16. In light of the teachings (and actions) of Jesus Christ, though, we now understand that His voluntary sacrifice paid for the sins of those who will accept His gift. Death was still required for sin: He just offered to give His life for our sins.
In the end, we sinned and Jesus took on the consequences of that. That might seem unfair, and it was, but justice was served. In the end, we have no room to complain.
From Sunday School lesson prepared for August 21, 2022
- The Lookout, August 21, 2022, © 2022 Christian Standard Media.
- Scripture taken from the Holy Bible, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
- Scripture quotations marked (NLT) are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright ©1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, a Division of Tyndale House Ministries, Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.
- Scripture quotations taken from the NASB. Copyright by The Lockman Foundation.
- The College Press Commentary : Exodus, by Randall C Bailey, © 2007 College Press Publishing Co.
- Matthew Henry Commentary on the Whole Bible (Complete). Matthew Henry. 1706, via BibleGateway.com.