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9. The importance of individual righteousness ch. 18
This chapter, like Ezekiel 12:21-28, corrected a common proverb. This one dealt with the people’s false view of the reason for their judgment by God. In form it is a complex disputation speech.
"This doctrine of transgenerational accountability was widespread in the ancient Near East." [Note: Block, The Book . . ., pp. 558-59.]
"In Chapters 18 and 33 are contained some of the most thorough, carefully expressed, and absolutely clear discourses on the topic of the responsibility of the individual for his or her own sins found anywhere in the Bible. These passages provide a valuable correction to the potential errors of fatalism, rigid determinism, and blame-avoidant judgmentalism." [Note: Stuart, p. 19; cf. p. 150.]
The Lord told Ezekiel to ask the people what they meant when they used a proverb that implied that the present generation of Israelites was suffering because of the sins of their forefathers (cf. Jeremiah 31:29). They were claiming to be the innocent victims of the actions of others, blaming others for their condition. In this they sounded just like many in our own day who refuse to take personal responsibility for their actions.
"The problem that the proverb poses for Ezekiel is not with punishment that children are bearing for the sins of the fathers, or even the issue of theodicy [i.e., the justice of God]. On the contrary, it reflects a materialistic fatalism, a resignation to immutable cosmic rules of cause and effect, an embittered paralysis of the soul, that has left the exiles without hope and without God. To the extent that the charge concerns God at all, it accuses him of disinterest or impotence in the face of the exiles’ current crisis. All these years they have put their trust in their divine patron, only to discover that they are victims of an immutable law of the universe: the fate of one generation is inexorably determined by the actions of the previous. Their theology and their God have betrayed them.
"Ezekiel will have none of this. In fact, the proverb becomes the point of departure for an extended lecture on a universe with unlimited room for movement, and for divine grace open to all who will listen." [Note: Block, The Book . . .,. p. 561.]
Earlier the Lord had told this same audience that other people would quote the proverb, "Like mother, like daughter" (Ezekiel 16:44). This proverb expressed the fact that the Israelites were behaving as the Canaanites did. Ezekiel himself had said that the sufferings of the Exile were traceable to the persistent rebellion, idolatry, and unfaithfulness of former generations of Israelites (ch. 16). Now Ezekiel’s hearers concluded that God was being unfair in punishing them for their ancestors’ sins. They may have cited what they thought was biblical support for this conclusion because even earlier the Lord had said that He would visit the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hated Him (Exodus 20:5; Exodus 34:6-7; Deuteronomy 5:9).
It is true that the sins of parents result in consequences for their children, grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren that we might call the "fallout" of the parents’ sins. But it is not correct to say that God "punishes" children because their parents have sinned. This is the conclusion that the Israelites in exile had drawn and that this chapter refutes (cf. Jeremiah 31:27-30; Lamentations 5:7). True, some of what Ezekiel’s hearers were experiencing were the consequences of the sins of former generations. But God was judging them personally because they were personally responsible for their actions that were sinful (cf. Ezekiel 3:16-21; Ezekiel 14:12-20; Ezekiel 33:1-20). God had revealed this principle of individual responsibility long ago (cf. Genesis 2:17; Genesis 4:7; Deuteronomy 24:16; 2 Kings 14:6). [Note: See further, Robert B. Chisholm Jr., "How a Hermeneutical Virus Can Corrupt Theological Systems," Bibliotheca Sacra 166:663 (July-September 2009):263-64.]
An illustration of this important distinction may help. Suppose a child grew up in a home in which the parents had no respect for God and, therefore, set a very bad example for their child. The child would naturally follow their lead and learn some sinful attitudes and actions. His parents’ influence would adversely taint the child’s life. However, God would not take out His wrath on that child because of his parents’ sins. He would rather deal with that child on the basis of his or her own attitudes and actions.
Parental influence extends beyond their actions to their characters and even perhaps to their genes. Children of an addicted parent, for example, often have a predisposition to the same or a similar addiction. Parents who have indulged their temptations to sexual promiscuity not infrequently see their own children grow up unusually vulnerable to this temptation. Parents with certain character flaws often note the same weaknesses in their children. Yet the child’s will to follow God, enabled by His grace and Spirit, can overcome "hereditary sin."
The principle 18:1-4
The Lord instructed the people not to use this proverb in Israel any more. It implied something about God’s dealings with them that was not true. No one can excuse his or her sinfulness on the basis of his or her ancestors. Human beings are free to make their own decisions, and we are responsible for the consequences of those decisions.
"The implication is clear that man has the ability to determine his final condition." [Note: Feinberg, pp. 102-3.]
Other passages stress the sovereignty of God and may appear to contradict this clear revelation of human responsibility (e.g., Romans 9; Ephesians 1). Nevertheless both are true even though we cannot understand how both can be true. Their truthfulness lies in the truthfulness of the One who revealed them, not in our ability to comprehend them, which is limited by our humanity and obscured by our sinfulness.
The true principle, in contrast to their proverb, was that everyone is personally responsible to God, the present generation and former generations. We bear the guilt of our own sinfulness, which results in our death, not the guilt of someone else (cf. Ezekiel 3:18-21). "Souls" (Heb. nephesh) means "lives" (cf. Ezekiel 13:20), not disembodied spirits.
"The story of Achan in Joshua 7:1-26 is a classic example of corporate responsibility. Achan sinned, but his whole family suffered for his sin. Such a passage is difficult to understand unless we see the biblical distinction between guilt and consequences. In Achan’s case he was the guilty party (Ezekiel 7:21), but his family, who may have shared guilt by remaining silent about his misdeed, shared at least the consequences of his guilt, which was death by stoning. This was the point made in Exodus 20:5; Exodus 34:6-7. Individually each person is responsible for his or her own guilt of sin. But we must always be aware that the consequences of sin will affect others who may be innocent of the guilt for that particular sin. This is true even when the sin is forgiven. God promised to remove the guilt of sin, but most often the consequences remain. David is a good example. Though he was forgiven of his sins of adultery and murder, he still suffered the consequences (2 Samuel 12:11-20)." [Note: Cooper, pp. 189-90.]
If a person behaved righteously and obeyed the Mosaic Law, that person would live. This is the basic point. Evidence of righteousness before God was typically obedience to specific commands in the Law. The Lord cited five types of behavior that manifested departure from the will of God under the Mosaic Law.
First, eating ceremonial meals at idol shrines and trusting in idols were forbidden but practiced by the Jews in Ezekiel’s day (cf. Deuteronomy 12:2-4). This was a violation of the first four commandments in the Decalogue that required exclusive allegiance to Yahweh.
Second, committing adultery and having sex with a woman during her menstrual period were practiced even though God prohibited them (Exodus 20:14; Leviticus 15:24; Leviticus 18:19; Leviticus 20:10; Leviticus 20:18; Deuteronomy 22:22). The prohibition against having intercourse with one’s wife during her period was clear in the Mosaic Law, but when Jesus terminated that code as the basis for believers’ conduct this law no longer remained binding on believers (Hebrews 7:11-12). The New Covenant teaching of believers’ present duties says nothing about this practice. It is now a matter of choice (liberty) for believers.
This and the following three cases are examples of the fifth through the tenth commandments that specify how one should treat other people. With regard to himself, the righteous man maintained his moral and ceremonial purity even in the privacy of his marital life.
The case of the righteous father 18:5-9
The illustrations 18:5-18
Three cases illustrate this principle: a father doing right (Ezekiel 18:5-9), his son doing evil (Ezekiel 18:10-13), and his grandson doing right (Ezekiel 18:14-18). In each case Ezekiel described the individual’s actions and the Lord’s responses.
Third, oppressing others and not returning something given as collateral when someone returned what he had borrowed were violations of the covenant (Exodus 22:26-27; Deuteronomy 24:6). This is an example of life within the covenant community but outside the marriage relationship.
Fourth, not robbing but instead providing food and clothing to the needy were commanded (Deuteronomy 15:11; Deuteronomy 24:19-22; cf. Isaiah 58:7). Both of the examples in this verse deal with one’s relationships to the neighbor inside and outside Israel. Both examples also specify the correct action in contrast to the incorrect.
Fifth, not charging interest of other Israelites or practicing iniquity but providing true justice and faithfully doing all that God required of His people further represented doing God’s will. The selfishness of the Jewish usurers cut to the very heart of their sinfulness. Again, God specified correct conduct as well as condemning sin (cf. Ezekiel 18:7).
In sum, the Israelite who lived by the Mosaic standards was righteous in behavior and could anticipate a long life of blessing from God (Leviticus 18:1-5; Deuteronomy 11; Deuteronomy 26:16-19; Deuteronomy 30:15-20; cf. Philippians 3:6). Clearly one’s attitudes and actions toward other people demonstrate his or her attitudes and actions toward God.
The case of the wicked son 18:10-13
Such a righteous person might have an unrighteous son who violently shed the blood of others. This son might do all the bad things that his father avoided doing and might fail to do all the good things that his father did. He would die for his own sins; the responsibility for his death would be his own.
The case of the righteous grandson 18:14-18
This sinful son might have a son who observed his father’s behavior and chose to follow the example of his righteous grandfather rather than that of his unrighteous father. He refrained from the same evil practices and engaged in the same forms of goodness. That man would surely live for his righteousness whereas his father would die for his wickedness. Wicked parents do not necessarily produce wicked children because the children can choose to do right. The Israelites had illustrations of this alternation of good and evil individuals in succeeding generations even in the royal family. King Hezekiah, for example, was good, his son Manasseh was bad, and Manasseh’s grandson Josiah was good.
". . . in this world God does indeed punish entire groups for the sins that they as groups commit, even when some members of the group may be innocent. Such groups are often nations, cities, or other political entities, but they may also be societal groups such as priests or prophets, or economic groups such as businesses or trade guilds, or such voluntary associations as churches." [Note: Stuart, p. 155.]
The Israelites were claiming that a righteous son (themselves) would die for his father’s (their ancestors’) wickedness. But this was not true. Individuals who practiced righteousness would experience God’s covenant promise of blessing on their lives even though their fathers practiced wickedness. People die for their own sins, not for the sins of their fathers or the sins of their sons. Likewise people who behave righteously experience the consequences of their personal conduct just as people who behave unrighteously do. Jeremiah, for example, did not die in the Babylonian invasion of Jerusalem.
It is true that we are sinners not only because we practice sin personally (Romans 3:23; Romans 6:23) but also because we were born with a sinful human nature that we inherited from our parents (Psalms 51:5; Ephesians 2:3; Galatians 5:17) and because God imputed the sin of Adam to us (Romans 5:12-21). However here the point is that people do not die for the sins of their parents, grandparents, children, or grandchildren but for their own sins.
The first objection: God’s conduct 18:19-23
God proceeded to adopt a dialogical teaching style in which He both asked and answered questions about individual responsibility. This style is quite similar to the Greek diatribe, which Paul used frequently in his writings (e.g., in Romans).
If a wicked person repented of his wickedness and pursued righteous behavior, he would live and not die. God would pardon his sins because he had turned from them and practiced righteousness. For the Jews still in Jerusalem this might mean deliverance from death at the hands of Babylon’s invading soldiers.
This did not mean that doing good works would atone for past sins eternally. It meant that doing good works could preclude God’s judgment of premature physical death, a judgment promised under the Mosaic Law for those who practiced wickedness. This whole chapter deals with the consequences of good and bad conduct in this life under the Mosaic Covenant. It does not deal with the subject of eternal life. Eternal life has always come to a person by faith alone (Genesis 15:6; Romans 4:5; Ephesians 2:8-9).
"The stipulations of the Mosaic covenant were given to a people who were already in a trusting relationship with God. These stipulations provided a concrete, practical outworking of faith in the God who redeemed Israel from Egypt and gave the people his law. . . . If they obeyed these commands, they would show their righteousness, receive God’s blessings, and live. But if they failed to live according to God’s ways as revealed in the law, the Mosaic covenant declared that even those who had believed . . . would die physically (cf. Deuteronomy 28:58-66; Deuteronomy 30:15-20)." [Note: Alexander, "Ezekiel," p. 824.]
"Why would God allow a sinner who repented to avoid judgment? The answer lies in God’s character." [Note: Dyer, "Ezekiel," p. 1261.]
God explained that He took no delight in people dying because of their sins. What gave Him pleasure was their turning from their sinful conduct and so continuing to live.
"Such a longing should be shared by every preacher who ventures to speak about the judgment of God." [Note: Taylor, p. 151.]
A turn in the other direction would have the same result. If a person turned from righteous conduct and pursued a life of sin, God would punish him with premature death for his sins even though he had formerly done right.
"An individual’s relationship with God when the judgment arrives determines whether he will live or die." [Note: Dyer, "Ezekiel," p. 1261. Cf. The New Scofield . . ., p. 857.]
"A generation is not predetermined for judgment or for blessing by the previous one. Even within a generation, or within an individual life, the past does not necessarily determine the present or the future." [Note: Cooper, p. 191.]
"Ezekiel has hereby repudiated the notion of a ’treasury of merit or demerit’ on two counts. First, one generation cannot build up such a treasure [sic] for another; each individual determines his or her own destiny by his or her own conduct. Second, an individual cannot build up such a treasury in one phase of his or her life and count on this to balance off a deficit later." [Note: Block, The Book . . ., p. 583.]
The second objection: God’s justice 18:24-29
The Jews to whom Ezekiel ministered went beyond questioning God’s conduct. They also questioned His justice.
In spite of God’s righteous dealings with people on the basis of their conduct, the Israelites were accusing Him of not doing right. The Lord asked if it was their ways rather than His that were not right.
The Lord repeated for clarification that turning to sin results in death but turning from sin (obeying God’s covenant stipulations) results in life (cf. Ezekiel 18:21-22; Ezekiel 18:24; Romans 6:23). Clearly He meant that a final turning is in view rather than a superficial or temporary turning. If a person abandons God to pursue a life without God (i.e., apostasy), or vice versa, the result will be death or life respectively.
"The reference is not to a temporary lapse, but to a persistent choice of evil which changes the course of a man’s life." [Note: Taylor, p. 151.]
Nevertheless the Israelites were claiming that God’s ways were not right. It was really their ways that were not right (cf. Ezekiel 18:25).
In closing, God promised to judge each Israelite according to his or her own conduct. He urged His people to turn from their transgressions of His law so their sins would not prove to be what tripped them up as they journeyed through life.
The appeal 18:30-32
They needed to adopt a new heart attitude, a new spirit, a spirit of compliance to God’s will. It was unnecessary that they die prematurely for their sins when they could turn from them and continue to live (cf. Romans 13:14).
This death among His people gave the Lord no pleasure (cf. Ezekiel 18:23; Isaiah 28:21; John 5:40; 1 Timothy 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9). He called them to change their attitude, to practice obedience to the covenant, and to live. Repentance was possible for the generation of Jews to whom Ezekiel ministered in Babylon.
God still deals with people in the same righteous manner under the New Covenant as He did under the Old. Whereas our responsibilities under the New Covenant are somewhat different from Israel’s under the Old, the Lord still holds His people personally responsible for our obedience to His will. Personal failure to obey still affects our present lives negatively, and personal obedience still affects our lives positively. As Christians we are personally responsible for our actions, just as the Israelites were. Our personal actions will affect our lives just as was true in Israel. For Christians, who live under the New Covenant, premature death may be God’s judgment for sin (e.g. Acts 5:1-11; 1 Corinthians 11:30; 1 John 5:16). However, under the New Covenant what we do in this life also has eternal consequences, not that we will lose our salvation, but we will suffer the loss of some eternal rewards (Romans 14:10-12; 1 Corinthians 3:8-15; 2 Corinthians 5:10). [Note: For an exegetical study of believers’ rewards under the New Covenant, see Joseph C. Dillow, The Reign of the Servant Kings: A Study of Eternal Security and the Final Significance of Man, pp. 515-32. For a more popular treatment of the same subject, I recommend Joe L. Wall, Going for the Gold. See also the Doctrinal Statement of Dallas Theological Seminary, Article XVI: The Christian’s Service, par. 2.] The Lord normally gave Old Testament saints the hope that their reward would come before they died (but see Daniel 12:2-3; Daniel 12:13), but He has given Christians the hope that our reward will come mainly after we die. God has always justified people for their trust in Him, and He has always rewarded them for their works.
"The Church in every generation must be alerted to a future judgment seat that is to be a sober constraint and incentive in present living (Romans 14:10; Romans 14:12; 2 Corinthians 5:10; Galatians 6:7-8). The necessity of continuance in the faith and in a lifestyle that commends it is backed by grave provisos from which no believer is exempt (Romans 11:22; 1 Corinthians 15:2; Colossians 1:23; Hebrews 3:14)." [Note: Allen, p. 281.]
"Few units in Ezekiel match ch. 18 for the transparency and permanent relevance of their message." [Note: Block, The Book . . ., p. 589.]
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Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Ezekiel 18". "Expository Notes of Dr. Thomas Constable". https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 20 / Ordinary 25