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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Dictionary of Texts

Ezekiel 18

Verses 1-32

Ezekiel 18:2

There is no doubt about the sins of the fathers falling upon the generation in the case of an illegitimate child. No book has ever been written, no law has ever been made there is not one dissentient voice in the chorus of rebuke, not one hand to help, or one lamp to lead the way, when a love-child is cast into the world. There must be thousands of these nameless ocean-tramps cast away on the broad sea of existence; overloaded, until their water-line has vanished, with their cargoes of the world's contempt and their own shame. No port is home to them; no roadstead, but which is too deep for them to use their fragile anchors of hope. They must ride the seas till they sink, and the waters close over them forgotten, disregarded but at rest.

E. T. Thurston in Traffic, p. 29.

You know there is a kind of tree not dreamed of in botany, that lets fall its fruit every day in the year you know? We call it with reverence 'our dead fathers' mistakes'. I have had to eat much of that fruit.

G. W. Cable, The Grandissimes, chap. XXXVII.

The popular view was that guilt was inherited, that is, that the children are punished for their fathers' sins. The view of Æschylus and of Sophocles also (so far as he touches the problem on his side) was that a tendency towards guilt is inherited, but this tendency does not annihilate man's free will. If, therefore, the children are punished, they are punished for their own sins.... The purification of this special doctrine of the popular religion, which was effected in Greece by the poets, was effected among the Jews by the prophets. The phrase, 'visiting the sins of the fathers upon the children' was open to a double interpretation either that the children were punished judicially for their fathers' sins, or that the children suffered in the course of nature for their fathers' sins. The Jews for a long time interpreted the words of the second commandment in the first sense, just as the Greeks so interpreted the idea of a curse in the home. But Ezekiel, in clearer tones even than the Greek poets, rejected the first interpretation, and freed the notion of moral responsibility from all ties of blood relationship.... The same truth had occurred early to the mind of India. In the Ramayana these striking words occur: 'A father, a mother, a son, whether in this world or the next, eats only the fruit of his own works; a father is not recompensed or punished for his son, neither a son for his father. Each of them by his own actions gives birth to good or evil.'

Prof. Butcher, Aspects of the Greek Genius, pp. 121, 122.

In discussing the Irish problem, in Chartism (chap. Iv.), Carlyle notes how 'we English pay even now, the bitter smart of long centuries of injustice to our neighbour Ireland.... England is guilty towards Ireland; and reaps at last, in full measure, the fruit of fifteen centuries of wrongdoing.' For, as he adds, 'the Irish population must get itself redressed and saved, for the sake of the English if for nothing else. Alas, that it should on both sides, be poor toiling men that pay the smart for unruly Striguls, Henrys, Macdermotts, and O'Donoghues! The strong have eaten sour grapes, and the teeth of the weak are set on edge. "Curses," says the proverb, "are like chickens, they return always home ".'

References. XVIII. 2. E. C. S. Gibson, Messages from the Old Testament, p. 205. M. G. Glazebrook, Prospice, p. 191. G. Jackson, Christian World Pulpit, vol. xlviii. 1895, p. 22. P. H. Hall, The Brotherhood of Man, p. 127. S. D. McConnell, A Year's Sermons, p. 273. XVIII. 2-4. J. M. E. Ross, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lx. 1901, p. 347.

Ezekiel 18:3

The God who stands in a purely ethical relation to His worshippers is of necessity the one and only God, and the men to whom he stands in that relation are necessarily men of any and every race or people. Further, as such an ethical relation is one which involves inward conditions, it must be a relation of the individual as such to God, and not one in which the individual is lost in the family or nation. Hence the later prophets, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, set themselves against the idea of a collective responsibility for good or evil; and they take their stand on the principle of ethical individualism, that each moral agent must answer for his own doings.

Caird, Evolution of Religion, I. pp. 392, 393.

No doubt, they have designs on us for our benefit, in making the life of a civilized people an institution, in which the life of the individual is to a great extent absorbed, in order to preserve and perfect that of the race. But I wish to show at what a sacrifice this advantage is at present obtained, and to suggest that we may possibly so live as to secure all the advantage without suffering any of the disadvantage. What mean ye by saying that the poor ye have always with you, or that the fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge? 'As I live, saith the Lord God, ye shall not have occasion any more to use this proverb in Israel. Behold all souls are mine; as the soul of the father, so also the soul of the son is mine: the soul that sinneth, it shall die'.

Thoreau, Walden.

Reference. XVIII. 3. E. Tremayne Dunstan, Christ in the Common-Place, p. 57.

Sin As the Transgression of Law

Ezekiel 18:4

I. Sin is not only an offence against God, a disease or wound of human nature; it is also a transgression of an eternal law of right.

And it is the consciousness of an eternal moral law which man has transgressed which lies at the root of the idea of propitiation. Man is conscious in himself that he has violated the law of justice; he knows that the violation of that law is death. No forensic fiction, borrowed from human law-courts, no interchange of properties between the sinless and the sinful, can satisfy the conscience. That theory which unbelievers ridicule, conscience and revelation alike reject. When I say, in humble faith, with my eye fixed upon the Cross of Jesus, 'I believe in the remission of sins,' I mean by forgiveness more, infinitely more, than the passing over of my sin. I believe that my sin is done away; that, thanks be to God, I am righteous in the sight of God; that He, the All-Holy and the All-Pure, is looking down upon me in love. 'Beloved, now are we the sons of God.' Reconciliation with God is separation from evil. To be reclaimed from evil is to be made free to approach God. This is Christ's work. In relation to evil, and the bondage of death, it is called Redemption or Deliverance; in relation to God, it is Reconciliation.

II. 'But how should man be just with God?' This is the question, the tormenting question, of the conscience, and it has everywhere been answered by a belief in sacrifice and propitiation.

'The soul that sinneth, it shall die;' and Christ, the Perfect Man, and man in Him, admits the justice of that law. So is the eternal law vindicated; so is the Father once more well pleased as He looks on man in His well-beloved Son; so to men and angels God shows Himself 'just, and the Justifier of him that believeth in Jesus'.

But there is nothing of substitution, or imputed righteousness, in all this. Christ died as our Sponsor, our Representative, the Head of the human race, the Second Adam, the First-born of redeemed humanity that we in heart and will might be one with Him in Death and Resurrection.

III. But if the Sacrifice of Christ be external to us, it will avail us nothing. If it is only a fact in the world's history, but not a fact in the history of our own lives, His Death and Resurrection will for us have been in vain. We must be crucified with Him, buried with Him in Baptism, that we may rise in Him to newness of life. Suffering in His sufferings, that we may also be glorified together. He did not suffer for us, that we, with a few meaningless words about 'faith only,' might live a life of ease, perhaps of sin; but that we, being reconciled to God by the Blood of Christ, might live the life of faith, the life of union with the Son of God.

Aubrey L. Moore, Some Aspects of Sin, p. 78.

Original Sin

Ezekiel 18:4

I. Sin, in one and that perhaps the most important of its aspects, is conscious disobedience to a law whose authority we recognize as binding us. Such disobedience will weaken, not only the will of the sinner himself, but the will of his descendants when their turn comes to combat the forces of evil. And this weakness and waywardness of the will in its warfare with the passions is what has been called by theologians, though the phrase has no Scriptural authority, original sin. It may perhaps be said that the phrase is not a very happy one; it is likely to mislead the unwary. For sin is essentially a personal, conscious act.

Ezekiel declared to the Jews with no uncertain voice the sublime principle by which the world is judged: All souls are Mine; as the soul of the father, so also the soul of the son is Mine: the soul that sinneth, it shall die. To God is each soul responsible at last.

II. But the taint of sin is present. Whence comes it? Are we to regard it as a Divine punishment? Nay; it is the consequence of the unity of mankind. Through the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners. Could we explain it better? Not that we are punished for Adam's sin; there is no such statement in Scripture. No; but we suffer through Adam's sin, inasmuch as we are bone of bis bone and flesh of his flesh. We suffer doubly, alike in our bodies and in our souls.

We suffer in our bodies. Is it not obscurely hinted by St. Paul that physical disorder is the offspring of moral disorder? death came through sin, he says. The true significance of pain may be that it is the symbol and the token of sin; the suffering in the world may be the consequence, though not the chastisement, of Adam's transgression.

The infection of sin is with us, for as members of the great human family we have shared in Adam's sin. We have inherited the taint, although we are not responsible for it; it has never been in our power to refuse the inheritance. And so we see that the really practical question for us all is as to the source and the measure of our power of resisting this deadly tendency.

III. Can it be resisted, and how?

Ezekiel urges upon the Hebrews that the pollution of sin is not hopeless. The burden of his exhortation is that the wicked man may turn away from his wickedness and live, that repentance and recovery are within man's power. Here is man; what is his inheritance? The nature of Adam? True; but behind and beyond that he has inherited the image of God. With the tendency to do wrong, man has also received the power to do right. He is not the son of Adam only, but the son of God; and in the power of that Divine inheritance he may overcome.

J. H. Bernard, Via Domini, p. 103.

Divine Ownership

Ezekiel 18:4

At first sight these words express only a general truth. But in a far deeper sense God says it of souls.

I. There are Reasons why God Should Claim a Property in souls more than in any other living thing.

a. The creation of the soul is spoken of separately from the creation of every other thing. And observe the consequence the necessary result the soul of man is the breath of God. Therefore there is a sense in which it is an emanation of the great and eternal Spirit; it is God's.

b. When the soul by sin became alienated from God, God purchased it back, and, oh, at what a, price! at the price of the blood and death of His own dear son. And may He not on that account say the more, 'All souls are mine'?

c. The Holy Ghost dwells in a man's soul. 'Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you? 'And for this purpose: 'As Thou Father art in Me and I in Thee'; Thou art one in us, and we are one in Thee through that indwelling of the Holy Ghost.

So by the very nature of its being, by the time and mode of its creation, by the purchase price paid for its redemption when lost, and by its actually mingling with the Holy Ghost and the great Triune, the soul is God's, and, in a sense that belongs to nothing else in all creation, God says, 'Behold, all souls are mine'.

II. If the Soul be thus Allied to God, what must 'a Soul' be in God's Sight, and what ought it to be in our Sight? The very name 'soul' should never be used lightly. 'Upon my honour,' 'Upon my word' they are foolish and useless expressions. No reverent man will ever say 'Upon my soul'.

III. But let us Look at it as regards our Relation to other People's Souls; our Fellow-creatures; those with whom, directly or indirectly, we have to do. And here observe that God says 'All souls, all souls are Mine'. Not the souls of religious people only; not the souls of the baptized only, but all those of every nation and every country of the world. ' All souls are Mine.' If 'the soul' is in its very nature and essence an emanation of God, it follows as a necessary consequence every living man and every living woman has a soul. 'All souls are Mine.' Therefore I ought to deal with every fellow-creature with the feeling 'I am dealing with the being of God'. No one can be outside that 'all'. Thou hast said it, Lord, 'all souls are Thine'. That poor creature's soul is Thine. God has said it. We bow to God's election; too deep for man to fathom. We can only prostrate ourselves before Him and say: 'Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?' This is a truth, and the infinity of the one may well balance and outweigh the mystery of the other. 'All souls are Mine.'

Ezekiel 18:4

The doctrine of heritable guilt, with its mechanical consequences, has done for our moral nature what the doctrine of demoniac possession has done in barbarous times and still does among barbarous tribes for disease. Out of that black cloud came the lightning which struck the compass of humanity. Conscience, which from the dawn of moral being had pointed to the poles of right and wrong only as the great current of will flowed through the soul, was demagnetized, paralysed, and knew no fixed meridian, but stayed where the priest or council placed it. There is nothing to be done but to polarize the needle over again.

O. W. Holmes, The Poet at the Breakfast Table, x.

Ezekiel 18:9

The way to salvation a man must walk in: that is the point. The history of the discovery and levelling of the way is good in its place, but does not help us to walk in it.

Fichte.

References. XVIII. 4. B. J. Snell, The Cross and the Dice-Box, p. 165. W. H. Hutchings, Sermon-Sketches (2nd Series), p. 289. C. Silvester Home, Christian World Pulpit, vol. xliv. 1893, p. 262. W. Boyd Carpenter, ibid. vol. li. 1897, p. 289. Henry Alford, Sermons on Christian Doctrine, p. 28. T. Sadler, Sunday Thoughts, p. 225. J. Tulloch Sundays at Balmoral, p. 148. 'Plain Sermons' by contributors to the Tracts for the Times, vol. vii. pp. 153, 163. C. J. Thompson, Penny Pulpit, vol. xiv. No. 838, p. 381.

The Sins of the Fathers and the Children (Trinity)

Ezekiel 18:20

I. The murmuring Jews said, 'The father's soul sinneth and the son's soul shall die '. God's Prophet declares that death is the portion of the sinner himself, of him and not another. 'The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son: the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him.' Here was a law of the plainest and simplest justice.

II. Here then God's present justice was fully established, and it was at the same time shown that we have no right to make any single words of His an excuse for darkening His whole character, which is declared to us in the length and breadth of His revelation. But the second commandment still remains: and we may naturally ask whether the doctrine of Ezekiel contradicts or sets it aside. Most surely not: both truths work into each other. God's curse upon idolatry falls upon the idolater's children as well as on himself. This is a plain matter of fact. Evil does go on breeding itself afresh from father to son. But, though there is this terrible mark to show how closely we are joined to each other for good or evil, the law stands everlastingly true that each man has to answer for his own sin.

III. Too often we go blindly through life, with nothing more than a dim sense that there is anything wrong about us at all, except that we cannot get everything we wish. And when we do partly awake to our misdoings, we are most willing to lay the guilt of them upon our fathers; we think how much of our character has come from them. If it is true, what a terrible warning it is to us not to act so that those who come after us may be able to say such things of us! for it is most true that we by our doings or our not-doings may make it harder for them to return to heaven and God. But yet we are not mere slaves to what our fathers have laid upon us. We may still turn from all our sins that they and we have committed, and then we shall surely live: we shall not die, for God Himself hath spoken it. Nay, it is He that is striving to win us back to our true inheritance as His children, His heirs, united to Him still more closely than to our parents, made partakers of His righteousness.

F. J. A. Hort, Village Sermons (2nd Series), p. 186.

References. XVIII. 20. J. H. Jellett, The Elder Son, p. 103. S. G. Maclennan, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lxxi. 1907, p. 148.

Ezekiel 18:21-22

The place which was taken, when Ezekiel wrote, by the customary habits, traditions, and principles of Hebrew religion is taken Today by the characteristic teaching of modern science. The old words of the Covenant, of God's punishment of men to the third and fourth generation, have given place to the new words of heredity and environment, but the principle remains the same. Science has been teaching us wonderfully, beautifully, terribly, with what a subtlety, a closeness of tie, we are bound by our brains and bodies to the ancestors from whom we sprang, the conditions from which we sprang, the progeny we leave behind us. And we accept the truth. But is it the last and only word? Is man nothing but the product of his circumstances, the creature of environment and forefathers? If it be so, then before long we may come to that feeling of despair which lay upon the breasts of these exiles of Jerusalem. We must balance that truth which Ezekiel recovered for his contemporaries the truth that man's nature, though it is invested in the influences of blood and surroundings, yet has within it a personal self, higher than, apart from, that nature. I ask you to consider the basis which Ezekiel is teaching in reference to our lives as members of a community and as personal beings.

I. First of all, there is a message to us as members of a community. Sometimes the Hebrew took joy in the thought that he was bound, with his fathers and his children, in the bonds of the Covenant of the Will of God; and sometimes we take joy in the thought that we are bound together by these subtle and intricate ties to the nature which surrounds us, and to our fellow-beings in the long distance of the past and of the future. But when the Hebrew realized God's punishment in the wasting of Jerusalem he was filled with a chill despair, and when we, with all this wonderful teaching of science, turn, let us say, to the poor parts of our crowded cities, do we not find there that this teaching is somewhat grim? The one inevitable, indispensable factor of social reform is the individual freedom and responsibility of the man. Even when you change his circumstances it will be hollow unless you have changed the man's will so that he co-operates with the change of his circumstances. And every scheme of charity which belittles this factor of the man's individual freedom and power and responsibility is a real danger.

II. Secondly, the Prophet's message is to the personal life. There were men who heard Ezekiel speak who felt the burden upon them of the load, not of their fathers' sin, but of their own. It may be that among those to whom I speak Today there are some who are conscious of that same difficulty of remorse. You can think of some mistake you made which has spoiled your life. You remember the liberty you have lost and squandered, you feel that your chance is gone, and that you are tied up in the doom of your destiny; or perhaps there are others who have not gone so far, but when there comes to them the prompting of some better impulse they meet it with some reply, expressed or unexpressed, in terms such as these: 'It is no good; it is too late. My nature is made; I cannot change. These heights are for others; I cannot attain them. Like Sir Lancelot, the quest is not for me. I am what my life has made me, and it is too late to change.' So when these better impulses come they are avoided until they gradually die out. In all this there is truth which cannot be gainsaid; but it is not the whole truth. There remains the hidden self, the inner man, and it is free. It has always the power of rising from its past and going forth to a new future. You say it in impossible. With man, perhaps, it is impossible; with God all things are possible.

References. XVIII. 21, 22, 23. Archbishop Lang, Church Times, vol. lii. 1904, p. 529. XVIII. 23, 32. Spur-geon, Sermons, vol. xxx. No. 1795.

Ezekiel 18:27

The main matter which terrifies and torments most that are troubled in mind, is the enormity of their offences, the intolerable burthen of their sins, God's heavy wrath and displeasure so deeply apprehended, that they account themselves reprobates, quite forsaken of God, already damned, past all hope of grace, incapable of mercy, slaves of sin, and their offences so great that they cannot be forgiven. But these men must know there is no sin so heinous which is not pardonable in itself, no crime so great but by God's mercy it may be forgiven. 'At what time soever a sinner shall repent him of his sins from the bottom of his heart, I will blot out all his wickedness out of My remembrance, saith the Lord.'

Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy.

The familiar words, 'when the wicked man turneth away from his wickedness, and doeth that which is lawful and right, he shall save his soul alive,' are the theme of a great part of this wonderful book. Other Prophets have more of poetical beauty, a deeper sense of Divine things, a tenderer feeling of the mercies of God to His people; none teach so simply this great moral lesson, to us the first of all lessons. On the eve of the captivity, and in the midst of it, when the hour of mercy is past, and no image is too loathsome to describe the iniquities of Israel, still the Prophet does not forget that the Lord will not destroy the righteous with the wicked.

Jowett, St. Paul's Epistles, ii. pp. 149, 150.

Reference. XVIII. 27. R. D. B. Rawnsley, Village Sermons (1st Series), p. 66.

Ezekiel 18:29

This was the text chosen by R. W. Dale for his first; sermon, which was preached in the spring of 1845, in a room at Providence Cottage, Lower Clatford, Andover. 'The sermon,' says Dr. Dale's biographer, 'was a defence of Calvinism, coupled, however, with an assertion of universal redemption.'

References. XVIII. 30. Bishop J. Percival, Sermons at Rugby, p. 138. XVIII. 30, 31. N. D. Hillis, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lvii. 1900, p. 328. XVIII. 30, 32. G. Body, ibid. vol. lxi. 1902, pp. 129, 152. XVIII. 31. 'Plain Sermons' by contributors to the Tracts for the Times, vol. viii. p. 193.

Ezekiel 18:32

The command itself 'Turn' hath love engraved on it, the Lord's so earnest seeking of it, His large offers to gain this.

Fraser of Brea, Memoirs, p. 84.

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Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William Robertson, M.A., L.L.D. "Commentary on Ezekiel 18". Expositor's Dictionary of Text. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/edt/ezekiel-18.html. 1910.