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This chapter presents the general principle of personal responsibility, one of the great principles of Scripture. The principle of personal responsibility is the basis for God’s actions. Before Him each person bears his own personal responsibility and on that basis He judges each person individually.
Responsibility of Each Generation
The word of the LORD comes to Ezekiel (Eze 18:1). In that word He points His people to a proverb that is in circulation in Ezekiel’s day (Eze 18:2; Jer 31:29-30; cf. Lam 5:7). It is about something the fathers do and of which the children bear the consequences. The fathers eat sour grapes and the children notice it on their own teeth. Unripe, sour grapes give the teeth a rough feeling. The children themselves do not eat the grapes and yet their teeth feel as if they did.
The meaning of this proverb is that they do not think it is fair that they suffer because of what their forefathers did. With this proverb, they shift the blame of the coming judgment away from them. They are not the guilty ones, they argue, but previous generations. They argue that the sins of the fathers are avenged on them. In doing so they in fact accuse the LORD of injustice.
In our time, this same view can be heard. If someone has committed a crime, the cause is sought in his upbringing or in his genes or in the environment in which he has come. This attitude is the automatism that is in man to pass the blame for his actions on to others. This shearing behavior is as old as man. We see this behavior with Adam blaming Eve and with Eve blaming the serpent. But God condemns each of the three involved for their own sins.
No one is forced to imitate the bad behavior of parents or others. Man has a choice to do so or not. Furthermore, it is possible for every person to be freed from the burden of his past if he confesses his sins to God. Then God’s forgiveness follows.
The LORD greatly resents this attitude on the part of the people of Israel and says to them under oath – “as I live” – that they will no longer use this proverb (Eze 18:3). Vigorously He rejects the idea that one can shrug off personal responsibility. He shows in this section that He is righteous when He punishes, because He punishes each according to his own actions. The result will be that the people, when convinced of their own guilt, will abandon this senseless, unjustified self-justification.
The LORD begins by pointing out that every human life belongs to Him (Eze 18:4; Job 12:10). Therefore, each person is personally responsible to Him. The life of the father belongs to the LORD and the life of the son belongs to Him. Although father and son are bound together as a family, each is personally responsible to God. Whether the father sins or the son: the one who sins will die, “for the wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23a). There is no rejection of personal responsibility or passing on or inheriting blame.
The question may now be asked whether the foregoing is not contrary to what the law says that the LORD visits the sin of the fathers “on the third and the fourth generations” (Exo 20:5b). It clearly does not contradict each other. The connection in Exodus points to idolatry continuing through the generations. Children often persist in the sins of their parents. It is a serious word for parents. It is not a word for children to shift responsibility for their actions onto their parents or the environment. Children are punished because of their own sins. Moses also wrote that no one is put to death for the sins of another, but that the soul that sins must die (Deu 24:16).
The unbelief of parents certainly has a devastating effect on the upbringing of children, yet each remains personally responsible to God. Each generation must decide for itself which way to go: the way of faithfulness to and reverence for the Lord, or the way of self-will and rebellion against the Lord. God will call each one to account in accordance with his responsibility.
The LORD gives Ezekiel several examples. He does so on the basis of three successive generations. We have examples of this in Hezekiah, Manasseh, and Josiah:
1. The (grand)father who does righteousness (Hezekiah) will live (Eze 18:5-9).
2. The violent son of the righteous (Manasseh) will die (Eze 18:10-13).
3. The righteous (grand)son (Josiah), son of the violent father, will live, while his violent father will die (Eze 18:14-18).
The righteous is the person who “practices justice and righteousness” (Eze 18:5). What the justice and righteousness of the righteous consist of is broadly spelled out (Eze 18:6-9). It is one who makes the commandments of the LORD the standard for his life and obediently acts accordingly. The LORD lists what characterizes such a person: he
- “does not eat at the mountain [shrines]” (Eze 18:6) – this refers to the idolatries on the mountains (Eze 6:2; 13; Eze 16:16; Eze 20:28; Jer 2:20; Hos 4:13);
- “does not lift up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel,” – he keeps himself according to the law far from the abominable idols Israel is serving (Exo 20:3);
- “defile his neighbor’s wife” – he keeps the seventh commandment and does not commit adultery (Exo 20:14; Deu 22:22);
- “does not approach a woman during her menstrual period” – he keeps the regulations regarding sexuality (Lev 15:24; Lev 18:19; Lev 20:18);
- “does not oppress anyone” (Eze 18:7) – he does not abuse the weak social position of others to enrich himself at his or her expense (Exo 22:21-22; Deu 24:17);
- “restores to the debtor his pledge”, – he recognizes the right of his neighbor, despite the debt that one owes to him (Exo 22:25-26; Deu 24:12-13; Job 22:6; Job 24:3; Amos 2:8);
- “does not commit robbery” – he is not a thief or robber who robs his neighbor to increase his property (Exo 20:15; Lev 19:13);
- “gives his bread to the hungry” – instead of robbing others he gives bread where there is hunger (Deu 15:7-11; Isa 58:7; Jam 2:15-16);
- “covers the naked with clothing”, – instead of undressing someone he will provide him with what is needed to be warm (Isa 58:7; Jam 2:15-16);
- “does not lend [money] on interest” (Eze 18:8) – the Israelite may only take interest from foreigners, not from fellow citizens (Exo 22:25; Lev 25:36-37; Deu 23:19-20; Pro 28:8);
- “does not take increase” – (Lev 25:37; Pro 28:8);
- “keeps his hand from iniquity” – here we can think of the use of false weights and measures in trade (Lev 19:35-36);
- “executes true justice between man and man” – there is no regard for any person in judging a dispute, but fair justice (Lev 19:15; Pro 16:10);
- “walks in My statutes” (Eze 18:9) – such a person does not go his own way, but goes his way in obedience to the LORD, loving His statutes, meditating on them, rejoicing in them, and desiring to learn them (Lev 18:4; Psa 119:16);
- “walks in My ordinances so as to deal faithfully” – this is not just about an outward obedience, but it is acting in the right mind of the heart (Eze 18:31).
The person who is called “righteous” is the person who is characterized by doing justice and righteousness and in that shows love for the LORD. That one “will surely live, declares the Lord GOD”. Such a person deserves life and will receive it. He will not perish by the judgments, no matter what his ancestors have done.
Eze 18:10-13 present the case where the righteous person of the previous verses has a son who is not righteous like his father (Eze 18:10). We see this with Hezekiah, who is righteous, and his son Manasseh, who is not righteous. That son is a violent one, someone who sheds blood, someone who despises the life of another. He does things that his father does none of, and doing just one of those things already makes him deserve death.
The LORD reminds that the father does not do all the things listed above (Eze 18:11). Nor does the son stop at the one instance of wickedness, his act of violence. He piles sin upon sin. With the word “even” the LORD intensifies His abhorrence of the evil of the son who acts in such contrast to his father. He is the antithesis of his father, for he is one who
- “even eats at the mountain [shrines],”
- “and defiles his neighbor’s wife,”
- “oppresses the poor and needy,” (Eze 18:12)
- “commits robbery,”
- “does not restore a pledge,”
- “but lifts up his eyes to the idols”
- “[and] commits abomination,”
- “lends [money] on interest and takes increase” (Eze 18:13).
After this enumeration of atrocities, the LORD asks the people the question: “Will he live?“ He does not wait for the answer, but gives it Himself: “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.“ His father’s righteousness cannot save him. He alone bears the responsibility for his life in sin. It is clear: the children do not receive the bill for the crimes of their parents and they do not receive the reward for the righteousness of their parents.
It is possible that there are those who see their father’s sins and do not follow them (Eze 18:14). We see this with the wicked Amon and his God-fearing son Josiah. A God-fearing son does not act according to the wicked example he has seen. And again the LORD lists the atrocities, but now in connection with one who does not do these atrocities, but does what the LORD has said:
- “He does not eat at the mountain [shrines] (Eze 18:15),
- or lift up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel,
- or defile his neighbor’s wife,
- or oppress anyone, (Eze 18:16)
- or retain a pledge,
- or commit robbery,
- [but] he gives his bread to the hungry and
- covers the naked with clothing,
- he keeps his hand from the poor, (Eze 18:17)
- does not take interest or increase,
- [but] executes My ordinances,
- and walks in My statutes.”
This son shows himself to be a righteous one and therefore “he will not die for his father’s iniquity”, but “he will surely live”. But the father will die because of his iniquity (Eze 18:18). And again the LORD lists what his iniquity consists of. The indictment is read again. It must penetrate deeply to the people that the evil deeds done by the person are the direct cause of his death. “The father” dies “because he
- practiced extortion,
- robbed [his] brother
- and did what was not good among his people”.
It has been shown extensively and overwhelmingly that each person is personally responsible for his own actions. The LORD looks only at the person in question and his actions.
Yet there still appears to be a question, which they ask God: “Why should the son not bear the punishment for the father’s iniquity?“ (Eze 18:19a). This question is not sincere, but is a final attempt to get out from under their own responsibility. The question seems to be prompted by what the law says that the children bear the iniquity of the fathers (Exo 20:5b; see comments on Eze 18:4).
By asking this question they are accusing God of injustice. God has clearly shown that they cannot shift the responsibility for their actions onto their fathers. Yet they do not want to recognize that they themselves are responsible for their behavior. If then they cannot blame their fathers, they are left with nothing but to blame God.
The answer God gives is the climax of this entire discourse on man’s personal responsibility. The conclusion is crystal clear: “When the son has practiced justice and righteousness and has observed all My statutes and done them, he shall surely live. 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” (Eze 18:19b-20). Wicked, evil people bear their own responsibility. They will bear the consequences of their wickedness. The same is true of the opposite, doing righteousness. He who does so also bear his own responsibility.
Responsibility and Turning Away
God always offers man the opportunity to turn or repent (Eze 18:21), yes, He even commands it (Acts 17:30). An unrighteous person can become a righteous person at any time. True turning will be demonstrated by doing God’s will. One who turns and does His will “shall surely live; he shall not die”. That is how great God’s grace is toward a repentant sinner. His grace is so great that He no longer even remembers against the converted sinner all the transgressions he has committed (Eze 18:22).
God’s forgiveness is complete. The converted wicked person will live “because of his righteousness which he has practiced”. Living because of his righteousness does not mean that he deserves life by his righteous living. The starting point is his conversion. That is his first righteous act. Next, the new life that God gives produces righteous acts.
The opportunity God gives the wicked to turn has to do with the lovingkindness of the mind of God. He is truly not pleased with the death of the wicked (Eze 18:23). He doesn’t like to judge people (cf. 2Pet 3:9b). When an ungodly person turns away from his ungodly ways and lives, it is a joy to His heart. That life is a life in fellowship with Him, in the full enjoyment of real life. Life is only life when it is lived from and together with Him.
The reverse can also be the case. It can happen that a righteous person turns away from doing righteousness and starts acting wickedly (Eze 18:24). God will not let such a person live. That righteous person may have done so many righteous deeds, but they will not help him avoid judgment for even one atrocity. Judgment will come on him, and all his righteous deeds will be void, there is no longer any thought of them. Judgment will come on him because he has become unfaithful to the LORD and because of the sin he has committed.
The people dare to accuse the Lord (Adonai) of unrighteousness, of acting not right. They accuse Him of going down winding roads, of being fickle in His policy (Eze 18:25). They mean that in the case of the wicked who turns, God does not take into account his past sins and leaves them unpunished, and in the case of the unfaithful righteous, He does not take into account his previous good deeds and does not reward them. They judge that He thus acts arbitrarily and does not apply right properly.
Surely this shows an unprecedented insolence on the part of the people. Indignant, God tells them to listen carefully. How dare they say it! They should look at their own ways, how they are full of injustice. It is a very bad trait of man to call God unjust in order to justify his own iniquity.
The LORD summarizes again what happens to the righteous who starts to do wrong (Eze 18:26) and to the wicked who turns away from his wickedness (Eze 18:27-28). God acts on the principle that He calls each person to account for his own actions. Thereby He proves that He views man as a fully responsible person who reaps what he sows (Gal 6:7).
By the way, what Ezekiel is presenting here is about natural life and death on earth – it is important to keep this in mind when considering the meaning of this chapter – not about eternal life or death. In the Old Testament, salvation for eternity depends on living faith in God and the Messiah. A person who is wicked cannot be saved by doing good works. He must turn and then can do good works.
In the other case, when someone does righteous deeds, keeps the law (see the summary in Eze 18:5-9), such a person is also not saved by keeping the law. As long as he keeps the law, he extends his life on earth. A person is saved for eternity only by faith and not by works (Eph 2:8-9). Once one has turned to God with sincere repentance of his sins and received new life, he cannot perish (Rom 8:1; 35-39; Jn 10:28-29).
Once again – and this proves their stubbornness – Israel accuses the Lord (Adonai) of not making His way right (Eze 18:29). In response, God calls Israel to think about that one more time. Is it really the case that His ways are not right? Or is it rather that their own ways are not right? This gross accusation, which proves their total blindness, is the ground for His judgment (Eze 18:30). Each one will be justly judged according to his ways. And then again that great mercy of God. He calls them even now to return to Him and repent of all their transgressions. If they do, they will stumble no more.
Yet let them cast away all their transgressions and begin to act from a new heart and a new spirit (Eze 18:31). This presupposes a work of God in their inner being, yet it is presented here as a responsibility for man. It is up to man to show the desire to start living according to the will of God. This means first breaking with sin, in other words: confession of sins and conversion to God. This then means to start living from the new life. Why will they die?
The final verse is the repetition of the Lord God’s impressive declaration that He is not pleased with the death of anyone who dies (Eze 18:32). Therefore, in conclusion, the call to “repent” sounds one more time with the wonderful promise “and live”. God “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1Tim 2:4). He truly is “a God of forgiveness, gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness” (Neh 9:17b).
Kingcomments on the Whole Bible © 2021 Author: G. de Koning. All rights reserved. Used with the permission of the author
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de Koning, Ger. Commentaar op Ezekiel 18". "Kingcomments on the Whole Bible". https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 15 / Ordinary 20