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Chapter 18 Every Man Is Responsible For His Own Sin.
Ezekiel now outlines the behaviour of the righteous and the wicked in terms of three generations in one family, a righteous man and a wicked son, followed by a righteous grandson. The point behind this is to stress individual responsibility. Each will be judged in accordance with his response to God’s revealed will through the Scriptures. At this time this would include the Law of Moses and the early prophets. He also stresses the dangers of turning away from God and the opportunity for repentance and forgiveness always available. He finishes with a call to such repentance, a change of heart and spirit.
‘The word of Yahweh came to me again saying.’
The prophet is still bound by his oath of dumbness but has again received a word from Yahweh to pass on.
“What do you mean that you use this proverb about the land of Israel, saying, ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge’? As I live,” says Yahweh, “you will not have occasion to use this proverb in Israel any more.”
The coming lesson on individual responsibility is opened by taking a popular proverb and rebutting it. Like all proverbs it contained truth when taken rightly, but was misleading when take wrongly. It is always true that our children to a certain extent suffer for our failures, as well as benefiting from our successes, that we are all to a certain extent what we are because of our backgrounds. But when this becomes fatalism, suggesting that we cannot escape the round of fate, it becomes dangerously misleading. In the end we are what we choose to be.
The idea of corporate sin is an example of this. There is a sense in which we are responsible for the activities of our families and communities, if we go along with them without protest, and seek to do nothing about them. If we share in their attitude, we share in any judgment made on them. But in the end, God tells us, we are each responsible for our own behaviour and actions. We are accountable as individuals. And that is how we will finally be judged.
This applied very much to the exiles. They looked back and to a large extent blamed their present situation on their ‘fathers’ (Lamentations 5:7). ‘Our fathers have sinned and are no more, and we have borne their iniquities’. And they had some justification for this. (Compare Exodus 20:5; Exodus 34:7; Numbers 14:18; Deuteronomy 5:9). But they now had to be faced up with the fact that in the end their fate depended on themselves, and that it was their own sin which was the cause of present judgment. See Ezekiel 3:16-21; Ezekiel 14:12-20; Ezekiel 33:1-20; Deuteronomy 24:16; 2 Kings 14:6.
There is a significant contrast here with the use of the similar proverb by Jeremiah 31:29. There Jeremiah was looking ahead to the coming age when the new covenant would be established. Then, he said, individual responsibility will be clearly established. But through Ezekiel God says that that time is now. We must not just wait for the future, He says, we must recognise that there is a need for full response to God even now.
That lesson is important. While Ezekiel too looked forward to the coming age, he also very much emphasised that what was true then could be true now. Would men then receive the Spirit? They could receive the Spirit now (Ezekiel 18:31 compared with Ezekiel 36:26). Would they be changed then? They could be changed now. While each age has its different emphases, God’s way of deliverance through faith in His mercy and forgiveness, and God’s gracious activity on behalf of His own through His Spirit, have not changed. Salvation has always been, and will always be, by faith through grace (Ephesians 2:8), as a result of the activity of His Spirit, and as a result of God’s own provision of a means of propitiation and reconciliation. It was just as true then as now.
“Behold all lives are mine. As the life of the father, so also the life of the son is mine. The one who sins, he will die.”
The use of the word ‘soul’ for nephesh in modern translations is misleading. In Ezekiel’s day the philosophical conception of ‘the soul’ did not exist. The nephesh was rather the life principle within him, the essence of what a man was. God had breathed on man and he became a living person (Genesis 2:7). Thus man had life because God had given him it, and that life could be taken away. As in most parts of the Old Testament, Ezekiel says nothing about an afterlife.
So here the emphasis is on this fact that man has life because he has been given it by God, that he is accountable for his own sin, and that if he does sin he will die. The wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23), but it is each for his own sin.
The Righteous Father.
“But if a man is just and does what is lawful and right, and has not eaten on the mountains, nor has lifted up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel, nor has defiled his neighbour’s wife, nor has come near to a woman in her separation, and has not wronged any, but has restored to the debtor his pledge, has spoiled none by violence, has given his bread to the hungry, and has covered the naked with clothing, he who has not lent at interest to the needy, nor has taken any increase, who has withdrawn his hand from iniquity, has executed true judgment between man and man, has walked in my statutes, and has kept my judgments to deal truly. He is just. He will surely live, says the Lord Yahweh.”
The righteous man is now described, the one who is acceptable to God and thus free from judgment. He may suffer from the normal pressures of life, but he will not suffer for his sin. Each example is take from the law of the covenant.
‘If a man is just and does what is lawful and right.’ The test of a man is his obedience to the word of God as it is revealed in the Scriptures.
‘And has not eaten on the mountains, nor has lifted up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel.’ To ‘eat on the mountains’ referred to participating in festivals connected with idols in the high places (see Deuteronomy 12:2). These festivals in Canaan were orgies of sexual perversion (Ezekiel 22:9) and involved mystical association with the gods in all their lax ways. Combined with this was the submission to, and worship of, these idols, bowing down to wood and stone in direct contravention of God’s demands (Exodus 20:5). As Paul would demonstrate, this would lead to corrupt living (Romans 1:18-32).
‘Nor has defiled his neighbour’s wife, nor has come near to a woman in her separation.’ The next test is in attitudes towards women. A man’s attitude and behaviour towards women is a good measure of his whole behaviour. The first refers to adultery (Exodus 20:14; Leviticus 20:10; Leviticus 20:18; Deuteronomy 22:22), the stealing of what was most precious to a man. It declares strict bounds beyond which a man may not go. He may not touch another’s wife. The second refers to intercourse during the menstruation period (Leviticus 15:19-24; Leviticus 18:19-20). The latter had health dangers in the circumstances of the time, but it was also intended to stress the sacredness of the blood as representative of life and death. At a time when life was cheap it was a constant reminder that God saw life as sacred.
“And has not wronged any.” This refers to behaving rightly towards his neighbours. The righteous man behaves as he would wish others to behave towards him. He always avoids doing what is harmful to others. Then specific examples follow, taken from the Law.
“But has restored to the debtor his pledge.” The basic idea is that he has treated his debtors, those who have borrowed from him in time of need, correctly and compassionately, not with exacting demands but with kindness and consideration. Exodus 22:25 puts it ‘you shall not be to him as a creditor’, that is, treat him harshly. When a cloak was take in pledge it had to be restored at night so that the debtor had necessary protection against the cold (Exodus 22:26-27; Amos 2:8; Deuteronomy 24:12-13). Compare also Deuteronomy 24:6 where a millstone was not to be accepted as a pledge because a man’s life depended on being his able to mill grain, and Ezekiel 24:17 where a widow’s clothing was not to be taken in pledge. Consideration was to be shown at all times. Thus a debtor was not to be humiliated (Deteronomy Ezekiel 24:10-11). And of course pledges had to be returned once the debt was paid off (Ezekiel 33:15), something that was not always done, on one pretext or another. So God watches carefully how we treat those who owe us a debt of any kind.
This is a reminder that God is concerned about how we run our businesses. Our excuse may be, ‘but this is business’. God says, ‘remember it is My business, and I will call you to account for how you run it.’
‘Has spoiled none by violence.’ This was especially spoken to the strong and influential, but included all who considered using violence on order to enrich themselves. The use of violence to obtain one’s will is repudiated whether in commercial activities or any other. It includes robbery with violence and banditry, but also has in mind all extortion.
‘Has given his bread to the hungry, and has covered the naked with clothing.’ The words are reminiscent of Matthew 25:35-36. Compare also Luke 16:19-31. The righteous man is revealed by his constant concern for the poor and needy, feeding the hungry and clothing those in rags. He is epitomised by consideration and thoughtfulness.
‘He who has not lent at interest to the needy, nor has taken any increase.’ This does not have in mind commercial lending, except where the borrower is in personal financial need. It has in mind lending to those in need and poverty and who found themselves in severe straits. To such the well-to-do man should be willing to offer help and assistance. And it was stated clearly in the Law that such people, when fellow-Israelites, must not be charged interest, nor must any ‘increase’ (percentage of produce) be accepted as reward (Exodus 22:25; Leviticus 25:35-37; Deuteronomy 23:19-20. See also Psalms 15:5; Proverbs 28:8). Loans should be made to needy people of God out of generosity of heart, not to make a profit or obtain a benefit.
‘Who has withdrawn his hand from iniquity, has executed true judgment between man and man, has walked in my statutes, and has kept my judgments to deal truly.’ This finally summarises the righteous man. He avoids wrong, is totally fair and upright in his dealings, is completely trustworthy as a witness, lives in accordance with the word of God as revealed through the Law and the Prophets and deals truly in all things.
‘He is just. He will surely live, says the Lord Yahweh.’ On such a man God declares His verdict. These are the ways of a man accepted as right with God. He behaves rightly towards both God and man. Thus he will enjoy a prosperous life and will not die prematurely under judgment.
The Wicked Son.
The purpose of the comparison is to refute the idea that a man suffers or benefits as far as God is concerned because of his family connections. A man may naturally benefit, or otherwise, as a result of his family environment, behaviour and wealth, but in the end God’s dealings with him will be solely on the basis of his own moral behaviour and attitude towards God.
“If he beget a son who is a robber, a shedder of blood, and who does any one of these things (i.e. those about to be described), and does not any of those (i.e those previously described), but has even eaten on the mountains, and defiled his neighbour’s wife, has wronged the poor and needy, has spoiled by violence, has not restored the pledge, and has lifted up his eyes to the idols, has committed abomination, has given forth on usury and has taken increase. Shall he then live? He will not live. He has done all these abominations. He will surely die. His blood will be on him.”
A son may turn out to be the exact opposite of his father. He may steal or obtain by false means, he may use unnecessary violence, he may partake in idolatry, he may misuse his neighbour’s wife, wrong the poor and needy, receive gain by violence, misuse his debtors, demand high interest, and so on. And what will be the result? He will not be protected in God’s eyes by the goodness of his father, or the uprightness of his family. Because of his own behaviour God will judge him, and he will suffer accordingly.
This was why Israel’s religion was unique in its day. Yahweh was concerned with, and required, right moral behaviour. Other religions were concerned with doing what the gods required, satisfying them with gifts and sacrifices and subservience, and persuading them to give some assistance in matters of life with which they were concerned. Moral behaviour was not seen as required by the gods, and indeed the gods were often seen as worse behaved than men. But Yahweh was different. His covenant regulated men’s behaviour as well as their religious activity.
Note the close connection between eating on the mountains and defiling the neighbour’s wife. The two were regularly connected as men and women got drunk and behaved licentiously in fertility rites under the guise of religious activity. Note also ‘all these abominations’. Idolatry was ‘abominable’ because of the attitudes it encouraged and the fruit that it produced. Almost any evil behaviour could be justified from the behaviour of the gods. So when God condemned ‘abominations’ it included all these things.
‘Shall he then live? He will not live. He has done all these abominations. He will surely die. His blood will be on him.’ There is a clear indication here of a difference between death and punitive death. In some way he comes under punishment. Nothing is spelt out, but the impression is that in some way he will be positively punished. He will forfeit all that is good, and his death will be final.
The Righteous Grandson.
“Now, lo, if he beget a son who sees all his father’s sins which he has done, and fears (an alternative reading is ‘considers’), and does not such things, who has not eaten on the mountains, nor has lifted up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel, has not defiled his neighbour’s wife, nor has wronged any, has not taken anything in pledge, nor has spoiled others by violence, but has given his bread to the hungry, and has covered those lacking in clothes with clothing, who has withdrawn his hand from the poor, who has not received usury nor increase, has executed my judgments, has walked in my statutes. He will not die for the iniquity of his father. He will surely live.”
A further generation, the third generation, is now depicted. Here the grandson is in opposition to his father’s evil way of life. He fears Yahweh and does not do things which are against His will, but practises the good that Yahweh demands. He avoids idolatry, sexual transgression, wronging others, taking pledges, using violence to obtain his ends. Rather he feeds the hungry, provides necessities to those in need, does not ill-use the poor, does not seek interest or a percentage of produce when lending to those in need.
‘Has executed my judgments, has walked in my statutes.’ Compare Leviticus 18:4. See also Deuteronomy 26:16-19; Deuteronomy 30:15-20. This man seeks to please God. He obeys His word and His laws, and follows His ways continually. In the words of Micah 6:8, he ‘does justly, loves mercy and walks humbly with God’. Thus his way of life and his end are different.
‘He will not die for the iniquity of his father. He will surely live.’ The sentence that hangs over his father will not hang over him. Rather he will live (compare Leviticus 18:5). We cannot ascribe to Ezekiel simply the idea that all good men live long lives and all men die abruptly for it is, and was, patently not so. And while he probably had in mind the destruction of Jerusalem and the deaths that would result, even that does not satisfy his words, for he was referring to a number of generations. The idea was clearly that in some way the righteous ‘live’ in a way that the unrighteous do not, enjoying the blessing of God within in the inner spirit, finding the way more smooth with Someone to call on, enjoying a resulting improved prosperity. And yet having said that it certainly also looks forward to man’s end. The righteous die in blessing, the unrighteous under judgment (compare Psalms 73:0 where the ideas are expanded).
“As for his father, because he cruelly oppressed, spoiled his brother by violence, and did what is not good among the people, behold he will die in his iniquity.”
The grandson’s goodness will not protect his father. His father will be brought to account for his sins. He will take responsibility for his own actions. Nor will the righteousness of his father save him. Everyone is finally individually accountable.
Note the positiveness of the whole passage. Had the prevailing position been totally in mind the contrast would have been between two wicked and one righteous. But the concentration is here on the blessing of the righteous, and the attitude is positive. The threefold generations may well have in mind the idea that Israel began well, sank into sin and now have the opportunity to repent resulting in full restoration.
Furthermore it does away with the fatalism of those who felt that they were at the mercy of their fathers’ doings. Let them but arise and change and all will be different. Each man is responsible for his own sin and his own life, and finally determines his own destiny. The future can be rosy, but only if they go forward with their hand in the hand of God.
Ezekiel was not questioning the continuity of the effects of sin. The consequences of sin often go on long after the sin is forgiven, and sadly embrace others, often to the third and fourth generation. The life of David was constantly beset by the consequences of his forgiven sin, and he was finally refused the privilege of building the temple because of them. And his manner of life badly affected his sons. But Ezekiel is stressing final individual responsibility, and that God can compensate for a man’s background, and will not hold it against him where he seeks to do the right.
-20 “When the son has done what is lawful and right, and has kept all my statutes, and has done them, he will surely live. The person who sins, he will die. The son will not bear the iniquity of the father, nor will the father bear the iniquity of the son, the righteousness of the righteous will be on him (the righteous one), and the wickedness of the wicked will be on him (the wicked one).”
God’s reply was that each will be judged on his own merits, on the basis of what he reveals himself to be by his life. None will be condemned for the behaviour and attitudes of another. He who honours God and obeys His commands will live. He who by his sin and by his life reveals that He despises God and His ways will die.
Once again the words go deeper than mere life and death, containing some idea of quality of life as well as awfulness of judgment. ‘The one who has done right will surely live, -- the one who sins will die.’ The sinner will die in himself before he finally faces the judgment, and then the judgment will lie before him, the dreadful end, the judgment of death and dishonour. While the afterlife was as yet an unknown doctrine some trace of it lies behind the words, an instinct not yet put into words, although Daniel would enunciate it in Daniel 12:2-3.
‘The son will not bear the iniquity of the father, nor will the father bear the iniquity of the son, the righteousness of the righteous will be on him (the righteous one), and the wickedness of the wicked will be on him (the wicked one).’ The contrast is deliberately stark in order to establish the principle. It ignores the shades of difference that would arise the levels of righteousness and wickedness. It was the principle that mattered. Each is responsible for himself and will receive accordingly.
Elsewhere it would be revealed that the fully righteous would only be so because of the activity of God in their lives, for none were fully righteous in themselves. But here that was not under consideration. What was in question here was the basis and fairness of the judgment of the God who held each responsible for himself, and judged each one face to face only for his own sins.
“But if the wicked turn from all his sins which he has committed, and keep all my statutes, and do what is lawful and right, he will surely live, he will not die. None of his transgressions which he has committed will be remembered against him. In his righteousness that he has done he will live.”
But the course of no man is set in stone. In God’s goodness there is always place for repentance. If a man turns from his sin to the way of righteousness he will receive life. Then all his sins will be forgiven him. They will be remembered no more for ever. Because he has been restored to God’s way he will live.
This assumes, of course, his returning to God’s covenant and coming to God through the means of propitiation and mercy He has provided. That was part of His statutes and laws. Righteousness included righteousness towards God and towards man. It is the attitude of a truly repentant man who receives forgiveness from God through the blood of sacrifice shed for him, and in trust and obedience as a forgiven sinner lives a new life within the covenant. This had to be so for the sake of the righteous as well, for they were most conscious of the fact that they were sinners.
“Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked?” says the Lord Yahweh, “and not rather that he should return from his way and live?”
These words should be seared on all our hearts. God has no desire for, or pleasure in, the death of the wicked. He does not want any to be lost in the judgment. But inevitably it must be so for they choose that way themselves. Their wills are turned against Him and they will not repent. But God would rather that they returned to Him and found mercy, so that He might give them life.
These words were an offer to those in Jerusalem, even in their last extremity. God had no pleasure in what He was about to bring on Jerusalem. He longed that they might respond and be saved. They were a cry to the exiles too. If they would but hear there was a way back. Any who responded would be saved. That was why Jeremiah had been sent among them. That was why Ezekiel was now speaking the words of Yahweh. Hope was there. If it had happened in Nineveh (Jonah 3:0) it could happen in Jerusalem. And yet all the while the inexorable message of judgment on Jerusalem revealed that it would not be. God knew that on the whole they would continue to reject Him, is spite of His offer of mercy. But when they did so it would not be because He had not sought them.
“But when the righteous turns away from his righteousness, and commits iniquity, and does according to all the abominations which the wicked man does. Shall he live? None of his righteous deeds which he has done will be remembered. In his trespass that he has trespassed and in his sin that he has sinned, in them will he die.”
God has no pleasure in the death of anyone. But if a righteous man turns away from his righteous living and takes up the way of wickedness, following in the abomination of flagrant disobedience of God’s laws, as illustrated in Ezekiel 18:10-12, his past righteousness will not save him. Thus once for all is done away the theory that a man will be measured in scales, the good against the bad. His righteous deeds will not be remembered. There will be nothing to put in the scales. He will be condemned for his current life. Present submission to God’s covenant and obedience to His requirements alone can make a man right with God. There is no room for presumption.
Note the differing words used for sin. Here ‘iniquity’ is ‘wl speaking of behaving unjustly, doing wrong. ‘Trespass’ is m‘l signifying acting counter to one’s duty to God. ‘Sin’ is chata’ meaning to miss the way or the goal, or the mark aimed at. To fall short. (See Judges 20:16 where it means to aim and not miss).
“Yet you say, ‘The way of the Lord is not equal’.”
The unusual use here of ‘the Lord’ by itself (see also Ezekiel 18:29 and contrast the usual ‘Lord Yahweh’) suggests that this had become a standard grievance of the people, so much so that it had taken a stereotyped form. They considered that God was not being fair to them. What they meant was that He was not fitting into the norms that they had laid down. They considered that guilt belonged to the group, and therefore to everyone in the group. And no doubt they considered that the group to which they belonged was of the better sort.
But they did not like God facing each of them up with their own sin. Of what benefit then was it that they had righteous forebears? Of what benefit that their family had a name as being ‘respectable’ and ‘religious’? Of what benefit that they walked in the way of their fathers, honouring them by doing as they did? Of what benefit that they were the people of the covenant, even if they had only followed it half-heartedly? God’s reply was ‘none’, and they did not like it. They did not like being faced with personal responsibility, and they considered it unfair.
“When the righteous man turns away from his righteousness, and commits iniquity, and dies in it, for the iniquity that he has done will he die. Again, when the wicked man turns away from his wickedness which he has committed, and does what is lawful and right, he will save himself alive. Because he considers and turns away from all his transgressions which he has committed, he will surely live. He will not die.”
God again summarises His position. Each man is responsible for his own attitudes and doings, and for continuation in the right way. If he becomes a wicked man, any amount of previous righteousness will not save him, but if a man awakens to his sinfulness, repents of his wickedness, and begins to live his life in obedience to God and His ways, he will be forgiven and will find life and not death. So God is concerned with a man’s present attitude and response. That alone is the proof that a man is right with God, and that alone determines his present wellbeing.
“Yet the house of Israel says, ‘The way of the Lord is not equal.’ Oh house of Israel, are my ways not equal? Are your ways not unequal?”
God challenges Israel to recognise that in fact it is they whose ways are unequal and unfair. They would condemn a man for what he could do nothing about, being a ‘victim’ of the behaviour of his group. God will only condemn a man for what he himself is responsible for. Of course that would include blaming him for condoning the sins of others. That was the sin of the relatives of Achan (Joshua 7:24-25). But where he had stood firm for God and His covenant, he would be guiltless.
God’s Final Offer and Plea.
“Therefore I will judge you, Oh house of Israel, every one according to his ways,” says the Lord Yahweh, “Return you, and turn yourselves from all your transgressions, so will they not be a stumblingblock of iniquity to you.”
It is unquestionable that this was a new emphasis for the house of Israel. Of course, in the past men had been responsible for their own sins, and had been judged accordingly. This is clear from many incidents in the past. But their main emphasis had been on Israel as a whole, and the behaviour of their kings and leaders, and their response to it. They had been as one within the covenant. They had seen themselves judged as groups and as a nation.
Now the emphasis was to be on each individual and each family, and how they responded towards God and the covenant. Those who sinned would die. Those who responded to Him and walked in His ways would live. It had become a personal thing in preparation for the new covenant which would transform individual lives. It was the beginning of a new perspective.
The house of Israel would still be judged, but man by man instead of as one. Each could return to God and turn from their transgressions, thus removing the stumblingblock caused by their iniquity, by their wrong and unjust behaviour. None would be blamed for the sinful actions of the group unless they participated in them. It was a firm movement towards individual accountability which would later result, among other things, in the teachings of the Pharisees and the teaching of Jesus and the early church.
“Cast away from you all your transgressions, by which you have transgressed, and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit. For why will you die, Oh house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of him who dies,” says the Lord Yahweh, “For which reason turn yourselves and live.”
These remarkable verses must be seen in the light of Ezekiel 36:26 (see also Jeremiah 32:39). The call of God assumes His willingness to work in them what is required. If they were willing to turn from their sins, God was willing to work in them a new heart and a new spirit. What would later be promised for the future, was here promised in the present if they would respond. They could be born from above by the Spirit of God. They could be inwardly renewed. But it required a change of heart and mind about their rebellion against the covenant, and about their sinfulness and abominations.
God’s plea was heartfelt. He did not want them to have to die. He did not want to bring His judgment on them. ‘Why will you die?’, He pleaded, as only the strong could. ‘I have no pleasure in it.’ He was waiting and ready to forgive. He was waiting to receive them again and make them fully His own.
‘Cast away your rebellion.’ The words are strong. At the root of the word for ‘transgressions’ lies the thought of rebellion. So they are to fling from them their rebellion of heart, and the acts that reveal that rebellion.
And it is always the same. God is longsuffering and merciful. Until the moment when it is too late He is always ready to accept our repentance and forgive. But what would follow in Ezekiel also reminds us that at some time the point is reached when it is too late. Then there can only be wailing and gnashing of teeth. This is not a question of whether a man can be saved and then lost. It is the question of the test as to whether a man is truly saved. For the man who is truly saved will persevere to the end.
These pleas of God in Ezekiel reveal the human side of salvation. It is up to Israel whether they will repent or not. The choice is theirs. They must exercise their wills and respond, believing that God on His side will renew them and put His Spirit within them, or they must receive the consequences of a failure to do so. It was the same call to believe as would be exercised in the ministry of Jesus and the Apostles.
Yet the whole book reveals that only within the sovereignty of God would they respond. That is why this great movement of the Spirit awaited the future. Though He called them they would not respond. Jerusalem would be destroyed. In the end it is only when God makes the first move and brings about His will on those whom He will call, that response will come.
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Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Ezekiel 18". "Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 8 / Ordinary 13