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THE EQUITY OF THE DIVINE JUSTICE (chap. 18)
EXEGETICAL NOTES.—The judgments announced in chaps. 8, 11, were intended to bring Israel to repentance. But this salutary purpose was frustrated by the manner in which these judgments were interpreted. The people considered themselves as innocent children suffering for the iniquity of their fathers, and that, therefore, repentance was useless. The prophet destroys this refuge by declaring that each man shall have to bear the punishment of his own sin. That punishment can only be averted by repentance (Ezekiel 18:21-29). Thus the rule of God’s judgments was equity.
THE UNGODLY PROVERB, AND THE DECLARATION THAT IT SHALL BE NO MORE HEARD IN ISRAEL (Ezekiel 18:1-4)
Ezekiel 18:1-2. “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” The same proverb is quoted in Jeremiah 31:29-30, where it is also condemned as an error. The meaning of it is sufficiently clear. The sour grapes which the fathers eat are their own personal sins which they commit; the setting of the children’s teeth on edge is the suffering consequent upon these sins, and which is visited upon the children.
Ezekiel 18:3. “Ye shall not have occasion any more to use this proverb in Israel.” Heb. “It shall not be to you.” The meaning is, that it shall be no longer morally possible for them to use this proverb; for they would be convinced of the justice of God’s ways, not only by the reason of the thing itself, but also by the judgments which would be sent upon them. The equity of God’s dealings would be vindicated in so clear a manner, that none would be bold enough to call it in question.
Ezekiel 18:4. “All souls are Mine; as the soul of the father, so also the soul of the son is Mine.” They are His by right of creation. They have come from Him, the Fountain of Life, the Father of Spirits. “God would surrender His property if He permitted souls, whether individuals or whole generations, to suffer punishment for the guilt of others. In the likeness of God, on which the sentence “All souls are Mine” rests, lies the principle that souls cannot be degraded into servile instruments—that each can only be treated according to His works.”—(Hengstenberg). “In this verse God asserts His universal propriety in His rational creation. All the souls, i.e., persons—the noblest part of the constituent elements of the human subject being put for the whole. He had created them all, and having endowed them with those powers and faculties which are necessary to constitute them subjects of moral government, He had a sovereign and indisputable right to deal with them in equity according to their deserts. In punishing the guilty, He acts without respect of persons. The individual culprit is dealt with on the ground of his own personal deserts.”—(Henderson). “The soul that sinneth, it shall die.” “Die, the end of a process,—the separation of the soul from its life-source, the Spirit of God (Deuteronomy 30:15; Jeremiah 21:8; Proverbs 11:19). This cannot happen without an act of God’s retributive justice, so that the punishment inflicted by God must correspond to man’s guilt.”—(Lange).
Two things are to be considered concerning this proverb—
1. The meaning of it. By “sour grapes,” the Jews understand sin, not sin simply, but such sins as bring heavy judgments of God upon a land or people, as idolatry, murder, oppression, drunkenness, profaneness, etc. The prophet Isaiah warrants this sense of sour grapes, when he calls the sins of Judah “wild grapes” (Isaiah 5:24). God looked that His vineyard should bring forth grapes, good fruit, justice, righteousness, truth; and it brought forth wild grapes, oppression, a cry, covetousness, lasciviousness, drunkenness, pride. Such sins are called sour or wild grapes, because they wound conscience, are burdensome unto others, are as distasteful unto God as such grapes are to us. They provoke Him to lay waste the vine that bears such fruit. By this proverb thus much is signified, that the fathers had sinned, and the children suffered for their sin; the fathers did that which was very offensive unto God, and the children were punished for it; they did eat the sour grapes, brought forth the bitter fruit, and these smarted for it; the children’s teeth were set on edge, they were punished for what their fathers had done. They thought and said that their fathers were the cause of all the evils which befell them. Like unto this proverb are these: “Kings sin, and the people suffer.” “The child offends, and the servant is beaten.”
II. The occasion. The princes and people going on in the wicked ways of their fathers, the prophets did threaten them with destruction of their temple, city and estate. Thereupon they said, “Our fathers did as we do, and they were spared; why should we suffer”? And when the prophets pressed the sins of Manasseh, as Jeremiah 15:3-4, “I will appoint over them four kinds, saith the Lord; the sword to slay, the dogs to tear, the fowls of heaven, the beasts of the earth, to devour and destroy: and I will cause them to be removed into all kingdoms of the earth, because of Manasseh the son of Hezekiah, king of Judah, for that which he did in Jerusalem.” When God stirred the prophets to tell them that for the sins of this king he would lay Jerusalem waste, as he had the ten tribes for Jeroboam’s sins, they then took up this proverb, and said, “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the childrens’ teeth are set on edge.” Ahaz, Manasseh, Amon, and others of our forefathers, have sinned, and we must suffer! Or thus: Zedekiah and his counsellors had perfidiously broken covenant with Nebuchadnezzar, for which the prophets threatened utter ruin to all: hereupon the people said, “Our fathers have eaten sour grapes,” etc.; the kings and nobles have transgressed, and we shall be ruined for it! This proverb was grown common amongst them, both in Babylon and in Zion, it was tossed up and down and spread. Ezekiel tells them of it in Babylon, and Jeremiah in Zion (Jeremiah 31:29). The evil of this proverb was great, for besides their charging God with injustice and impartiality, hereby—
(1). They discovered their father’s sins and nakedness, and that without sorrow or repentance for them.
(2). Made light of anything the prophets threatened against them.
(3). Obstructed the way against future repentance, or profiting by the judgments of God which should come upon them. For being persuaded and possessed with this opinion, that they suffered unjustly for their father’s sins, not their own, they would never submit, mourn, condemn, but justify themselves.—(Greenhill).
The cause of the cessation of this proverb is the severity of the Divine judgments. When these appear, the fig-leaves fall off, the slumbering conscience awakens and cries out. “It is I and my sins!” There is a multitude of theorems and theological dogmas which are possible only in certain times, and slink away abashed when the thunders of Divine judgment begin to roll.—(Hengstenberg).
Either a man recognises in judgment—in the self-judgment of a believing repentance—his guilt before God, or God makes the whole world recognise it in us, through the judgment which overtakes us, even when we would deny our guilt. God swears by His life; for where His righteousness is called in question, His life in this world of sin and death is assailed.—(Lange.)
“The soul that sinneth, it shall die.” Hence—
1. God may lay what Punishment. He pleases upon the soul that sins. “All souls are Mine,” and the soul that sinneth shall suffer whatever I see good, according to the nature of its sin. However the words seem to impart an equal punishment for all sins, yet it is otherwise; according to the intrinsical nature, circumstances, and demerit of the sin, shall be the death. God will proportion the one unto the other; as He rewards men according to their works, so He will punish them according to their sins. God hath variety of deaths, and various degrees of those deaths, variety of afflictions, and various degrees of the same; He lays on which and in what measure He pleases. If states think good to inflict upon delinquents several punishments, and in high degree as they find men guilty, how much more may God. He smote Jehoram with incurable and sore diseases (2 Chronicles 21:18-19). He sent fire and brimstone upon Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19:0). He did that in Jerusalem which He never did before, nor ever would do the like (Ezekiel 5:9-10). Neither these nor any that suffer in what kind soever, do suffer unjustly; men may pretend innocency, but if they suffer, and that severely, God is not cruel, they are not guiltless.
2. Sin is a deadly thing “The soul that sinneth shall die. Sin is the great murderer, it let death into the world, and keeps death alive. If there were no sin there would be no death, no punishment, but if men sin they must suffer. The old world sinned and died for it; Sodomites sinned and died for it; the Bethshemites sinned by looking into the ark, and fifty thousand of them died for it: Jerusalem sins and is burnt for it, and her children buried in a Babylonish grave; Ananias and Sapphira die for their dissimulation. “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). Let us then take heed of sin, whereby we offend that God who hath said, “The soul that sinneth it shall die.” He is a dreadful Majesty and ought greatly to be feared. “Who would not fear Thee, O King of nations? for to Thee doth it appertain” (Jeremiah 10:7). Fear is God’s due, and your duty; “Stand in awe,” then, “and sin not” (Psalms 4:4). If you sin, you must die; death is the king of fears, and God is the King of death; He can command it to seize upon you in a moment.—(Greenhill).
THE INDIVIDUALITY OF THE SOUL
These idolatrous Israelites complained that they were unjustly punished for the sins of their fathers. The innocent suffered instead of the guilty. “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” By nature’s law the man who eats sour grapes, and he alone, will feel the unpleasant sensation of the acid on his own teeth. They complain that the dealings of Providence, as expounded by the prophet, are contrary to the equity and justice of nature. And this complaint is, to a very large extent, founded upon a truth. Under God’s moral government the innocent do suffer for the guilty. All generations of men are subject to the stern law of inheritance, so that the email of sin and suffering falls to the lot of those who are innocent of the original transgression. But the prophet assures his countrymen that, despite all appearances to the contrary, God’s ways are equal. There is no injustice done to any man on account of any complication of his history with that of another, or with that of the human race. “As I live, saith the Lord God, ye shall not have occasion any more to use this proverb in Israel.” And the reason given is this:—“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” Each individual soul comes from God, who is the fountain of life, is accountable ultimately to Him alone, and each man will be treated in sole regard to himself without reference to any other man. He who continues in sin will incur the penalty of death; which will be visited upon him for his own sins, and not for those of his forefathers. This death of the soul is not the loss of existence, but such death as the soul can suffer, i.e., moral and spiritual death, exclusion from God’s light and love. Such a man is dead while he liveth. His portion is a living death. This passage speaks to us of the origin, and of the individuality of the human soul.
I. The origin of the human soul. “All souls are mine.” They are God’s by right of creation, which is the strongest title of ownership. And God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” (Genesis 1:26). “The Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul” (Genesis 2:7). God is the “Father of spirits,” and “we are also His offspring.” “Man is from God as well as to God. He is of the blood-royal of heaven. The Bible itself, what is it but a biography of the soul?” Its noble and illustrious birth, beautiful childhood, and its terrible fall; its long and painful discipline of sorrow through the ages of history; the grace of God towards it in the gifts of salvation, the provisions for its perfect restoration through a Divine Redeemer, a paradise won for it beyond the grave—these great facts concerning the soul are the main burden of the Bible. To know, as a deep and heart felt conviction, the origin and worth of the soul is to be a religious man: to live a life founded on that conviction is to be a Christian.
II. The individuality of the soul. Each soul of man has a separate existence in eternity as well as in time. When we die we do not become an unconscious portion of the universal life. We are not absorbed into God, like a drop which falls into the ocean. We do not perish by infinite diffusion. Such is the teaching of the Bible. But—
1. It is very difficult for us to realise this truth. The truth we have to consider is—that each and every one of all who now live, or who have ever lived, is a distinct and independent being. There are certain facts and circumstances of human life which render it difficult for us to realise this truth. Take the case of the commander of a large army. Does such a man realise this truth fully when he sends a large body of men on some dangerous service? Or, does he not rather regard each man as one of the springs or wheels of a vast machine? To the whole collection of separate powers ministering to one end he assigns individuality. The only fact is not present vividly before him, that the real individuality is that of each single soul. And all men are liable, more or less, to make this false estimate. We are prone to class men in masses, and to regard them as we do the stones of a building which derives unity only from its form and from the disposition of all its parts to the general effect. We deal only with great unities; the separate portions do not enter into our thought. We have a tendency to treat abstractions of our own creation as real things. Thus we speak of national greatness. And what does this mean? It means that multitudes of men who happen to be living together at one time, and in the same country, are able to act upon each other and upon the world at large in such a way as to gain importance, power, wealth, and eminence. We regard these multitudes as one great body, and when one and another dies we do not consider it as the passage of a soul into the unseen state. Their places are supplied by others: the individual perishes, the nation remains. We think of the nation as still the same in its vast and energetic life, but we are apt to forget that it is only the component parts that are the true realities. Consider again, the multitudes of a great city. We gain an idea of human energy, of the splendour and magnificence of man’s works. But what is the real truth? Why, that each man in that city is his own centre, and all things about him are but mere shades among which he walks, as “in a vain shadow and disquieteth himself in vain.” Nothing outside of him can touch his soul or quench his immortality. He must live with himself for ever. He has an unfathomable depth within him, and an infinite abyss of existence.
2. We should make an effort to realise this truth. The truth, that all who have ever lived here and have seen the sun successively are alive now, each one in his own person; all those who lived before the Flood and in the ages since, all who have gained a name in the world, or who have died without fame—the good, the bad, the wise, the ignorant; all those whose names we see written in churches or churchyards, great writers whose works we see in our libraries, the workmen who have raised those great buildings and monuments which are the wonder of the world: they are all in God’s remembrance, and before His eye—they still live. To see a human being, even by a mere passing glance, is an act which, in its deep significance, is unlike all other occurrences in nature. The rain falls, the wind blows; but showers and storms have no existence beyond the time when they happened. They are gone, and are nothing in themselves. But when we have seen a child of Adam, we have seen the temple of an immortal soul. It lives on; and when here on earth it is seen no more, it is still somewhere awaiting God.
3. It is as individual souls that we shall return to God. We must all take that solemn journey which will bring us face to face with God. We cannot pass on one side of Him, or in any way avoid Him, but must go straight into His presence. Each man will feel that he is himself, and not another, and that the eye of God is upon him. When a few more years have come and gone, there will be no need of any effort of mind on our part, in order to realise the individuality of the soul. No need of any effort to realise the nothingness of this vain world when the world has for us vanished away and we are left alone with God. There is one Being to whom alone we are ultimately accountable. Strive to say at last in faith and hope, “Father, into Thy hands I commit my spirit.” “Lord, Jesus, receive my spirit.”
EXEGETICAL NOTES.—True righteousness is described as the fulfilment of the commandments of God. Through such righteousness the righteous shall live.
Ezekiel 18:5. “That which is lawful and right” (Heb.) “Judgment and righteousness.” The deeds must conform to the rule of right, and the motive must be the love of right. “The first application of the principle is made to the righteous man. He is described according to Being and Doing,—essentially and actually; in particular, doing judgment, in general, righteousness: His doing is then more precisely depicted, not without a tendency to antithesis.”—Lange.
Ezekiel 18:6. “Hath not eaten upon the mountains.” Mountains where idol festivals were held (Ezekiel 6:13). Eating that which was offered in sacrifice to an idol was supposed to secure the favour of that deity (1 Corinthians 10:20-21). “Neither hath lifted up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel.” The “lifting up of the eyes” denotes the expectation of help (Psalms 121:1). “Neither hath come near to a menstruous woman.” Conjugal intercourse with a wife while she was set apart for her uncleanness was forbidden by the law of Israel on pain of death. It was a defilement of the marriage relation. (Leviticus 18:19; Leviticus 20:18). “The prohibition of impurities in the married state is included, which is directed against unbridled lust that bows not to the ordinance of God.”—(Hengstenberg.)
Ezekiel 18:7. “Restored to the debtor his pledge.” This restoration was commanded by the law, as the things taken in pledge were considered as necessary to the existence of the poor man (Exodus 22:25; Deuteronomy 24:6; Deuteronomy 24:10, etc.). “His bread to the hungry.” Not regarding it as his; not saying with Nabal, “Shall I take my bread … and give it away?” (1 Samuel 25:11).
Ezekiel 18:8. “Given forth upon usury, neither hath taken any increase.” The Hebrew word for usury is very expressive. It literally signifies biting, and must have originated in the practice of taking exorbitant interest. The law of Moses absolutely prohibited the Jews from taking any interest from their brethren, but permitted them to do so from a foreigner (Exodus 22:25; Deuteronomy 23:19-20). “Increase” is another term expressive of interest or usury, denoting riches obtained by lending money at high interest, or by making exorbitant charges on the natural productions of the soil.”—(Henderson). The taking of “increase” on a loan of the necessaries of life was forbidden to the Israelite (Leviticus 25:36-37). “Hath executed true judgment between man and man.” In the special capacity of a judge or arbiter.
Ezekiel 18:9. “He is just.” Really such—righteousness as contra-distinguished from its semblance. “He shall surely live.” He shall save his soul—shall live in the fullest, deepest sense of the word. “The man who was blameless with respect to all the points here specified was accounted righteous in the eye of the law, and entitled to enjoy the life which the law secured.”—(Henderson.)
A PICTURE OF RIGHTEOUSNESS (Ezekiel 18:5-9)
The whole of this paragraph is an expansion of the words, “If a man be just’ and do that which is lawful and right” (Ezekiel 18:5). Righteousness consists in the fulfilment of the commandments of God’s law. It is conformity to a standard which is not arbitrary, but founded upon the nature of God Himself and His relations to mankind. But more particularly, righteousness consists—
I. In the proper discharge of religious duties. Those duties which more nearly concern God and His worship. They are laid down in the first Table of the Law. In this passage, they are described negatively as consisting, in general, in the avoidance of idolatry.
(1) In its grosser forms. Such as, “eating upon the mountains” (Ezekiel 18:6), i.e., observing the sacrificial festivals of the heathen gods and, therefore, sacrificing to idols (Deuteronomy 12:2, etc.). This was the chief transgression by outward acts against the law of Divine worship. There can be no true righteousness unless God is worshipped in purity and sincerity. But idolatry is also to be avoided,—
(2.) In its more refined forms. Some of the prophet’s countrymen could not degrade themselves so far as to join in outward acts of idolatrous worship. But the essential spirit of idolatry was in them. They “lifted up their eyes to the idols of the house of Israel” in the expectation of help from them, thus offering supplication to them and making them an object of trust. Israel had done this in times past, and was doing so still (Deuteronomy 4:19; Ezekiel 6:13). God will have no compromises or accommodations in the matter of His worship. He regards the direction of the heart, and we cannot escape His condemnation by merely avoiding the grosser forms of sin while we retain the abominable thing itself.
II. In the proper discharge of moral duties. Those which are concerned with the relations of men to one another. The moral law is the foundation of the peace and welfare of society—the bond which holds it together. The following principles underlie the moral duties insisted on here.
1. The principle of purity. That purity which consists in the proper control of the lusts of the flesh. “Neither hath defiled his neighbour’s wife” (Ezekiel 18:6). The marriage relation is to be held sacred. Sins against it tend to destroy the very foundations of society, make havoc of the peace of families, and are a fruitful source of many crimes and disorders. Sins of impurity pollute the mind, extinguish the better instincts of the mind and heart, and tend more than any other to drag a man down to the level of the brute. This principle of purity is to be observed within the marriage relation itself, “Neither hath come near to a menstruous woman” (Ezekiel 18:6). Conjugal intercourse with a wife during menstruation was forbidden by the law as a defilement of the marriage relation (Leviticus 18:19; Leviticus 20:18). Marriage was not to be regarded as giving the right to an unbridled licence of indulgence, but it was to be under the control of wholesome moral laws.
2. The principle of kindness. The righteous man is to abstain from all oppression, to spoil none by violence, to withhold the hand from every iniquity done against another (Ezekiel 18:7-8). But there must be also active goodness. “Hath given his bread to the hungry, and hath covered the naked with a garment” (Ezekiel 18:7). kindness is to be shown towards the unhappy and the unfortunate. We may claim the right to do what we like with our own, and the law of our nation may uphold us therein. But there is another law—the law of kindness within our hearts—that bids us spend our treasure for the good of our fellow men. We are just as much bound to do good to others as not to rob them, to reach forth the hand to help them as not to smite them with the fist of wickedness. God uses the righteous man as the means by which He manifests His own loving kindness to those who are in distress. And especially is kindness to be shown towards brethren—those who are of the same commonwealth and religion as ourselves. The Israelites were forbidden to take usury from their brethren on a loan of money, or “increase” on a loan of the necessaries of life (Leviticus 25:36-37). They were forbidden to exercise their full rights, even when a brother through poverty had sold himself into slavery. “Thou shalt not rule over him with rigour, but shalt fear thy God” (Leviticus 25:43).
3. The principle of mercy. The proper objects of kindness and pity are the unhappy and unfortunate: but the objects of mercy are the undeserving. Mercy is shown towards those who have no claim upon us. “Hath restored to the debtor his pledge” (Ezekiel 18:7). The godly man will not stand upon his rights to the real injury of another. The debtor has no claim upon us, and is, therefore, a proper object of our mercy.
4. The principle of justice. “Hath executed true judgment between man and man” (Ezekiel 18:8). In every dispute the righteous man, when appealed to, will give a judgment which is according to truth. “To deal truly,” lit. “to do truth,” i.e., to act with uprightness and sincerity (Psalms 51:6; 1 Corinthians 5:8, Ephesians 4:21).
III. In the practical recognition of the truth that all duties have reference to God. The Bible knows nothing of “independent morality.” “My statutes,” “My judgments” (Ezekiel 18:9). We are to practise all religious and moral duties because they are pleasing to God; they are according to His will. This doctrine saves religion from being degraded into a mere sentiment. True religion is devotion to a Living Person, obedience to a Living Will. It also saves morality from being regarded as founded solely upon utilitarianism. We are to love men and do our duty towards them for God’s sake.
I. Wherein this oppression consists.
1. In outreaching men in buying or selling. Men must neither sell too dear, nor buy too cheap; which is contrary to the practice of the world (Leviticus 25:14).
(1.) It is oppression when the buyer will wring a commodity out of his neighbour’s or brother’s hand, which he is unwilling to part withal. Ahab will have Naboth’s vineyard (1 Kings 22:0.)
(2.) When he makes advantage of the seller’s necessity. And so many monied men will furnish sellers and needy men with money, upon condition they may have such wares, such a house, such land, at an easier rate. Such advantage they made of them who were necessitated to mortgage their lands, vineyards, and houses for money to buy corn (Nehemiah 5:3).
(3.) When he disparageth the commodities of the seller (Proverbs 20:14).
2. In withholding that which is right and due to others (St. James 5:4; St. Luke 10:7; Leviticus 19:13; Malachi 3:5). If any withhold the portion of orphans, legacies given to the poor, the estates and rights of widows, they will lie under the censure of being oppressors.
3. In laying too heavy burdens and tasks upon others. The Egyptians oppressed the Israelites (Exodus 3:7). And many lay more upon their servants than they can well perform. They must be up early, fare hard, work hard, and be worn out before their time. And what is this but oppression in a high degree? Whereas the rule is, “Masters, give unto your servants that which is just and equal; knowing that ye also have a Master in heaven” (Colossians 4:1).
4. In preventing and delaying of justice and judgment. In this way the petitions and causes of widows, orphans and poor people cannot be heard (Isaiah 1:23). The fatherless and widows had no gifts, no bribes to give them; the rich had, and by that means justice was perverted, and judgment delayed (Amos 6:12). And this sin is reckoned amongst the mighty ones (Amos 5:12).
5. In imposing upon men’s consciences those things which are doubtful and disputable. When doctrines, worship, disciplines are imposed upon men’s consciences, which cannot clearly be made out to them, it is the height of oppression, and the ground-work of persecution. The Scribes and Pharisees taught for doctrines the commandments of men (St. Matthew 15:9); they laid grievous burdens upon men’s shoulders and hearts (St. Matthew 23:4). Whatever is done with doubting is of sin (Romans 14:23).
II.The evil of oppressing.
1. It is an unnatural evil. No creatures do oppress those of their own kind. But men most unnaturally prey upon one another; one man is a wolf to another (Ezekiel 22:27). Lions have spared men (Daniel 6:0); ravens fed men (1 Kings 17:0.); and yet one man seeks to eat up and devour another.
2. There is little fear of God in the hearts of those who oppress others. “Ye shall not oppress one another; but thou shalt fear thy God” (Leviticus 25:17). It is here intimated that, if they oppress, they do not fear God; if they fear God, they will not oppress; for “by the fear of the Lord men depart from evil” (Proverbs 16:6). The Jews oppressing one another is attributed to their not fearing God (Nehemiah 5:9).
3. It is against that great and common rule of equity (St. Matthew 7:12). St. Jerome calls this sentence of Christ “the summary of justice.”
4. It is a sin which greatly provokes God. Dreadful woes are denounced against it, and dreadful judgments upon those who are guilty of it (Micah 2:12; Habakkuk 2:12; Zephaniah 3:1; Jeremiah 22:13; Isaiah 10:1-3; Exodus 22:21-24). “But hath restored to the debtor his pledge,” etc. The Lord gave them laws concerning this (Exodus 22:26). They might not take the upper millstone, nor a widow’s garment, for pledges; and what they did take they were faithfully and speedily to return. Job complains of the wicked that they took the widow’s ox for a pledge, and the garments of the poor (Job 24:3; Job 24:9). “Hath spoiled none by violence.” Wicked men are said to “drink the wine of violence.” “They sleep not except they cause some to fall” (Proverbs 4:16-17). “He hath given his bread to the hungry, hath covered the naked with a garment.” This is the exercise of faith (Ecclesiastes 11:1). It makes a man to be of good report (Psalms 112:9). It is the special distinction of a good man (Psalms 112:1; Psalms 112:9). It is feeding of Christ (St. Matthew 25:35; Matthew 25:40). It is an honour to religion (St. James 1:27). It procures many a prayer and blessing (2 Corinthians 9:10; Job 29:13; 2 Timothy 1:16). It makes like unto God (St. Luke 6:36). It is lending to the Lord (Proverbs 19:17). It is pleasing and acceptable to God (Acts 10:0; Hebrews 13:16).—Greenhill.
EXEGETICAL NOTES—Two cases are here supposed:
(1). That of a righteous father who begets an unrighteous son.
(2). That of a righteous son who refuses to copy the evil example of his father. And the prophet affirms that, in the former case, the righteousness of the father will not avail to save the son; and in the latter, that the son shall not suffer for the unrighteousness of his father. One shall not die for the iniquity of the other. Each man shall save his own soul by his righteousness.
Ezekiel 18:10-13. “We have here the case of an impious son, who, instead of following the good example of his pious parent, adopts a course directly the reverse, and unscrupulously indulges in crimes condemned by the law. Upon him an unmitigated sentence is pronounced. In the language of the Orientals, the blood which a murderer has shed is said to be upon him, till it be avenged by his punishment.”—(Henderson).
Ezekiel 18:14-18. “This case is likewise that of a son, not, like the former, of a righteous man, but of the unrighteous person whose character has just been depicted. This son is supposed to be shocked at the sight of his father’s depravity, and to be influenced, by a due regard to the consequences, to avoid the sins which his parent had committed. It is expressly declared that he should not be punished for the crimes of his father, but that the father only, being the guilty party, should suffer.”—(Henderson).
Ezekiel 18:17. “Hath taken off His hand from the poor.” This is to be understood in a good sense—to turn back the hand, i.e., from oppressing the poor. He withdraws the hand that was tempted to exact the full legal claim.
THE LAW OF THE UNRIGHTEOUS AND OF THE RIGHTEOUS SON (Ezekiel 18:10-20)
The two cases here supposed show that—
I. The best examples of righteousness may fail of their proper effects. The righteous father may have an unrighteous son. The life of such a father must have a native power and influence for good. He would study to bring up his son in the way of righteousness. Yet his example and instruction may altogether fail. The religious histories of the families of good men afford many a sad illustration of the truth that grace does not run in the blood. The power of evil may be stronger than the best influences on the side of good.
II. An evil example may be effectual as a warning. Where a good example fails, an evil example may succeed in turning another to righteousness. But for this salutary effect it is necessary—
1. That the real evil of the example may be recognised. “A son that seeth all his father’s sins which he hath done” (Ezekiel 18:14) sees them in their vile nature, in their evil consequences, and as sins against God. Then such evil examples become like a beacon to the voyager. They act as a warning. The evil of sin must be seen as such in order to be dreaded and avoided. It is also necessary—
2. That the sight of evil examples should produce serious thought. “And considereth and doeth not such like” (Ezekiel 18:14) In most cases, evil examples act like a contagion. But if we seriously consider, they reveal to us the sad effects of sin, and we turn our feet to God’s testimonies. We learn not to do such like things. Thus the sin of another may instruct us in righteousness.
III. That righteousness is a matter of personal responsibility. The righteous son shall not be punished for the unrighteousness of his father, nor the righteous father for the unrighteousness of his son (Ezekiel 18:20). Righteousness is not like property, family name or title, the secure and necessary heritage of children. It is a matter between the individual soul and God. The exceptions to this law of God’s righteous dealing are only apparent. Godly men share in the general calamities sent upon nations, children suffer many evils from the iniquity of their fathers; but none of these are on that account deprived of God’s favour. These judgments in the case of the righteous act as a discipline of piety. Such afflictions are turned into blessings.
I. The nature of consideration.
1. It is an exercise of the understanding, mind, and heart. These are at work in consideration (Psalms 119:59). This is called communing with a man’s own heart (Psalms 77:6).
2. Serious. It is not a slight general thinking of a thing, but a serious, settled minding of a thing; it notes the sinking down of a thing into our minds. “I considered in my heart” (Ecclesiastes 9:1); Hebrew is, I set it to my heart. Consideration is as setting the heart to a thing, or upon a thing, as a bee sets upon a flower, and sets her strength to it to draw out the sweet in it.
3. It is about things to be done, or not to be done. Contemplation looks upon things as the eye upon the object. Judgment discerns the things whether good or bad, right or wrong, and there leaves them, having pronounced them so. Meditation is a further inquisition into truth, and comes up nearest to consideration which is in order to doing or not doing. Men intend this and that, and oft fall upon things rashly to their prejudice, because they consider not; now consideration reflects upon things intended. The two sons in the Gospel, one said, I will go, and went not; the other said, I will not go, and went. The one’s purpose was to go, the other’s not to go; but this last, considering of his sinful purpose, intention, and resolution, repented, and went (St. Matthew 21:0.) It is taken up about doing, or not doing (Proverbs 23:1-2; 1 Samuel 25:17; Judges 18:14). David considered his ways, and, not finding them good, he ceased from walking any longer in them; and seeing God’s ways the only good ways, he turned about, stepped into, and walked in them.
II. Wherein the strength of it lieth.
1. In searching out the causes, effects, rising, progress, continuance, and issue of a thing.
2. In comparing things together and so drawing up that which may be most useful. When all things are laid together, weighed, scanned over again and again, a man takes that which is most necessary, seasonable, suitable, and useful.
3. In pressing to and assisting the soul in acting. When consideration hath drawn up what is to be done, or not to be done, then it puts upon the conscience as sinful, if not followed, and directs in the execution. Consideration lays an injunction upon men’s wills and consciences to be doing. Did men in these days wisely consider the Lord’s doings, they would fear, and declare the work of the Lord.
III. The excellency of it.
1. It is that which God Himself doth (Proverbs 24:12). The Lord considers, ponders, and weighs things, according to the language of Scripture (Exodus 33:13; Proverbs 5:21; Deuteronomy 32:26-27; Hosea 11:8-9).
2. It differeth a man from brutes. They are led by sense, and cannot distinguish whether an action ought to be done or not. This is man’s privilege and power. But some are guided only by their senses. “Every man is brutish in his knowledge” (Jeremiah 10:14). Men do not reflect upon their actions and consider them; if they did, they would not be so sensual, so sinful (Isaiah 1:3).
3. It enables the understanding, completes a man, makes him wise and prudential (Proverbs 17:27). He who considers what advantage may be made of words, and therefore is sparing in speaking, shows the more understanding and excellency of spirit. Consideration looks inward, looks over the same thing again and again. We say, second thoughts are best, which implies that consideration ripens and perfects the man and his actions.
4. It puts life into those principles and talents God hath given a man. Like a drum in an army, that when it beats all stir and march; like a spring in a watch, when that goes all the wheels go. Did men consider what graces and gifts God hath given them, they would not let them lie still and fallow, but improve them. Consideration will set other’s graces on work, and much more a man’s own (Hebrews 10:24).—(Greenhill.)
EXEGETICAL NOTES.—The ways of life and death are here for all set forth. A man’s own sins even, provided they are forsaken, will not exclude him from salvation. “The proof that every one must bear his sin did not contain an exhaustive reply to the question—in what relation the righteousness of God stood to the sin of man? For the cases supposed in Ezekiel 18:5-20 took for granted that there was a constant persistence in the course once taken, and overlooked the instances, which are by no means rare, when a man’s course of life is entirely changed. It still remained, therefore, to take notice of such cases as these, and they are handled in Ezekiel 18:21-26. The ungodly man who repents and turns, shall live; and the righteous man, who turns to the way of sin, shall die.”—(Keil.)
Ezekiel 18:21. “But if the wicked will turn.” This was the real point of the controversy. God deals with each man as one who is capable of renouncing evil and choosing good, i.e., He deals with each individual as a moral being.
Ezekiel 18:22. “They shall not be mentioned unto Him.” They shall not be remembered against him (Jeremiah 31:34). The guilt is blotted out of remembrance, though for the purposes of a salutary discipline the chastisements of God may be allowed to continue (Hebrews 12:10; 2 Samuel 12:13-14), “In his righteousness that he hath done he shall live” Not, for his righteousness, as if that is to be regarded as the procuring cause of his acceptance; but in it, righteousness being regarded as the fruit of his true conversion (Ezekiel 20:11).
Ezekiel 18:23. “Have I any pleasure at all that the wicked should die?” God had declared even that concerning the sacrificial victims He “had no pleasure in them.” (Psalms 40:6). He had no absolute and final pleasure in them, for they were ordained only to shadow forth the one sacrifice for sin. The providing of that sacrifice would be the highest proof that God willed not the death of the sinner. “The motive for the pardon of the repenting sinner is here given, in the declaration that God has no pleasure in the death of the wicked man, but desires his conversion, that he may live. God is therefore not only just, but merciful and gracious, and punishes none with death but those who either will not desist from evil, or will not persevere in the way of His commandments. Consequently the complaint, that the way of the Lord, i.e., His conduct toward men, is not weighed, i.e., is not just and right, is altogether unfounded, and recoils upon those who make it. It is not God’s ways, but the sinner’s that are wrong.”—(Keil).
Ezekiel 18:24. “In his trespass.” Referring to his present condition, which determines his real state. He “hath trespassed,”and is therefore still “in his trespass.”
Ezekiel 18:25. “Yet ye say, the way of the Lord is not equal.” They affirmed that God worked by no regular and uniform law or method. They repeat the charge in Ezekiel 18:2, complaining that some were punished while others were spared, and hence they regarded the way of God as marked by caprice and not the result of a just law of working. “Your ways.” The prophet is continually urging his hearers to reflect and consider their “own ways” (Ezekiel 16:61; Ezekiel 20:43; Ezekiel 36:31).
Ezekiel 18:26. “And dieth in them.” Heb. “Dieth upon them.” They are the footing upon which he stands when he is called to appear before God.
THE EQUITY OF GOD’S GOVERNMENT
The unbelievers still imprudently contended that God’s ways were not equal, though the contrary had been declared by the mouth of the prophet. The equity of God’s dealings is re-asserted, and fresh instances and considerations are given by way of proof.
I. The case of the repentant sinner. He is dealt with not on the score of his past transgressions, but on the ground of his new obedience. When the sinner forsakes his way, the mercy of God steps in and accepts his repentance.
1. Repentance, of itself, has no efficacy to procure pardon. Whatever it might do to set us right in the future, it could not possibly undo the past. For that we should still have to reckon.
2. Repentance is accepted through the mercy of God. God is willing to forget the past and to receive the sinner. The pardon of sin is a special revelation, for nature teaches no doctrine of the forgiveness of sins. We transgress her laws and we are punished. We are not excused on the ground of ignorance. But God in His mercy accepts a genuine repentance. He will not punish the righteous man for his father’s sins; and will not even remember against a man his own sins, if he repents. “Scripture represents forgiveness as the result, not of repentance, but of the death of Christ, ‘in whom we have redemption through His blood, even the forgiveness of our sins,’ repentance being essential, not to the efficacy of His death, but to the appropriation of the benefits secured by it. Even if repentance, however, could save us, natural religion is unable to produce it. It is, in the evangelical true meaning of the term, such sorrow for sin as flows from a sense of the love and reverence due to God, and of the heinousness of sin against Him. The sorrow of the world is no such feeling. It is, on the contrary, blended with fears and impressions which make it impossible to love God or draw near to Him.”—(Angus).
II. The case of the man, once righteous, who abandons his righteous course. Such a man in his backsliding will not be supported by his early righteousness. It can have no merit to weigh against his faults. The integrity of the past cannot save him. Each man will be judged by himself, and in that state in which he is found.
III. God’s motive in granting pardon to the repentant transgressor. “Have I any pleasure at all that the wicked should die? saith the Lord God, and not that he should return from his ways, and live?” (Ezekiel 18:23). It is the pleasure of God that man should live and not die. God is not only just, but also merciful and gracious. He punishes none with death but those who will not abandon their sins, or who will not persevere in the way of His commandments.
IV. God only requires from man what is just and reasonable. It is surely just to render Him obedience, and to repent of our sin when we have wronged Him. We ought to be ready to accept what is offered to us through His mercy. Thus the complaint of these sinners against God was altogether unfounded, and only recoiled upon their own heads. And it is only just that repentance should be thorough. The unrighteous man must forsake “all” his sins (Ezekiel 18:21), making no reservation in favour of “heart-idols” (Ezekiel 14:4). The will must be subdued “if the wicked man will turn from all his sins,” etc. Thus it is not God’s ways, but the sinner’s, that are wrong, for God shows, in all His dealings with man, His abhorrence of sin and His love of righteousness.
REPENTANCE NOT EFFICACIOUS
We do not know what the whole natural or appointed consequences of vice are; nor in what way they would follow, if not prevented, and therefore can in no sort say, whether we could do anything which would be sufficient to prevent them. Our ignorance being thus manifest, let us recollect the analogy of Nature or Providence. For though this may be but a slight ground to raise a positive opinion in this matter, yet it is sufficient to answer a mere arbitrary assertion, without any kind of evidence, urged by way of objection against a doctrine, the proof of which is not reason, but revelation. Consider then: people ruin their fortunes by extravagance; they bring diseases upon themselves by excess; they incur the penalties of civil laws; and surely civil government is natural; will sorrow for these follies past, and behaving well for the future, alone and of itself, prevent the natural consequences of them? On the contrary, men’s natural abilities of helping themselves are often impaired; or if not, yet they are forced to be beholden to the assistance of others, upon several accounts, and in different ways; assistance which they would have no occasion for, had it not been for their misconduct; but which, in the disadvantageous condition they have reduced themselves to, is absolutely necessary to their recovery, and retrieving their affairs. Now, since this is our case, considering ourselves merely as inhabitants of this world, and as having a temporal interest here, under the natural government of God, which, however, has a great deal moral in it; why is it not supposable that this may be our case also; in our more important capacity, as under His perfect moral government, and having a more general and future interest depending? If we have misbehaved in this higher capacity, and rendered ourselves obnoxious to the future punishment which God has annexed to vice, it is plainly credible that, behaving well for the time to come may be—not useless; God forbid!—but wholly insufficient, alone and of itself, to prevent that punishment; or to put us in the condition which we should have been in had we preserved our innocence. And though the efficacy of repentance itself alone, to prevent what mankind had rendered themselves obnoxious to, and recover what they had forfeited, is now insisted upon, in opposition to Christianity; yet, by the general prevalence of propitiatory sacrifices over the heathen world, this notion of repentance alone being sufficient to expiate guilt, appears to be contrary to the general sense of mankind. The great doctrines of a future state, the danger of a course of wickedness, and the efficacy of repentance, are not only confirmed in the Gospel, but are taught—especially the last is—with a degree of light to which that of nature is but darkness.—Butler’s Analogy.
Some may fancy, from some expressions used in this chapter, that the prophet is laying down a new law of God’s dealings, as though the Almighty had been acting up to that time upon a certain principle, and now, hence-forward, He were about to act upon a new and different principle. It is easy to put the subject in such a light that all difficulty will vanish. This is one end I have in view. But I have the further end of drawing from the subject some useful thoughts with respect to God’s government in the world in these our days, and our own duties as creatures living under a government which at present we cannot wholly understand. The Jews complained of the law under which they lived as unjust; because it spoke of the sins of the father being visited upon the children: they used this proverb, “that the fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” The punishment which ought to have fallen upon the father fell upon his guiltless children. They complained that God’s ways were not equal, not fair, not righteous. It was not as a mere piece of philosophical speculation that they held this language. There was a practical consequence belonging to the spread of the proverb of the sour grapes, which was of the highest importance. It was not a few unbelieving, acute, clever students of the law, who had detected this injustice in it. Had it been so, probably the prophet Ezekiel would not have made the discovery the subject of a general address; no, the thing had passed into a proverb, it was in the mouth of the people at large, and the practical consequence was that it held back the people from thinking of their sins which had brought them into trouble; and from repenting of those sins. Instead of this they would look upon themselves as victims of an unjust law—as persecuted rather than punished. The good effect of any punishment depends very much upon the criminal himself feeling and admitting that he is punished justly. Let a man feel this, and he may be led to sorrow and good resolutions for the time to come. But if he fancies that the law is in fault and not himself, that he is an injured man—the victim of cruel legislation—then punishment may make him sullen and obstinate, but it can never make him sorry for his fault. This was just the case with the Jews. They were punished for not keeping God’s law. Ezekiel would have them see in their punishment the result of their own sins; would endeavour to lead them to that “Godly sorrow” which works repentance: but the devil, and those amongst men who did the devil’s work, had a different version of the history. According to them, the law which the priests and prophets would fasten upon them was an unjust law, one which did not deserve their obedience. They would argue that from its own principles the people were not in need of repentance, for the law spoke of children suffering for their father’s sins, and who could say but that this very chastisement might be the punishment of sins committed long ago? Who could say but that their teeth were being set on edge, because their fathers had eaten sour grapes many years before?
It is clear that the proverb had a very direct bearing upon the conduct of the people. If the proverb generally found favour in their eyes, then it was of no use that Ezekiel should talk of sin and its punishment, and the need of repentance. Therefore Ezekiel protested against the proverb as wicked and profane; and he lays down the great truth which should destroy the effect of the lying proverb, that of the necessary punishment of sin: “the soul that sinneth it shall die.” That was the truth which God had told man when He first made him, and the truth of all religion in all times.
Let us see what ground the Jews had to stand upon their proverb. It is evident that there was something which gave it colour and likelihood. Satan, as we know, can quote Scripture for his purpose, and Satan might have made a very good Scriptural defence of this proverb of the sour grapes. “I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, and visit the sins of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate Me, and shew mercy unto thousands in them that love Me and keep My commandments.” Now, the Jews might say that their proverb only expressed as much as this passage. And it is to be observed, that the passage sets forth the mercy of God, because the three or four generations over which His curse extends are contrasted with the thousands to which He shews His love. The Jews might answer that still it did contain the principle of children suffering for sins which they had not committed, that this was unjust, and that it was no qualification of the injustice to say that in a vast number of instances children received rewards for good deeds which not they but their fathers had done. Now, how is this to be met? It is quite clear that the commandment does recognise the principle of the proverb, and that the people were smarting under it. The punishment which fell upon them was the result of a long course of national wickedness and idolatry, not the consequence of sins committed in their time only. How can we meet the objection and vindicate God’s ways?
There were two mistakes in the view which the Jews took when they used the proverb.
(1.) They took the expressions of God’s law to mean, not that the character of sin was such that it sometimes extended beyond the actual doer of it, and brought grief upon others besides himself, but that it brought grief upon others instead of himself; as though when Adam sinned he had not brought death upon himself and his posterity, but had brought it upon his posterity and not upon himself. They would have it that the children alone suffered for what their fathers had done.
(2.) The other error was this, that they seemed to have taken for granted that they were fair judges as to who was punished and who not. They assumed that the fathers had not suffered for the sour grapes which they had eaten; whereas they were manifestly not sufficient judges as to what amount of punishment had been meted out, or would be meted out to different men. The apparent prosperity of vice, and the apparent suffering of goodness and virtue, have always been difficult to understand. David found the difficulty in his day, and could not overcome it until he went into the sanctuary of God. Then it was that he was able to take a higher view of God’s dealings with mankind, and so to understand the end of those men whose prosperity had so much astonished him. Ezekiel did not meet the proverb by telling the Jews that in future things should be ordered differently. He asserts the justice of God’s ways, but he gives them a new truth to reflect upon, a truth not inconsistent with the principle asserted in the Second Commandment, but which must needs be borne in mind to guard against the perversion of that principle. Ezekiel asserts the truth which God spoke to Adam in the days of his purity—“In the day that thou eatest thou shalt die!” That was the great practical truth upon which every human soul stood before God. God sends us all into the world with a conscience to tell us what is right and what is wrong, with certain commands to keep, a certain path to walk in; and He says to us all, “do these things that your soul may live.” He may say to us at the same time, do these things that it may be well with you, and with your children after you; but whether this be said or not, still the responsibility for his own actions lies on the head of each man: if he sins, he dies; and no wrath which he may bring upon his children can save him from the consequences of his own sin. God did not say to Adam, if you disobey you will bring death upon your children; He only said—“In the day that thou sinnest, thou shalt die.” Yet, though the consequence was not threatened the consequence came, and Adam’s sin, which was to bring death to himself, brought death to his posterity besides. Ezekiel was not introducing any new principle of government, he was only asserting a principle as old as the creation. What he wished the people to believe was this—that although it had been held out as a warning against disobedience and an encouragement to obedience, that those who sinned were bringing in a curse which would affect others besides themselves, and that contrariwise those who were holy and good were bringing a blessing down upon their children, still this was not supposed to be in opposition to the great law of every man standing or falling by his own deeds, being “judged by the things done in the body, whether good or bad.” There followed at once this practical consequence, that when they found themselves suffering under God’s judgments they were not to speculate as to what sin it was of their fathers which had brought this grief upon them, but they were to look into their own hearts and examine their own conduct. Ezekiel would say to them, “Do not look to your fathers, but look to yourselves: you say that they sinned, and you are suffering for it; well, but think whether you do not deserve to suffer? Are you really better than your fathers? Have you no sins to repent of, no idolatry to forsake, no ungodliness to make you ashamed?” “Indeed,” he might go on to say, “is not this itself a sufficient proof of the wicked state of your hearts, that you venture to attribute unrighteousness to God? You say that the ways of the Lord are not equal, but may it not be that His ways seem unequal just because your own are not equal themselves? The ways of God seem to you dark and confused, but may not the defect be in your own eyes?” He would assure them that, whatever unworthy thoughts Satan might put in their minds, yet certainly God loved them and had no pleasure in their death. “Make you a new heart, and a new spirit: for why will ye die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of him that dieth, saith the Lord God, wherefore turn yourselves and live ye.” Those words would cut through all the speculative doubts of God’s justice which the devil had raised; they would put religion upon the true practical ground of trusting in God’s love, and therefore obeying His commands; and they would encourage men to walk in the narrow path of duty, leaving all difficulties to be solved by those wise words of Abraham, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?”
There is something repugnant to our idea of justice in the law that the sins of the fathers should be visited upon the children. But this principle was not all peculiar to the Jewish law. It is manifestly the principle upon which the world is governed. We see numberless instances in which, as a matter of fact, the son does suffer for what the father has done amiss. We say, “Of course it is so, it cannot be otherwise.” Yes; but why of course? Why must it be so? Why cannot it be otherwise? And how comes it that we are linked together in such a mysterious manner, that we cannot help being affected by those over whom we have no control? Do you not see that this is God’s doing? We may call it natural, or necessary, but after all it is the Lord’s doing, however wonderful it may be in our eyes. And yet, when we see this law of God’s government we see nothing to surprise us, because we cannot imagine it otherwise. And we do not find that persons have any difficulty in practice because they suffer for their parent’s faults. No one thinks it necessary to be idle and to starve, because his father was idle before him. No one doubts but that he has his own work to do, his own food to seek, his own soul to save, and that if his father forgot his duty, that is the very best warning to him not to do the like. And what follows? why this: that the same way of looking upon our condition here is to be applied in all cases. God did not put us here to explain difficulties, but to work out our salvation. God does not require us to shew how all His doings are the best and wisest that could be, but He requires us to do His will. Of all things that we have to learn, this is one of the chief and greatest, that our life here is to be a scene of active work. We are encompassed with mystery, above, below, and around us, and there is much in this world which our philosophy can never reach. God’s ways are too deep to fathom, too large to measure. And who does not conclude that in the meanwhile he has great positive duties to fulfil, which no speculative difficulties can prevent him from fulfilling? “The soul that sinneth it shall die,” though it was proved by the fall of Adam, was still more strikingly proved by the death of the spotless Lamb of God, the great offering for sin; and the truth that God wills not the death of a sinner, was then proved in the most wonderful manner when God spared not His only Son that He might be able to pardon those who repent of their sins. The Old Testament denunciation, “the wages of sin is death,” has this New Testament addition made to it, “but the gift of God is eternal life, through Jesus Christ our Lord.”—Goodwin’s “Parish Sermons.”
EXEGETICAL NOTES.—Ezekiel 18:29. “Are not your ways unequal?” “They asserted (Ezekiel 18:25) that the ways of God were not right—properly, not weighed in the balance of righteousness (Job 21:6)—but regulated by caprice. This assertion proceeded from defective consciousness of sin, that could find no other key to suffering than this, that it was decreed unrighteously, on account of the sins of the fathers. The prophet points to this, that the guilt lies on their side. If they only sincerely return to God, they will no more have cause to complain of Him.”—Hengstenberg.
Ezekiel 18:30. “Therefore I will judge you.” “Therefore, because my way, and not yours, is right, I will judge you, every one according to his way. Repent, therefore, if ye would escape from death and destruction.”—Keil.
Ezekiel 18:31. “Make you a new heart and a new spirit.” “A man cannot, indeed, create either of these by his own power; God alone can give them (Ezekiel 11:19). But a man can and should come to God to receive them: in other words, he can turn to God, and let both heart and spirit be renewed by the spirit of God.”—Keil.
AN ERANEST CALL TO REPENTANCE (Ezekiel 18:27-32)
The prophet would not content himself merely with vindicating the ways of God, and thus silencing his adversaries. His design was not to refute, but to save them. Hence he renews the call to repentance, and strengthens that call by several considerations.
I. A genuine repentance will be accepted. When a man considers and turns from his evil ways, and practises righteousness, God promises him life (Ezekiel 18:27). But—
1. The repentance must be complete. Mere outward reformation will not suffice. There must be no retaining of a few cherished sins. “All your transgressions” (Ezekiel 18:3).
2. Repentance must have special regard to their chief sins. They are to “cast away” all their transgressions. This expression is used because their chief sin was the worship of idols. When the chief sin is conquered, the victory over the rest is easy.
II. God’s judgment against impenitent sinners is sure. God will not change, and therefore man must, if he would escape destruction. It is men’s ways that are unequal. The prophet cuts short the controversy with a “therefore.” For the rule of God is invariable, and, therefore, they must decide whether it shall operate for, or against them. The sinner who persists in his impenitence is sure to be brought to ruin (Ezekiel 18:30).
III. God would supply them with the necessary strength for the life of righteousness. “Make you a new heart and a new spirit” (Ezekiel 18:31). Such a command to change themselves into a new nature, coming, as it does, from God, carries the gift of a new power. For God does not give to man impossible commands. There is something still for us to do, but the provisions and strength for our duty are supplied to us. The new man is “created after God’s likeness,” but believers are commanded to “put it on” (Ephesians 4:24). When Jesus called on the paralytic man to “arise and walk;” and said to the deaf man, “Be thou opened,” with the command He gave the power to perform it.
IV. God’s will and purpose are on the side of the repentant sinner. God is not a mere judge or monarch whose only care is to see that the law is outwardly obeyed, and that transgressors are punished. He is a loving Father, who mourns over the transgressions of His children and longs for their return to the privileges of their true home. He has no pleasure in their death. The sinner must charge himself with his own ruin. Surely the voice of the tenderest compassion is in the question, “For why will ye die, O house of Israel?”
If anyone feels—I am fallen very low in the world—here all has been so much against me—my parents were the ruin of me—let him remember this one word of Ezekiel, “Have I any pleasure at all that the wicked should die? saith the Lord God: and not that he should return from his ways and live?” Let him turn from his father’s evil ways, and do that which is lawful and right, and then he can say with the Prophet, in answer to all the strokes of fortune and the miseries of circumstance, “Rejoice not against me, O mine enemy: when I fall I shall arise.” Provided he will remember that God requires of all men something, which is. to be as good as they can be; then he may remember also that our Lord Himself says, “Unto to whomsoever much is given, of him shall much be required.” God’s ways are not unequal. He has one equal, fair, and just rule for every human being; and that is perfect understanding, perfect sympathy, perfect goodwill, and therefore perfect justice and perfect love. And if any one answers in his heart—these are good words, and all very well, but they come too late. I am too far gone. I ate the sour grapes in my youth, and my teeth must be set on edge for ever and ever. I have been a bad man, or I have been a foolish woman too many years to mend now. I am down, and down I must be. I have made my bed, and I must lie on it, and die on it, too. Whoever you are who says that, unsay it again, for it is not true. Ezekiel tells you that it is not true, and one greater than Ezekiel—Jesus Christ, your Saviour, your Lord, your God, tells you that it is not true. For what happens, by God’s eternal and unchangeable laws of retribution, to a whole nation, or a whole family, may happen to you—to each individual man. They fall by sin; they rise again by repentance and amendment. They may rise punished by their sins, and punished for a long time, heavily weighted by the consequences of their own folly, and heavily weighted for a long time. But they rise—they enter into their own new life weak and wounded from their own fault. But they enter in. And from that day things begin to mend—the weather begins to clear, the soil begins to yield again—punishment gradually ceases when it has done its work, the weight lightens, the wounds heal, the weakness strengthens, and by God’s grace within them, and by God’s providence outside them, they are made men of again, and saved. So you will surely find it in the experience of life. No doubt, in general, in most cases, “the child is father of the man” for good and evil. A pious and virtuous youth helps, by sure laws of God, towards a pious and virtuous old age. And on the other hand, an ungodly and profligate youth leads, by the same laws, toward an ungodly and profitable old age. That is the law. But there is another law which may stop that law—just as the stone falls to the ground by the natural law of weight; and yet you may stop that law by using the law of bodily strength, and holding it up in your hand. And what is the gracious law, which will save you from the terrible law which will make you go on from worse? It is this—“When the wicked man turneth away from his wickedness that he hath committed, and doeth that which is lawful and right, he shall save his soul alive.” It is not said that his soul shall come in a moment to perfect health and strength. No. There are old, bad habits to be got rid of, old ties to be broken, old debts (often worse debts than any money debts) to be paid. But he shall save his soul alive. His soul shall not die of its disease. It shall be saved. It shall come to life, and gradually mend and be cured, and grow from strength to strength, as a sick man mends day-by-day, after a deadly illness—slowly it may be, but surely: for how can you fail of being cured if your physician is none other than Jesus Christ your Lord and your God. If you will but recollect that last word, you will never despair. How dare any man say—Bad I am, and bad I must remain—while the God who made heaven and earth offers to make you good? Who dare say, I cannot amend, when God Himself offers to amend you? Who dare say, I have no strength to amend, when God offers to give you strength, strength of His strength, and life of His life, even His Holy Spirit? Who dare say, God has given me up; He has a grudge against me which He will not lay by, an anger against me which cannot be appeased, a score against me which will never be wiped out of His book? Oh foolish and faint-hearted soul. Look, look at Christ hanging on His cross, and see there what God’s grudge, God’s anger, God’s score of your sins is like. Love, love unspeakable, and nothing else. To wash out your sins, He spared not His only-begotten Son, but freely gave Him for you, to show you that God, so far from hating you, has loved you; that so far from being your enemy, He was your father; that so far from willing the death of a sinner, He willed that you and every sinner should turn from his wickedness and live. Now, even if you suffer somewhat in this life for your sins, that suffering is not punishment, but wholesome chastisement; as when a father chastens the son in whom he delighteth. Say not—I must be as I am—when Christ died that you should not be as you are. Say not—there is no hope—when Christ died and rose again, and reigns for ever, to give hope to you and all mankind, that when the wicked man turns away from the wickedness that he hath committed, and doeth that which is lawful and right, he shall save his soul alive, and all his transgressions shall not be mentioned unto him, but in his righteousness that he hath done shall he live.—(“All saint’s Day and other Sermons,” by C. Kingsley.)
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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on Ezekiel 18". Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 8 / Ordinary 13