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Thursday, November 30th, 2023
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Bible Commentaries
Ezekiel 18

The Expositor's Bible CommentaryThe Expositor's Bible Commentary

Verses 1-32


IN the sixteenth chapter, as we have seen, Ezekiel has asserted in the most unqualified terms the validity of the principle of national retribution. The nation is dealt with as a moral unit, and the catastrophe which closes its history is the punishment for the accumulated guilt incurred by the past generations. In the eighteenth chapter he teaches still more explicitly the freedom and the independent responsibility of each individual before God. No attempt is made to reconcile the two principles as methods of the divine government; from the prophet’s standpoint they do not require to be reconciled. They belong to different dispensations. So long as the Jewish state existed the principle of solidarity remained in force. Men suffered for the sins of their ancestors; individuals shared the punishment incurred by the nation as a whole. But as soon as the nation is dead, when the bonds that unite men in the organism of national life are dissolved, then the idea of individual responsibility comes into immediate operation. Each Israelite stands isolated before Jehovah, the burden of hereditary guilt falls away from him, and he is free to determine his own relation to God. He need not fear that the iniquity of his fathers will be reckoned against him; he is held accountable only for his own sins, and these can be forgiven on the condition of his own repentance.

The doctrine of this chapter is generally regarded as Ezekiel’s most characteristic contribution to theology. It might be nearer the truth to say that he is dealing with one of the great religious problems of the age in which he lived. The difficulty was perceived by Jeremiah, and treated in a manner which shows that his thoughts were being led in the same direction as those of Ezekiel. {Jeremiah 31:29-30} If in any respect the teaching of Ezekiel makes an advance on that of Jeremiah, it is in his application of the new truth to the duty of the present: and even here the difference is more apparent than real. Jeremiah postpones the introduction of personal religion to the future, regarding it as an ideal to be realised in the Messianic age. His own life and that of his contemporaries was bound up with the old dispensation which was passing away, and he knew that he was destined to share the fate of his people. Ezekiel, on the other hand, lives already under the powers of the world to come. The one hindrance to the perfect manifestation of Jehovah’s righteousness has been removed by the destruction of Jerusalem, and henceforward it will be made apparent in the correspondence between the desert and the fate of each individual. The new Israel must be organised on the basis of personal religion, and the time has already come when the task of preparing the religious community of the future must be earnestly taken up. Hence the doctrine of individual responsibility has a peculiar and practical importance in the mission of Ezekiel. The call to repentance, which is the keynote of his ministry, is addressed to individual men, and in order that it may take effect their minds must be disabused of all fatalistic preconceptions which would induce paralysis of the moral faculties. It was necessary to affirm in all their breadth and fulness the two fundamental truths of personal religion-the absolute righteousness of God’s dealings with individual men, and His readiness to welcome and pardon the penitent.

The eighteenth chapter falls accordingly into two divisions. In the first the prophet sets the individual’s immediate relation to God against the idea that guilt is transmitted from father to children (Ezekiel 18:2-20). In the second he tries to dispel the notion that a man’s fate is so determined by his own past life as to make a change of moral condition impossible (Ezekiel 18:21-32).


It is noteworthy that both Jeremiah and Ezekiel, in dealing with the question of retribution, start from a popular proverb which had gained currency in the later years of the kingdom of Judah: "The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge." In whatever spirit this saying may have been first coined, there is no doubt that it had come to be used as a witticism at the expense of Providence. It indicates that influences were at work besides the word of prophecy which tended to undermine men’s faith in the current conception of the divine government. The doctrine of transmitted guilt was accepted as a fact of experience, but it no longer satisfied the deeper moral instincts of men. In early Israel it was otherwise. There the idea that the son should bear the iniquity of the father was received without challenge and applied without misgiving in judicial procedure. The whole family of Achan perished for the sin of their father; the sons of Saul expiated their father’s crime long after he was dead. These are indeed but isolated facts, yet they are sufficient to prove the ascendency of the antique conception of the tribe or family as a unit whose individual members are involved in the guilt of the head. With the spread of purer ethical ideas among the people there came a deeper sense of the value of the individual life, and at a later time the principle of vicarious punishment was banished from the administration of human justice. {cf. 2 Kings 14:6 with Deuteronomy 24:16} Within that sphere the principle was firmly established that each man shall be put to death for his own sin. But the motives which made this change intelligible and necessary in purely human relations could not be brought to bear immediately on the question of divine retribution. The righteousness of God was thought to act on different lines from the righteousness of man. The experience of the last generation of the state seemed to furnish fresh evidence of the operation of a law of providence by which men were made to inherit the iniquity of their fathers. The literature of the period is filled with the conviction that it was the sins of Manasseh that had sealed the doom of the nation. These sins had never been adequately punished, and subsequent events showed that they were not forgiven. The reforming zeal of Josiah had postponed for a time the final visitation of Jehovah’s anger; but no reformation and no repentance could avail to roll back the flood of judgment that had been set in motion by the crimes of the reign of Manasseh. "Notwithstanding Jehovah turned not from the fierceness of His great wrath, wherewith His anger was kindled against Judah, because of all the provocations that Manasseh had provoked Him withal". {2 Kings 23:26}

The proverb about the sour grapes shows the effect of this interpretation of providence on a large section of the people. It means no doubt that there is an irrational element in God’s method of dealing with men, something not in harmony with natural laws. In the natural sphere if a man eats sour grapes his own teeth are blunted or set on edge; the consequences are immediate, and they are transitory. But in the moral sphere a man may eat sour grapes all his life and suffer no evil consequences whatever; the consequences, however, appear in his children who have committed no such indiscretion. There is nothing there which answers to the ordinary sense of justice. Yet the proverb appears to be less an arraignment of the divine righteousness than a mode of self-exculpation on the part of the people. It expresses the fatalism and despair which settled down on the minds of that generation when they realised the full extent of the calamity that had overtaken them: "If our transgressions and our sins be upon us, and we pine away in them, how then should we live?". {Ezekiel 33:10} So the exiles reasoned in Babylon, where they were in no mood for quoting facetious proverbs about the ways of Providence; but they accurately expressed the sense of the adage that had been current in Jerusalem before its fall. The sins for which they suffered were not their own, and the judgment that lay on them was no summons to repentance, for it was caused by sins of which they were not guilty and for which they could not in any real sense repent.

Ezekiel attacks this popular theory of retribution at what must have been regarded as its strongest point-the relation between the father and son. "Why should the son not bear the iniquity of his father?" the people asked in astonishment (Ezekiel 18:19). "It is good traditional theology, and it has been confirmed by our own experience." Now Ezekiel would probably not have admitted that in any circumstances a son suffers because his father has sinned. With that notion he appears to have absolutely broken. He did not deny that the Exile was the punishment for all the sins of the past as well as for those of the present: but that was because the nation was treated as a moral unit, and not because of any law of heredity which bound up the fate of the child with that of the father. It was essential to his purpose to show that the principle of social guilt or collective retribution came to an end with the fall of the state; whereas in the form in which the people held to it, it could never come to an end so long as there are parents to sin and children to suffer. But the important point in the prophet’s teaching is that, whether in one form or in another, the principle of solidarity is now superseded. God will no longer deal with men in the mass, but as individuals; and facts which gave plausibility and a relative justification to cynical views of God’s providence shall no more occur. There will be no more occasion to use that objectionable proverb in Israel. On the contrary, it will be manifest in the case of each separate individual that God’s righteousness is discriminating, and that each man’s destiny corresponds with his own character. And the new principle is embodied in words which may be called the charter of the individual soul-words whose significance is fully revealed only in Christianity: "All souls are Mine The soul that sinneth, it shall die."

What is here asserted is of course not a distinction between the soul or spiritual part of a man’s being and another part of his being which is subject to physical necessity, but one between the individual and his moral environment. The former distinction is real, and it may be necessary for us in our day to insist on it, but it was certainly not thought of by Ezekiel or perhaps by any other Old Testament writer. The word "soul" denotes simply the principle of individual life. "All persons are Mine" expresses the whole meaning which Ezekiel meant to convey. Consequently the death threatened to the sinner is not what we call spiritual death, but death in the literal sense-the death of the individual. The truth taught is the independence and freedom of the individual, or his moral personality. And that truth involves two things. First, each individual belongs to God, stands in immediate personal relation to Him. In the old economy the individual belonged to the nation or the family, and was related to God only as a member of a larger whole. Now he has to deal with God directly-possesses independent personal worth in the eye of God. Secondly, as a result of this, each man is responsible for his own acts, and for these alone. So long as his religious relations are determined by circumstances outside of his own life his personality is incomplete. The ideal relation to God must be one in which the destiny of every man depends on his own free actions. These are the fundamental postulates of personal religion as formulated by Ezekiel.

The first part of the chapter is nothing more than an illustration of the second of these truths in a sufficient number of instances to show both sides of its operation. There is first the case of a man perfectly righteous, who as a matter of course lives by his righteousness, the state of his father not being taken into account. Then this good man is supposed to have a son who is in all respects the opposite of his father, who answers none of the tests of a righteous man; he must die for his own sins, and his father’s righteousness avails him nothing. Lastly, if the son of this wicked man takes warning by his father’s fate and leads a good life, he lives just as the first man did because of his own righteousness, and suffers no diminution of his reward because his father was a sinner. In all this argument there is a tacit appeal to the conscience of the hearers, as if the case only required to be put clearly before them to command their assent. This is what shall be, the prophet says; and it is what ought to be. It is contrary to the idea of perfect justice to conceive of Jehovah as acting otherwise than as here represented. To cling to the idea of collective retribution as a permanent truth of religion, as the exiles were disposed to do, destroys belief in the Divine righteousness by making it different from the righteousness which expresses itself in the moral judgments of men.

Before we pass from this part of the chapter we may take note of some characteristics of the moral ideal by which Ezekiel tests the conduct of the individual man. It is given in the form of a catalogue of virtues, the presence or absence of which determines a man’s fitness or unfitness to enter the future kingdom of God. Most of these virtues are defined negatively; the code specifies sins to be avoided rather than duties to be performed or graces to be cultivated. Nevertheless they are such as to cover a large section of human life, and the arrangement of them embodies distinctions of permanent ethical significance. They may be classed under the three heads of piety, chastity, and beneficence. Under the first head, that of directly religious duties, two offences are mentioned which are closely connected with each other, although to our minds they may seem to involve different degrees of guilt (Ezekiel 18:6). One is the acknowledgment of other gods than Jehovah, and the other is participation in ceremonies which denoted fellowship with idols. To us who "know that an idol is nothing in the world" the mere act of eating with the blood has no religious significance. But in Ezekiel’s time it was impossible to divest it of heathen associations, and the man who performed it stood convicted of a sin against Jehovah. Similarly the idea of sexual purity is illustrated by two outstanding and prevalent offences (Ezekiel 18:6). The third head, which includes by far the greater number of particulars, deals with the duties which we regard as moral in a stricter sense. They are embodiments of the love which "worketh no ill to his neighbour," and is therefore "the fulfilling of the law." It is manifest that the list is not meant to be an exhaustive enumeration of all the virtues that a good man must practise, or all the vices he must shun. The prophet has before his mind two broad classes of men-those who feared God, and those who did not; and what he does is to lay down outward marks which were practically sufficient to discriminate between the one class and the other.

The supreme moral category is Righteousness, and this includes the two ideas of right character and a right relation to God. The distinction between an active righteousness manifested in the life and a "righteousness which is by faith" is not explicitly drawn in the Old Testament. Hence the passage contains no teaching on the question whether a man’s relation to God is determined by his good works, or whether good works are the fruit and outcome of a right relation to God. The essence of morality, according to the Old Testament, is loyalty to God, expressed by obedience to His will; and from that point of view it is self-evident that the man who is loyal to Jehovah stands accepted in His sight. In other connections Ezekiel makes it abundantly clear that the state of grace does not depend on any merit which man can have towards God.

The fact that Ezekiel defines righteousness in terms of outward conduct has led to his being accused of the error of legalism in his moral conceptions. He has been charged with resolving righteousness into "a sum of separate tzedaqoth," or virtues. But this view strains his language unduly, and seems moreover to be negatived by the presuppositions of his argument. As a man must either live or die at the day of judgment, so he must at any moment be either righteous or wicked. The problematic case of a man who should conscientiously observe some of these requirements and deliberately violate others would have been dismissed by Ezekiel as an idle speculation: "Whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all". {James 2:10} The very fact that former good deeds are not remembered to a man in the day when he turns from his righteousness shows that the state of righteousness is something different from an average struck from the statistics of his moral career. The bent of the character towards or away from goodness is no doubt spoken of as subject to sudden fluctuations, but for the time being each man is conceived as dominated by the one tendency or the other; and it is the bent of the whole nature towards the good that constitutes the righteousness by which a man shall live. It is at all events a mistake to suppose that the prophet is concerned only about the external act and indifferent to the state of heart from which it proceeds. It is true that he does not attempt to penetrate beneath the surface of the outward life. He does not analyse motives. But this is because he assumes that if a man keeps God’s law he does it from a sincere desire to please God and with a sense of the rightness of the law to which he subjects his life. When we recognise this the charge of externalism amounts to very little. We can never get behind the principle that "he that doeth righteousness is righteous," {1 John 3:7} and that principle covers all that Ezekiel really teaches. Compared with the more spiritual teaching of the New Testament his moral ideal is no doubt defective in many directions, but his insistence on action as a test of character is hardly one of them. We must remember that the New Testament itself contains as many warnings against a false spirituality as it does against the opposite error of reliance on good works.


The second great truth of personal religion is the moral freedom of the individual to determine his own destiny in the day of judgment. This is illustrated in the latter part of the chapter by the two opposite cases of a wicked man turning from his wickedness (Ezekiel 18:21-22) and a righteous man turning from his righteousness (Ezekiel 18:24). And the teaching of the passage is that the effect of such a change of mind, as regards a man’s relation to God, is absolute. The good life subsequent to conversion is not weighed against the sins of past years; it is the index of a new state of heart in which the guilt of the former transgressions is entirely blotted out: "All his transgressions that he hath committed shall not be remembered in regard to him; in his righteousness that he hath done he shall live." But in like manner the act of apostasy effaces the remembrance of good deeds done in an earlier period of the man’s life. The standing of each soul before God, its righteousness or its wickedness, is thus wholly determined by its final choice of good or evil, and is revealed by the conduct which follows that great moral decision. There can be no doubt that Ezekiel regards these two possibilities as equally real, falling away from righteousness being as much a fact of experience as repentance. In the light of the New Testament we should perhaps interpret both cases somewhat differently. In genuine conversion we must recognise the imparting of a new spiritual principle which is ineradicable, containing the pledge of perseverance in the state of grace to the end. In the case of final apostasy we are compelled to judge that the righteousness which is renounced was only apparent, that it was no true indication of the man’s character or of his condition in the sight of God. But these are not the questions with which the prophet is directly dealing. The essential truth which he inculcates is the emancipation of the individual, through repentance, from his own past. In virtue of his immediate personal relation to God each man has the power to accept the offer of salvation, to break away from his sinful life and escape the doom which hangs over the impenitent. To this one point the whole argument of the chapter tends. It is a demonstration of the possibility and efficacy of individual repentance, culminating in the declaration which lies at the very foundation of evangelical religion, that God has no pleasure in the death of him that dieth, but will have all men to repent and live (Ezekiel 18:32).

It is not easy for us to conceive the effect of this revelation on the minds of people so utterly unprepared for it as the generation in which Ezekiel lived. Accustomed as they were to think of their individual fate as bound up in that of their nation, they could not at once adjust themselves to a doctrine which had never previously been enunciated with such incisive clearness. And it is not surprising that one effect of Ezekiel’s teaching was to create fresh doubts of the rectitude of. the Divine government. "The way of the Lord is not equal," it was said (Ezekiel 18:25, Ezekiel 18:29). So long as it was admitted that men suffered for the sins of their ancestors or that God dealt with them in the mass, there was at least an appearance of consistency in the methods of Providence. The justice of God might not be visible in the life of the individual, but it could be roughly traced in the history of the nation as a whole. But when that principle was discarded, then the question of the Divine righteousness was raised in the case of each separate Israelite, and there immediately appeared all those perplexities about the lot of the individual which so sorely exercised the faith of Old Testament believers. Experience did not show that correspondence-between a man’s attitude towards God and his earthly fortunes which the doctrine of individual freedom seemed to imply; and even in Ezekiel’s time it must have been evident that the calamities which overtook the state fell indiscriminately on the righteous and the wicked. The prophet’s purpose, however, is a practical one, and he does not attempt to offer a theoretical solution of the difficulties which thus arose. There were several considerations in his mind which turned aside the edge of the people’s complaint against the righteousness of Jehovah. One was the imminence of the final judgment, in which the absolute rectitude of the Divine procedure would be clearly manifested. Another seems to be the irresolute and unstable attitude of the people themselves towards the great moral issues which were set before them. While they professed to be more righteous than their fathers they showed no settled purpose of amendment in their lives. A man might be apparently righteous today and a sinner tomorrow: the "inequality" of which they complained was in their own ways, and not in the way of the Lord (Ezekiel 18:25, Ezekiel 18:29). But the most important element in the case was the prophet’s conception of the character of God as one who, though strictly just, yet desired that men should live. The Lord is long-suffering, not willing that any should perish; and He postpones the day of decision that His goodness may lead men to repentance. "Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked? saith the Lord: and not that he should turn from his ways, and live?" (Ezekiel 18:23). And all these considerations lead up to the urgent call to repentance with which the chapter closes.

The importance of the questions dealt with in this eighteenth chapter is shown clearly enough by the hold which they have over the minds of men in the present day, The very same difficulties which Ezekiel had to encounter in his time confront us still in a somewhat altered form, and are often keenly felt as obstacles to faith in God. The scientific doctrine of heredity, for example, seems to be but a more precise modern rendering of the old proverb about the eating of sour grapes. The biological controversy over the possibility of the transmission of acquired characteristics scarcely touches the moral problem. In whatever way that controversy may be ultimately settled, it is certain that in all cases a man’s life is affected both for good and evil by influences which descend upon him from his ancestry. Similarly within the sphere of the individual life the law of habit seems to exclude the possibility of complete emancipation from the penalty due to past ‘transgressions. Hardly anything, in short, is better established by experience than that the consequences of past actions persist through all changes of spiritual condition, and, further, that children do suffer from the consequences of their parents’ sin.

Do not these facts, it may be asked, amount practically to a vindication of the theory of retribution against which the prophet’s argument is directed? How can we reconcile them with the great principles enunciated in this chapter? Dictates of morality, fundamental truths of religion, these may be: but can we say in the face of experience that they are true?

It must be admitted that a complete answer to these questions is not given in the chapter before us, nor perhaps anywhere in the Old Testament. So long as God dealt with men mainly by temporal rewards and punishments, it was impossible to realise fully the separateness of the soul in its spiritual relations to God; the fate of the individual is necessarily merged in that of the community, and Ezekiel’s doctrine remains a prophecy of better things to be revealed. This indeed is the light in which he himself teaches us to regard it; although he applies it in all its strictness to the men of his own generation, it is nevertheless essentially a feature of the ideal kingdom of God, and is to be exhibited in the judgment by which that kingdom is introduced. The great value of his teaching therefore, lies in his having formulated with unrivalled clearness principles which are eternally true of the spiritual life, although the perfect manifestation of these principles in the experience of believers was reserved for the final revelation of salvation in Christ.

The solution of the contradiction referred to lies in the separation between the natural and the penal consequences of sin. There is a sphere within which natural laws have their course, modified, it may be, but not wholly suspended by the law of the spirit of life in Christ. The physical effects of vicious indulgence are not turned aside by repentance, and a man may carry the scars of sin upon him to the grave. But there is also a sphere into which natural law does not enter. In his immediate personal relation to God a believer is raised above the evil consequences which flow from his past life, so that they have no power to separate him from the love of God. And within that sphere his moral freedom and independence are as much matter of experience as is his subjection to law in another sphere. He knows that all things work together for his good, and that tribulation itself is a means of bringing him nearer to God. Amongst those tribulations which work out his salvation there may be the evil conditions imposed on him by the sin of others, or even the natural consequences of his own former transgressions. But tribulations no longer bear the aspect of penalty, and are no longer a token of the wrath of God. They are transformed into chastisements by which the Father of spirits makes His children perfect in holiness. The hardest cross to bear will always be that which is the result of one’s own sin; but He who has borne the guilt of it can strengthen us to bear even this and follow Him.

Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Ezekiel 18". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/teb/ezekiel-18.html.
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