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Ezekiel 18:1, Ezekiel 18:2
What mean ye, that ye use this proverb, etc.? Another and entirely different section opens, and we see at once from what it started. Ezekiel had heard from the lips of his countrymen, and had seen its working in their hearts, the proverb with which they blunted their sense of personal responsibility. They had to bear the punishment of sins which they had not committed. The sins of the fathers were visited, as in Exodus 20:5; Exodus 34:7; Leviticus 26:39, Leviticus 26:40; Numbers 14:18; Deuteronomy 5:9, upon the third and fourth generations. Manasseh and his people had sinned, and Josiah and his descendants and their contemporaries had to suffer for it. The thought was familiar enough, and the general law of the passages above referred to was afterwards applied, as with authority, to what was then passing (2 Kings 23:26; 2 Kings 24:3). Even Jeremiah recognized it in Lamentations 5:7 and Jeremiah 15:4, and was content to look, for a reversal of the proverb, to the distant Messianic time of the new covenant (Jeremiah 31:29-31). The plea with which Ezekiel had to deal was therefore one which seemed to rest on the basis of a Divine authority. And that authority was confirmed by the induction of a wide experience. Every preacher of righteousness in every age has to warn the evil doer that he is working evil for generations yet unborn, to whom he transmits his own tendencies, the evil of his own influence and example. It is well that he can balance that thought with the belief that good also may work in the future with a yet wider range and mightier power (Exodus 20:5). Authority and experience alike might seem to favour the plea that the fathers had eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth were set on edge. Ezekiel was led, however, to feel that there was a latent falsehood in the plea. In the depth of his consciousness there was the witness that every man was personally responsible for the things that he did, that the eternal righteousness of God would not ultimately punish the innocent for the guilty, he had to work out, according to the light given him, his vindication of the ways of God to man, to sketch at least the outlines of a theodicy. Did he, in doing this, come forward as a prophet, correcting and setting aside the teaching of the Law? At first, and on a surface view, he might seem to do so. But it was with him as it was afterwards with St. Paul He "established the Law" in the very teaching which seemed to contradict it. He does not deny (it would have been idle to do so) that the sins of the fathers are visited upon the children, i.e. affect those children for evil. What he does is to define the limits of that law. And he may have found his starting point in that very book which, for him and his generation, was the great embodiment of the Law as a whole. If men were forbidden, as in Deuteronomy 24:16, to put the children to death for the sins of the fathers; if that was to be the rule of human justice,—the justice of God could not be less equitable than the rule which he prescribed for his creatures. It is not without interest to note the parallelism between Ezekiel and the Greek poet who was likest to him, as in his genius, so also in the courage with which he faced the problems of the universe. AEschylus also recognizes that there is a righteous order in the seeming anomalies of history. Men might say, in their proverbs, that prosperity as such provoked the wrath of the gods, and brought on the downfall of a "woe insatiable;" and then he adds—
"But I, apart from all,
Hold this my creed alone."
And that creed is that punishment comes only when the children reproduce the impious recklessness of their fathers. "Justice shines brightly in the dwellings of those who love the right, and rule their life by law." Into the deeper problem raised by the modern thought of inherited tendencies developed by the environment, which itself originates in the past, it was not given to Ezekiel or AEschylus to enter.
Stress is laid on the fact that the proverb which implied unrighteousness in God is no longer to be used in Israel. There, among the, people in whom he was manifesting his righteousness for the education of mankind, it should be seen to have no force whatever. The thought was an essentially heathen thought—a half-truth distorted into a falsehood.
Behold, all souls are mine, etc. The words imply, not only creation, ownership, absolute authority, on the part of God, but, as even Calvin could recognize (in loc.), "a paternal affection towards the whole human race which he created and formed." Ezekiel anticipates here, and yet more fully in verse 32. the teaching of St. Paul, that "God willeth that all men should be saved" (1 Timothy 2:4). The soul that sinneth, it shall die. The sentence, though taken from the Law, which ordered capital punishment for the offences named, cannot be limited to that punishment. "Death" and "life" are both used in their highest and widest meaning—"life" as including all that makes it worth living, "death" for the loss of that only true life which is found in knowing God (John 17:3).
The verses that follow are noticeable as forming one of the most complete pictures of a righteous life presented in the Old Testament. It ads characteristic of Ezekiel that he starts from the avoidance of sins against the first table of the commandments. To eat upon the mountains was to take part in the sacrificial feasts on the places, of which he had already spoken (Ezekiel 16:16; comp. Ezekiel 22:9; Deuteronomy 12:2). The words, lifted up his eyes, as in Deuteronomy 4:19 and Psalms 121:1, implied every form of idolatrous adoration. The two sins that follow seem to us, as compared with each other, to stand on a very different footing. To Ezekiel, however, they both appeared as mala prohibita, to each of which the Law assigned the punishment of death (Le Ezekiel 18:19; Ezekiel 20:10, Ezekiel 20:18; Deuteronomy 22:22), each involving the dominance of animal passions, in the one case, over the sacred rights of others; in the other, over a law of self-restraint which rested partly on physical grounds, the act condemned frustrating the final cause of the union of the sexes; partly, also, on its ethical significance. The prominence given to it implies that the sin was common, and that it brought with it an infinite degradation of the holiest ties.
Hath restored to the debtor his pledge. The law, found in Exodus 22:1-31.Exodus 22:25 and Deuteronomy 24:6, Deuteronomy 24:13, was a striking instance of the considerateness of the Mosaic Law. The garment which the debtor had pledged as a security was to be restored to him at night. Such a law implied, of course, the return of the pledge in the morning. It was probably often used by the debtor for his own fraudulent advantage, and it was a natural consequence that the creditor should be tempted to evade compliance with it. The excellence of the man whom Ezekiel describes was that he resisted the temptation. Hath spoiled none by violence. Comp. Le Ezekiel 6:1-5, which Ezekiel probably had specially in view. The sin, common enough at all times (1 Samuel 12:3), would seem to have been specially characteristic of the time in which Ezekiel lived, from the king downwards (Jeremiah 22:13). As contrasted with the sin, there was the virtue of generous almsgiving (Isaiah 58:5-7).
He that hath not given forth his money upon usury. The word "usury," we must remember, is used, not, as with us, for exorbitant interest above the market rate, but for interest of any kind. This was allowed in commercial dealings with foreigners (Deuteronomy 23:20), but was altogether forbidden in the ease of loans to Israelites (Exodus 22:25; Le Exodus 25:35, Exodus 25:37; Deuteronomy 23:19 : Isaiah 24:2). The principle implied in this distinction was that, although it was, on strict principles of justice, allowable to charge for the use of money, as for the use of lands or the hire of cattle, Israel, as a people, was under the higher law of brotherhood. If money was to be lent at all, it was to be lent as to a brother in went (Matthew 5:42; Luke 6:35), for the relief of his necessities, and not to make profit. A brother who would not help a brother by a loan without interest was thought unworthy of the name. The ideal of the social polity of Israel was that it was to consist of a population of small freeholders, bound together by ties of mutual help—a national friendly society, rather than of traders and manufacturers; and hence the whole drift of its legislation tended to repress the money making spirit which afterwards became specially characteristic of its people, and ate like a canker into its life. The distinction between the two words seems to be that "usury" represents any interest on money; and "increase," any profit on the sale of goods beyond the cost of production, as measured by the maintenance of the worker and his family. To buy in the cheapest market and sell in the dearest was not to be the rule in a nation of brothers, and it was wiser to forbid it altogether rather than to sanction what we call a "reasonable rate" of interest or profit. Hath executed true judgment. The last special feature in the description of the righteous man is that he is free from the judicial corruption which has always been the ineradicable evil of Eastern social life (1 Samuel 8:3; 1 Samuel 12:3; Amos 5:12; Isaiah 33:15).
A robber. The Hebrew implies robbery with violence, perhaps, as in the Authorized Version margin, the offence of the housebreaker. That doeth the like to any of these things. The margin of the Revised Version, following the Chaldee paraphrase, gives, who doeth to a brother any of these things. Others (Keil and Furst) render, "who doeth only one of these things," as if recognizing the principle of James 2:10. On the whole, there seems sufficient reason for keeping to the text.
The word "duties" is not in the Hebrew, but is legitimately introduced as expressing Ezekiel's meaning, where the mere pronoun by itself would have been ambiguous. In English we might say, "He does these things: he does not do those;" but this does not fall in with the Hebrew idiom.
The word abomination probably covers the specific sin named in Ezekiel 18:6, but not here.
One holes the special emphasis, first of the question, and then of the direct negative, as though that, in the judgment alike of God and man, was the only answer that could be given to it in the very words of the Law (Le Ezekiel 20:9, Ezekiel 20:11, Ezekiel 20:13).
Now, lo! etc. The law of personal responsibility had been pressed on its darker side. It is now asserted in its brighter, and that with the special emphasis indicated in its opening words. The proverb of the "sour grapes" receives a direct contradiction. The son of the evil doer way take warning by his father's example, and repent, as Ezekiel exhorted those among whom he lived to do. In that case he need fear no inherited or transmitted curse. He shall surely live; Hebrew, living he shall live. That truth came to Ezekiel as with the force of a new apocalypse, and it is obviously "exceeding broad," with far-reaching consequences both in ethics and theology.
The reappearance of the father, with the same emphatic "lo!" seems to imply that Ezekiel thought of the two phenomena as possibly contemporaneous. Men might see before them, at the same time, the father dying in his sins, and the son turning from them and gaining the true life.
Why? doth not the son, etc.? The words are better taken, with the LXX; Vulgate, Revised Version, and most critics, as a single question, Why doth not the son bear, etc.? What is the explanation of a fact which seemingly contradicts the teaching of the Law? The answer to the question seems at first only an iteration of what had been stated before. The son repents, and therefore does not bear his father's iniquity. A man is responsible for his own sins, and for those only. To think otherwise is to think of God as less righteous than man.
Ezekiel 18:21, Ezekiel 18:22
But if the wicked will turn, etc. Here, however, there is a distinct advance. The question is carried further into the relations between the past and the present of the same man, between his old and his new self. And in answering that question also Ezekiel becomes the preacher of a gospel. The judgment of God deals with each man according to his present state, not his past. Repentance and conversion and obedience shall cancel, as it were, the very memory of his former sins (Ezekiel's language is necessarily that of a hold anthropopathy), and his transgressions shall not be mentioned unto him (comp. Ezekiel 33:16; Isaiah 43:25; Isaiah 64:9; Jeremiah 31:34). Assuming the later date of Isaiah 40-66, the last three utterances have the interest of being those of nearly contemporary prophets to whom the same truth had been revealed.
Have I any pleasure, etc.? Ezekiel's anticipations of the gospel of Christ take a yet wider range, and we come at last to what had been throughout the suppressed premise of the argument. To him, as afterwards to St. Paul (1 Timothy 2:4) and St. Peter (2 Peter 3:9), the mind of God was presented as being at once absolutely righteous and absolutely loving. The death of the wicked, the loss, i.e; of true life, for a time, or even forever, might be the necessary consequence of laws that were righteous in themselves, and were working out the well being of the universe; but that death was not to be thought of as the result of a Divine decree, or contemplated by the Divine mind with any satisfaction. If it were not given to Ezekiel to see, as clearly as Isaiah seems to have seen it, how the Divine philanthropy was to manifest itself, he at least gauged that philanthropy itself, and found it fathomless.
In the previous argument (Ezekiel 18:21) the truth that the individual character may change had been stated as a ground of hope. Here it appears as a ground, for fear and watchfulness. The "grey-haired saint may fail at last," the apostle may become a castaway (1 Corinthians 9:27), and the righteousness of a life may be cancelled by the sins of a year or of a day. Whether there was an opening for repentance, even after that fall, the prophet does not say, but the law that a man is in spiritual life or death according to what he is at any given moment of his course, seems to require the extension of the hope, unless we assume that the nature of the fall in the case supposed fetters the freedom of the will, and makes repentance impossible (Hebrews 6:4-7; 2 Peter 2:20).
Are not my ways equal? The. primary meaning of the Hebrew adjective is that of something ordered, symmetrically arranged. Men would find in the ways of God precisely that in which their own ways were wanting, and which they denied to him—the workings of a considerate equity, adjusting all things according to their true weight and measure.
The equity of the Divine judgments is asserted, as before, by fresh iteration rather than by new arguments. In a discourse delivered, as this probably was, orally, it was necessary, so to speak, to hammer in the truth upon men's minds so that it might be driven home and do its work.
Ezekiel 18:30, Ezekiel 18:31
That work was to produce repentance, hope, and fear. The goodness and severity of God alike led up to that. For a man to remain in his sin will be fatal, but it is not the will of God that he should so remain. What he needs is the new heart and the new spirit, which are primarily, as in Ezekiel 11:19, God's gift to men, but which men must make their own by seeking and receiving them. So iniquity shall not be your ruin; better, with the margin of the Revised Version, so shall they not be a stumbling block (same word as in Ezekiel 3:20; Ezekiel 7:19; Ezekiel 14:3) of iniquity unto you. Repented sins shall be no more an occasion of offence. Men may rise on them to "higher things," as on "steppingstones of their dead selves."
Turn yourselves, etc. As in Ezekiel 14:6, but there is no ground for the rendering of "turn others," suggested in the margin of the Authorized Version.
So we close what we may rightly speak of as among the noblest of Ezekiel's utterances, that which makes him take his place side by side with the greatest of the prophets as a preacher of repentance and forgiveness. In the next chapter he returns to his parables of history after the fashion of those of Ezekiel 17:1-24.
Ezekiel 18:2, Ezekiel 18:3
An old proverb discarded.
The proverb of the sour grapes was but an expression of a prevalent belief of the Jews, viz. that guilt is hereditary. Whatever element of truth there may have been in this proverb was overlaid and lost in a monstrous notion, which destroyed both the sense of personal responsibility and the conception of Divine justice, substituting doctrines of unavoidable fate and unreasonable vengeance on the innocent.
I. THE TRUTHS BEHIND THE PROVERB. This saying and the doctrine which it embodied were based upon dark, mysterious, but still true, facts of experience.
1. Children share in the sufferings produced by the sins of their parents. Sins of the fathers are visited on the children. This dread fact was recognized in the ten commandments (Exodus 20:5). We see it confirmed by our daily observation of the world. The vices of the father and mother bring poverty, disgrace, and disease on the children. When the thief is sent to prison his children are left without bread. Fearful diseases appear in the constitution of innocent children following their parents' profligacy.
2. Children inherit the appetites and habits of their parents. The child of the drunkard is predisposed to inebriety. This physical inheritance in brain and nerve is confirmed by the ceaseless, powerful, unanswerable lessons of example. Where the head of the family leads a loose life the children are brought up under evil influences.
II. THE FALSITY OF THE PROVERB.
1. God does not inflict real punishment on innocent children. They suffer, but they are not punished; for there is no element of Divine anger towards them in what they endure. God permits the suffering, and he uses it, as he uses other troubles of his children, for discipline. But he cannot look upon the poor victims of the vices of others with any disfavour. It is a piece of hypocritical Pharisaism on the part of society to treat the children who come of sinful parentage as though they were disgraced by their birth. The effect of sour grapes is purely physical. When we transfer the physical fact to the moral world we fall into a mistake.
2. Actual sin is not hereditary. If it were, men would be doomed to sin apart from their own choice. But the essence of sin is a self-willed rebellion against God. When freedom of choice is taken out of it the evil thing ceases to be sin; it becomes a moral disease. So long as we have individuality and personal wills we can choose for ourselves. No one is utterly the slave of moral disease, or, if such a person exists, be is a moral lunatic, and not responsible for his action. Therefore he should be put under lock and key. Moreover, responsibility is measured by opportunity, and moral conduct is seen in the amount of resistance offered to the terrible slavery of an inherited tendency to evil habits. The proverb of the sour grapes was not only a discouragement to children; it was an excuse for impenitence among grownup men.
III. THE EXPOSURE AND REJECTION OF THE PROVERB.
1. A familiar saying may be false. It may be a venerable lie, or, if true in its first utterance, it may have been exaggerated and so presented as to be false in its present application.
2. It is the duty of the teacher of religion to correct popular notions. This is the second occasion on which Ezekiel has exposed and repudiated a popular fallacy enshrined in the form of a proverb (Ezekiel 12:22). Christ fought prevalent delusions (e.g. Luke 13:1-5); so did St. Paul (Romans 2:25).
3. There is an advance in revelation. The proverb of the sour grapes was never given with the authority of a Divine truth. But in the earlier stages of revelation there was not enough light to liberate men from the illusion on which it was founded. As revelation advances it dissolves moral difficulties and clarifies our vision of Divine righteousness.
The death penalty.
I. THE PENALTY OF SIN IS DEATH. This is taken for granted in the present passage. The prophet is not now describing the kind of punishment that follows sin; he is indicating the persons on whom that punishment shall fall. When asked who is to die, he answers—The sinner; not his child, but the sinner himself. But the very fact that the nature of the death penalty is taken for granted makes it the more apparent that the prophet had no doubt about it. Now, we cannot say that Ezekiel's language about the dying of the soul had any reference to a second death in Hades in which the conscious personality is annihilated. We should be missing the historical perspective if we supposed that any such idea would occur to a Hebrew prophet of the Old Testament. The Old Testament religion was concerned with this present life, and its sanctions were secular. The penalty of transgressions of the Law was to be "cut off" from among the people, i.e. to be killed—stoned or stabbed. The soul is the life, and to the ancient Hebrew for the soul to die is just for the man to have his earthly death. Still, there is in this no hope of a glorious resurrection for the sinner. His doom is final as far as man can follow it. Moreover, dying, not merely suffering, is the penalty of the impenitent, while wholesome pain is the chastisement of the penitent (Hebrews 12:6). Sin destroys body, character, faculty, affection. It is a killing influence in all respects (Romans 6:23).
II. THE DEATH PENALTY OF SIN FALLS ONLY ON THE SINNER. Other consequences of sin reach the innocent; but not this. Herein lies the solution of the terrible enigma presented by the spectacle of children suffering for the sins of their fathers—or rather, a partial solution of it. The real punishment of the sin does not fall upon them When the guilty father is drowned in his own wickedness, he sprinkles some of the foul spray on his children, and it burns them like spots of fire; but he does not drag them down with him to his dismal doom unless they freely choose to follow his bad example. Now, for the guilty man there is this dark prospect—he cannot shirk his responsibility and cast his punishment upon another. There is an awful loneliness in guilt. Every one must bear the load of his own sin.
III. THIS JUST ARRANGEMENT IS SECURED BY GOD'S OWNERSHIP OF SOULS. All belong to God; therefore he will not permit final injustice. The discarded proverb (verse 2) rested on a sense of fatalism. The idea it contained was not just, but it seemed to be inevitable. The tragedies of AEschylus and Sophocles exhibit the operation of a Nemesis pursuing the descendants of a guilty man until the original crime of their ancestor is expiated. Physically, something of the kind does often occur; but in the higher moral and spiritual realm it is impossible, so long as a personal God takes personal interest in individual souls. The modern Nemesis is physical law. We can only escape from some form of unjust fatalism by a belief in a personal God and his direct dealings with souls.
IV. CHRIST DIES FOR THE SINS OF OTHERS.
1. Here is a grand exception to the order of punishment. The soul that does not sin dies for the souls that do sin. But with this fact we are in a new order. Christ's death is not a consequence of moral law.
(1) He comes in grace.
(2) His act is voluntary.
2. Here is the hope of our deliverance from death. We have all sinned. Therefore we all deserve death, for there is no exception to the law, "The soul that sinneth, it shall die." But not only has Christ died for us; he dies in us, we are crucified in him, and dying to sin through his grace we are spared the fearful dying for sin.
The breach of heredity.
It is possible for the son of the sinner not to tread in his father's evil footsteps. Here we have the door of escape from the odious proverb of the sour grapes (Ezekiel 18:2).
I. A FATHER'S SIN IS A SHAMEFUL SIGHT FOR HIS SON. The verse before us presents a distressing picture, though one with bright features in it. The father should be an example to his children, and they should be able to look up to him with reverence. Indeed, very little children naturally regard those who have charge of them as good. When first a child discovers that one who has directed his conduct is doing wrong, the revelation comes upon him with a painful shock of surprise. How sad that this should become a familiar sight! The very centre of authority in the home is then degraded. The child may still obey from a sense of fear, from a feeling of duty, or from mere force of habit. But all reverence is gone, and contempt is beginning to take its place. There must be something sadly wrong when a right-minded child is forced to despise his father or his mother. Surely such a prospect should be a warning to parents when personal considerations fail to influence them.
II. A SON MAY BE SAVED FROM SHARING HIS FATHER'S SIN BY ITS VERY SHAMEFULNESS. There is an influence which is just the contrary of heredity in sin. Unconsciously, by force of physical constitution, and by the influence of example no doubt, a child is drawn towards his father's sin. But when he reflects upon it and exercises his own judgment, he has miserable opportunities for witnessing its shamefulness which are not accorded to the happily guarded children of purer homes. The child of the drunkard knows the evil of strong drink only toe well. Thus if he "considereth" he has an ever present warning. Do we not see children who have turned with loathing from the habits of disgraceful parents, shunning the first approaches to the evil which has wrought such havoc in their homes, when other children who have not been to so painful a school toy with it in the confidence of ignorance?
III. IT IS THE DUTY OF CHRISTIANS TO RESCUE THE CHILDREN OF WICKED PARENTS. The problem furnished by the wreck of broken down character among the degraded creatures who haunt the slums of great cities is well nigh insoluble, because so many of those hopeless beings refuse to be reclaimed. If they are removed to decent dwellings and supplied with the means of conducting respectable lives, they sink back to their old stats of degradation. Emigration alone will not cure this disease of dissoluteness. We could only burden America and our colonies with useless paupers by sending its victims across the sea. They have neither the moral nor the physical strength to begin s new life. It would seem that the best thing we could do for them would be to shut them up in a hospital for incurables, where at least they might be prevented from spreading moral contagion. They have reached moral imbecility. But we can save their children. It is with the children that the hope of recovery is most encouraging. Good work already done in rescuing the little waifs of the streets points to a much more extensive effort in that direction. For the price of an ironclad we might save the children of the slums of a whole city! It is here that the solution of our great social problem will begin.
How God views the death of the wicked.
I. HE HAS NO PLEASURE IN IT.
1. It might appear that he had.
(1) Men transferred to God their own low notions of vengeance. "Revenge is sweet" among men; therefore it was supposed that God must take some pleasure in avenging himself on those who have offended him.
(2) The rigour of the Law of God appeared to favour this notion. If God had no pleasure in the death of the wicked, why did God let him die? Such a question goes on the assumption that the only motive of action is the personal pleasure of the agent.
2. But on the other hand, it is certain that the fate of the sinner is no pleasure to God.
(1) God is righteous. The pleasures of vengeance are sinful. It cannot be good to feel anything but distress at the ruin of a soul. There might be a certain pleasure in the infliction of useful chastisement, because of its happy end; but the death of a soul is wholly dark.
(2) God is merciful. God does not hate his enemies. "He hateth nothing that he hath made." God loves the souls that perish. His long suffering and delay of punishment, his readiness to forgive the penitent, and, above all, the gift of his Son to redeem the world from death, are proofs that he has no pleasure in the death of the wicked.
II. STILL GOD PERMITS IT.
1. God has given freedom to his children. It can scarcely be said that God kills a wicked man. The sinner is his own executioner; his sin is its own sword of vengeance. Sin itself slays. The sinner is practically a suicide. God has no pleasure in the ruin which the foolish man brings on his own head. But there would be no moral nature left for him, and therefore no possibility of goodness, if God did not leave him the use of that freedom which he abuses in slaying his own soul.
2. God is just, though justice may be painful. It may be said that we cannot throw the whole burden of his death on the sinner, because God has made him and has made the laws which connect death with sin. No doubt, therefore, there is a certain Divine retribution in the punishment of sin. But then God is just, and does not regard his own pleasure. It is only an epicurean deity who would refuse to punish sin because he took no pleasure in the death of the sinner.
3. There can be no escape for the impenitent. If it were merely a question of God's pleasure, we might appeal from that to his mercy. But he already denies himself to permit the punishment. It is therefore the more sure.
III. GOD PREFERS THE LIFE OF HIS CHILDREN. If he has no pleasure in their death, he will welcome any avenue of escape. Nay, he will provide all possible means of deliverance. Hence the gospel of Christ.
1. There is a possibility of escape through amendment. It can come no other way, or justice would be outraged; for it is better that the soul should die than that it should continue forever in sin. The life of sin is a curse to the sinner and a blight on God's world. But a return to the better way is open to all of us through Christ (2 Corinthians 5:20).
2. This escape gives life. God loves life, or he would not have created a world teeming with living beings. He loves to gives us a new life in Christ (1 John 5:12). Let no one despair. God does not desire our death; God wills our life.
God accused of man's injustice.
The Jews were asserting that the ways of God were not equal, when the fact was that their ways, not his, were unequal.
I. GOD IS ACCUSED OF INJUSTICE. "Ye say, The way of the Lord is not equal." It is felt that the rule of the supreme God should be very different from that of earthly judges, some of whom take bribes, and all of whom are fallible. "Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?" exclaims Abraham, when venturing to expostulate with God on what appears to him a threatened injustice (Genesis 18:25). Yet the facts of life are often discouraging, and suggest to doubting, impatient souls a notion that God is not acting justly. The wicked prosper, and the good meet with misfortune. Children suffer from the misdeeds of their parents. Persons equal in character are unequal in fortune. To one the way of life is far more smooth than to another, although we can detect no good reason for the distinction. At one time a wild and mindless Chance seems to play with the world, at another a blind, stern Fate appears to hold it in an iron grip. We cannot discover the hand of justice behind the drifting cloud of circumstances. But:
1. Justice does not involve equality, but treatment according to desert.
2. We only see a small part of God's ways, and therefore cannot judge of the whole. The fly on the wheel cannot understand the machine. He might think the action of the "eccentric" deranged because it was unequal, and yet it is essential to the right working of the whole engine.
3. We are too limited in nature to judge, even if we saw all the facts.
II. THIS ACCUSATION RESULTS FROM MAN'S INJUSTICE. We impute to God what is in ourselves. We judge him by our own hearts and conduct. We know what would be our motives if we did certain things which we discover in the Divine action, and therefore we ascribe those same motives to God. We colour what we see with the hues that are in our own eyes. To the railway traveller the hedgerows and trees appear to be turning about invisible pivots, now flying to him and then swiftly whirling away; yet the motion is with the observer.
1. We are unjust in attempting to judge God. Here on the threshold the fault is seen to be ours. Even if God were unjust, since we are not capable of understanding his actions, we should be unjust also in venturing to give a verdict on his deeds.
2. We are unjust in our general conduct. There is a lack of integrity of heart in us even when our external behaviour is straight. We walk in crooked paths, and our conscience itself is perverted, so that the very rule by which we measure is warped. It is not surprising that God seems to be unjust when our standard of measurement does not agree with his action; but then the fault is with the standard. Until our own hearts and lives are right, it is not possible for us to form right views of God.
3. We are unjust in ascribing our own injustice to God. The inequalities of society are charged against God. They come from "man's inhumanity to man."
Reversals of character.
We have here an instance of man's misjudgment of God, and wrongful accusation of injustice against him. People who have borne good characters are punished by God, and others who have earned themselves odious reputations are spared. This is the stumbling block. But our text supplies the explanation of the apparent inconsistency. The good men have fallen into sin, and the bad men have repented and mended their lives. Therefore it is not unjust in God to treat them no longer according to their old characters.
I. GOD JUDGES ACCORDING TO PRESENT CHARACTER. Human judgment is stiff and blunt. Having formed our estimate of a man, we hold it after all justification for it has vanished. We are blind to those traits in his character which do not agree with our theory; or, if we are forced to recognize them, our first impulse is to twist them into harmony with the theory. Thus men's characters in the world outlive the facts on which they are founded. They are not all equal in this respect. A good character is more easily lost than a bad character. If a man has once earned an evil name, it is almost impossible for him to divest himself of it. People will not believe in his thorough conversion. This suspicion is partly due to ignorance of the hearts of men, and to a consequent danger of being imposed upon by hypocrisy. But God knows hearts. He is not bound by names and reputations. He sees present facts, and he judges men as they are. Then he judges according to present condition. He does not spare the fallen man on account of past goodness, and he does not rake up old charges against the penitent. We must not suppose, however, that God judges by a man's latest act. This would throw in an element of chance. A man is not condemned because he happens to be doing wrong at the moment of death, or saved because death finds him on his knees in prayer. But when the whole life is turned round, God judges by its present character, and not by its former state.
II. REVERSALS OF CHARACTER ARE POSSIBLE. We are not arguing on hypothetical cases. The ways of God to men are to be justified in part by the knowledge that such cases exist.
1. The good man may fall away into sin. When this happens, the world lifts up its hands in horror at what it supposes to be a revelation of monstrous and long continued hypocrisy; but there may be no hypocrisy in the case. The fallen man may have been sincere in his earlier life of goodness. But he has turned aside from it. Here is a terrible warning. No character is crystalline; all characters are more or less mobile. The best man may fall. Then all his former goodness will not save him. We have reason for watchfulness, diffidence, and prayer for God's protection.
2. The bad man may be recovered. The stern and changeless judgment of the world dooms one who has fallen to lifelong ignominy. This is cruel and murderous. If we lend a helping hand, the fallen may be lifted up. By the grace of Christ the most hardened sinner may be softened to penitence and turned into the ways of goodness. Then his former sin will not hang like a millstone about his neck to keep him forever down. God forgives it, and never mentions it again. It is the elder son, not the father, who refers to the former sins of the returned prodigal (Luke 15:30).
The alternatives of judgment.
I. THE JUDGMENT.
1. It is to be by God. "I will judge you." The all-searching and almighty Lord will be the Judge. None can elude his inquiry; none can resist his sentence.
2. It is a matter of the future. Therefore we cannot wisely make light of it by comparison with present experience. The future will be different from the present in this respect. Now is the time of probation; evil has therefore a liberty which will not continue. There will be a change of dispensations, that of judgment superseding the dispensation of grace.
3. It will certainly come. It is not conditional on possible circumstances. There is nothing hypothetical in the prophet's words. God does not say, "If I judge," but "I will judge you."
4. It will come home to God's own people. God will judge the "house of Israel." Israel delighted in the prospect of the day of the Lord, when her oppressors, the neighbouring heathen nations, should be judged. But she herself will also be judged. God will judge Christendom; he will judge his Church. The Master calls his own servants to account (Matthew 25:14).
5. It will be individual. God will not judge the house of Israel as a whole, but "every one of you." Each will be judged separately. None will be overlooked.
6. It will be according to the conduct of life. "According to his ways."
(1) According to conduct—not according to creed, feelings, aspirations, but deeds.
(2) According to normal conduct. His ways, i.e. his habits, his general course of conduct, not exceptional acts of virtue, nor occasional lapses below the usual manner of living. God judges on the conduct of the whole life.
II. THE ALTERNATIVES.
1. Amendment. This involves two changes, an internal and an external.
(1) The internal change. Repentance. The first step towards amendment is that turn of mind which consists in grief and loathing for the past, together with a hearty desire for a better future.
(2) The external change. "Turn yourselves from all your transgressions." It is useless to weep over the deeds which we do not forsake. Repentance of heart must be proved and confirmed by change of conduct. The drunkard must not only weep over his last night's debauch; he must give up the drink. The thief must cease to steal, the liar to lie, the blasphemer to swear. This is not to be fully accomplished without a change of heart (Ezekiel 18:31). But while God only can truly regenerate us, we must voluntarily turn from the evil way and seek the new life.
2. Ruin. Ezekiel urges his readers to repent with the mingled warning and encouragement. "So iniquity shall not be your ruin."
(1) The consequences of condemnation are ruin. When God sits in judgment over an evil life, terrible issues are at stake. No mere temporary suffering will satisfy the just demands of law. The broad road leads to "destruction" (Matthew 7:13). The end of sin is an utter undoing, a shipwreck of life, a confounding of the soul, death!
(2) This ruin flows directly from sin. God does not send an angel of judgment to punish the sinner. His own iniquity will be his ruin. Sin works directly on the soul as a deadly poison. Therefore all that the judgment of God can be required to do is to make it apparent that the ruin is justly earned, and to show that nothing can be justly done to avert it.
Why will ye die?
I. GOD EARNESTLY DESIRES TO SAVE HIS CHILDREN. He repeatedly repudiates the notion that he has any pleasure in their death (e.g. Ezekiel 18:23 and Ezekiel 18:32). He does not regard that terrible fate with indifference, as though it were no concern of his, after the manner of an epicurean divinity. He might say that, as men have foolishly and sinfully earned their own ruin, he would regard their doom with complacency. But instead of doing so, he manifests the utmost concern, urgently expostulating with the self-willed sinners, and entreating them to save themselves. Nay, has he not gone further, in sending his Son to save the world before his guilty children began to repent and to call for deliverance? In like manner, Christ, lamenting the coming ruin of Jerusalem, exclaimed, "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them that are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!" (Matthew 23:37).
II. THE DEATH OF SINNERS IS IN THEIR OWN HANDS. "Why will ye die?" It is not written by God. It is not fated by destiny. It does not fall out by chance. It is not a consequence of circumstances. Secondary and external events may appear to be traceable to one or other of these causes. but utter soul-ruin depends on the soul itself. If the soul dies it is because it will die. The reasons for this position are two.
1. We have free will. If we sin, therefore, we do it of our own accord. We cannot lay the blame on our tempters. There is always a way of escape from temptation (1 Corinthians 10:13). The deed that is done under compulsion is no longer a sin. Every sin is the soul's free act.
2. The death of the soul comes directly from sin. It is not an extraneous event; it is just the natural fruit of the soul's own evil doing. Therefore we cannot accuse God, or Satan, or nature, or circumstances. The blame rests with ourselves.
III. THE REASONS WHICH LEAD SINNERS TO COURT DEATH SHOULD BE CONSIDERED. "Why will ye die?"
1. Because of indifference. Many are heedless. They do not will to die, but they will the way to death. But he who chooses the path chooses its end.
2. Because of obstinacy. The appeal of the text is made against a stubborn spirit of self-will. God brings up the battering rams of grace against the thick walls of the town of Man-soul. Pride makes men hold to their own ways. But pride will be humbled in the day of ruin. There is no pride in death.
3. Because of the love of sin. This love blinds men. They see the attractive wickedness; they should learn to see also the snake that lurks among the flowers.
4. Because of unbelief. This is not merely a wrong intellectual conclusion. There is a dangerous unbelief that comes from closing the eyes to unpleasant facts. Yet they are not the less true.
5. Because of the rejection of grace. If we will not to have Christ, we do in fact will to die.
IV. THE WAY OF ESCAPE FROM DEATH IS OPEN TO ALL.
1. By casting out sin. Sin is the viper in the bosom, whose bite is mortal. Any cherished sin brings death. The first step must be not merely to grieve over sin, but to tear it away and fling it off.
2. By receiving a new heart. We need to have a better nature. Nothing less than a new heart will suffice. Only God can give that (Psalms 51:10). Only the Holy Spirit can regenerate (John 3:5). But the change depends on our seeking and accepting it.
HOMILIES BY J.R. THOMSON
Heredity and individuality.
The proverb here quoted embodied a popular sentiment. Those who suffered from the troubles and calamities of the time were not willing to admit that their sufferings were only their deserts; they endeavoured to thrust the blame upon others than themselves; and accordingly they complained that they had to endure the consequences of the evil deeds of their ancestors. One generation—so they put it—ate the sour grapes, and escaped the consequences; a succeeding generation endured these consequences, their teeth were set on edge. There was a half truth in such representations; for society is linked together by bonds of succession and inheritance which constitute solidarity and unity; yet at the same time, so far as responsibility is concerned, God deals with men as individuals.
I. THE INFLUENCE OF HEREDITY UPON CHARACTER. Physically, the power of heredity is vast. Every individual, we are told by men of science, is the product of parents, with the addition of such peculiarity as they attribute to the other principle, viz. variation. A man's birth, breeding, and training count for very much; they determine the locality of his early days, the climate, the political and social circumstances, the religions education, the associations, of childhood and of youth. The bodily constitution, including the nervous organization, the temperament and the inclinations springing from it, are to a very large extent hereditary. The environment is largely the effect of birth, and the early influences involved in it. Those who adopt the "naturalistic" system of morals, to whom man appears the effect of definite causes—the "determinists," as they are cabled in philosophy—consider that circumstances, and such character as is itself the product of circumstances, determine what the man will be and must be. Whilst even those who advocate spiritual ethics, and who believe in human liberty, are quite willing to admit that all men owe to hereditary causes and influences very much which makes them what they are.
II. THE LIMITS TO THIS INFLUENCE.
1. Heredity does not interfere with man's moral nature. The will, the freedom, of man are as real as the motives upon which he acts, with which he identifies himself. There is a distinction absolute and ineffaceable between the material and animal on the one side, and the spiritual upon the other.
2. Nor with man's responsibility. If man were not free, he would not be responsible. We do not speak of the sun as responsible for shining, or a bird as responsible for flying. But we cannot avoid speaking and thinking of men as responsible for all their purposes, endeavours, and habits. The wicked are blamable because, when good and evil were before them, and they were free to choose the good, they chose the evil.
3. Nor with God's justice and grace. Ezekiel makes a great point of vindicating the ways of God with men, of showing that every individual will certainly be dealt with, not upon capricious or unjust principles, hut with omniscient wisdom, inflexible righteousness, and considerate mercy. Thus, in the sight of God, all circumstances are apparent, and in the judgment of God all circumstances are taken into account, which justly affect an individual's guilt. Heredity may be among such circumstances, and allowance is doubtless made for tendencies inherited, for early neglect, for unfavourable influences of whatever kind. Where little is given, little is required. but all this does not affect the great fact that every individual is held responsible for his own moral position and conduct. None can escape judgment and censure by pleading the iniquities of his progenitors, as if those iniquities were an excuse for yielding to temptation. Every one shall bear his own burden. All souls are God's, to rule, to weigh, to recompense. From whomsoever sprung, the just shall live, and the soul that sinneth, it shall die.—T.
The moral alternative.
With a legal minuteness, and with a directness and plainness becoming to the teacher of practical morality, the prophet presents the alternative and antithesis of human life. If not in every particular, still in almost every particular, the picture of the good and of the bad man printed in this passage would be admitted by moralists of every school to be faithful and fair.
I. THE DESCRIPTION OF THE GOOD AND OF THE BAD MAN. As the classes are exclusive, each negativing the other, it is sufficient to name the characteristics of the good man, with the understanding that the bad man is he in whom these characteristics are wanting.
1. The good man is characterized by justice in dealing with his fellow men.
2. He refrains from idolatry of every kind.
3. He avoids adultery and every form of impurity.
4. He refrains from oppressing those who, for any reason, are within his power.
5. He abstains from violence in the treatment of others.
6. He is charitable to the poor and needy.
7. He forbears taking advantage of those who, by misfortune and poverty, are within his power.
8. He scrupulously and cheerfully obeys the Divine laws.
II. THE RECOMPENSE OF THE GOOD AND OF THE BAD MAN.
1. To the good is promised life, which is to be understood, not in the narrow and physical signification of the word, but in its large and scriptural sense.
2. Against the wicked is threatened death, which is to be interpreted as including the effects of God's righteous anger—a doom the most awful which can be pronounced and executed.
APPLICATION. The minister of religion may from this solemn passage learn the imperative duty of teaching morality. There must indeed be a foundation laid for such preaching in spiritual and evangelical doctrine; but the superstructure must not be neglected. The wise teacher, before entering into detail as to human character and conduct, will consider his audience, and the time and occasion; for all subjects are not to be treated before persons of every class, of every age, of both sexes. But he will find opportunities for stating and enforcing the precepts of the Law in the spirit and with the motives of the gospel. And the faithful minister will not shrink from depicting, though for the most part in careful and scriptural language, the penalties following upon disobedience to God's laws, as well as the rewards assured to the loyal and the good. It is true that those who are saved are saved by grace; but it is also true that all men, without exception, are judged by their works, and that God will bring every work into judgment, and every secret thing, whether it be good or bad.—T.
We can only account for the Prophet Ezekiel laying such special stress upon the principle of individuality in religion by supposing that, in his time and among those with whom he associated, there was a prevalent disposition and habit leading to the denial of what seems to us an unquestionable truth. Indeed, in some form or other, men do incline to shift responsibility from themselves to their parents, their early teachers, their companions, the society in which their lot is cast.
I. THE VAIN AND DECEPTIVE CONTENTION THAT THE MORAL QUALITY OF ONE GENERATION IS IMPUTED TO ANOTHER. This contention may take either of two forms.
1. The son of a good father is apt to rely upon his father's goodness. There is no doubt that such a one may inherit much that is advantageous, e.g. a good constitution, a happy temperament, a good introduction to life, the favourable regard of many helpful friends. And it is sometimes forgotten that all this does not interfere with responsibility; in fact, he who is so highly favoured is thereby raised to a higher level of accountability. Much is given, and much will be required.
2. The son of a bad father is apt to excuse his faults by casting the blame for them upon the transmission of evil influences by heredity, or upon circumstances traceable to family relationships. It is the case that such a person starts heavily weighted upon the race of life; his temptations to error and sin are many and urgent, and restraining influences are weakened. Allowances are made by men, and no doubt by God also, for such disadvantages; but they do not destroy the moral responsibility of the free agent.
II. THE WITNESS OF THE CONSCIENCE TO INDIVIDUAL AND INALIENABLE RESPONSIBILITY. Reference has been made to the attempts too often made by shiners to cast their responsibility upon others. But it may unhesitatingly be asserted that those who put forward such excuses are never themselves convinced by them. In their hearts they are well aware that there is no sincerity in such excuses, that they are mere subterfuges. The conscience within, which accuses and excuses, gives no uncertain sound. The religious teacher, the Christian preacher, who seeks to convince men of sin has the assurance that the inner monitor of his hearers supports his endeavour, that he neither upbraids nor pleads alone. When the Lord God exclaims by the voice of his prophet, "Hear now, O house of Israel; Is not my way equal? are not your ways unequal?" every man, convicted by his conscience, is reduced to silence; for there is no reply to be made. When conscience is awakened, its witness is plain and unmistakable.
III. THE EXPRESS AND AUTHORITATIVE STATEMENT OF GOD'S OWN WORD AS TO MAN'S INDIVIDUAL ACCOUNTABILITY. The language of this chapter is peculiarly explicit upon this matter. "The soul that sinneth, it shall die;… the righteous shall surely live, he shall not die." And these statements are in harmony with the whole tenor of Scripture teaching. The Bible magnifies man's personality, and never represents man as a machine, an organism. Each living soul stands in its own relation to the Father of spirits, before whom every moral and free nature must appear to render an account for itself, and not for another. The teaching of our Lord and of his apostles is as definite and decided upon this point as the teaching of the Lawgiver and the prophets of the earlier dispensation. We are throughout Scripture consistently taught that there is no evading the great account.—T.
No such conception of Deity can be found elsewhere as in the Holy Scriptures. Where can the sentiment of this verse be matched in other sacred literatures? Thousands of years have elapsed since these words were penned; and the world has not produced or heard language in itself more morally elevating and beautiful, more honouring to the Supreme Ruler, more consolatory and inspiring to the sinful sons of men.
I. MEN HAVE CHERISHED SUSPICION OF THE DIVINE MALEVOLENCE. No one who is acquainted with the religions which have obtained among the nations of mankind will question this. The deities of the Gentiles have reflected the moral qualities of the human race, and accordingly attributes morally reprehensible as well as attributes morally commendable have been assigned to the deities whom men have worshipped. Indeed, worship has to no small extent consisted in methods supposed efficacious to appease the wrath of the cruel and malicious powers from whose ill will humanity, it has been thought, had much to dread. And it is not to be questioned that even Jewish and Christian worship have not been free from some measure of this same error. It has been customary to refer the governmental and judicial infliction of punishment to a disposition to take pleasure in human sufferings and torture. The student of Scripture is aware that there is no authority, no justification for such a view; but the student of human nature is not surprised that such a view should have been taken.
II. GOD'S REPUDIATION OF MALEVOLENCE IN PLAIN AUTHORITATIVE WORDS. "Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked? saith the Lord God." It is indeed condescension in the Supreme Ruler thus to remove the misunderstandings and difficulties which men create for themselves by their own ignorance and sin. Again and again he represents himself as merciful and delighting in mercy, but nowhere does he give the least ground for a suspicion that he delights in, or even is indifferent to, the sufferings of the children of men. Since all his words are faithful and true, we can but rest and rejoice in such an assurance as that of the text.
III. GOD'S PROOF IN HIS DEEDS OF THE BENEVOLENCE OF HIS NATURE. Israel, as a nation, had abundant evidence of the loving kindness and long suffering of him who chose the people as his own, trained them for his service, instructed them in his Law, bore with their frequent disobedience and rebellion, and ever addressed to them promises of compassion and of help. But all proofs of the Divine benevolence pale before that glorious exhibition of God's love and kindness which we Christians have received in him who is the unspeakable Gift of Heaven. Had the Almighty felt any pleasure in the death of the wicked, he would not have given his own Son, while we were yet sinners, to die for us. He took pleasure, not in the condemnation and death, but in the salvation of men. In Christ his love and kindness appeared; for Christ came, not to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved.
IV. THE ENCOURAGEMENT THUS AFFORDED TO PENITENT SINNERS TO HOPE FOR ACCEPTANCE AND LIFE. The pleasure of God is that the wicked "should return from his way, and should live." Thus there is coincidence between the good pleasure of the Omnipotent upon the one hand, and the best desires and truest interests of penitent sinners on the other. He wire repents of his evil deed, who looks upwards for forgiveness, and who resolves upon. a new and better life, has not to encounter Divine displeasure or ill will; on the contrary, he is assured of a gracious reception, of immediate pardon, of kindest consideration, and of help and guidance in the carrying out of holler purpose and endeavour. The demeanour and the language of God are those of the compassionate Father, who welcomes the returning prodigal, accords him a benign reception, and proffers him all those blessings, now and hereafter, which alone can answer to the glorious and comprehensive gift of Divine love—eternal life!—T.
There is something very impressive in the form of this remonstrance. If the question were taken in its literal sense, and published among men upon Divine authority; if men were invited to accept immunity from buddy dissolution;—in how many cases would the appeal meet, not only with earnest attention, but with eager response! The death which is here referred to must be that which consists in Divine displeasure, or, at all events, that death in which such displeasure forms the most distressing ingredient. The appeal may be enforced by several obvious but weighty considerations.
I. WHY WILL YE DIE, WHEN DEATH IS THE WORST OF DOOMS? If the death of the body is in itself and in its circumstances and consequences of a repulsive nature, all the more fitly may it serve to set forth and to suggest the evils denoted in Scripture as spiritual death. Insensibility and dissolution may be taken as figures of that spiritual state in which interest in Divine truth and righteousness and love has departed, in which there is no occupation in the service of God. The soul that has any just sense of its own good must needs shrink from such a condition.
II. WHY WILL YE DIE, WHEN LIFE IS THE GREATEST OF BLESSINGS? The life of the body, if accompanied by health and favorable circumstances, is desirable and delightful. No wonder that in Scripture the highest blessings of which the nature of man is capable are designated by the suggestive and comprehensive term "life." The spirit that truly lives is open to all heavenly appeals and influences, finds in the just exercise of its powers the fullest satisfaction, experiences the blessedness of fellowship with the ever-living God. Our Lord Christ himself came to this world, and wrought and suffered as he did, in order that "we might have life, and might have it more abundantly." The appeal of the text calls upon us to accept this priceless boon.
III. WHY WILL YE DIE, SEEING THAT THE MEANS OF LIFE ARE WITHIN YOUR REACH? There would be mockery in the appeal of the text were this not so. But he who alone can provide both the means and the end compassionately addresses those who have forfeited life and have deserved death, and urges upon them the remonstrance, "Why will ye die?" It is a remonstrance which comes home with tenfold force to those who listen to the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, "the true God and the Eternal Life." Knowledge and faith, the Holy Spirit of God himself, and the truth which he reveals and applies to the nature of man;—here are the means, here is the living agency, by which men may rise "from the death of sin unto the life of righteousness." When such means and such agency are provided, the guilt and folly are manifest of those who choose death rather than life.
IV. WHY WILL YE DIE, WHEN GOD HIMSELF WISHES FOR YOUR LIFE RATHER THAN DEATH? The benevolence of the Divine nature finds expression in the virtual entreaty of the text. It is as though a kind of infatuated wilfulness were presumed to exist in the breasts of sinful men; as if, while their Maker and Judge wishes to be their Saviour, they were indisposed to accept the boon offered by his pity and loving kindness. It is as though the eternal Lord himself, against whom sinners have offended, urged his own compassion upon those who have no pity upon themselves.
V. WHY WILL YE DIE, WHEN CHRIST HAS DIED FOR YOU? He gave his life a ransom for many. The Saviour's death is represented as the redemption, the purchase price, securing the exemption from death of those who accept the provision of Divine mercy and love. The appeal is powerful which is made to sinful men not to refuse the boon so graciously offered, and secured at a price so costly. Christ died that we might live.—T.
HOMILIES BY J.D. DAVIES
The Divine equity.
The unbounded compassion of God is seen in his patience under human provocation, and in his repeated messages to rebellious men. There is "line upon line, precept upon precept." Every style of expostulation is adopted; every complaint silenced; for his "love is stronger than death," mightier than sin.
I. GOD HAS SUPREME PROPRIETORSHIP IN MEN. "All souls are mine." This statement is prefaced by a "Behold!" for this was a fact overlooked by querulous men. As undisputed and irresponsible Proprietor of souls, God need give no account of his doings. Every lip of complaint ought to be dumb. And this truth has also an encouraging aspect; for as God accounts a human soul his precious property, he will provide for its security. Nowhere can we be so safe as in the hands of this Proprietor.
II. GOD'S SOLEMN ATTESTATION OF RIGHTEOUSNESS. God's glory is his righteousness, and he deigns to make that righteousness understood and acknowledged by men. He loves to dwell in the esteem and admiration of his creatures; therefore he condescends to speak after the manner of men. He comes down to our level; and as in judicial cases we accept the testimony of men, given under the sanction of an oath; God attempts to scatter our doubts by speaking in a similar manner. That he is immaculately righteous, all the unsinning hosts of heaven affirm; and this shall all mankind ultimately confess.
III. SINNING MEN ALWAYS ATTEMPT SELF-JUSTIFICATION. These murmurers in Chaldea felt the severity of their chastisement, but did not feel the gravity of their sin. They imagined that it must have been their fathers' sins which were being avenged in them. This state of mind has always been a characteristic of the sinner. "My punishment," he argues, "is in excess of my sin." Now, a part of the penalty of sin is the blinding of the mind, the perversion of the judging faculty. The man fastens his attention on his suffering—loses sight of his secret sin.
IV. VICE IS ENTAILED FROM FATHER TO SON; GUILT IS NOT ENTAILED. It has for ages been a knotty problem among thoughtful men, whether children suffered for the sins of their parents. Undoubtedly they suffer—they suffer in privation, in health, in reputation, in the tone of moral feeling, in the loss of high example and holy stimulus. But properly speaking, this is not guile, this is not punishment. A man's vices are entailed to his posterity. A child follows in its father's steps at first, until it learns to reflect then often it turns away in disgust. But guilt means sin in the light of law, and a man does not contract guilt until he understands the law and can distinguish between right and wrong. At this point, sin, if persisted in, becomes guilt, and suffering then becomes punishment.
V. THE LAST PENALTY OF LAW IS ALWAYS THE EFFECT OF PERSONAL GUILT. "The soul that sinneth, it shall die"—it, and not another in its stead. Other suffering—such as poverty, ill repute, a sickly body, an ill-furnished mind—all this is disciplinary; all this can be made the means of higher good. This is not penalty, though it is suffering. But the culminating stroke of punishment, viz. death, falls alone on him who is personally guilty. No guilty man shall escape. No innocent man shall suffer final destruction. This is God's equity.—D.
God's remonstrance with man's reason.
It is an act of singular kindness that God should stoop to reason with the perverted mind of man. It had been a pleasure to instruct the uncorrupted mind; but now that the instrument is injured, it requires infinitely more patience and skill to deal with it. Yet God deigns to explain his principles of rule, and will eventually vindicate, as supremely just, every secret act. But sinful men are self-blinded.
I. WE ARE REMINDED OF MAN'S RESPONSIBILITY. God deals with men as creatures capable of discerning between right and wrong. Man's morality is, in God's sight, everything. To be righteous is his glory. The final inquiry will be not—Is he rich or poor? learned or unlearned? but this only—Is he righteous or unrighteous? Every man is undergoing moral trial. He must give an account of himself before God.
II. IDOLATRY IS A ROOT OF VARIOUS IMMORALITY. It is not merely a creed, nor yet only a form of worship. It indicates a state of heart, a departure from the soul's anchorage. The living God is the Source of human purity, human greatness, and to wander from him is to drift into darkness and vice and ruin. Wherever idolatry has prevailed, there has prevailed also unchastity, licentiousness, violence, and cruelty.
III. PARENTAL INFLUENCE IS POTENT, YET NOT FATAL. A father's opinions and beliefs will, in the first instance, he conveyed to his child; yet soon the child wilt gather opinions and teaching from other sources, and often modifies or reverses the beliefs of its parent. The evil example of a parent moulds, more or less, the character of a child. As a parent is the channel of natural life to the child, so too he may become the channel of moral and spiritual life. As a fact, the results of parental influence are conspicuously seen. Yet a son is not doomed to copy the character of his parent, nor fated to imitate his vices. He has the power to consider, to ponder, to choose, to resist. Strong influence is not fate.
IV. REPENTANCE, AT ANY STAGE OF HUMAN PROBATION, IS POSSIBLE. It is recognized, throughout the Bible, that a man may turn from evil ways. If, at any point short of death, a man is disposed to turn from a vicious course, all the resources of God's skill and power are on his side. There is no hindrance to a man's reformation and restoration save his own unwillingness, Incessantly, God is inviting such repentance.
V. REPENTANCE LEADS TO COMPLETE AND PERFECT RIGHTEOUSNESS. Repentance is not merely a negation; it is a positive good. It is the first link in a golden chain that shall bind the soul in sweet allegiance to God. It is the first drop in a precious shower of blessing. It is the foundationstone of a new character. It is the seed of a magnificent harvest. From true repentance every virtue, every excellence, every noble quality, shall spring. Give it time, and it shall bear upon its branches all the figurers and fruits of goodness. It is the first ray of heaven struggling to find entrance into man's heart.
VI. RIGHTEOUSNESS IS INCIPIENT LIFE. "In his righteousness that he hath done, he shall live." Only that man who is righteous truly lives. The life of a man must include the life of conscience—the life of the soul. To eat, drink, sleep, is the life of an animal, not the life of an immortal. The first activities of conscience are the movements and signs of life. Therefore penitence is nascent life. Reformation is life. Reconciliation with God is life—the budding of the heavenly life. The limb of grace on earth is the dawn of an eternal day. Such righteousness brings peace, rest, joy, into the heart—heaven begun below. These are the first fruits of the coming harvest. "The just shall live by his faith."—D.
The path to life.
Sin has a blinding effect upon man's intellect and reason. It leads to most erroneous conclusions. It produces deep-seated and suicidal prejudice. It puts "darkness for light, and light for darkness." The most perfect equality it brands "inequality." It would make heaven into hell.
I. THE FIRST STEP HEAVENWARD IS THOUGHTFUL CHOICE. The chief folly of men is their thoughtlessness. They sink into mental and moral indolence. They will not investigate truth, nor ponder the demands of duty, nor forecast the future. But when "he comes to himself," he begins to reflect. "Because he considereth" (Ezekiel 18:28), he turns over a new leaf. The man allows intelligence add wisdom and reason to prevail. He resolves to seek his real good. He chooses the best course, and determines to pursue it.
II. WISE DECISION LEADS TO NEW ACTION. Having made an intelligent resolve, the man "turns away from his transgressions." He begins with known sins. He abandons these. That is only a sham decision which does not lead to action. The will may be a slave to feeling and appetite; in that case no real decision has been made. The soul is divided. There is strife and war within! But if the man has decided upon a line of conduct, new action will at once follow.
III. ACTIONS REACT UPON THE AFFECTIONS. It is a known fact that necessary work which was at first repulsive ceases to be repulsive. We grow to love actions which are oft repeated. Especially if such actions are right in themselves, if they have a moral loveliness, if others approve them, if they produce good effects, we learn to love them. Our actions develop and strengthen our affections. The heart is benefited. The tone and temper of our spirit are improved. True, it is God that renews and purifies the heart; but he works through our own activity. He gives Divine efficacy to the means employed.
IV. THE AFFECTIONS OF A MAN FASHION HIS CHARACTER. As a man's sentiments and affections are, so is he. "A new heart, and a right spirit" go together. The character follows the affections. The man that loves purity will become pure. The man that loves God will become God-like. So long as man is on earth, he never is, he is always becoming, good or bad, great or mean. Character here is in a state of fusion.
V. MAN'S SUPREME GOOD IS IDENTICAL WITH GOD'S PLEASURE. God has no pleasure in the death of a sinner; he has pleasure from his ransomed life. If my heart and life are right, I afford pleasure to God, I add to his joy. On the other hand, my sin diminishes his joy. For his own sake, therefore, he will hear my prayer; he will help me in my struggles against sin. Why, then, should we die? It is unreasonable. Every argument, every motive, is against it. To continue in sin is folly, madness, suicide.—D.
HOMILIES BY W. JONES
The misapplied proverb of sour grapes.
"The word of the Lord came unto me again, saying, What mean ye, that ye use this proverb concerning the land of Israel?" etc. In the 'Speaker's Commentary' a connection between this and the preceding chapter is pointed out. "The last verse of the preceding chapter declares that God is wont to abase the lofty and to exalt those of low estate. This gives occasion for a declaration of the principle upon which these providential dispensations proceed, viz. that every individual shall be equitably dealt with—a principle that precludes the children from either presuming on the fathers' merits or despairing on account of the fathers' guilt."
I. THE SOLEMN TRUTH EXPRESSED IN THIS PROVERB. Regarding this proverb apart from the spirit in which it was used by the Jews, it sets forth the truth that there is a transmission of certain qualities and tendencies, advantages and disadvantages, from parents to their children; that children inherit good or evil, or both, from their parents; that some of the consequences of parental character and conduct extend to their children.
1. This truth is stated in the sacred Scriptures. We find it in Exodus 20:5, Exo 20:6; 2 Samuel 21:1; Jeremiah 15:4; Lamentations 5:7; Luke 11:50, Luke 11:51.
2. This truth may be distinctly traced in human life. It is apparent physically. It is exemplified in the sound constitutions of the children of healthy and virtuous parents; in the debilitated frame and depraved appetite of the children of drunkards; and in the transmission of certain diseases of the body from generation to generation. The operation of this principle is clearly seen in the secular circumstances of persons. Prudent and thrifty parents often bequeath to their children material comforts and riches, while the reckless and thriftless squander their possessions and leave to their children encumbered estates or no estate at all. This principle is exhibited socially in the respect which is accorded to the offspring of honourable parents, and in the infamy of vicious or criminal parents which damages the reputation of their unfortunate children. It is apparent mentally. The children of educated and thoughtful parents generally manifest inclination and aptitude for learning and intellectual pursuits. The reverse is usually the case with the children of unthinking and ignorant parents, It is traceable even in moral character and tendency. The prolivities to sin in the offspring of depraved and vicious parents are far more active and powerful than in the children of the godly. To live virtuous and Christian lives is much less difficult for the latter than for the former. Moral tendencies are transmissible. We may trace the presence and working of this principle in communities. Much of the good and also much of the evil which we have in our life and circumstances today we inherit from the generations which have preceded us—from the governments, the Churches, the authors, of earlier ages, The connection of the generations necessitates the fact upon which we are dwelling.
II. THE UNJUSTIFIABLE USE OF THIS PROVERB. It was in common and frequent use amongst the Jews in Babylon and also in Jerusalem (Jeremiah 31:29). It was used wrongly by them. They used it:
1. So as to ignore their own sins. They were suffering because of the sins of their ancestors, especially of Manasseh (Jeremiah 15:4); and they repeated this proverb as though they had done nothing to merit the afflictions under which they laboured, and were being unrighteously dealt with. Whereas we have seen already in these prophecies of Ezekiel how widely they had departed from God, and how deeply they were implicated in the worst of sins (cf. Ezekiel 5:5-11; Ezekiel 6:1-7; Ezekiel 7:1-9; Ezekiel 8:5-18; Ezekiel 16:15-34). They were suffering not one iota more than they deserved for their own sins.
2. So as to ignore the beneficial action of the essential principle of this proverb.
(1) By the operation of this principle good is transmitted from parents to children as well as evil. They overlooked all the good which they had inherited from such ancestors as Abraham, Moses, Samuel, David, Solomon, and others. We inherit many and precious blessings through the lives and labours, the sufferings and sacrifices, of those who have preceded us on this planet.
(2) The operation of this principle is calculated to exert a powerful influence in restraining from sin and inciting to virtue. The love of parents for their children is one of the purest and strongest affections of the human heart. That love, combined with a recognition of this principle, would constrain parents to live wisely and purely, lest otherwise they should injure their beloved offspring. But in using this proverb the Jews took no account of the beneficial operation of this principle. They quoted it as though it were productive only of evil.
3. So as by implication to challenge the justice of God in his providential dealings with them. They repeated this proverb complainingly, as if they were suffering wrongfully, and were not receiving righteous treatment at the hand of the Lord. They had themselves eaten sour grapes, and their teeth were set on edge; but they spoke only of their fathers having eaten the sour grapes, and the children suffering the consequences. Thus tacitly they aspersed the righteousness of the government of the Lord Jehovah in relation to them.
III. THE CESSATION OF THE USE OF THIS PROVERB. "As I live, saith the Lord God, ye shall not any more use this proverb in Israel. Behold, all souls are mine," etc. Ezekiel does not explicitly say by what means the use of this proverb should be brought to an end. But we suggest:
1. By the manifestation of the personal wickedness of those who used it. God would so bring their sin to light that it should be evident that their punishment did not exceed their guilt. Calvin clearly expresses the idea: "It was just as if he had said, I will drive out of you this boasting, by laying bare your iniquity, in such a manner that the whole world shall perceive you to suffer the punishment you yourselves deserve, and you shall not be able, as you have been hitherto endeavouring, to cast the burden on your fathers."
2. Because of the relationship which God bears to all souls in common. "Behold, all souls are mine; as the soul of the father, so also the soul of the son is mine." He is "the God of the spirits of all flesh." He is "the Father of spirits." In this relationship we have a guarantee that he will not deal unjustly with any one. All souls are his; and therefore he will not manifest partiality in his dealings with any. "The soul of one man was as much regarded by him as that of another. He had the soul of the father as absolutely at his disposal as that of the son; and he could have no motive for letting the one escape with impunity in order to punish the other in his stead" (Scott).
3. Because the real punishment of sin can only befall the actual sinner. "The soul that sinneth, it shall die." This death is "the end of a process, the separation of the soul from its life source, the Spirit of God" (Deuteronomy 30:15; Proverbs 11:19; Jeremiah 21:8). Only in union with God can the soul live. When through Christ the soul reposes its utmost confidence in God, sets its supreme affection upon him, and renders its loyal obedience to him, it lives. Sin is the very opposite of this; it is disobedience, disaffection, distrust. It sunders the soul from God, and that is death to the soul. "Your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid his face from you." That separation is death, and that is the real punishment of sin. And it can come only upon the actual sinner, because it grows out of the sin. Sin and punishment are related as seed and fruit. "Whatsoever a man soweth, that Shall he also reap;" "Sin when it is full groan, bringeth forth death." Men may and do suffer by reason of the sins of others, but that suffering is not their punishment, but their misfortune. Spiritual death, which is the true penalty of sin, can only come upon the sinner himself. "The wages of sin is death;" "The soul that sinneth, it shall die."
CONCLUSION. Our subject shows:
1. The fallacy of the notion that sin is an injury only to the sinner himself. The essential penalty falls upon him alone. But others are ill-affected by his pernicious example, and feel some of the sad consequences of his evil character and conduct. "For none of us liveth to himself."
2. The solemn obligations of parents to live upright and worthy lives. All men are under such obligations. But parents are specially so bound by reason of their relation to their children. They ought so to live that their lives shall entail nothing but good to their offspring, in every respect—physically, etc.
3. The temerity and sin of challenging the justice of the Divine dealings with man. "The Lord is righteous in all his works;" "Clouds and darkness are round about him: righteousness and judgment are the foundation of his throne." If we cannot always discern the righteousness of his ways and acts, it is not because that righteousness does not exist, but because of the imperfection of our perceptions. These are not wide or clear enough to survey the vast extent or penetrate the profound depth of his designs and doings. Or our perceftions may be dulled or perverted by our sins. But his ways and works are ever not only just, but infinitely holy. "Righteous and true are thy ways, thou King of the nations."—W.J.
The just man delineated,
"But if a man be just, and do that which is lawful and right," etc.
I. THE CHARACTER MENTIONED. "If a man be just," or righteous. This justness or righteousness is not merely a state of correct opinion; or of becoming feeling on moral questions; or of religious profession (Matthew 7:21). It is a condition of character. The just man "is marked by this, that his settled principles, his customary desire, is to do, not what is pleasant, not what is advantageous to self, but what is right." "Little children, let no man lead you astray: he that doeth righteousness is righteous."
II. THE CONDUCT EXHIBITED. The just man "does that which is lawful and right." Certain features of his conduct are here plainly set forth.
1. Complete abstinence from idolatrous practices. "Hath not eaten upon the mountains, neither hath lifted up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel." The eating upon tie mountains refers to the sacrificial feasts in connection with the worship of idols (cf. I Corinthians Ezekiel 8:4-10; Ezekiel 10:7). Idolatry had become so prevalent and popular that certain idols were regarded as belonging to the people of Israel, the chosen people of the Lord Jehovah. But to these the just man pays no deference: he neither seeks their favour nor dreads their displeasure; but he worships God alone. Our idols today are pursuits, possessions, persons, to whom we are ianordinately attached. Anything which we allow as a rival to God for the affection of our heart or the devotion of our life is an idol to us.
2. Scrupulous maintenance of chastity. "Neither hath defiled his neighbour's wife, neither hath come near to a menstruous woman." The just man controls his carnal appetites by his reason and conscience.
3. Careful avoidance of oppression of any kind or degree.
(1) Robbery by violence. "Hath spoiled none by violence."
(2) Injustice by peaceful means. "And hath not oppressed any, but hath restored to the debtor his pledge. The pledge referred to is some of the necessaries of life, as in Exodus 22:26, "If thou at all take the neighbour's garment to pledge, thou shalt restore it unto him by that the sun goeth down: for that is his only covering, it is 'his garment for his skin: wherein shall he sleep?"
(3) Injustice by making a man's poverty the occasion of personal profit. "He hath not given forth upon usury, neither hath taken any increase." "Usury," says the 'Speaker's Commentary, "is the profit exacted for the loan of money, increase that which is taken for goods; both are alike forbidden (Le Exodus 25:36; Deuteronomy 23:19). The placing out of capitol at interest for commercial purposes is not taken into consideration at all. The case is that of money lent to a brother in distress, in which no advantage is to be taken, nor profit required."
4. Exercise of practical philanthropy. "Hath given his bread to the hungry, and hath covered the naked with a garment." The just man as delineated by the prophet not only refrains from injuring any one, but also endeavours to help those who need his aid. In the Bible a high estimate is placed upon the exhibition of practical kindness to the poor and needy (cf. Job 31:16-22; Isaiah 58:7; Matthew 25:35, Matthew 25:36, Matthew 25:40). Our Lord reckons and will reward such actions as done unto him.
5. Righteous dealings with men. "That hath withdrawn his hand from iniquity, hath executed true judgment between man and man." The last clause, perhaps, refers to the duties of a judge. But in every capacity and in all his conduct the truly just man endeavors to do what is right and true, and to promote the doing of the same by others. And as Matthew Henry expounds, "If at any time he has been drawn in through inadvertency to that which afterwards has appeared to him to be a wrong thing, he does not persist in it because he has begun it, but withdraws his hand from that which he now perceives to be iniquity."
6. Faithful obedience to God. "Hath walked in my statutes, and hath kept my judgments, to deal truly." The just man renders positive and active compliance with the holy will of God. That will is his rule of action; and he endeavours to be true to it and true to the Author of it. The man whose conduct is thus sketched by the prophet is pronounced a just man, a righteous man. "He is just," not only in profession, but in fact; not only before man, but before God.
III. THE DESTINY ASSERTED. "He shall surely live, saith the Lord God"—"live in the fullest and deepest sense of the word." This life is the antithesis of the death predicated of the sinner: "The soul that sinneth, it shall die." The "just shall surely live; … . The just shall live by his faith." The life of truth and righteousness, of kindness towards man and reverence towards God, is already his. And its continuance is promised by God. "He shall surely live," spiritually, progressively, eternally.—W.J.
Personal character sad destiny.
"If he beget a son that is a robber, a shedder of blood," etc. Most of the features of character mentioned in these verses came under our notice in our preceding homily. And other parts of these verses (e.g. "the soul that sinneth, it shall die") have already engaged our attention. But the paragraph suggests the following observations.
I. THAT PERSONAL CHARACTER IS NOT HEREDITARY. We have pointed out (on Ezekiel 18:1-4) that moral tendencies are frequently hereditary; a child may inherit a strong bias towards good or towards evil from his parents. But a person's real character is not the product of the law of heredity. A just man may "beget a son that is a robber, a shedder of blood, and that doeth any one of these things," etc. (Ezekiel 18:10-14). The character thus portrayed is the very opposite of the just man (Ezekiel 18:5-9), yet it is suggested that this character may belong to the son of the just man. Personal principles and piety cannot be transmitted from father to son as property is transmitted. The son of a good man may repudiate his father's God, and refuse to tread in his father's footsteps. Eli was a good man, but his sons were "sons of Belial." David was a great-souled and godly man, but he begat an Absalom. And Solomon begat a Rehoboam. "Grace does Hot run in the blood, nor always attend the means of grace." On the other hand, a wicked parent may beget a son who shall shun his father's sins, and live a righteous and religious life. The son does not inherit either the righteousness or the wickedness of his father as he inherits the paternal possessions.
II. THAT THE HOLY CHARACTER OF A PARENT WILL NOT AVAIL FOR THE SALVATION OF HIS CHILDREN. The just man by his holiness does not save his wicked son. That son "shall not live: he hath done all these abominations: he shall surely die; his blood shall be upon him." The children of the godly have great religious advantages. In the instructions, examples, and prayers of their parents they have most valuable aids to personal piety. Moreover, they probably inherit from them tendencies and aptitudes to the true and the good. Still, the parental character will only avail for the salvation of the parents. The children of the godly can only realize the salvation by realizing a character like unto their parents. David's godliness, though joined with intense love for his son, did not save Absalom from ruin. Hezekiah was a good man, but his son Manasseh was terribly wicked. Josiah was eminently pious and patriotic, but his children were notoriously depraved. True religion is an intensely personal thing; it is an individual life and experience and practice. All its important experiences and acts are essentially personal and solitary. Only the sinner himself can repent of his sins. No one can believe on Jesus Christ for us. If faith is to benefit us it must be our own willing and cordial act and exercise. We cannot work out our salvation by proxy. Every man must "work out his own salvation with fear and trembling." The Jews prided themselves on their descent from Abraham, as though by that their salvation was secured; but John the Baptist declared to them the worthlessness of their hope (Matthew 3:7-11), and our Lord exhibited its utter delusiveness (John 8:33-44). True religion is not ours in virtue of any human connection or relationship. It is a thing not of flesh and blood, but of spirit and principle; not of human generation, but of Divine regeneration.
III. THAT THE WICKED CHARACTER OF A PARENT DOES NOT NECESSITATE THE WICKEDNESS AND DEATH OF HIS CHILDREN. "Now, lo, if he" (i.e. the wicked son of just father) "beget a son, that seeth all his father's sins which he hath done, and considereth, and doeth not such like," etc. (verses 14-17). Great are the disadvantages of the children of wicked parents. Parental example and influence are decidedly inimical to their highest and best interests. If they become true and good it will be notwithstanding their parents, not because of them. Yet such children may grow up righteous and religious, useful and godly. The son may behold his father's sins, not as an example, but as a warning, and may form quite a different character and lead quite a different life. The prophet mentions certain steps in this process which we may glance at with advantage.
1. Parental sins seen. "A son, that seeth all his father's sins which he hath done." Sons are close observers of their fathers' acts and ways. This should lead fathers to act wisely and to follow the ways that are good. It is a sad thing for a son to see follies and sins in his own father.
2. Parental sins considered. "And considereth." Observation is of little benefit without reflection. By reflection we are enabled to realize the true significance and bearings of facts and circumstances. By reflection facts become forces unto us. Inconsideration often leads to sin. At a time when Israel was "laden with iniquity" one of the grave charges laid against them was, "My people doth not consider."
3. Parental sins shunned. "Considereth, and doeth not such like." A due consideration of the ways and works of the wicked, their real character and certain tendencies, would lead us to regard them as solemn lessons to he earnestly shunned. Thus, according to our text, the son of a sinful parent may avoid that parent's sins, and practise the opposite virtues. Examples of this are happily numerous. The excellent Hezekiah was the son of the wicked Ahaz. Good Josiah was the son of the notoriously depraved Amon, and the grandson of the still more notoriously wicked Manasseh.
IV. INDIVIDUAL DESTINY IS DETERMINED BY INDIVIDUAL CHARACTER. "Yet say ye, Wherefore doth not the son bear the iniquity of the father? When the son hath done that which is lawful and right, and hath kept all my statutes, and hath done them, he shall surely live. The soul that sinneth, it shall die. The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son: the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him." No statement could be more explicit and decisive than this. And it is corroborated by other declarations of Holy Writ. "If thou art wise, thou art wise for thyself; and if thou scornest, thou alone shalt bear it;" "Each one of us shall give account of himself to God;" "Each man shall bear his own burden." Individual destiny grows out of individual character. "As righteousness tendeth to life: so he that pursueth evil pursueth it to his own death."—W.J.
Moral transformations and their consequences.
"But if the wicked will turn from all his sins that he hath committed, and keep all my statutes," etc. In this paragraph the vindication of the moral government of God is advanced another stage. Already it has been shown that the son does not die for his father's sins, or live for his father's righteousness. Only the soul that sinneth shall die; only the soul that is righteous shall live. Now the prophet proceeds to show that "so far from the sins of his fathers excluding from salvation, not even his own do this, if they be penitently forsaken." Or, as Matthew Henry expresses it, "The former showed that God will reward or punish according to the change made in the family or succession, for the better or for the worse; here he shows that he will reward or punish according to the change made in the person himself, whether for the better or the worse."
I. A DESIRABLE MORAL TRANSFORMATION.
1. Its nature. Several stages of it which are here specified will make this clear.
(1) Serious consideration. "He" (i.e. the wicked man) "considereth" (verse 28). Reflection is an indispensable step towards repentance. Thinking must precede turning. Thus it was with the psalmist: "I thought on my ways, and turned my feet unto thy testimonies," etc. (Psalms 119:59, Psalms 119:60). So also with the prodigal son: "when he came to himself," and thought upon his father's house, and his own wretched condition, it was not long before he arose and penitently went to his father (Luke 15:17-20). Consideration leads to conversion.
(2) Resolute forsaking of sin. "If the wicked will turn from all his sins that he hath committed" (verse 21); "Because he considereth, and turneth away from all his transgressions that he hath committed" (verse 28). There is no true turning or repentance apart from the renunciation of sin; and where repentance is both true and thorough there is a renunciation of "all his sins;" the sinner "turneth away from all his transgressions." He makes no reservation; he does not long or plead for the retention of any because they are small or comparatively uninjurious. He loathes sin, and endeavours to eschew it altogether.
(3) Hearty following after righteousness. "And keep all my statutes, and do that which is lawful and right." Getting rid of the evil is not enough; we must needs get possession of the good. Ceasing to do evil must be followed by learning to do well. Not only are we not to be overcome of evil; we are to go on to overcome evil with good. "He that would love life … let him turn away from evil and do good." If the evil spirit be expelled from our heart, and the Holy Spirit be not welcomed therein, the evil spirit will return with other spirits worse than himself, and they will take possession of our heart and dwell there (Matthew 12:43-45). The desirable moral transformation includes hearty abandonment of sin and hearty cultivation of goodness.
2. Its consequences.
(1) Forgiveness of his sins. "All his transgressions that he hath committed, they shall not be mentioned unto him;" Revised Version, "None of his transgressions that he hath committed shall be remembered against him." They shall be so completely pardoned that there shall be no reproach because of them, no recall of them, no recollection of them. How fully and absolutely God forgives! "I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin will I remember no more;" "I, even I, am he that blotteth out thy transgressions for mine own sake; and I will not remember thy sins;" "As far as the east is from the west, so far hath he removed our transgressions from us;" "Thou hast cast all my sins behind thy back;" "He delighteth in mercy. He will turn again and have compassion upon us; he will tread our iniquities under foot; and thou wilt cast all their sins into the depths of the sea."
(2) Bestowment of spiritual life. "He shall surely live, he shall not die In his righteousness that he hath done he shall live He shall save his soul alive." In the favour and fellowship of God is the soul's life.. "In his favour is life." And that favour is granted to the soul that penitently turns from sin unto God. (For additional suggestions concerning this life, see our notes on verse 9.)
3. Its great encouragement. "Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked? saith the Lord God: and not rather that he should return from his way, and live?" God delights in the conversion, not in the condemnation, of the sinner; in the inspiration of life, not in the infliction of death. "The God of the Old Testament," says Havernich, "has a heart: himself the essence of all blessedness, and mirroring himself in the blessedness of the creature, he has a heart forevery being who has fallen away from him, and who is exposed to death. The fundamental feature of his character is holy love: he delighteth in the return of the sinner from death to life." "He delighteth in mercy." This is the great encouragement for the sinner to turn in penitence unto him.
II. A DEPLORABLE MORAL TRANSFORMATION.
1. Its nature. "When the righteous turneth away from his righteousness, and committeth iniquity, and doeth according to all the abominations that the wicked man doeth." Here is the transformation of a righteous man into a wicked man; of a doer of righteousness into a worker of iniquity. The prophet does not set forth an occasional or temporary aberration from the right and the true; but the habitual and persistent practice of wickedness. Moreover, in the case supposed, the sinner "doeth according to all the abominations" of the wicked, and continues therein to the end of his earthly existence: he "committeth iniquity, and dieth therein" (verse 26). That such a turning from righteousness to wickedness is possible is evident from the moral constitution of man. He is free to obey or to disobey God; to do that which is right or to commit iniquity.
2. Its consequences.
(1) He forfeits the benefit of his former righteousness. "All his righteousness that he hath done shall not be mentioned;" Revised Version, "None of his righteous deeds that he hath done shall be remembered." This is the antithesis to that which was declared of him who turns from sin unto righteousness: "None of his transgressions that he hath committed shall be remembered against him." "Unless we persevere we lose what we have gained." "Look to yourselves, that ye lose not the things which we have wrought, but that ye receive a full reward."
(2) He incurs the penalty of his persistent wickedness. "In his trespass that he hath trespased, and in his sin that he hath sinned, in them shall he die;… for his iniquity that he hath done shall he die." (On this death, see our remarks on verse 4, "The soul that sinneth, it shall die;" and on verse 31.)
III. THE EQUITY OF THE DIVINE DEALINGS WITH MEN IN EACH OF THESE MORAL TRANSFORMATIONS. (Verses 25, 29.)
1. Men sometimes challenge the rectitude of God's dealings with them. "Ye say, The way of the Lord is not equal … Saith the house of Israel, The way of the Lord is not equal." The righteousness of the Divine way is thus denied, or at least questioned, sometimes even by the godly. Thus did Job (Job 10:2, Job 10:3). Thus also did Asaph (Psalms 73:11-14). If sore affliction or protracted trial befall us, we are prone to doubt and challenge the kindness, perhaps even the justice, of God's treatment of us. Yet "wherefore doth a living man complain, a man for the punishment of his sins?"
2. Those who thus challenge the rectitude of God's dealings are generally unrighteous themselves. " Hear now, O house of Israel … Are not your ways unequal?" The wickedness of the house of Israel had long been exceedingly great, and was still so; yet they were forward to charge God with unfairness in his dealings with them. The greatest sinners are the readiest to daringly call in question the holiness of the character and the righteousness of the doings of God. The more excellent a man is the greater will be his confidence in the holiness of the Divine will and ways, the more hearty his acquiescence in that will, and the more devoted his love to its great Author.
3. If God should, deign to reply to such a challenge, he will most amply vindicate the character of his dealings with men. He does so in this chapter. When the evolution of his purposes in relation to our race is more complete, it will be unmistakably clear that in the salvation of the penitent sinner and in the condemnation of the persistently wicked he has acted in complete harmony with the infinite perfections of his being. "His work is perfect; for all his ways are judgment: a God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and right is he;" "Clouds and darkness are round about him: righteousness and judgment are the foundation of his throne;" "The Lord is righteous in all his ways, and gracious in all his works;" "Great and marvellous are thy works, O Lord God, the Almighty; righteous and true are thy ways, thou King of the ages."—W.J.
A solemn and startling inquiry.
"Why will ye die?" The prophet has just exhorted the house of Israel to repent, to turn away from all sin, to turn unto God, so that iniquity should not prove their ruin. And now he addresses to them the brief and awakening interrogation, "Why will ye die?" This inquiry, interpreted in harmony with its context, implies, what has been already stated more than once in this chapter, that persistence in sin leads to the death of the soul. The prophet has also repeatedly stated that turning from sin to righteousness leads to life. And now, having completed the vindication of the Divine government against the charge implied in the popular proverb, "The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge," he earnestly appeals to them to turn from their transgressions to God, and thus to turn from death to life. And in this appeal he utters the solemn and startling inquiry. "Why will ye die, O house of Israel?" Wherefore will ye not repent, and live? Why will ye persist in sin, and die?
I. THE RUINOUSNESS OR PERSISTENCE IN SIN. It leads to death. "Why will ye die?" Man can live spiritually only in union with God. "In his favour is life." Cut our world adrift from the sun with his light and heat, and ere long it would be one region of invariable and total death. All life of every kind would perish from the earth. The soul cut off from God dies; for he is its Life and Light. Apart from the grace of God, and the influences of the Holy Spirit, all men are dead through their trespasses and sins. Every genuine Christian is said to have passed from death unto life: "He that heareth my word, and believeth him that sent me, hath eternal life, and cometh not into judgment, but hath passed out of death into life;" "We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren." Absence of sensibility is the great characteristic of dearth. In a dead body the eyes are there, but they see not; the ears are there, but they hear not; the nose, but it smells not; the organs of speech, but they speak not; the nerves, but they feel not. Sensibility has departed. And they who live in sin lack spiritual sensibility; they do not perceive the beauties of truth and holiness; they do not hear the voice of God speaking through their conscience or through his Word; they do not realize the joys of religion: they are spiritually dead. But from this state they may be quickened into life by the Word and the Spirit of God; they may be renewed in heart and in life. But persistence in sin, resistance of the influence of Divine grace and of the Holy Spirit diminish the possibility of the soul's renewal, and tend to render its death permanent. Redemptive facts and forces, even when applied by the Holy Spirit, affect the soul less and less unless they be yielded to. And conscience, even when quickened by the Holy Spirit, speaks ever with decreasing authority unless its authority be practically recognized. And so the moral condition proceeds from bad to worse. Persistence in sin leads to a deeper, darker death; or, speaking more accurately, to a more fully developed death. "Sin, when it is fullgrown, bringeth forth death." Who shall express the dread significance of this death? It has been spoken of thus: "The words of pardon, the language of love, will fall unheeded. The glorious redemption of man's soul by Christ, and Christ alone, will have no power. That power has departed. Every day it grew less. Sin has deadened all the senses; and no longer can he see the radiant form of the Son of heaven …. Every good shall die. Every ray of hope shall die. Every offer of mercy shall die. Every idea of future blessedness shall die. Every resolve of hallowed obedience, every repentant feeling, every sorrowful emotion, shall die The sinner left to himself; the sinner left alone; the sinner bereaved of good, bereaved of holiness, bereaved of God; the sinner left alone to die;—this were hell, at which the stoniest heart would quail, and the stoutest soul recoil!" (J.W. Lester). This death, which is the full development of sin, is, we think, unutterably and inconceivably dreadful. Persistence in sin is ruinous.
II. THE WILFULNESS OF PERSISTENCE IN SIN. "Why will ye die?" The inquiry' implies that man's ruin is of himself. The whole drift of this chapter has been to the same conclusion.
1. Man does not die because of any unwillingness on the part of God to save him. "I have no pleasure in the death of him that dieth, saith the Lord God;" "He delighteth in mercy;" "The Lord thy God is in the midst of thee, a Mighty One who will save: he will rejoice over thee with joy, he will rest in his love, he will joy over thee with singing." He finds infinite satisfaction and joy in delivering souls from death, and in granting to them life and light. He has proved his willingness to save men by the infinite cost at which he provided salvation for them. "He spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all."
2. Man does not die because of any deficiency in the Divine provisions for his salvation. The purposes and provisions of Divine grace for human salvation are inexhaustible and infinite. Spiritual forces are not limited and exhaustible as material forces are. The reconciling or atoning power which is adequate for one sinful soul is adequate for a million, or any number of millions, of such souls. "Christ Jesus gave himself a ransom for all;" "He died for all."
3. Man does not perish because of his inability to appropriate the salvation provided for him by God. It is offered gratuitously on condition of repentance for sin and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. "Repent ye, and turn yourselves from all your transgressions," etc. (Ezekiel 18:30); "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house;" "Who soever believeth on him should not perish, but have eternal life." Man is summoned by God to repent and believe the Saviour, and God never summons man to any duty, but man either has the power to obey the summons, or God waits to bestow that power upon him. In the latter case man has but to be willing to receive the power and it will be given unto him in ample sufficiency for his needs. Man is prone to believe. In many things he believes too readily. And in Jesus Christ there is everything to awaken and attract the heart's truest, tenderest, and most reverent trust. Salvation is offered on such terms that every man may avail himself of the offer if he will do so. It is in the human will that the mischief lies. "Because I have called, and ye refused," etc. (Proverbs 1:24, Proverbs 1:25); "How often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not! Ye will not come to me, that ye may have life;" "This is the judgment, that the light is come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the light; for their works were evil."
III. THE UNREASONABLENESS OF PERSISTENCE IN SIN. "Why will ye die?" Man is so constituted that he should act from reason. He has instincts and other impulses which lead to action; but these should be guided and governed by his reason. His instincts and passions should be ruled by his reason, which is the glory of his nature, and raises him above the inferior creatures in this world. When reason holds its proper place and exercises its proper power, then the lower impulses of our nature contribute to our true development and progress.
"When Reason, like the skilful charioteer,
Can break the fiery passions with the bit,
And, spite of their licentious sallies, keep
The radiant track of glory; passions then
Are aids and ornaments. Triumphant Reason,
Firm in her seat and swift in her career,
Enjoys their violence, and, smiling, thanks
Their formidable flame for high renown."
The Most High appeals to man's reason. "Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord," etc. (Isaiah 1:18); "Produce your cause, saith the Lord; bring forth your strong reasons," etc. (Isaiah 41:21); "Why will ye die?" This inquiry implies that man should have some reason for persistence in the way that leads to death. It also implies that he has not a satisfactory reason. It is, perhaps, designed to bring man to pause, and lead him to consider his ways, and to ask himself why he pursues the way of death. There is no satisfactory reason why men will die. Persistence in sin is utter and suicidal folly. "Why will ye die? For I have no pleasure in the death of him that dieth, saith the Lord God: wherefore turn yourselves, and live."—W.J.
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Exell, Joseph S; Spence-Jones, Henry Donald Maurice. "Commentary on Ezekiel 18". The Pulpit Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 21 / Ordinary 26