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THE LAW OF DIVINE RETRIBUTION AND MORAL FREEDOM.
Konig calls this chapter a “short catechism” by which Ezekiel hoped to show his countrymen their sins; but it may rather be called a sermon on divine justice and human freedom. God is exalted as the perfectly just One, whose word man must implicitly obey if he would himself be just. No man can truly be called “just” who is not just toward God, and he who is just toward God will be just toward all mankind. No divine punishment falls upon a man because of his father’s sin; there is no hereditary or ancestral guilt. On the other hand, no son need think to escape punishment because of his father’s righteousness. “The soul that sinneth, it shall die.” Ezekiel taught that safety and prosperity were not insured by being “children of Abraham” according to the flesh, but by living righteously, as Abraham lived. Heredity can neither save nor condemn. There is an individual responsibility, an individual guilt or righteousness, an individual power to repent of a sinful past or to forsake the way of righteousness, and the penalty or reward shall be according to the man’s free choices. The entire chapter emphasizes the freedom of the human will and the sovereignty of the individual soul.
2. Concerning Rather, in. The fathers have eaten [do eat] sour grapes This was a proverb which contained a half truth, but which the people were twisting to their own destruction. There may be a physical or political inheritance of trouble, but there can be no heredity of guilt. The people said: “Our fathers brought this calamity upon us,” but Ezekiel replied, “It comes because of sin, and because of your own sin. This is the direct punishment of Jehovah, and the just God will neither punish nations nor individuals for the sins of their ancestors.”
3. Ye shall not have occasion Or, ye shall not be permitted. Their own guilt shall now be made so plain to them (and the close connection between guilt and punishment) that they will no longer dare to blame their fathers and excuse themselves.
4. All souls are mine Jehovah has absolute ownership of all, therefore no unfairness is possible from him and no criticism is justifiable from others.
The soul that sinneth, it shall die This is the key to this chapter (Ezekiel 18:20) and to Ezekiel’s ethical teaching. No ancestral trait can buy salvation. Birth, race, and national religion all is vanity without individual repentance and “justice.” (See Ezekiel 18:9.) No ancestral crimes can bring guilt and divine punishment. This only comes from personal transgression. The common oriental law gave the father full control over the life and property of his son; but his soul is here declared to be free and independent. While the terms “live” and “die” no doubt referred to the physical nature yet there can be no doubt that Ezekiel interjects into them a moral and spiritual significance. (See Ezekiel 18:31 and chap. 37.)
Sinneth The prophet is not speaking of one isolated act of transgression, but of a persistent habit of life.
5. If a man be just The just man, according to Ezekiel’s definition, is one who is faithful to God and is obedient to his written law (Ezekiel 18:6); he does that which is “lawful and right;” he is a pure man and a religious man. He is not only honest but merciful (Ezekiel 18:7), generous and true-hearted (Ezekiel 18:8-9), one who is true to God and kind to his brother. This is very similar to Micah’s “good man,” who must “do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with his God” (Micah 6:8) see also Job’s righteous man (31), Isaiah’s (Isaiah 58:5-7), and the Psalmist’s (15). With Ezekiel’s description of the just man it is also interesting to compare the “superior man” of Confucius and the “righteous man” of the Egyptians of Moses’s day. Chinese “justice” had to do wholly with this world, but the Egyptians, like the Hebrews, believed God was man’s neighbor, to whom he owed duties of honor and gratitude and worship. In the confession of every orthodox Egyptian occurs the expression, “I permitted no one to suffer hunger, I pressed forth no tear, I did harm to no man, I did not commit adultery, I was not unchaste, I was not a quarreler, I have told no lie,” etc. There occur also declarations of positive virtue: “I gave bread to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, clothing to the naked.” (See the author’s Ancient Egypt, p. 11, etc.) It has often been insinuated that Ezekiel considered obedience to the “law” as the whole duty of man. But while the injunctions here are almost certainly taken from the written law, for he uses the very word for law which is used in Deuteronomy 12:1 (see, for full discussion, Konig vs. Smend, Revue de l’Hist, des Rels., 1894); yet he does not identify justice with the mere formal and technical observance of those statutes and ordinances. (Compare Ezekiel 18:31.) The statement which he here very properly emphasizes a statement which marks a new era in religious thought is, that it is only through obedience that a man can become just. Ezekiel saw that what his auditors most needed was a humble obedience to God’s will and a reverence for the written Scriptures. It was no doubt to a people already scrupulous about obeying the letter of the law that Isaiah spoke, urging the more spiritual idea of justice (Isaiah 5:1; Isaiah 6:11; Isaiah 51:7; Isaiah 56:6-8; Isaiah 62:1-3). Ezekiel’s audience was not prepared for this highest teaching, but there is no good reason for believing that Ezekiel was not in full sympathy with Isaiah’s best thought.
6. Eaten, etc. He has partaken of the sacrificial feast offered on the high places. The other acts of disobedience mentioned here are forbidden in Leviticus 15:24; Leviticus 17:7; Leviticus 18:19; Leviticus 19:26; Leviticus 5:10; Deuteronomy 22:22.
7. Violence Rather, robbery. (Also Ezekiel 18:12; Ezekiel 18:16; Ezekiel 18:18.) It vividly shows the poverty of the “common people,” that they had to get back their cloak in order to have something with which to cover themselves at night. Of course they were expected to return the pledge the next morning; but no doubt often this was not done. The temptation, therefore, on the part of the creditor to break the law was very strong. The references here are to Exodus 22:21; Exodus 22:26; Leviticus 6:1-5; Leviticus 19:15; Leviticus 25:14; Deuteronomy 24:12-13; see also Amos 2:6-7; Job 30:13.
8. References, Exodus 22:25; Leviticus 25:36-37; Deuteronomy 1:16; Deuteronomy 23:19.
Usury Any interest charged to Hebrews was prohibited by the law, and therefore was usury in the modern sense of illegal interest. “A brother who would not help a brother to a loan without interest was not thought worthy of the name.” The “increase” forbidden seems to have been any profit on the sale of goods beyond the cost of production as measured by the maintenance of the worker and his family (Plumptre). The money-making spirit was not encouraged by the Mosaic legislation.
9. He is just No man can truly obey God’s commandments without having an inner spirit of righteousness. This is expressed by the great Teacher and his apostles as emphatically as by Ezekiel (Matthew 25:35; Matthew 25:42; James 2:14-24; 1 John 2:3; 1 John 2:5; 1 John 2:10).
THE UNJUST SON OF A JUST FATHER SHALL NOT ESCAPE CONDEMNATION AND PENALTY, Ezekiel 18:10-13.
10. A robber Rather, a man of violence.
The like to any one Rather, anyone.
11. That doeth not any of those duties “These things” and “those duties” are exactly the same word. This man has done the things the just man would not do (Ezekiel 18:6-8), and has not done the things the just man would do (Ezekiel 18:8-9). After this general statement the enumeration of his crimes of commission begins. There is a division of thought in the middle of Ezekiel 18:11 which is not indicated by the English punctuation.
13. He shall surely die, etc. The legal sentence (Exodus 21:15; Exodus 22:18; Leviticus 20:11).
His blood shall be upon him He is responsible for his own death (Ezekiel 33:4; Leviticus 20:9; 2 Samuel 1:16; Matthew 27:24-25).
THE WICKED SON JUST DESCRIBED BECOMES THE FATHER OF A BOY WHO LIVES JUSTLY; SHALL HE BE PUNISHED FOR HIS FATHER’S SINS? NO; HE SHALL LIVE, BUT THE FATHER SHALL DIE, Ezekiel 18:14-18.
14. And considereth Literally, yea, seeth (see also Ezekiel 18:28); or, with a very slight change, as R.V., “and feareth.”
16. Withholden the pledge Rather, taken in pledge. (Compare Ezekiel 18:7.)
17. Taken off his hand from the poor Many scholars believe that the LXX. text is preferable, “withdrawn his hand from iniquity,” following Ezekiel 18:8. (See also Ezekiel 20:22.)
18. Spoiled his brother All Hebrews were brothers. (Compare Leviticus 25:0.) The word is used here interchangeably with “neighbor” (Ezekiel 18:6; Ezekiel 18:11).
In his iniquity Rather, for his iniquity (also Ezekiel 18:22; Ezekiel 18:24).
OBJECTIONS TO THE PRECEDING STATEMENT OF GOD’S PRINCIPLES OF GOVERNMENT ARE NOW MET, Ezekiel 18:19-30.
19. Yet say ye, Why? etc. Rather, And say ye, Why doth not the son bear a part of the iniquity of the father? (also Ezekiel 18:20.) The people were so imbued with the common notion that the father must control the son’s destiny that they again asked in great surprise how it could really be that the son did not share at all in the father’s guilt and penalty. To this the prophet merely reaffirms Jehovah’s way of dealing with the just and the unjust, as previously laid down and illustrated (Ezekiel 18:5-24).
20. Righteousness… shall be upon him A man’s personal righteousness or wickedness is the measure of his reward or punishment. Both shall “eat the fruit of their doings” (Isaiah 3:10-11; Ezekiel 11:21).
22. Shall not be mentioned unto him Rather, remembered of him.
23. Have I any pleasure… that the wicked should die The prophecies of coming calamity were regarded by many as not being from Jehovah at all. The dangers which were before the nation were merely due to political complications and could be escaped by making a favorable alliance with Egypt (Ezekiel 17:7). Many of those who believed the prophecies accepted them as final and irrevocable decrees of Jehovah (Lamentations 2:8-9; Lamentations 2:17; Lamentations 3:42-44). Many of these also believed that the predestination of evil was in consequence of the unfaithfulness of former generations (Ezekiel 18:2, etc.). The prophet brings to these different classes of people three propositions which he forcibly states and illustrates: (1) These afflictions are divine punishments for sin; (2) They are punishments for the sins of the people who are bearing or shall bear them; (3) They can be escaped by repentance and reformation.
24. When the righteous turneth away Having emphasized the new relations to Jehovah attained by the repentant sinner, he has a word of warning for any one who, having once felt the certainty of God’s approving grace, may think himself safe forever. The righteous man, if he be not watchful, may lose his righteousness and thus lose God’s favor. (Compare 1 Corinthians 9:27.)
25. The way of the Lord is not equal This is an objection raised by some of his hearers to the novel argument which the prophet has just developed. Is it indeed true that hereafter individual guilt shall determine individual punishment? (Ezekiel 18:3; Ezekiel 18:20.) Certainly heretofore in God’s dealings with men the guiltless individual has often suffered with the guilty (Joshua vii; 1 Samuel 14:0, etc.). Was the unchangeable God about to change his dealings with his people, or was Ezekiel mistaken in his interpretation of the principles of retribution? This was the dilemma thrown into the teeth of the prophet. His reply was simply a strong, distinct reaffirmation of the principles already stated. He would not argue. He would not discuss theoretical questions; he would not even attempt to explain and justify God’s actions. He merely, with great emphasis, repeated the principles of God’s government as they had been revealed to him. The judge of all the earth would do right. Jehovah could not permit final injustice. In the ultimate outcome disobedience and iniquity would work ruin and death (Ezekiel 18:26; Ezekiel 18:30), while righteousness would keep the soul alive (Ezekiel 18:27). The righteous man “shall not die” (Ezekiel 18:28). We may well regret that Ezekiel did not elaborate and defend his theodicy. The generations would have been enriched by such an exposition. To harmonize the unjust inequalities of earthly condition with God’s justice has been a puzzle to all thinkers, from Job (Job 10:2-3) and Asaph (Psalms 73:11-14) to the present time. Unbelievers in every age have been quick to decide that Ezekiel was wrong, declaring that experience contradicts his assertion that outward fortune, “either of the nation or the individual, is determined by the moral condition” (so also Kuenen, Prophet and Prophecy, pp. 353, 354). But pious souls throughout universal Christendom have always believed that the prophet was right; and not only so, but more and more the student of history is being convinced that there is a power in the world that “makes for righteousness.” Moral quality is a determining factor in the life of the man and the nation greater than heredity or environment. Ezekiel did not mean to say that every disagreeable manifestation of fortune was a manifestation of God’s disapproval. He could not have overlooked the distinction between punishment and misfortune. The innocent may suffer temporary calamity which works good to the sufferer but such calamity is not punishment. Ezekiel knew many calamities in Israelitish history in which the guiltless had been involved with the guilty, and his favorite study was that law in which Jehovah had himself declared that the sins of the father should be visited on the children (Exodus 20:5; Exodus 34:7; Leviticus 26:39-40; Numbers 14:18); but he knew also that God was just, and therefore a just retribution or reward would at last overtake the sinner and the righteous. (Compare Methodist Hymnal, 596.) He also knew that the calamity about to fall upon Israel which had been prophesied for many years was a divine punishment for sin, a punishment which might not yet be fully inflicted if they would turn and walk in the ways of their fathers and show themselves obedient to the word of God and the voice of his prophet. Ezekiel was chiefly concerned to meet the objections of his immediate hearers by bringing to their consciences a sense of guilt. However truly the proverb of the sour grapes might apply to some cases, it could not apply to this. They were guilty and were being justly punished, and could only escape by humble repentance. Yet, while this was the immediate purpose of the prophet, he did succeed in laying down certain universal principles concerning the sovereignty of the individual soul, and the irrevocability with which death follows unrepented sin, and life follows consistent and persistent virtue principles which were adopted afterward by Jesus and his disciples, and which are accepted to-day as ethical axioms of Christianity. Did this man, who, centuries in advance of his time, established these far-reaching principles, have any glimpse of a future life where the men whom God “took” (Genesis 5:24) lived on with God, and where earthly inequalities would be rectified, and did he actually see in the terms “life” and “death” some of that spiritual meaning which the Great Teacher afterward found there? Or did he suppose himself to be announcing merely the ideal principles of an ideal government which should come into operation upon the establishment of his ideal commonwealth? (40-48.) We cannot tell. In either case he “spake not of himself,” but as he was moved upon by the Holy Ghost. He may have had only a dim imperfect conception of the inner meaning of what he said. But, knowingly or unknowingly, he was the first great preacher of the blessed gospel that death, as a penalty for sin, never falls upon the righteous, that the righteous man never dies, that no man is the slave of circumstances, that even the hardened sinner may repent and receive a new heart, and that absolute justice is in some way compatible with everlasting mercy, and that both are being exercised even in this world, with all its mysteries and proud injustice and suffering innocence. Ezekiel’s certainty of conviction and tremendous grasp of faith, as he grappled with this momentous question of the centuries, amazes and thrills us. He did not creep up “the great world’s altar stairs” stretching lame hands and faintly trusting a larger hope; his was a more sublime and confident faith in God’s truth and the truth of his revelation.
27. He shall save his soul alive Rather, keep his soul alive. In modern religious phraseology the word “soul” is commonly interchanged with “spirit,” although in the early Christian era a marked distinction was maintained between them (Hebrews 5:12; 1 Thessalonians 5:23). It is quite possible that in Ezekiel’s day the word soul was being filled with a larger meaning than it originally possessed. Yet very early in Hebrew history “soul” and “man” were used interchangeably (Genesis 2:7; compare 1 Peter 3:20).
30. So iniquity shall not be your ruin Or, that it be not to you a stumbling-block of [unto] iniquity. Sin when it is finished bringeth forth death. It leadeth to destruction and utter ruin. “God does not need to send an angel of judgment to punish the sinner. His own iniquity shall be his ruin.”
31. Make you a new heart See Ezekiel 11:19; Ezekiel 36:26; Jeremiah 4:4; Jeremiah 24:7. “To make” in Hebrew is constantly used in the sense of “to procure for oneself,” “to acquire.” The prophet is only emphasizing the truth that notwithstanding their excuses they may even now obtain a new heart if they will only “turn and live;” he is not minimizing the divine agency, but enforcing the truth of human responsibility and free will. The prophet has turned exhorter, and with eager voice calls his people to repent and yield themselves to God’s infinite mercy.
32. I have no pleasure in the death of him that dieth If they die, it will be not because of God’s will, but because of their own. It is God’s will that all men come to repentance. (See 2 Peter 3:9; 1 Timothy 2:2-4.) Only their own obstinacy or indifference or love of sin, or unbelief, can keep them away from life. “The most glorious, the most blessed truth ever revealed of God to this sinning world is here that God has compassion toward even very guilty sinners; is pained, and not pleased, when he must punish; is delighted, even to infinite joy, when the sinner turns from his wicked way and lives.” Cowles.
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Whedon, Daniel. "Commentary on Ezekiel 18". "Whedon's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 15 / Ordinary 20