Individual Responsibility, Ezekiel 18

Would you turn with me in your Bibles to Ezekiel 18?

Background

Jerusalem is still standing; many Judeans are still living in Jerusalem and their country at Judah.  But many also have been devastated, crippled by the Babylonians.  The Babylonians had invaded Judah a couple of times in the last 15 years and the most recent invasions were about 6-7 years ago.  They seized Jerusalem and took most of the treasures of the city, as well as almost everybody of significance (in their eyes) as captives; they took all those who had political office, any mighty men they saw, all the officials and professionals, the wealthy, the craftsmen, the blacksmiths.  They took about 10,000 and marched them off 700 miles to Babylonia and put them in a resettlement camp.  Ezekiel was one of those exiles.  But at this time, Jerusalem was still standing.  Many of the Jews still remained in their land.  The Babylonains at this point in history had not yet returned to Judah to totally destroy Jerusalem.  That would be in a few years in response to king Zedekiah of Judah revolting against them and making an alliance with Egypt.  The Judeans, both those in exile and those still remaining in their land at the time, had a number of false ideas about God and about themselves and about what was happening, false ideas that were both insulting to God and really detrimental to themselves, because they hindered them from repenting.  They had been deceived by false prophets and their own reasoning.  In this 18th chapter of Ezekiel, God through the prophet is addressing one of their false ideas that they were holding on to.  And they had adopted a proverb to illustrate this idea.

The proverb went like this (you can see it in Ezekiel verse 2)…

The fathers eat the sour grapes, But the children’s teeth are set on edge?” 

Have you ever eaten an unripe fruit and it gives you this unpleasant, numb or bitter kind of feeling in your mouth and on your teeth?  This proverb pictures fathers eating the sour, unripe grapes, but their children being the ones who have to endure the unpleasant feeling in their mouths because of it.  Or they could have said something like, “Others eat the lemons, but the children’s mouths pucker.”  The point of the proverb is to say that children have to pay for the bad choices of their parents.  And the people of Judah were reciting this proverb to each other to say that, “What has happened to us by the Babylonians is not our fault.  We are not to be blamed for this.  It was our ancestors who really messed up and now we are being punished because of what they did.  We’re just victims here.  This is their fault.”

Some think that they had this idea partly because…

They may have misinterpreted a statement that God made in the Law that He’d given to them through Moses

That perhaps they misunderstood what God meant when He said in the Law, “I will visit the iniquity of the fathers on the children and grandchildren to the third and fourth generations.”   You could see how that could be taken to mean that God punishes children and grandchildren for things that only their fathers and grandfathers did.  But that’s not really what God was saying.  Sometimes when God made that statement in the Law He added a clarifier to it.  He said, “I will visit the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me.”   In other words, it’s not that God will punish children and grandchildren for things that they were not guilty of as well.  It is that God will punish children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren if they follow the ungodliness of their fathers and grandfathers.  He will not excuse sinfulness just because it is the family tradition, just because it’s the example they grew up with.  God will punish sinfulness in each generation that picks it up.  There’s also this statement in the Law, Deuteronomy 24:16, “Fathers shall not be put to death for their sons, nor shall sons be put to death for their fathers; everyone shall be put to death for his own sin.”

Perhaps another factor in why they thought this way was that…

They could observe in life at times the proverb seeming to be true. 

Often children do suffer consequences because of bad choices made by their parents.  If parents decide to get drunk and fight and neglect their responsibilities, their children suffer.  But that doesn’t mean God holds children responsible and punishes them for the sins of their parents.  And you can see outside the family, on a grander scale, a younger generation will often suffer from the mistakes of older generations.  One generation in a nation may build animosity with another nation, but it’s not until the next generation that the war between the two nations finally breaks out and it’s the children that have to go to war.  Or one generation racks up the national debt, and the next has to suffer for their overspending.  We may suffer consequences because of others’ bad choices, but that doesn’t mean God holds us accountable and punishes us for what they did.

It was quite true that the Babylonian oppression these Judeans were suffering was partly due to a long history of sinfulness by many generations of Israelites.  So there’s some partial truth to the proverb.  But the way that they were using it to say that they weren’t responsible at all, to say that they were innocent, that they were just undeserving victims here, that’s what God had a problem with.

I think more the reason the people of Judah adopted this proverb was because they were like us and…

If there is any chance that we can pass the blame for our condition and our problems on to someone else, we’re really tempted to do that.

We do not like to admit that we are at fault.  Now, if we’ve done something well or enjoyed some success, then we want all the credit.  “It was my idea.  I did all the work.  This is all because of Me.”  But when it comes to our less than admirable traits and our problems, messes in our lives, we really want to say, “Oh, that’s not my fault!  I’m not responsible for that.  It really wasn’t me that ate those sour grapes.”

You probably know people who live a life of constant drama or difficulty and they’re always having conflict with other people, their lives are always a mess, but it’s never their fault.  It’s always somebody else that’s causing it.  They just have the worst luck in the entire universe.  They are perpetual victims of the system.

I knew a guy who could never seem to keep a job.  He was fired from one job after another.  And I would ask him after he lost a job, “So what happened?  How did you lose your new job?”  And his answer was always something like, “Oh, the boss just didn’t like me.”  Interesting, he didn’t like a perfectly good, honest, hardworking employee?  Who runs a business firing good, honest, hardworking employees?  How unlucky you are to have been employed by such strange employers so many times.

There have been times when people have talked to me about their marriage struggles.  And it’s interesting that whichever spouse I’m talking to, it sounds like everything they’re doing is perfectly understandable and justified and the problem is always the other spouse.  It’s always the other spouse that needs counseling, right?

The blaming of others is as old as sin itself.  You know the story; the Lord came into the garden after Adam and Eve ate of the fruit of the one tree He told them not to eat of.  The Lord found them hiding, worried about their nakedness, trying to cover it up, and He said, “How do you know about nakedness?  You haven’t eaten of that tree have you?”  Remember what Adam said?  “It was that woman You gave me!”  Poor Adam was just a victim.  It was the woman’s fault and God’s fault for giving him the woman.  And the Lord turned to the woman and she said, “It was that serpent I talked to.  The devil made me do it.”  It’s always somebody else’s fault.

A lot of the psychological counseling today starts with the premise that man is just the product of his culture and environment and genetics and childhood experiences and schooling and things that have happened to him in his life.  “It’s not really you.  You can’t help it.  You shouldn’t feel guilty.  It’s no wonder you turned out like you did.”

“If my father had been a better example, if my mother had taken more interest in me, if I’d gone to a different school, if I’d grown up in a different environment, if I wasn’t scared for life by traumatic experiences in little league, then I wouldn’t be the way I am.  With all that I’ve been through, I’m surprised I’ve done this well.  You know, when I was 6 years old I can remember trying to help mom set the table and I dropped all the dishes and they shattered on the tile and she yelled at me and called me a name, and another time I spilled the milk three times at dinner and she gave me a whooping and sent me to my room, that’s why now I can’t cook dinner.  I have to go out to dinner.  I have a subconscious aversion to setting the table and milk frightens me.  It’s not my fault.  I have prost traumatic childhood disorder.”

Certainly our childhood experiences affect us.  Certainly the environment we grew up in and our education and the examples we’ve had and our culture and our genetics, all these things affect us.  They push and pull us in certain directions.  But this idea that, that excuses sin, that we don’t have any choice, that we are not responsible for our character and conduct, the Lord’s not buying it.  The world is selling it.  But the Lord is not buying.

You know, I think if somebody could argue that they had an upbringing that shaped them into a bad character, it would be that guy Joseph at the end of Genesis.  Dysfunctional family, and all growing up, his brothers hated him because dad made it obvious that he was the favorite.  Then as a teenager he started having these incredible dreams and all he wanted to do was tell his family about what the Lord was showing him, and his brothers hated him all the more.  When he was 17 they attempted to murder him, throwing him into a pit to die.  And then decided instead to pull him out and make money off him by selling him into slavery.  So he was taken off to a foreign land and sold and had to work on a country farm, then only to be falsely accused of rape by the wife whose family he was faithful to, and then he had to spend 2 years in jail.  That guy had an upbringing to complain about.  And he should have ended up, a bad character, but Joseph was righteous despite all that had happened to him.  He chose to not let the world mold him into a sinful person.

So God is speaking to this victim mentality of the Judeans.  Let’s listen to what God has to say to it here.  Ezekiel 18:3, “As I live,” declares the Lord GOD, “you are surely not going to use this proverb in Israel anymore.  Well, this victim mentality of the Judeans was both insulting to God and a snare to themselves.  It was an affront to God’s justice, to say that God would punish them for the sins of others though they were innocent.  And it was a snare to them, because as long as you think you’re not at fault you’re not going to change.  Nobody repents until they first see that they are in the wrong.  So in the whole rest of Ezekiel 18 God addresses this victim, blame-shifting mentality.

Verse 4, “Behold, all souls are Mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is Mine.”   So He states upfront that everyone belongs to Him.  I think the point is that He is in control of everyone and that we can all be assured that He will see to it that everyone is dealt with rightly, according to their own personal choices.

And then God makes this statement, “The soul who sins will die.”  What does that mean?  It may sound straightforward, but there are differing ideas espoused about what that means.  Here’s my view.  Realize first of all, that the word soul here doesn’t necessarily mean what we may think of when we hear the word soul.  We may think of the spirit of a person; the spirit part of us that separates from our body when we die physically and lives on.  In the OT this Hebrew word for soul doesn’t necessarily mean that.  It just means a self or a living being.  In the OT, even animals are called by this word, because they are living beings and that’s what it means (Genesis 1:20, 21, 24).  This same word is translated “person” in verse 20.  Why they didn’t translate it the same in both verses I don’t know.  But “person” is the idea.  The person who sins will die.  The word “sins” has an ongoing permanent sense to it.  It means the person who goes on sinning (the person who does not repent).  And “will die” in the context of Ezekiel appears to mean, will die in the national holocaust dealt out by the Babylonians.  Ezekiel and other prophets preached to the people of Judah that in this judgment God is bringing by means of the Babylonians, God is going to make distinction between those people who go on sinning and those people who repent.  Like in Ezekiel chapter 9, Ezekiel has a vision of an angel putting a mark on the foreheads of all those in Jerusalem who sighed and groaned over all the abominations that were being committed in the city.  Those people are marked.  And then six angels with killing weapons follow orders and go through all of Jerusalem and kill everyone except those who have the mark on their forehead.  So those who repent, they’re spared, they live, but all those who go on sinning will die.  That’s what I think this statement meant in its original context.  But with that said, this language also applies to how it will be ultimately when all who have ever lived are raised and God judges everyone through Christ.  The soul that goes on sinning will die.  We know that because the NT tells us so.  Romans 2:5-8, “But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, 6 who WILL RENDER TO EACH PERSON ACCORDING TO HIS DEEDS: 7 to those who by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life; 8 but to those who are selfishly ambitious and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, wrath and indignation.”  So it will be the same for us ultimately as it was in Jerusalem when the Babylonians destroyed it.  The soul who goes on sinning, whether they want to blame it on their parents or their environment or their genetics or whatever, the soul who goes on sinning will die eternally.  God holds us individually accountable for how we live.

Now, the rest of Ezekiel 18 is very straightforward and easy to understand.  You don’t need me to explain it for you.  God goes through a thorough explanation of who is going to live and who is going to die.  And toward the end He also reveals His love for people as He pleads with them to repent.  I like us to just read the rest of this chapter and then conclude, noticing three truths that are unmistakable and crucial to understand.

Here’s the voice of God, spoken so along ago, but preserved for us.  Let’s listen to God speak about how He deals with human beings.  This is some of the most important stuff in the world to know.

“If a man is righteous and does what is just and right— if he does not eat upon the mountains [That is to participate in idolatrous feast.] or lift up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel, does not defile his neighbor’s wife or approach a woman in her time of menstrual impurity [God forbid it in their law.], does not oppress anyone, but restores to the debtor his pledge, commits no robbery, gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with a garment, does not lend at interest or take any profit, withholds his hand from injustice, executes true justice between man and man, walks in my statutes, and keeps my rules by acting faithfully—he is righteous; he shall surely live, declares the Lord God.

Then God gives another example, this one is the son of the righteous man that was just talked about.  10 “If he fathers a son who is violent, a shedder of blood, who does any of these things 11 (though he himself [his righteous father] did none of these things), who even eats upon the mountains, defiles his neighbor’s wife, 12 oppresses the poor and needy, commits robbery, does not restore the pledge, lifts up his eyes to the idols, commits abomination, 13 lends at interest, and takes profit; shall he then live? [Will he inherit the righteousness of his father?] He shall not live. He has done all these abominations; he shall surely die; his blood shall be upon himself.

Then God gives a third example, this one is a grandson.  14 “Now suppose this man [the evil son talked about before] fathers a son who sees all the sins that his father has done; he sees, and does not do likewise: 15 he does not eat upon the mountains or lift up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel, does not defile his neighbor’s wife, 16 does not oppress anyone, exacts no pledge, commits no robbery, but gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with a garment, 17 withholds his hand from iniquity, takes no interest or profit, obeys my rules, and walks in my statutes; he shall not die for his father’s iniquity; he shall surely live. 18 As for his father, because he practiced extortion, robbed his brother, and did what is not good among his people, behold, he shall die for his iniquity. 19 “Yet you say, ‘Why should not the son suffer for the iniquity of the father?’ When the son has done what is just and right, and has been careful to observe all my statutes, he shall surely live. 20 The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.  It’s hard to misunderstand that.

But what about a wicked man who turns from His wickedness to do right?  And what about a righteous man who turns from His righteousness to do wickedness?  What about them?  That’s what God addresses next: 21 “But if a wicked person turns away from all his sins that he has committed and keeps all my statutes and does what is just and right, he shall surely live; he shall not die. 22 None of the transgressions that he has committed shall be remembered against him; for the righteousness that he has done he shall live. 23 Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live? 24 But when a righteous person turns away from his righteousness and does injustice and does the same abominations that the wicked person does, shall he live? None of the righteous deeds that he has done shall be remembered; for the treachery of which he is guilty and the sin he has committed, for them he shall die. 25 “Yet you say, ‘The way of the Lord is not just.’ Hear now, O house of Israel: Is my way not just? Is it not your ways that are not just? 26 When a righteous person turns away from his righteousness and does injustice, he shall die for it; for the injustice that he has done he shall die. 27 Again, when a wicked person turns away from the wickedness he has committed and does what is just and right, he shall save his life. 28 Because he considered and turned away from all the transgressions that he had committed, he shall surely live; he shall not die. 29 Yet the house of Israel says, ‘The way of the Lord is not just.’ O house of Israel, are my ways not just? Is it not your ways that are not just? 30 “Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways, declares the Lord God. Repent and turn from all your transgressions, lest iniquity be your ruin [In other words, that iniquity may not ruin you.]. 31 Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed, and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? 32 For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord God; so turn, and live.”

Three truths we can’t miss

  1. We all individually choose the path of righteousness or wickedness. Good people can come out of ungodly homes. Bad people can come out of godly homes.  We are not salmon that have to swim upstream with the rest of salmon.  We are not just geese who have to fly south with the rest of the geese.  We are not just creatures of instinct, God has given us free will, and we choose which path we take in life.  The responsibility for how we live falls on us.  We are accountable before God for how we live, not our fathers or anyone else.
  2. It’s how you end your life, not how you begin it, that determines the overall measurement by God of your life. It’s not where you start that determines your judgment, but where you end up.  Maybe you grew up in a dysfunctional family and you adopted their ways and you’ve lived in sinfulness your whole life, but if you will repent and end walking in God’s ways, none of your sinful past will be remembered against you and you will live.  Isn’t that awesome?  No matter how badly you’ve messed up your life, God is willing to forget it all.  But then the reverse is also true, if you grew up in a Christian home, got off to a great start in life, walked in the ways of the Lord for much of your life, but then later in life you change your mind, you turn on God and decide you’re going your own way, God says none of your righteous past will cover your rebellion and He will not accept you.  He cannot tolerate rebellion.
  3. The heart of God intensely desires that you finish out this brief life, faithful to Him and that you be saved. God is not hoping that you fail.  He’s a father and you are one of His children.  He so wants you to succeed, even if you’ve been rebellious.  Can you hear the intensity of God’s love in those last two verses?  “Cast away from you all your transgressions which you have committed and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit!  For why will you die, O house of Israel?  For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone who dies,” declares the Lord GOD.  “Therefore, repent and live!”  “Son, don’t go that way!  Son, you will die that way!  Son, come home!”  He’ll welcome you with arms wide even if you’ve been rebelling a long time.

-James Williams

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