In Israel during Ezekiel’s time there was a popular proverb, “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge.” (Verse 2). This meant that the fathers sinned and their children paid the price. One can see why this was a popular saying as it might discourage men from sinning since their children would be the ones to suffer and die for their sins. But it also offered a kind of hopelessness. Why bother trying to follow God’s ordinances, when one’s ancestors’ actions required penance?
The Lord didn’t like this saying. It propagated a harmful lie. God said, “Behold, all souls are mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is mine: the soul who sins shall die.” (Verse 4). He said, ‘If a person doesn’t sin, he will live but if he sins, he’ll die. It doesn’t matter what his father did, it matters what the man himself does.’
In Christianese society we have a ton of proverbs, sayings, and songs which we use to encourage one another, reassure the lost, and hearten the broken. We treat them like scripture. But they are not. Many of them promulgate lies. The truth sometimes hurts. These pretty little sugary nuggets of “wisdom” cheer the person who may finally have been at the point of admitting their need of Jesus. They turn the Christian from the difficult path to the easy one. They lead the believer to look for a way out of suffering rather than thank God for it and allow Him to transform him through it.
The proverb in Ezekiel 18 had people thinking their behavior didn’t matter and they could blame someone else for their choices. God said take responsibility for your own actions. In verses 5-9 the Lord describes righteous conduct.
“If a man is righteous and does what is just and right— 6 if 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 or approach a woman in her time of menstrual impurity, 7 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, 8 does not lend at interest or take any profit, withholds his hand from injustice, executes true justice between man and man, 9 walks in my statutes, and keeps my rules by acting faithfully—he is righteous; he shall surely live, declares the Lord God.”
That is a long list but it boils down to a person who actively loves God first and foremost and treats his neighbor as he would want to be treated. Likewise God describes the evil man. He is described as the man who does not do the things listed above. And God says “he shall surely die; his blood shall be upon himself.” (Verse 13).
God clarifies it by saying if the son sees the father being evil and chooses not to follow in his footsteps, the son will live. And God says, if the wicked man turns from his evil and does good, then his sin won’t be remembered and that man will live. Similarly if the man who practiced good changes and does practices injustice, his good will not be remembered and he’ll die. (Verses 21-24).
The Israelites didn’t like this idea. The lie of the proverb was deeply ingrained into them instead of the truth God gave them. Verses 19-20 read.
“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.”
They wanted to blame others for their bad behavior. They wanted to say, ‘Joe is trash because his dad is trash and we shouldn’t expect anything from him.’ They wanted to discount people based on their heritage. But God doesn’t want to discount anyone. Every person has the same opportunity to choose life in Jesus’ righteousness or life chasing false gods. Each person is responsible for their own choices. A man is not damned by his father’s choices, he is damned or saved by his own choices. Everyone’s sins must be paid for. We choose to love God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind by making Jesus our Lord, and living out His life by loving our neighbors. Or we choose to reject God and follow philosophies, false religions, and lies, or elevate ourselves to godship.
The Israelites cried foul! It’s not fair! But God answered them in verse 25 and said, “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?”
We do that. We call God’s ways unfair, especially if they do not agree with us or if His way ends badly for us. People cry, “A loving god wouldn’t send people to hell!” but God says, “How could I let evil go unpunished? How would that be justice?” God doesn’t want anyone to die, but His love and holiness demand that iniquity be requited. Verses 30-32 read,
“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. 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.”
The great news is this we can repent, we can turn from all the evil. Sin must be paid for but God loves us so much that He sent Jesus to pay the price for us. All we have to do is believe and repent and let Jesus be the propitiation, the payment that placates the promise between the Lord God and ourselves.
You are responsible for your choices. It isn’t your parents. It isn’t the abuse, the suffering, the lack, or the excess. You made your choices. You and no one else must pay for them. And the only way to pay is with your life. But God loves you such, He made a way for you. Jesus came and He paid the price. He took responsibility for every wrong and gave you life. All you have to do is accept it.