Ezekiel 18 – The Responsibility of the Individual Soul
A. The answer to a false proverb.
1. (1-3) A proverb to use no longer.
The word of the LORD came to me again, saying, “What do you mean when you use this proverb concerning the land of Israel, saying:
‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes,
And the children’s teeth are set on edge’?
“As I live,” says the Lord GOD, “you shall no longer use this proverb in Israel.
a. What do you mean when you use this proverb: God spoke to Israel regarding a proverb that was commonly used among the Jewish people of Ezekiel’s day.
i. This was such a popular proverb in that day that it is also quoted in Jeremiah 31:29-30, and in a similar form in Lamentations 5:7.
ii. “The people of Israel responded to the preaching of men like Jeremiah and Ezekiel with clichés and proverbs, not with reasoned argument.” (Smith)
b. The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge: The proverb was a protest, a complaint. The idea was that the present generation was being unjustly punished for what their fathers did. One would think that if the fathers have eaten sour grapes, then the fathers would have the sour taste in their teeth. According to the proverb, the fathers didn’t have the sour taste and the children did.
i. The proverb “reflects a materialistic fatalism, a resignation to immutable cosmic rules of cause and effect, an embittered paralysis of the soul, that has left the exiles without hope and without God.” (Block)
ii. “Both Jeremiah and Ezekiel saw this as a pernicious doctrine, because it inevitably led to a spirit of fatalism and irresponsibility. If the fault could really be laid at the door of a previous generation, those on whom the judgment was falling could reasonably shrug off any sense of sin and accuse God of injustice.” (Taylor)
iii. “Men are still using this proverb, and so using it as to show that they think the saying is true. As a matter of fact, no saying more false was ever coined. It is based upon a one-sided philosophy of heredity. The proverb is at once an attempt to escape from responsibility for sin; and a protest against punishment.” (Morgan)
c. The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge: This popular proverb both expressed and promoted a popular idea. The idea was that God was unfair; unfair in not punishing the fathers as they deserved, and unfair in punishing the present generation.
i. It seems those who quoted this wicked proverb and hoped to accuse God by it found refuge in twisting Exodus 20:4-6. “They had failed, as many do today, to see the force of the words ‘hate me’ and ‘love me.’ Thus, if they individually loved God, they could not be suffering the penalty of their fathers’ sins.” (Feinberg)
ii. “The second commandment (Exodus 20:5-6) had spoken of the cumulative disaster that mounts up when generation after generation refuses to repent. This is also the teaching of Jesus Christ (Matthew 23:35-36). Ezekiel asserts that each generation is responsible for breaking the evil tradition or for maintaining the good one.” (Wright)
d. You shall no longer use this proverb in Israel: God did not accept the proverb just because it was a popular message. Proverbs were a popular form of media or messaging in the ancient world, and through His prophet God commanded that this false message be exposed, answered, and spoken against.
i. Just because the proverb was popular did not mean that it was true.
2. (4) The answer to the false proverb.
“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.
a. Behold, all souls are Mine: God began His answer to the false proverb by declaring an important principle. All souls belong to God, the souls of the fathers as well as the children. If Israel complained that previous generations escaped the consequences of their sin, God assured that He had authority over all.
i. “The idea of Yahweh’s lordship over all human life is ancient. After all, he is the source and creator of all, and he sustains life with his own breath.” (Block)
ii. “Let us ever get down to the beginnings of things, when we state God’s claims on men. Instead of only pleading with them, let us boldly assert God’s claims upon them. All souls are His: of the African as of the European; of the heathen as well as of the Christian born; of the toiling, sorrowing, sinning, as of those that stand in the sunlit circle.” (Meyer)
b. The soul who sins shall die: Because God has authority over all souls (including the father and the son), God promised to pronounce judgment over every guilty soul. None who should be punished for their sins would escape that judgment.
i. “The word souls must not be understood in terms of disembodied spirits. The Hebrew soul (nepes) represented the totality of the person or the life-force within him.” (Taylor)
ii. Some believe that Ezekiel only dealt with physical life or death in these passages. The problem with this is that surely, there were relatively good and innocent people who physically died in the judgment that came upon Jerusalem and Judea. The book of Job and all our personal experience teach us that sometimes the wicked prosper in this life and the righteous suffer. Ezekiel must have the eternal life and death of people primarily in mind.
iii. “Sheer fact, of which Ezekiel was as fully aware as we are, makes it impossible to limit it to physical death, but physical death in Scripture is linked with eternal death.” (Wright)
3. (5-9) The promise of life to the righteous man.
But if a man is just
And does what is lawful and right;
If he has not eaten on the mountains,
Nor lifted up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel,
Nor defiled his neighbor’s wife,
Nor approached a woman during her impurity;
If he has not oppressed anyone,
But has restored to the debtor his pledge;
Has robbed no one by violence,
But has given his bread to the hungry
And covered the naked with clothing;
If he has not exacted usury
Nor taken any increase,
But has withdrawn his hand from iniquity
And executed true judgment between man and man;
If he has walked in My statutes
And kept My judgments faithfully—
He is just;
He shall surely live!”
Says the Lord GOD.
a. But if a man is just and does what is lawful and right: In the previous line God promised that the soul who sins shall die. Yet, if a man is just, God will not condemn his soul to death. Ezekiel then began to describe the nature of the just man.
· If he has not eaten on the mountains: He does not eat the ritual meals that accompanied the idol sacrifices made on the high places.
· Nor lifted up his eyes to the idols: He does not look to or give honor to the idols cherished by others in the house of Israel.
· Nor defiled his neighbor’s wife: He does not commit adultery and reserves sex for the bond of marriage.
· Nor approached a woman during her impurity: He observes the laws of ritual purity described in Leviticus 15:19-31.
· If he has not oppressed anyone, but has restored to the debtor his pledge: He has the heart of justice commanded by the law of Moses (as in Deuteronomy 24:12-13 and other passages).
· Has robbed no one by violence, but has given his bread to the hungry: He is not a taker, but a giver to others.
· If he has not exacted usury: He obeys God’s commands regarding financial dealings with others, honoring God with his money.
· And executed true judgment between man and man: He is a man of justice and righteousness in his dealings with others and between others.
i. Has not exacted usury: “Such interest was allowed by the law of Moses in dealing with foreigners (Deuteronomy 23:20), but was strictly forbidden in loans to Israelites (Exodus 22:25; Deuteronomy 23:19).” (Feinberg)
ii. Clarke on the Hebrew word for usury: “Nasach signifies to bite; usury is properly so termed, because it bites into and devours the principal. Usury signifies, with us, exacting unlawful interest for money; and taking the advantage of a man’s necessities to advance him cash on exorbitant profit. This bites the receiver in his property, and the lender in his salvation.”
b. If he has walked in My statutes and kept My judgments faithfully: All of the preceding is a general description of the man (or woman) who is faithful to the covenant Israel made with God in the days of Moses. Today we relate with God by a new and better covenant, but we still understand the heart of God’s ancient law for today.
c. He is just; he shall surely live: God promised that this righteous one would ultimately live before Him. He would not ultimately suffer in the age to come for the sins of previous generations.
i. In Ezekiel 18, the prophet will use three examples: a righteous man (Ezekiel 18:5-9), his wicked son (Ezekiel 18:10-13), and his righteous grandson (Ezekiel 18:14-18). “Three kings of Judah fit these descriptions-Hezekiah, Manasseh and Josiah.” (Feinberg)
4. (10-13) The wicked son of the righteous father.
“If he begets a son who is a robber
Or a shedder of blood,
Who does any of these things
And does none of those duties,
But has eaten on the mountains
Or defiled his neighbor’s wife;
If he has oppressed the poor and needy,
Robbed by violence,
Not restored the pledge,
Lifted his eyes to the idols,
Or committed abomination;
If he has exacted usury
Or taken increase—
Shall he then live?
He shall not live!
If he has done any of these abominations,
He shall surely die;
His blood shall be upon him.
a. If he begets a son who is a robber or a shedder of blood: If the righteous man mentioned in Ezekiel 18:5-9 has a son who is wicked, who does none of those duties, then that son will bear his own guilt.
b. But has eaten on the mountains: In each detail, Ezekiel described the wicked man as essentially the reverse image of the man described in Ezekiel 18:5-9.
i. “Whereas the former does everything to preserve life, even that of the poor, to the latter others’ lives are expendable if they interfere with that person’s own selfish pursuits.” (Block)
c. Shall he then live? He shall not live: Though this wicked man had a righteous father, he would have to answer for his own sin. His blood shall be upon him. To answer the proverb mentioned in Ezekiel 18:2, this wicked man ate the sour grapes and it will be his teeth that are set on edge.
i. His blood shall be upon him: “Heb. it is plural, bloods: both the blood of the innocent which he murdered, and his own blood, which thereby he forfeited, the blood of his own soul and life, that is, the whole blame of his misery in time and eternity, shall lie upon himself, who brought all those sorrows on himself by his own wickednesses.” (Poole)
5. (14-18) The righteous son of the wicked father.
“If, however, he begets a son
Who sees all the sins which his father has done,
And considers but does not do likewise;
Who has not eaten on the mountains,
Nor lifted his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel,
Nor defiled his neighbor’s wife;
Has not oppressed anyone,
Nor withheld a pledge,
Nor robbed by violence,
But has given his bread to the hungry
And covered the naked with clothing;
Who has withdrawn his hand from the poor
And not received usury or increase,
But has executed My judgments
And walked in My statutes—
He shall not die for the iniquity of his father;
He shall surely live!
“As for his father,
Because he cruelly oppressed,
Robbed his brother by violence,
And did what is not good among his people,
Behold, he shall die for his iniquity.
a. If, however, he begets a son who sees all the sins which his father has done: Ezekiel used the example of the wicked man portrayed in Exodus 18:10-13 and his son. If the son considers but does not do likewise, he may live a righteous life.
i. “He shall no more be affected by his father’s crimes, than his father was benefited by his grandfather’s righteousness.” (Clarke)
b. Who has not eaten on the mountains: Ezekiel described the righteous man in the same terms of faithfulness to the covenant as earlier in the chapter (Ezekiel 18:5-9).
i. “This man’s conduct is presented as the antithesis of his father’s and a virtual carbon copy of his grandfather’s.” (Block)
c. He shall not die for the iniquity of the father: If the son is righteous, he will not suffer for the sins of the wicked father. To answer the proverb of Ezekiel 18:2, if the father ate the sour grapes, the son’s teeth would not be set on edge.
d. As for his father: The righteousness of the son would not justify the wicked father. Because of his many sins, he shall die for his iniquity. Again, in the terms of the proverb of Ezekiel 18:2, the wicked father ate the sour grapes, and they would set his teeth on edge.
B. The principle of the responsibility of the individual soul.
1. (19-20) Explaining the principle of each soul bearing its own guilt.
“Yet you say, ‘Why should the son not bear the guilt of the father?’ Because the son has done what is lawful and right, and has kept all My statutes and observed them, he shall surely live. The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not bear the guilt of the father, nor the father bear the guilt of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.
a. Why should the son not bear the guilt of the father? God invited questioning Israel to look at the question from a different angle. Father and son are linked; why shouldn’t the son be guilty because of what the father did?
i. God’s question sounds a bit crazy to our modern individualistic ears. It is often hard for us to relate to cultures where there is a much stronger sense of family and community solidarity, where what one does affects the entire clan or community.
ii. “We have to reflect that, however reasonable it may appear to us, habituated as we are to the sense of personal responsibility, it was a revolutionary idea to present to Ezekiel’s contemporaries. They were more at home with the idea of collective righteousness and blame.” (Vawter and Hoppe)
iii. “Communal solidarity and corporate responsibility were facts, to which experience bore witness. Ezekiel’s aim is to show that they are not the only facts. God’s redeemed community is a nation of righteous or repentant individuals.” (Taylor)
b. Because the son has done what is lawful and right: God repeated the principle that He looks at people as individuals before Him. There are certainly some ways that God may bless or judge people in community, but in regard to eternity God looks at each individual life.
c. The soul who sins shall die: As God judges each man and woman individually, the righteous will be justified and the wicked will be judged. They will not be justified or condemned on the basis of family or community; the son shall not bear the guilt of the father, nor the father bear the guilt of the son.
d. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself: This principle is stated so clearly and repeatedly in Ezekiel 18 that there is no mistaking either its truth or importance. Yet it must be said that there are two significant exceptions to this principle.
i. The New Testament clearly teaches us that the guilt of Adam was passed on to the entire human race, and the righteousness of Jesus Christ is passed on to all who believe upon Him (Romans 5:12-19). These two men – absolutely unique in all humanity as representative heads of humanity – see their respective wickedness and righteousness upon others.
2. (21-23) God’s desire for the wicked to turn.
“But if a wicked man turns from all his sins which he has committed, keeps all My statutes, and does what is lawful and right, he shall surely live; he shall not die. None of the transgressions which he has committed shall be remembered against him; because of the righteousness which he has done, he shall live. Do I have any pleasure at all that the wicked should die?” says the Lord GOD, “and not that he should turn from his ways and live?
a. He shall surely live: For emphasis, God repeated this principle again and again. The door of repentance and restoration is open to any wicked man. The thief on the cross, who because he turned, entered into paradise after a wicked life, later showed this (Luke 23:39-43).
i. “One can sense Ezekiel’s excitement as he announces the verdict for those who meet these conditions: He shall surely live! He shall not die! The past rebellious acts will be discounted, and his present righteousness will be all that matters.” (Block)
b. None of the transgressions which he has committed shall be remembered against him: God promised not a probationary restoration to the wicked man who turns, but full restoration.
i. “Leave your own, and you shall never suffer for others’ sins.” (Poole)
ii. “The lesson from these two examples is obvious and answered their questions: people determine their own character and destiny by the decisions that they make. Neither the exiles in Babylon nor the citizens in Jerusalem were the prisoners and victims of some cosmic determinism that forced them to act as they did.” (Wiersbe)
c. Do I have any pleasure at all that the wicked should die? In this God explained a basic principle about His nature and dealings with humanity. God takes no special pleasure in the death of the wicked. God’s heart is for the wicked man to repent, to turn from his ways and live. God is not sadistic and cruel, making repentance impossible because He loves to see humanity suffer.
i. “This is what Ezekiel’s audience needs to deliver them from their bondage of depression and despair—a new vision of God, a God who is on the side of blessing and life, not on the side of the curse and death.” (Block)
ii. “Sinful mankind normally sees judgment as God’s delight. Nothing could be further from God’s desire, else he would not have sent his only Son to be judged on the cross for the sin of the whole world (1 John 2:1–2).” (Alexander)
iii. “It is the Lord’s longing and will and purpose that men should be saved. Such a longing should be shared by every preacher who ventures to speak about the judgment of God.” (Taylor)
iv. The fact that God does not take pleasure in the death of the wicked does not mean that it will not happen. God’s general desire for all humanity is that they would repent, turn to Him and be saved; yet He will not spare the requirements of justice and holiness for those who refuse to turn to Him.
v. “And if God can have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, he cannot have made a decree to abandon him to the evil of his nature, and then damn him for what he could not avoid: for as God can do nothing with which he is not pleased, so he can decree nothing with which he is not pleased. But he is ‘not pleased with the death of a sinner,’ therefore he cannot have made a decree to bring him to this death.” (Clarke)
3. (24) God’s promise of judgment to the righteous who turns away.
“But when a righteous man turns away from his righteousness and commits iniquity, and does according to all the abominations that the wicked man does, shall he live? All the righteousness which he has done shall not be remembered; because of the unfaithfulness of which he is guilty and the sin which he has committed, because of them he shall die.
a. But when a righteous man turns away from his righteousness: God promised no refuge for the apparently righteous man who turns to the abominations and idolatry of the wicked.
b. All the righteousness which he has done shall not be remembered: This is tragic but true. A man or woman known for a righteous life can have it “forgotten” before God and man by a turn to wickedness. When that is the case, God promised that because of his sins he shall die.
i. “Although Ezekiel 18:24 raises difficulties in the N.T. context of the final perseverance of the saints, such warnings must stand in Scripture. No person – believer or unbeliever – ever has the right to say, ‘Because I was righteous once, it does not matter whether I am plunging into sin now.’” (Wright)
4. (25-29) God’s final declaration of the fairness of His ways.
“Yet you say, ‘The way of the LORD is not fair.’ Hear now, O house of Israel, is it not My way which is fair, and your ways which are not fair? When a righteous man turns away from his righteousness, commits iniquity, and dies in it, it is because of the iniquity which he has done that he dies. Again, when a wicked man turns away from the wickedness which he committed, and does what is lawful and right, he preserves himself alive. Because he considers and turns away from all the transgressions which he committed, he shall surely live; he shall not die. Yet the house of Israel says, ‘The way of the Lord is not fair.’ O house of Israel, is it not My ways which are fair, and your ways which are not fair?
a. Is it not My way which is fair, and your ways which are not fair? For emphasis, God once more repeats the principles of His judgment and the reason for them. Israel was not fair for hoping to find either guilt or innocence in other generations. Each soul would stand on its own before God.
i. “While they claim to be victims of an immutable universal law that locks their fate to the conduct of their parents, they really perceive themselves to be at the mercy of a capricious God, whose actions are unpredictable and arbitrary.” (Block)
b. Yet the house of Israel says: Because the error was so deeply ingrained, so God’s counter to their error had to be strong and repetitive.
5. (30-32) The summary statement and call to action.
“Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways,” says the Lord GOD. “Repent, and turn from all your transgressions, so that iniquity will not be your ruin. Cast away from you all the transgressions which you have committed, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit. For why should you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of one who dies,” says the Lord GOD. “Therefore turn and live!”
a. Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways: The error in believing in communal or family salvation or damnation is so serious and dangerous that God unmistakably emphasized the individual’s responsibility before God.
i. “It may be true that in my physical being I have inherited tendencies to some forms of evil from my father; but in the fact of my essential relation to God there are forces available to me more and mightier than all these tendencies. Neither righteousness nor evil is hereditary.” (Morgan)
b. Repent, and turn from all your transgressions, so that iniquity will not be your ruin: Because of the principle of individual responsibility before God, it is absolutely essential for each soul to repent and prevent their iniquity from becoming their ruin.
i. “People may not bank on a treasury of past good deeds to ensure their future well-being, nor need they despair of a treasury of evil that prevents them from enjoying life.” (Block)
c. And get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit: In this, Ezekiel pointed all his listeners and readers to look forward to the new covenant (Deuteronomy 30:1-6, Jeremiah 23:1-8, Jeremiah 31:31-34, Jeremiah 32:37-41, Ezekiel 11:16-20, Ezekiel 36:16-28, Ezekiel 37:11-14, 37:21-28). This would make the life transformation so desired by those who repent actually possible.
i. “Later Ezekiel would develop how a new heart and spirit would ultimately be appropriated by Israel (36:26). Repentance was available to the people of Israel in Ezekiel’s day.” (Alexander)
d. For I have no pleasure in the death of the one who dies: Once again in this section, God emphasized this principle (first stated in Ezekiel 18:23). God considered it important that all understand that God is not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9).
i. “Remember that the Lord Jesus wept at the tomb of Lazarus, even though He was going to bring him back into this life. By man came death, not through the working of God, but because of man’s sin.” (McGee)
ii. Why should you die: “Why should you go to hell while the kingdom of God is open to receive you? Why should you be the devil’s slaves, when ye may be Christ’s freemen! WHY WILL YE DIE?” (Clarke)
e. Therefore turn and live: God ended this prophecy with a strong, dramatic exhortation and application. God’s people should turn and live. They should not have fatalistic confidence or despair in their forefathers or descendants. God has offered a way for mankind to come to Him, and they must come as individuals.
i. “To those who presume on the grace of God, it sends a stern warning; to those who despair of life, it offers hope. In both respects it provides a healthy corrective to a systemic approach to human evil and suffering that would absolve the individual of responsibility for his or her own life and destiny.” (Block)