Ezekiel 18:1-20.

Personal Responsibility
June 19, 2005       Volume 6, Issue 16            Copyright (c) 2005, J.W. Carter 
www.biblicaltheology.com                  Scripture quotes from KJV


Cylinder of Nebuchadnezzar             
(The British Museum)  Download to expand.                   

A few decades ago a popular comedian, Flip Wilson, prompted a lot of laughs with his tag line, "The Devil made me do it!"  Though his comedy did not influence the culture, it reflected the dynamic of the1960s and 1970s when western culture went through tremendous changes.  The "Father Knows Best" and "Andy Griffith" television shows depicted the conservative values that characterized these earlier periods.  However, unrest over the Vietnam War seemed to serve as a catalyst of change.  Defiance against government authority became a lauded behavior, and with that change came the acceptance of defiance against all authority.   The new catch phrases were "if it feels good, do it," and "free love."  A dramatic liberalism grew out of the period, and swept western culture.  Personal responsibility and restraint were replaced by indulgence.  For many, the church was "old-fashioned" and ignorant.

The new culture of indulgence has affected the very fabric of life.  The work ethic that spawned the earlier industrial era has been replaced by a consumer ethic.  Rather than prepare for the future, more people live for the moment with little concern about tomorrow.   Far fewer students emerge from high school with a clear career path.  Far more are skilled at computer games and the programming of cell phones than hold the basic skills for career placement.  Personal responsibility has been replaced by rationalization.  Even our courts have accepted defenses based upon the projection of responsibility:  it is not my fault because (fill in the excuse.)  We rationalize away our responsibility through blame shifting.

Certainly, there is nothing new about moral decadence, and as far as culture has fallen, there are still many who hold to high ethical and moral standards, though it would seem their influence is diminished.  Ezekiel was called as a prophet to the exiled fragment of the nation of Judah who were held by Babylon and Nebuchadnezzar, its imperialistic king.  Judah was a nation that experienced profound moral decay, a decadence that ultimately brought about its demise.  What Judah did not realize, and many today likewise do not realize, that when one turns away from godly values, one turns away from God.  Flip Wilson was more of a prophet than he knew, for when we turn from God, we remove ourselves from His protection and promised blessings, surrendering ourselves to the authority of this world:  Satan.  When we live a life of godless indulgence, we can truly say "the Devil made me do it."

Ezekiel 18:1-2.

The word of the LORD came unto me again, saying, 2What mean ye, that ye use this proverb concerning the land of Israel, saying, The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge?

This proverb was common enough that Jeremiah also prophesied concerning it (Jer. 31:29-30).  Judah had been living an indulgent lifestyle that could only be described as godless and secular.  The promise that the children of Israel made with God at Mount Sinai about forty generations before, to honor God and be His people, was long forgotten.   Worship of God had been replaced with the worship of pagan idols, and the reverent worship in the temple had been replaced with indulgence.  With the promise broken, it was only a matter of time before God would remove His hand of protection from them (Gen 6:1).  At the time that Ezekiel is prophesying, that protection was removed, and Babylon was in the process of destroying Judah.

Who is responsible for the suffering of Judah?  This is the central issue facing the dying nation.  This proverb was employed by the Judeans In order to explain away their own personal responsibility.  What happens when one eats sour (fermented) grapes?  One gets drunk.  The consequence of drunkenness is, at minimum, a hangover.  If one has experienced a hangover, the idiom "teeth set on edge" is well-understood.  Consequently, the proverb can also be stated, "The fathers have become drunk and the children experience the hangover."  Refusing to look at their own behavior and its consequences, they as a culture blame their plight on the indulgences of their ancestors.  Blame shifting is nothing new.

The Judeans used their own scriptures to defend their projection.  Exodus 20:5, and 34:7 state that sins of the fathers will be visited on subsequent generations.  However, explanations of these passages are frequent in scripture (including the Jeremiah reference as well as this one in Ezekiel).  Sins are visited on subsequent generations of those who copy the ways of their fathers.

Ezekiel 18:3.

As I live, saith the Lord GOD, ye shall not have occasion any more to use this proverb in Israel.  

"As I live" is an idiom that describes a personal oath.  The idea here is that there is no compromise on this command from God.  The policy that is about to be set will be in effect for the life of the one setting it.  For God, this is eternity.  It was a phrase used by kings when establishing inviolable policy that could not be overturned in their lifetime, even by their own decree.  It is used in scripture to describe an inviolable statement of God (Num. 14:21,28; Isa 49:18, etc.)  This verse is a commandment with a promise.  First, it is a command that the people are not to use this proverb any longer.  Furthermore, it is a promise:  there will be no context for the proverb when the nation ceases to exist.

Ezekiel 18:4.

Behold, all souls are mine; as the soul of the father, so also the soul of the son is mine: the soul that sinneth, it shall die.

God counters the proverb with a statement of simple fact:  all souls belong to him, whether it be the soul of the father or the soul of the son.  Simply put, the soul that sins, whether it be the son or the father, will be the soul that dies.  The people had come to live by a proverb of their own making, a proverb that was loosely and incorrectly based upon their own scriptures.  Today we have proverbs that are similarly formed, such as "God helps those who help themselves," and others.  Actually, God helps those who cannot help themselves.  The only way we can avoid the error from adhering to such proverbs is to simply adhere to God's word alone. 

God clearly states that each individual is responsible for their own sin.  The son is not responsible for the sin of the father, nor is the father responsible for the sin of the son.  However, this does not insulate us from the impact of that sin.  We suffer from one another's sin when we are caught up in its consequences.  The one who is struck suffers from the sin of uncontrolled anger in the one who strikes.  The innocent suffer from the indulgent sin of a drunk at the wheel of a motor vehicle.   

What happens when we blame others for the consequences of our own sin?  By rationalizing away our own responsibility, we rationalize away the guilt that might motivate change.  We also justify our anger and bitterness toward another who we blame for our plight.  As much as it might be "natural" for us to blame others for our own actions, God sees past our own rationalizations and will judge each according to their own works.

Ezekiel 18:5-9.

But if a man be just, and do that which is lawful and right, 6And hath not eaten upon the mountains, neither hath lifted up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel, neither hath defiled his neighbour’s wife, neither hath come near to a menstruous woman, 7And hath not oppressed any, but hath restored to the debtor his pledge, hath spoiled none by violence, hath given his bread to the hungry, and hath covered the naked with a garment; 8He that hath not given forth upon usury, neither hath taken any increase, that hath withdrawn his hand from iniquity, hath executed true judgment between man and man, 9Hath walked in my statutes, and hath kept my judgments, to deal truly; he is just, he shall surely live, saith the Lord GOD.

God then describes, through Ezekiel's prophesy, an example of behavior through three generations.  He starts with an individual who is "just", "lawful", and "right."  Such a person is in a proper relationship with God and with the people around him.  This is an individual who has refrained from the ungodly indulgences of the culture within which he is immersed (vs. 6), he has demonstrated grace and compassion on others (vs. 7) and has been righteous in his business affairs (vs. 8).  Finally he has sought to live a life that is obedient to God (vs. 9).   This is an example of a person who will "surely live".  Note that there is no reference in this judgment to the spiritual state of any other individuals.  This person is not condemned because of the sins of other people, whether they be ancestors, progeny, or contemporaries.

Every individual, regardless of the spiritual state of others, has the opportunity for, and a call to, righteousness.  

Ezekiel 18:10-13.

If he beget a son that is a robber, a shedder of blood, and that doeth the like to any one of these things, 11And that doeth not any of those duties, but even hath eaten upon the mountains, and defiled his neighbour’s wife, 12Hath oppressed the poor and needy, hath spoiled by violence, hath not restored the pledge, and hath lifted up his eyes to the idols, hath committed abomination, 13Hath given forth upon usury, and hath taken increase: shall he then live? he shall not live: he hath done all these abominations; he shall surely die; his blood shall be upon him.

Probably one of the more difficult experiences in life is that of a parent who has tried to live a righteous life, who also witnesses the unrighteousness of a son or daughter.  It is nearly impossible for a loving parent to avoid feelings of guilt when a child may be characterized by these verses.  I have always been amazed by the differences in the personalities of my own two children, each brought up in the same home with the same values and teachings.  Yet, their personalities seem to have been a part of them since birth, and as adults, each must make their own decisions.  As parents we can guide and teach, but the ultimate decisions of behavior are still held by the child. 

These verses refer to the "abominations" done by an unrighteous child of a righteous parent.  Note in verses 5 - 9 that the parent has been promised life for their own choice of godly living.  Verses 10 - 13 show how it is the adult child who carries the full responsibility for his/her own behavior.  The child is not made righteous based upon the righteousness of his/her father.  There is no such attribute as "righteousness by association."  Likewise, one is not made righteous by associating with righteous people, or by belonging to a church.  "His blood" shall be upon himself, the ultimate consequence for his sin is his alone.  Part of that consequence is often the tremendous heartache that the wayward child causes the parents.  Still, the responsibility for sinful behavior is still fully and exclusively held by the one who sins.

Ezekiel 18:14-17.

Now, lo, if he beget a son, that seeth all his father’s sins which he hath done, and considereth, and doeth not such like, 15That hath not eaten upon the mountains, neither hath lifted up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel, hath not defiled his neighbour’s wife, 16Neither hath oppressed any, hath not withholden the pledge, neither hath spoiled by violence, but hath given his bread to the hungry, and hath covered the naked with a garment, 17That hath taken off his hand from the poor, that hath not received usury nor increase, hath executed my judgments, hath walked in my statutes; he shall not die for the iniquity of his father, he shall surely live.  

Ezekiel then moves on to a third generation.  Here is a generation shift where the father is unrighteous.  The son witnesses the unrighteousness of the father and considers deeply his father's behavior, and chooses to live a life of righteousness.  Does the child carry the guilt burden of the father?  This is the issue that the proverb that Ezekiel quotes is addressing.  The quote teaches that the son is guilty of the father's sins.  If this were true, there would be little inspiration for such a son's righteousness.  "Since I am already guilty and condemned, what is there to lose?"  The fallacy in this reasoning is simple:  one is not held responsible for the sins of their father or ancestors. 

Ezekiel 18:18-20.

As for his father, because he cruelly oppressed, spoiled his brother by violence, and did that which is not good among his people, lo, even he shall die in his iniquity. 19Yet say ye, Why? 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. 20The 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..  

Judah used a cultural proverb to place the blame for their own state on the iniquity of their ancestors.  In doing so, they failed to accept responsibility for their own actions.  This cultural choice led to a steady decline in the morality of their nation.  Though Israel was formed with a national commitment to obedience to God, at the time of its demise, no such national commitment existed.  Its kings had long since embraced the pagan and secular culture that surrounded them.  They could, and often did, point to the godliness of their founding fathers and declare that godliness for themselves.  Yet, when we look at the leadership in the then-current Judah, we find no such godliness.  The Jews declared themselves righteous based upon the righteousness of Abraham, and rationalized away their unrighteousness by placing their guilt on the sins of their immediate ancestors.

As we observe the moral decline in our world today, we see a similar pattern.  America was founded on Christian principles by Christian men.  The Bible was the primary text for Americas first colleges.  As the Israelites pointed to Abraham in declaring themselves a godly nation, America points to its founding fathers and its status as a "religious" nation, based on Christian principles, yet where all faiths are freely accepted.  However, the "enlightenment" of the 1960s and 1970s brought with it a rejection of God's authority and a call to separate "church and state" pressing America toward legislated secularism.  The nation has no obligation to God, and so goes the nation, goes its people.

Though nations change, and people change, God does not change.  As much as we would rationalize away our ungodliness, every individual is responsible, before God, for their own choices.  We do not bear the guilt for others sins, and likewise, others do not bear ours.  The final judgment upon all men (Rev. 20) will be based only on one's individual righteousness before God.  All will be found short of God's measure of perfection (Rom. 3:23).  However, those whose name is written in the "Lamb's Book of Life" will be saved from the Lake of Fire, eternal separation from God.  It is this judgment that Ezekiel is referring to as he describes God's demand for righteousness and personal responsibility.  We cannot base our security on anyone else's faith.  We must all come to God as individuals, each seeking obedience.  Jesus paid the penalty for the sins of those who trust in Him, that through Him we can be saved.  Being a member of a church does not save.  Believing in Jesus does not save (Satan believes in Jesus ...)  It is when we individually turn to Jesus as Savior and Lord we appropriate for ourselves His righteousness by God's grace.  If you have not yet made this decision, why wait?  The choice for righteousness is your own.  Make it now.