Chapter 18:1-20 (ESV) - The word of the Lord came to me: “What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge’? As I live, declares the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. 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.
“If a man is righteous and does what is just and right— 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, 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.
“If he fathers a son who is violent, a shedder of blood, who does any of these things (though he himself did none of these things), who even eats upon the mountains, defiles his neighbor's wife, oppresses the poor and needy, commits robbery, does not restore the pledge, lifts up his eyes to the idols, commits abomination, lends at interest, and takes profit; shall he then live? He shall not live. He has done all these abominations; he shall surely die; his blood shall be upon himself.
“Now suppose this man fathers a son who sees all the sins that his father has done; he sees, and does not do likewise: 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, does not oppress anyone, exacts no pledge, commits no robbery, but gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with a garment, 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. 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.
“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. 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.
Question to consider: What was the meaning of this popular proverb repeated in Israel?
The proverb that Ezekiel mentioned in today’s passage was also addressed by the prophet Jeremiah (31:29). It is not a proverb in the sense that it is listed in the Book of Proverbs, but it must have been a popular expression of that day. My guess is that it was based on God’s description of Himself to Moses, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children's children, to the third and the fourth generation.” (Exodus 34:6-7)
The proverb, however, suggested that any adverse consequences people were facing could be blamed on the sin of the previous generation. The word of the Lord given to Ezekiel intended to set the record straight. God would hold people accountable for their own sin. “Eating upon the mountains” referred to eating food sacrificed on the high places set up to worship other gods. The prohibitions listed cover the entirety of the Law: Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. So in order to live, a person needed to keep God’s Law perfectly. If he has violated any of them, he shall not live. In fact, violating even one of the things listed meant that “He has done all these abominations; he shall surely die; his blood shall be upon himself.” This may be why James wrote, "For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it." (James 2:10)
God then gave examples where a righteous man had a wicked son or a wicked father had a righteous son saying that “the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.” In truth, being judged by God’s righteous standard, we all would be counted among the wicked and should surely die. However, the sprig that would be taken from the top of the cedar of Lebanon from yesterday’s passage would meet God’s righteous standard, and so it was important that He be judged according to His own righteousness and not according to the sins of His earthly parents. Otherwise, He could not have been planted on the mountain and produced the branches that would give shelter to every kind of bird. Praise God for this righteous branch which would pay for the sins of the world!
Dear heavenly father, thank You for judging us by the righteousness of Christ and not our own failed attempts at keeping the Law. Now that we have been set free from sin and death, please keep our eyes on eternal things that we may enjoy our life in You. Amen.