Perhaps as we are reading through the prophets and hear all of the judgments against Israel, Judah or surrounding nations, we may be tempted to think of it as only so much history—history that doesn't really concern us. After all, the judgments are for the evil deeds of people who lived more than 2,500 years ago. The reader might ask, "How can they apply to me?"
In this chapter God clearly lays down the rule of judgment that applies to everyone at all times. This is the principle that He will use with all people in determining their final reward or punishment. It agrees with that very ancient rule God spoke to Cain: "If you do well, will you not be accepted?" (Genesis 4:7).
After hearing the warnings of coming destruction given by God's prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel, the Jews apparently began to talk among themselves, essentially saying that God was unfair. They felt that they were going to be punished for the sins of their forefathers. They didn't see their generation as all that evil when compared to the previous ones. So they resentfully came up with a saying: "The fathers have eaten sour grapes, but the children's teeth are set on edge"(Ezekiel 18:2) or, as the New Living Translation renders it, "The parents have eaten sour grapes, but their children's mouths pucker at the taste." As we earlier read, God also used Jeremiah to confute this false proverb (Jeremiah 31:29).
It is obviously illogical that one person would eat something sour but another have the sour taste in his mouth. And by this they meant to symbolize something they considered just as illogical. Their real complaint: It isn't fair for one generation to be punished for the sins of previous generations! This was the response of the people to the warnings of the prophets—concluding that God was obviously in the wrong, justifying themselves. They were perhaps twisting the meaning of the principle God mentioned in Exodus 20:5—"visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me." God meant that children are negatively affected by their parents' sins—that sin can have far-reaching consequences, especially when children learn their parents' ideas and emulate their behavior. He did not mean that even though the children are innocent, they must be punished for their parents' mistakes.
God tells the people to stop using the proverb and that their reasoning is completely off base (Ezekiel 18:3). He points out up front that He certainly has the right to punish. All people—parents and children—belong to Him (Ezekiel 18:4). He is the Creator of all things. People are accountable to Him, not the other way around. He then explains that every individual is held responsible for his own conduct. "The soul who sins shall die" (Ezekiel 18:4, 20). "Soul" here simply means a living, physical being or person (compare Genesis 2:7, KJV). (As a side note, this helps to demonstrate that the Bible does not teach the concept of an "immortal soul." Rather, we see here that a "soul" is simply a person—and is quite mortal.) Conversely, "But if a man is just and does what is lawful and right...he shall surely live" (Ezekiel 18:5,Ezekiel 9).
Personal accountability was clearly established in the law that God had already given. Deuteronomy 24:16 stated, "The fathers shall not be put to death for their children, nor shall the children be put to death for their fathers; a person shall be put to death for his own sin." God does not punish the children for the fathers' sins unless they follow in their sinful ways and "fill up the measure of their father's guilt," as the Pharisees of Jesus' day did (see Matthew 23:32).
In emphasizing the point, the example is given of a righteous father (Ezekiel 18:5-9), an unrighteous son (verses 10-13, 18), and a righteous grandson (verses 14-17). Not only is the point clearly made by using these relationships, but for Ezekiel's Jewish audience the personal examples of three well-known kings of Judah would probably have come to mind—Hezekiah, Manasseh and Josiah.
In the description of the righteous man and his grandson, it is evident that a just man does what is right. The list of characteristics includes not worshiping idols and not "eat[ing] on the mountains" (verses 6, 11, 15; Ezekiel 22:9)—that is, not partaking at high places, not participating in pagan worship at pagan shrines. The list further includes not defiling another's wife, not committing robbery and not "approach[ing] a woman during her impurity" (Ezekiel 18:6) or, in today's terms, not having "intercourse with a woman during her menstrual period" (CEV). This last item, also listed as a sin in Ezekiel 22:10, might appear to modern sensibilities to be out of place in a list of moral prohibitions, but it should be remembered that this was included in the Mosaic law's list of sexual abominations (Leviticus 18:19) and was punishable by death (Leviticus 20:18). (See the Beyond Today Bible Commentary on these passages for more on the issue.) The point about not exacting usury or increase—lending money at interest—should be understood as not charging interest when giving personal loans to others in need. (It does not prohibit lending at interest as part of business or banking, as Jesus Christ spoke approvingly of this practice.)
Of course, righteousness is not just following a list of don'ts. It is important to notice in Ezekiel 18 that God points out the positive actions of one who is righteous. Not only does a righteous man obey the Eighth Commandment against stealing, but he is careful to watch out and provide for the needs of others. He practices the give way of life! He takes care of the hungry and covers the cold with a garment. Is this not "true religion" as taught by the writers of the New Testament? A righteous man has internalized God's commandments and lives them outwardly as well as internally.
The unrighteous son, on the other hand, does not live as God commands. Matthew Henry's Commentary notes on this passage, "It is...no uncommon case, but a very melancholy one, that the child of a very godly father, notwithstanding all the instructions given him, the good education he has had and the needful rebukes that have been given him, and the restraints he has been laid under, after all the pains taken with him and prayers put up for him, may yet prove notoriously wicked and vile, the grief of his father, the shame of his family."
Down through history fathers have desired to have their sons follow after them in their offices or accomplishments. But God is clear: A good father does not pile up "merit" for his son. How often in history and modern times have we seen a son promoted to a high position of responsibility under his father or to his father's office only to find that the son proves to be an evil man who lacks the character necessary for the job? Such was the case with several kings of Judah, most notably Hezekiah's son Manasseh. He perpetrated all of the evils listed in Ezekiel 17 even though his father was one of Judah's most righteous kings.
Yet recall that Manasseh eventually came to repent of his evil ways. This principle is also addressed in Ezekiel 17. God shows that He will reward or punish according to the change made in a person's life—if that change is permanent. If a wicked man repents, turning from his sins, God will not bring punishment on him (Ezekiel 18:21-22). Repentance means that a person's entire state of mind has changed from one of disobedience to one of obedience. He now walks a new path that leads in a new direction—and this is reflected in his actions. God desires repentance, not punishment. The point is made that God takes absolutely no pleasure in the death of the wicked. As the Giver of life, He does not want to destroy anyone. He hates sin because of what it does; He does not hate the sinner. We do not truly turn from sin unless we come to hate it too. We must set our affection on that which is lawful and right and agrees with the Word of God. If we do this, God promises to forgive our sins and give us eternal life.
Herein, we see a truly "New Testament" concept in that a repentant person could find forgiveness for wrongdoing and have the opportunity to start over. Of course, we have a much greater understanding of this whole process today. Jesus Christ has been sacrificed and given His life in atonement for the sins of the world. The Old Testament sacrificial system looked forward to this fact. It is through the acceptance of Christ's sacrifice that our sins are forgiven—yet, still, only if we repentantly determine to live our lives according to God's commands from now on.
Thankfully, regardless of how evil someone may have been throughout life, if the mind is changed or converted and one begins truly seeking and obeying God, God will forgive and forget his past transgressions. The way of God involves mercy, forgiveness and grace. That's not to say that this passage buttresses the idea of "a deathbed repentance," for repentance involves both a change of heart and then the followed appropriate change of action. That takes time.
But what of the opposite situation, where a person who has been living righteously turns to a life of evil? Will his past make up for his present? Human reasoning concludes that all deeds should be placed in a balance—good on one side, bad on the other. Then, if the good deeds outweigh the bad, you win the prize. We hear this idea even today as people refer to themselves as "pretty much a good person" or say of the deceased at a funeral that "his good outweighed his bad." God's perfect judgment, however, requires the right state of mind and behavior be maintained to the end (see Matthew 24:13). This does not mean that a righteous man will never slip up and sin. He will (1 John 1:8). But when he does he repents, relying on God's promise to forgive the repentant as in Ezekiel 18, and continues to seek God's Kingdom and His righteousness (Matthew 6:33).
A warning is given to people to not turn from this way of righteousness. God's words are clear that a person who turns from the truth will die in his sins. The New Testament explains in stark terms that ultimate rejection of God will lead to eternal death. We need to understand that for God's true servants, this life is a judgment period (1 Peter 4:17). The time of evaluation lasts for the duration of our lives after we come to understand what God has done for us and what He expects of us.
God points out that the only way to be ultimately saved from death is to have a change of heart—a converted one made possible only by a new spirit. The final point of many of Ezekiel's and Jeremiah's messages is the necessity for us to have a new spirit and a new heart. Human beings need the Spirit of God working in them to truly have the transformed heart and mind that God requires. (To help you better understand, request or download our free booklet Transforming Your Life: The Process of Conversion.)