2 Samuel 11; 2 Corinthians 4; Ezekiel 18; Psalms 62-63
THE CASE FOR INDIVIDUAL RESPONSIBILITY is perhaps nowhere in the Bible put more strongly than in Ezekiel 18. Yet it is important to understand the passage within its historical and theological context, before attempting to apply it to our own day.
The proverb quoted in verse 2, “The fathers eat sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge,” is also found in Jeremiah 31:29, so it must have circulated both in Jerusalem and among the exiles. Apparently some people were using the saying as a cop-out: there was little they could do with their miserable lot, they were saying, since they were suffering for the sins of their fathers, about which they could do nothing. So instead of pursuing justice and covenant renewal, they were using the proverb as an excuse for moral indifference and tired fatalism.
Yet if it is not turned to such sad ends, the proverb does in fact convey some truth. In various ways, corporate responsibility does cross generational lines. At the giving of the Law, God himself declares that he punishes the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate him—though of course this presupposes that these later generations continue to hate him. The preaching of Isaiah, of Jeremiah, and of Ezekiel himself threatens suffering and exile because of the persistent rebellion and idolatry of both preceding generations and the current crop of Israelites. We ourselves know that sin is often social in its effects: for instance, children from backgrounds of abuse often become abusers, children from arrogant homes often become arrogant themselves, or turn out to be broken and bitter. Sin is rarely entirely private and individualistic. The proverb is not entirely wrong.
When Jeremiah counters this proverb, the alternative he presents is eschatological—that is, the proverb will be overthrown in the last days, with the dawning of the new covenant (see meditation for August 3). Ezekiel’s point is a little different. God is concerned with every individual: “For every living soul belongs to me, the father as well as the son” (Ezek. 18:3). Moreover, whatever social consequences there are to sin, one must never use the proverb as an excuse to cover current sin. Individual responsibility always prevails: “The soul who sins is the one who will die” (Ezek. 18:4). That is the importance of the accounts of behavioral change in this chapter. They are not establishing some simple scheme of works righteousness. Rather, they insist that genuine religion is transforming, and no excuses (hidden perhaps behind a proverb) will suffice. The practical conclusion is found in Ezekiel 18:30-32, which deserves to be memorized.