Ezekiel 18 begins with a proverb that was popular among the exiles in Babylon: “The fathers eat sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge” (v. 2). The exiles believed the judgment that had befallen them was due to the sins of their ancestors and not theirs, and that there was nothing they could do about it. They failed to recognize their own wickedness and the role they had played in bringing judgment upon themselves, and they ended up accusing God of being unjust. This erroneous concept stemmed from the misinterpretation of biblical passages such as Ex. 20: 5; 34:7, and Deut. 5:9-10 which speak of God visiting the iniquity of one generation upon succeeding ones even to the third and fourth generations.
The rest of the chapter refutes this false proverb by demonstrating the basic biblical principle that “It is the soul who sins is the one who will die” (v. 4). While it is true that succeeding generations often suffer the consequences of the sins of the past generation, the guilt of their forefathers is not transferable to them. Each is responsible for his own sins/wrongdoings and thus one’s own acts will be the basis of punishment. “It is inevitable that children should suffer from the consequences of parental wrong-doing, but they are not punished for the parents’ guilt, except as they participate in their sins” (Patriarchs and Prophets, 306).
To make the point clear that each is responsible for his own choices and that one is not punished for the sins of others, Ezekiel uses a three generational illustration. First, a father who “is just and does what is lawful and right” (v. 5). God says of him, “’If he has walked in My statutes and kept My judgments faithfully-he is just and he shall surely live!’” (v. 9). Second, a father’swicked son “who is a robber or a shedder of blood . . . he shall not live!” If he has done any of these abominations, “he shall surely die; his blood shall be upon him” (vv. 10-13). Third, the righteous grandson “who sees all the sins which his father has done, and considers but does not do likewise” but walks according to the law of God, “he shall not die for the iniquity of his father; he shall surely live” (vv.14-17).
God is charged as being unjust by the exiles (vv. 25, 29), but His justice is evident in judging each person according to the choices one makes. If a wicked man turns from his evil ways and does what is right, he will live; but if a righteous man willfully turns away from righteousness and does what is evil, he will die (vv. 21-28). In light of all this, God pleads with His people to acknowledge their unrighteous ways and turn away from them, for He takes no pleasure in the death wicked but instead desires their repentance so that they will live (vv. 23, 32). The urgent call of the hour is to repent, and provision is made for them to get "a new heart and a new spirit" (v. 31). And that is GRACE!
Spicer Adventist University