By Sam E. Stone
Even before Jerusalem fell in 586 BC, many of her finest people were taken captive to Babylon. The prophet Ezekiel was among some 10,000 people who had been carried away (1:1). He had been selected by God to be “a watchman for the house of Israel” (3:17). The great eighteenth chapter of the book that bears his name underlines the theme of today’s lesson—repentance. Every individual has personal responsibility before God.
The Hebrew people used a proverb which they felt explained their plight: “The fathers sin, the children suffer.” They felt, as children, that they had been forced unjustly to bear the punishment for the sins of previous generations. This let them deny personal responsibility for what was taking place.
God offered his judgment saying, Everyone belongs to me. He is sovereign over all. As the creator of the universe, he has the right to control every part of his creation. The Hebrew people, however, tried to excuse themselves from their responsibilities. God would not accept their alibi. Instead the Lord declared, The one who sins is the one who will die.
Who Will Live?
The prophet illustrated the point by citing three generations: a righteous man (vv. 5-9), his wicked son (vv. 10-13), and his grandson who rejected his father’s evil (vv. 14-17). God will treat each person appropriately. One Bible teacher stated, “No son of a wicked father need despair, just as the son of a pious father must not presume.”
James E. Smith put it this way: “A man who was righteous by the standards of the Old Testament law would live. Ezekiel cited sixteen identifying marks of a man. Seven are negative characteristics, or things a righteous man did not do. . . . On the other hand, the righteous man possessed nine positive attributes.”
Who Will Die?
Just as those who live a holy and righteous life will surely live, so the opposite is true. The hypothetical righteous man may have a wicked son. He is the exact opposite of his father in every way. That person is responsible for his own wrongdoing. He is not excused or forgiven of these sins just because he had a godly parent.
A person shows that he does not love God if he does not love his neighbor. The wicked child does one wrong thing after another. He cannot claim to be committing all of these sins because he is godly, like his father. The son will not share the guilt of the father, nor will the father share the guilt of the son (v. 20). God will be faithful and fair.
There is hope for the wicked person who turns from sin and keeps God’s Word. The Lord speaks clearly: He will surely live. The Lord is merciful and forgiving. “A man is not only free from the sin of his father; he may be set free from his own past if he so wishes. He can repent at once,” declared G. R. Beasley Murray. The key is found in verses 21, 22: “But if a wicked person turns away . . . None of the offenses they have committed will be remembered against them” (compare Hebrews 8:12; 1 Timothy 2:3, 4; 2 Peter 3:9).
I will judge each of you according to your own ways. The Sovereign Lord commanded the people, Repent! Turn away from all your offenses; then sin will not be your downfall.
Human judges are fallible. They make mistakes; they are prejudiced; they have incomplete information. The God of the universe, however, knows everything. Those whom he condemns to Hell have no higher court of appeal to which they can turn. Their ways are responsible for the judgment against them. Moreover, the one who is their judge made an impassioned plea for them to change their lives before coming into his court. Those who repent find refreshment (Acts 3:19).
Why will you die, people of Israel? asked God. The Lord promised to place a new heart in those who sincerely repented (Ezekiel 11:18, 19). The prophet repeated the Lord’s earlier explanation and offered once more his invitation: “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh” (36:26). Then a person can love God from the heart.
Sam E. Stone is the former editor of Christian Standard. He continues his writing and speaking ministry from his home in Cincinnati, Ohio.