Personal Responsibility, Ezekiel 18

Chapter 18 of Ezekiel’s book of prophecy reveals another side of this man.  Here he changes from a pastor, burdened down with care and concern for his people, to a theologian, preaching doctrine.   There is a brief New Testament passage that parallels precisely what Ezekiel wrote in 31 verses—

7Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. 8The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.  (Galatians 1:7—8)

In the previous chapters, Ezekiel’s messages from God dealt with the sin of the nation as a whole; God was unhappy with the state of his nation, resulting in His judgment upon them.  But in chapter 18, the prophet abruptly changes his tune and deals primarily with the individual and their responsibility to live righteously before God.

This is an important message; no person can live their life as they please in violation of God’s will and expect to escape judgment.  Just because in this time of grace God does not send His wrath upon sinful man immediately, does not mean He is out of the judgment business or that He no longer cares about how people live their lives.  Eventually an errant child of God will be confronted by His God as surely as David was confronted by Nathan.

1.  Proverb vs. Principle, verses 1—4

1 The word of the LORD came to me: 2 “What do you people mean by quoting this proverb about the land of Israel: ” ‘The fathers eat sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge’?3 “As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, you will no longer quote this proverb in Israel. 4 For every living soul belongs to me, the father as well as the son—both alike belong to me. The soul who sins is the one who will die.

Ezekiel begins by shattering a common belief of the day.  This isn’t the first time this widely-quoted proverb is seen in the Old Testament; Jeremiah quotes it as well in Jeremiah 31:29—30.   A couple of chapters earlier (16:44) Ezekiel quotes another proverb to show how his people had slowly adopted the blackened character of the Canaanites—

44 ” ‘Everyone who quotes proverbs will quote this proverb about you: “Like mother, like daughter.”

In that chapter, the people appeared to run around quoting proverbs, especially this one, but failed to understand it.  They were so ego-centric that they assumed they were being punished because of past transgressions:  namely the sins of their forefathers.  We can see how dangerous this way of thinking was; it didn’t matter how a contemporary Israelite lived because he was being set upon by God because of what his ancestors did.   In fact, the exiles to which Ezekiel was preaching had taken Exodus 20:5 to a ridiculous extreme and were more or less using it to justify their sinful state—

5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me.

Before we condemn Ezekiel’s people, we should realize that Christians in this present age are very skilled at doing the exact same thing; we are expert at wrenching Bible verses out of context in order to make ourselves feel safe by justifying our sin.

Ezekiel’s people, the exiles, had misunderstood and misapplied both Ezekiel’s message and the Word of the Lord.  What the Bible teaches, and the truth that Ezekiel was trying to drive home was simply that children would be affected by their father’s sin; therefore, parents should serve as proper role models for their children.  The sinful—or lazy, questionable living—of parents is easily picked up and readily followed by their children.   If a child committed the same sins as their father, they must accept the same punishment.  That was the exact opposite to what the exiles thought the Bible taught and to what the prophet was trying to teach them!

It is really frightening to think that people can be that deluded and have no clue!   Sadly, there are many Christians who are just as deluded and many, many churches preaching ideas and doctrines that further delude the ignorant.

Here in chapter 18, Ezekiel is seen trying again to get his message of personal responsibility across by quoting another proverb:  “The fathers eat sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge,” which was apparently another commonly quoted saying of the day.  Its meaning should have been clear:  because of the sins of the fathers, their children will suffer; that is, God would not let one generation get by with a sin when He punished a previous generation for doing the same thing.  Of course, the opposite is also true:  God cannot pronounce a son righteous merely because his father was righteous.  Each individual stands before God by himself.   Twice in this chapter (verses 4 and 20), Ezekiel says:

The soul who sins is the one who will die.

The word translated “soul” is nephesh, and is used as a synonym for the whole person.  In this context, life and death refers to physical, not spiritual death.  A person received eternal life by faith in the Messiah (Jesus Christ), whether by looking forward in faith to His work on the Cross, as the Old Testament saints did, or looking backward in faith to His work on the Cross, as we do.  Salvation was always a matter of faith, not in keeping the Law; the Law was given to people already in a trusting, faith-based relationship with God.  Obeying the Mosaic Law—we might say “living right,” in obedience to God’s Word—resulted in physical blessings, whereas stubborn, rebellious, and sinful living resulted in the opposite; judgment and punishment.

Each person, man or woman, boy or girl, lived or died according to their own actions, not their parents.  This is Ezekiel’s message.

2.  Three illustrations of the principle, verses 5—18

In this lengthy group of verses, the prophet, like any good preacher, used three illustrations to help the people understand what he had just said.

  1. The first illustration is that of a “righteous father” (verses 5—9).  This man was obviously in a trusting, faith-based relationship with God and practiced what he preached; he lived righteously.  Ezekiel gave five legal areas to differentiate between righteous and unrighteous deeds.  This man was a paragon of virtue, morality, and faith.  Such a man, the prophet concludes, is righteous based on his faith and his actions, and he would be physically blessed:  “The man is righteous; he will surely live, declares the Lord.”  Notice that this man is declared to be righteous by God; this is significant because only God is able to do that, objectively and perfectly.
  2. The second illustration is that of an unrighteous and “violent son” (verses 10—13).    This man demonstrated his unrighteousness and lack of faith by a lifestyle exactly opposite that of his father.  Whatever his father did in righteousness, his son did not do; whatever his father did not do to remain righteous, his son did.  This man, who had the benefit of a righteous father, would not live because of his “detestable” lifestyle.  His father was blessed with life, but the son would be, “put to death and his blood will be on his own head” (verse 13).  In other words, his punishment was his own fault.
  3. Ezekiel’s final illustration is that of the righteous man’s “righteous grandson” (verses 14—18).  Would an unrighteous man have an unrighteous son?  This question is answered in this illustration.  If the unrighteous son’s son (the grandson) lived righteously and did all the righteous deeds of the Law like his righteous grandfather did, refusing to follow the sinful example of his father, he would not die because of the sins of his father, but would surely live.  However, his father would die because of his own sin.

The key thought behind this whole section is found in verse 20—

20 The soul who sins is the one who will die. The son will not share the guilt of the father, nor will the father share the guilt of the son. The righteousness of the righteous man will be credited to him, and the wickedness of the wicked will be charged against him.

You cannot blame your parents for the state you are in.  You cannot honestly blame your surroundings.  And you must not blame God, for God is merciful and always fair in everything does.  But remember, Ezekiel is not speaking here of eternal life, but of physical life; of physical blessing and punishment.

3.  A final explanation of the principle, verses 19—32

The preacher has stated the basic principle of individual responsibility for the state of their life in verses 1—4 and he illustrated the principle in verses 5—18.  In this section, Ezekiel asks some rhetorical questions or statements to further emphasize and elaborate on his point.

  1. Why does the son not share the guilt of his father? The answer to this question is simply this:  if a man lived righteously according to the Law, then the Lord would bless him with life, both physical and eternal.  The way this is worded, this principle applies to anybody who kept the Law, even the son of an unrighteous father.
  2. Not only that, if an unrighteous man saw the light and turned his life around, he would be blessed and his former life of disobedience would be forgotten.
  3. But if a righteous man turns from his righteousness and commits sin and does the same detestable things the wicked man does, will he live? The opposite of point #2 is true; if a righteous man falls away he would be punished for his new state of sin and rebellion, not his previous state of righteousness.  This is individualism defined:  a person stands before God on his own merits, not on the merits of any familial relationship or even on past achievements.  For God, it is the “here and now” that counts.
  4. Yet you say, ‘The way of the Lord is not just.’ Imagine the arrogance of people who would accuse God of that.  God’s reply was terse and clear:   It was Israel’s ways that were intolerable; they were the ones who had twisted His Word to justify their rebellion. 

The last three verses of chapter 18 represent the pleading of a loving heavenly Father to His wayward, backslidden children—

30 “Therefore, O house of Israel, I will judge you, each one according to his ways, declares the Sovereign LORD. Repent! Turn away from all your offenses; then sin will not be your downfall. 31 Rid yourselves of all the offenses you have committed, and get a new heart and a new spirit. Why will you die, O house of Israel? 32 For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign LORD. Repent and live!

Is there a stronger invitation to LIVE anywhere in the Bible?  Why would anybody chose to die when they had the choice to live?  Repentance was available to the people of Ezekiel’s day as surely as it is today.  Verse 32 is remarkable:  God takes no pleasure in the death of a person who dies because of His sin.  Isaiah proclaimed a similar message during his prophetic ministry—

18 “Come now, let us reason together,” says the LORD. “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.”  (Isaiah 1:18)


This chapter is a magnificent testimony to the power of personal responsibility.  We live in a culture that shuns personal responsibility; the problems we have in life are always somebody else’s fault; we want somebody else to “bail us out”; we foolishly assume God will accept us by virtue of a decision we made to accept Christ years ago but we live today like that decision is largely forgotten.  And what’s worse is this horrible attitude of irresponsibility has found a home in the Church of Jesus Christ.  The dreaded “once saved always saved” doctrine is so widely accepted in Protestant circles, most people don’t know it’s not a Biblical doctrine, but simply an idea taught by John Calvin and his followers.  It is hard to understand how any reasoning adult can reconcile a theology that says “once in grace, always in grace” with the clear teaching of Ezekiel 18.

God is a God of eternity, but He is also the God of this moment.  How we were raised or the life we may have lived to get to this moment is not the determinative factor in how we are supposed to be living now.   God is concerned with the now of our lives.  He is concerned with how we are living now.  Many Christians need to grow up, put away their toys, put on long pants, and start taking responsibility for the state of their lives.  We can blame poor potty training for only so long.  The urgent need of our day is:  live righteously!

Paul, writing to the Corinthians, quotes from the prophet Isaiah—

2For he says, “In the time of my favor I heard you, and in the day of salvation I helped you.” I tell you, now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation.  (2 Corinthians 6:2; cf. Isaiah 49:8)

©  2010 WitzEnd


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