Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32
Ezekiel saw a vision in the “the fifth year of king Jehoiachin’s captivity” (1:2), the young king of Judah (the Southern Kingdom) who was taken into exile in Babylonia in 597 B.C. The time, then, would be 593 or 592 B.C.
A bit of background would be useful. After King Solomon died, Israel split into two kingdoms, the kingdom of Israel (the Northern Kingdom) and the kingdom of Judah (the Southern Kingdom). More than a century prior to Ezekiel’s time, Assyria defeated the Northern Kingdom and took its people into exile in Assyria, bringing an end to the Northern Kingdom. Later, Babylonia surpassed Assyria to become the dominant power, and King Nebuchadnezzar ruled supreme.
Jehoiachin’s father, King Jehoiakim, vacillated in his allegiance between Babylon and Egypt. In December 598 B.C., King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon marched on Jerusalem in response to Jehoiakim’s flirtation with Egypt. Jehoiakim died, possibly by assassination, and young Jehoiachin assumed the throne at the age of 18 (2 Kings 24:8). Jehoiachin reigned for only three months before King Nebuchadnezzar took him into exile in Babylonia and installed Zedekiah on the throne of Judah as a puppet king (expected to do Nebuchadnezzar’s will). Nebuchadnezzar forced Jerusalem’s most prominent citizens into exile in Babylonia, and carried off “all the treasures of the house of Yahweh” (2 Kings 24:13).
Zedekiah ruled Judah (under Nebuchadnezzar’s thumb) for 11 years. However, he refused to heed the counsel of the prophet Jeremiah, and “did that which was evil in the sight of Yahweh his God; he didn’t humble himself before Jeremiah the prophet speaking from the mouth of Yahweh. He also rebelled against king Nebuchadnezzar, who had made him swear by God: but he stiffened his neck, and hardened his heart against turning to Yahweh, the God of Israel” (2 Chronicles 36:12-13).
In 587 B.C. Nebuchadnezzar responded to Zedekiah’s rebellion by again laying siege to Jerusalem. This time he destroyed the city and killed many of its inhabitants. He took most of the rest of the people to Babylon—leaving behind only the poorest (2 Kings 25). Then a rebellion by some of Judah’s remaining population against Gedaliah, Babylonia’s proxy ruler (2 Kings 25:22-26 Jeremiah 41), inspired a final deportation to Babylon. The prophets made it clear that this was Yahweh’s judgment on Judah for her sins.
The events of this chapter take place between the first and second deportations (597-587 B.C.). Ezekiel’s prophecies speak to the unfaithfulness of Zedekiah and the consequences of his ruinous reign. He also brings a word of hope to the exiles, who will one day be restored to the Promised Land.
EZEKIEL 18:1-4. THE SOUL WHO SINS, HE SHALL DIE
1The word of Yahweh came to me again, saying, 2What do you mean, that you use this proverb (Hebrew: mashal) concerning the land of Israel, saying, The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge? 3As I live, says the Lord Yahweh, you shall not have occasion any more to use this proverb in Israel. 4Behold, all souls (Hebrew: nepes) are mine; as the soul (nepes) of the father, so also the soul (nepes) of the son is mine: the soul (nepes) who sins, he shall die.
“The word of Yahweh came to me again“ (v. 1). This is Ezekiel’s voice. He is letting his readers know that he has received from Yahweh the message that he is about to deliver. He is speaking by Yahweh’s authority. The words that follow are penned by Ezekiel, but they are Yahweh’s words.
“ What do you mean, that you use this proverb (mashal) concerning the land of Israel?” (v. 2a). The word mashal comes from the Hebrew msl, which means represent or compare. It can denote a proverb, riddle, or parable. Yahweh is demanding to know by what rights the people are quoting this mashal—this proverb.
“The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge?” (v. 2b). This proverb means that the parents have eaten unripe grapes, and have passed the resulting sour taste to their children. The people of Judah, enduring exile in Babylonia, interpret the mashal to mean that they are suffering exile because of the sins of their parents. In other words, they believe themselves to be innocent—and their treatment at Yahweh’s hands to be unjust. This finds credence in 2 Kings, which attributes the exile to “the sins of Manasseh, for all that he had committed, and also for the innocent blood that he had shed” (2 Kings 24:3b-4a).
We don’t know the exact source of this proverb, although Jeremiah also quotes it (Jeremiah 31:29). In the Ten Commandments, we find this passage: “You shall not bow yourself down to (idols) nor serve them, for I, Yahweh your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and on the fourth generation of those who hate me, and showing loving kindness to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments” (Exodus 20:5-6; Deuteronomy 5:9-10). Those are Yahweh’s words. Later, in the book of Lamentations, the people will interpret themselves to be the victims of their parents’ sins, saying, “Our fathers sinned, and are no more; We have borne their iniquities” (Lamentations 5:7).
Our experience tells us that there is some truth to this. Children do suffer for the sins of their parents. The children of dysfunctional parents are more likely to suffer dysfunction than their peers from more functional families. However, we also see exceptions to this rule. People from dysfunctional families often rise above their circumstances to lead normal lives. Some even succeed in dramatic ways. Also, some people from good families rebel against their upbringing and lead dysfunctional lives. A great deal depends on the individual’s choices.
This text from Ezekiel emphasizes personal choice—accountability for the individual’s sins rather than the sins of the parents. It emphasizes Yahweh’s fairness, and says that Yahweh will judge people according to their ways—not their parents’ ways (v. 30a). It promises that repentance can save a person from ruin (v. 30b).
This is an important point. If people believe that they are going to be punished for the sins of their parents, that belief robs them of hope. It tells them that they are doomed, regardless of anything that they might do. It tells them that they have no way of escape. Even more importantly, it tells them that God is unfair—and is, in some sense, their enemy.
“As I live, says the Lord Yahweh“ (v. 3a). These words constitute an oath, accenting the importance of that which follows.
“you shall not have occasion any more to use this proverb in Israel” (v. 3c). Yahweh forbids the people of Israel to use this proverb. (Keep in mind that Israel, the Northern Kingdom, has long since ceased to be. These exiles are the people of Judah, the Southern Kingdom. Nevertheless, they are also known as Israel.)
“Behold, all souls (nepes) are mine; as the soul (nepes) of the father, so also the soul (nepes) of the son is mine” (v. 4a). Note the fourfold use of the word nepes (or nephesh) in this verse (see v. 7b below for the fourth occurrence). Nepes is a word that means breath, the breath that animates the living being—or the inner being—or the whole person. It appears frequently in the Old Testament, and is used both for human and animal life (Baker and Carpenter, 746).
In this verse, Yahweh asserts ownership over all living beings. These people have been arguing that Yahweh is punishing them for their parents’ sins, but Yahweh says that both parents and children belong to him. That should be good news to these people, because their scriptures assure them that Yahweh loves Israel “with an everlasting love” (Jeremiah 31:3). “His loving kindness endures forever” (Psalm 136:1-26). That phrase, “loving kindness,” occurs in Hebrew Scripture 172 times. Steadfast love is one of the chief characteristics of Yahweh, who takes “no pleasure in the death of him who dies” (v. 32).
“the soul (nepes) who sins, he shall die” (v. 4b). This assurance has its roots in Torah law, which says, “The fathers shall not be put to death for the children, neither shall the children be put to death for the fathers: every man shall be put to death for his own sin” (Deuteronomy 24:16). Torah law thus constrains people responsible for administering justice to punish only the offenders, not their parents or children. Now Yahweh accepts this same principle with regard to his own administration of justice.
Jeremiah, who also quotes the “sour grapes” proverb, offers the same assurance. He promises a day when “they shall say no more, The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge. But everyone shall die for his own iniquity: every man who eats the sour grapes, his teeth shall be set on edge” (Jeremiah 31:29-30).
EZEKIEL 18:5-24. NOT IN THE LECTIONARY READING
Whiles these verses are not included in the lectionary reading, the preacher will do well to be aware of them.
Verses 5-9 tell of a righteous man who “walked in my statutes, and has kept my ordinances, to deal truly; he is just, he shall surely live, says the Lord Yahweh” (v. 9).
Verses 10-13, tell of the righteous man’s sinful son. Yahweh says, “He shall surely die; his blood shall be on him” (v. 13).
Verses 14-18 tell of the sinful man’s righteous son who “does not such like” (v. 14)—who “has walked in my statutes; he shall not die for the iniquity of his father, he shall surely live. As for his father, because he cruelly oppressed, robbed his brother, and did that which is not good among his people, behold, he shall die in his iniquity” (vv. 17-18).
Yahweh states this principle: “The soul who sins, he shall die: the son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son; the righteousness of the righteous shall be on him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be on him” (v. 20).
Verses 21-22 introduce a grace note. “But if the wicked turn from all his sins that he has committed, and keep all my statutes, and do that which is lawful and right, he shall surely live, he shall not die. None of his transgressions that he has committed shall be remembered against him: in his righteousness that he has done he shall live.” In other words, sinful people can choose to repent. If they do Yahweh will forgive them.
The reason for this generosity is found in the character of God. “Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked? says the Lord Yahweh; and not rather that he should return from his way, and live?” (v. 23).
But Yahweh issues this warning. “But when the righteous turns away from his righteousness, and commits iniquity, and does according to all the abominations that the wicked man does, shall he live? None of his righteous deeds that he has done shall be remembered: in his trespass that he has trespassed, and in his sin that he has sinned, in them shall he die” (v. 24).
EZEKIEL 18:25-29. YOU SAY, “THE WAY OF THE LORD IS NOT EQUAL”
25Yet you say, The way of the Lord is not equal (Hebrew: takan). Hear now, house of Israel: Is my way not equal? Aren’t your ways unequal? 26When the righteous man turns away from his righteousness, and commits iniquity, and dies therein; in his iniquity that he has done shall he die. 27Again, when the wicked man turns away from his wickedness that he has committed, and does that which is lawful and right, he shall save his soul alive. 28Because he considers, and turns away from all his transgressions that he has committed, he shall surely live, he shall not die. 29Yet the house of Israel says, “The way of the Lord is not fair.” House of Israel, aren’t my ways fair? Aren’t your ways unfair?
“Yet you say, ‘The way of the Lord is not equal” (takan) (v. 25a). Having stated the principles of justice by which Yahweh lives (vv. 5-24), Yahweh expresses amazement that these people should charge that he is unfair (takan). The word takan means “weigh” or “equal.” Do these people view Yahweh as someone who would use inaccurate scales to shortchange them? Do they believe him to be unjust when dispensing justice?
“Hear now, house of Israel: Is my way not equal? Aren’t your ways unequal?” (v. 25b). Now Yahweh turns this charge of unfairness back on these people. Yahweh is not unfair. They are unfair. They are the sinners—not Yahweh!
“When the righteous man turns away from his righteousness, and commits iniquity, and dies therein; in his iniquity that he has done shall he die“ (v. 26). This restates the warning of verse 24. The righteous person who abandons righteousness shall die.
“Again, when the wicked man turns away from his wickedness that he has committed, and does that which is lawful and right, he shall save his soul alive. Because he considers, and turns away from all his transgressions that he has committed, he shall surely live, he shall not die“ (vv. 27-28). This restates the grace note of verse 21. Those who abandon their sinful ways will save their lives. They shall not die.
“Yet the house of Israel says, “The way of the Lord is not fair.” House of Israel, aren’t my ways fair? Aren’t your ways unfair?” (v. 29). This restates the question of verse 25.
EZEKIEL 18:30-32. I WILL JUDGE YOU ACCORDING TO YOUR WAYS
30Therefore I will judge you, house of Israel, everyone according to his ways, says the Lord Yahweh. Return (Hebrew: sub), and turn (sub) yourselves from all your transgressions; so iniquity shall not be your ruin (Hebrew: miksol—stumbling block). 31Cast away from you all your transgressions, in which you have transgressed; and make yourself a new heart and a new spirit: for why will you die, house of Israel? 32For I have no pleasure in the death of him who dies, says the Lord Yahweh: therefore turn(sub) yourselves, and live.
“Therefore I will judge you, house of Israel, everyone according to his ways, says the Lord Yahweh“ (v. 30a). Yahweh promises to judge the people of Israel on the basis of their ways—their behaviors—their compliance with Jewish law. He will not be assigning to them the guilt of their ancestors, but will impute to them only their own guilt or innocence.
“Return, (sub) and turn (sub) from you all your transgressions” (v. 30b). The tender appeal of this verse makes it clear that Yahweh has no interest in punishing these people. His will is that they might repent and be saved.
Yahweh uses two forms of the word sub in his appeal to these people. The verb sub (or sub) is used often in the Hebrew Scriptures, and means “turn” or “return” or “repent.”
Repentance is, after all, a turning to a new way or a returning to the Lord. For instance, in Deuteronomy, Yahweh talks about the suffering that the people will experience if they sin. Then he says, “In your distress, when all these things have happened to you in time to come, you will return (sub) to the Lord your God and heed him” (Deuteronomy 4:30).
“so iniquity will not be your ruin” (miksol—stumbling block) (v. 30c). A stumbling block or stumbling stone is something that causes people to trip and fall. The term is used in both Old and New Testaments for something that causes people to fall into sin or unbelief. The New Testament equivalent to miksol is the Greek word skandalon.
The idea of a stumbling stone was particularly vivid for Israel, where the land was rocky. People have experienced stumbling over a stone in a field or even on a road. At best, the person who stumbled would suffer a sore toe or knee. At worst, he would stumble in the midst of a battle and be rendered helpless in the face of his enemy.
“Cast away from you all your transgressions, in which you have transgressed“ (v. 31a). Rather than attributing their punishment to the sins of their ancestors, these Israelites need to acknowledge their sins and cast them aside. Their sins are against Yahweh—an offense to Yahweh—a barrier to fellowship with Yahweh.
“and make yourself a new heart and a new spirit” (v. 31b). The benefit of casting away their transgressions will be that they will get a new heart and a new spirit.
• Earlier, Yahweh said, “I will give them one heart, and I will put a new spirit within you; and I will take the stony heart out of their flesh, and will give them a heart of flesh” (11:19).
• Later, Yahweh will promise, “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean: from all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you. I will also give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit within you; and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you a heart of flesh. I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and you shall keep my ordinances, and do them. You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers; and you shall be my people, and I will be your God” (36:25-28).
Repentance involves a new direction—a return to the Lord (v. 30b). A new heart and a new spirit (v. 31b). involves the person returning to the unsullied life that Yahweh created him/her to live.
“for why will you die, house of Israel?” (v. 31c). This is the keening appeal of a Father who is watching his children self-destructing. Why do they do it? Why don’t they make better choices? There is no good reason for them to suffer and die.
“For I have no pleasure in the death of him who dies, says the Lord Yahweh“ (v. 32a). Yahweh assures these people that his good pleasure is not punish them. His good pleasure would be to give them the kingdom (Luke 12:32).
“therefore turn (sub) yourselves, and live” (v. 32b). The chapter ends with this final appeal. Yahweh is holding open the door for them. All they need to do is to enter it. Their reward will be life—life instead of death.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Copyright 2012, Richard Niell Donovan