Ezekiel 18
Pulpit Commentary
The word of the LORD came unto me again, saying,
Verses 1, 2. - What mean ye, that ye use this proverb, etc.? Another and entirely different section opens, and we see at once from what it started. Ezekiel had heard from the lips of his countrymen, and had seen its working in their hearts, the proverb (already familiar to him, it may be, through Jeremiah 31:29) with which they blunted their sense of personal responsibility. They had to bear the punishment of sins which they had not committed. The sins of the fathers were visited, as in Exodus 20:5; Exodus 34:7; Leviticus 26:39, 40; Numbers 14:18; Deuteronomy 5:9, upon the third and fourth generations. Manasseh and his people had sinned, and Josiah and his descendants and their contemporaries had to suffer for it. The thought was familiar enough, and the general law of the passages above referred to was afterwards applied, as with authority, to what was then passing (2 Kings 23:26; 2 Kings 24:3). Even Jeremiah recognized it in Lamentations 5:7 and Jeremiah 15:4, and was content to look, for a reversal of the proverb, to the distant Messianic time of the new covenant (Jeremiah 31:29-31). The plea with which Ezekiel had to deal was therefore one which seemed to rest on the basis of a Divine authority. And that authority was confirmed by the induction of a wide experience. Every preacher of righteousness in every age has to warn the evil doer that he is working evil for generations yet unborn, to whom he transmits his own tendencies, the evil of his own influence and example. It is well that he can balance that thought with the belief that good also may work in the future with a yet wider range and mightier power (Exodus 20:5). Authority and experience alike might seem to favour the plea that the fathers had eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth were set on edge. Ezekiel was led, however, to feel that there was a latent falsehood in the plea. In the depth of his consciousness there was the witness that every man was personally responsible for the things that he did, that the eternal righteousness of God would not ultimately punish the innocent for the guilty, he had to work out, according to the light given him, his vindication of the ways of God to man, to sketch at least the outlines of a theodicy. Did he, in doing this, come forward as a prophet, correcting and setting aside the teaching of the Law? At first, and on a surface view, he might seem to do so. But it was with him as it was afterwards with St. Paul He "established the Law" in the very teaching which seemed to contradict it. He does not deny (it would have been idle to do so) that the sins of the fathers are visited upon the children, i.e. affect those children for evil. What he does is to define the limits of that law. And he may have found his starting point in that very book which, for him and his generation, was the great embodiment of the Law as a whole. If men were forbidden, as in Deuteronomy 24:16, to put the children to death for the sins of the fathers; if that was to be the rule of human justice, - the justice of God could not be less equitable than the rule which he prescribed for his creatures. It is not without interest to note the parallelism between Ezekiel and the Greek poet who was likest to him, as in his genius, so also in the courage with which he faced the problems of the universe. AEschylus also recognizes ('Agam.,' 727-756) that there is a righteous order in the seeming anomalies of history. Men might say, in their proverbs, that prosperity as such provoked the wrath of the gods, and brought on the downfall of a "woe insatiable;" and then he adds -

"But I, apart from all,
Hold this my creed alone."
And that creed is that punishment comes only when the children reproduce the impious recklessness of their fathers. "Justice shines brightly in the dwellings of those who love the right, and rule their life by law." Into the deeper problem raised by the modern thought of inherited tendencies developed by the environment, which itself originates in the past, it was not given to Ezekiel or AEschylus to enter.
What mean ye, that ye use this proverb concerning the land of Israel, saying, The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge?
As I live, saith the Lord GOD, ye shall not have occasion any more to use this proverb in Israel.
Verse 3. - Stress is laid on the fact that the proverb which implied unrighteousness in God is no longer to be used in Israel. There, among the, people in whom he was manifesting his righteousness for the education of mankind, it should be seen to have no force whatever. The thought was an essentially heathen thought - a half-truth distorted into a falsehood.
Behold, all souls are mine; as the soul of the father, so also the soul of the son is mine: the soul that sinneth, it shall die.
Verse 4. - Behold, all souls are mine, etc. The words imply, not only creation, ownership, absolute authority, on the part of God, but, as even Calvin could recognize (in loc.), "a paternal affection towards the whole human race which he created and formed." Ezekiel anticipates here, and yet more fully in ver. 32. the teaching of St. Paul, that "God willeth that all men should be saved" (1 Timothy 2:4). The soul that sinneth, it shall die. The sentence, though taken from the Law, which ordered capital punishment for the offences named, cannot be limited to that punishment. "Death" and "life" are both used in their highest and widest meaning - "life" as including all that makes it worth living, "death" for the loss of that only true life which is found in knowing God (John 17:3).
But if a man be just, and do that which is lawful and right,
Verses 5-9. - The verses that follow are noticeable as forming one of the most complete pictures of a righteous life presented in the Old Testament. It ads characteristic of Ezekiel that he starts from the avoidance of sins against the first table of the commandments. To eat upon the mountains was to take part in the sacrificial feasts on the places, of which he had already spoken (Ezekiel 16:16; comp. 22:9; Deuteronomy 12:2). The words, lifted up his eyes, as in Deuteronomy 4:19 and Psalm 121:1, implied every form of idolatrous adoration. The two sins that follow seem to us, as compared with each other, to stand on a very different footing. To Ezekiel, however, they both appeared as mala prohibita, to each of which the Law assigned the punishment of death (Leviticus 18:19; Leviticus 20:10, 18; Deuteronomy 22:22), each involving the dominance of animal passions, in the one case, over the sacred rights of others; in the other, over a law of self-restraint which rested partly on physical grounds, the act condemned frustrating the final cause of the union of the sexes; partly, also, on its ethical significance. The prominence given to it implies that the sin was common, and that it brought with it an infinite degradation of the holiest ties.
And hath not eaten upon the mountains, neither hath lifted up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel, neither hath defiled his neighbour's wife, neither hath come near to a menstruous woman,
And hath not oppressed any, but hath restored to the debtor his pledge, hath spoiled none by violence, hath given his bread to the hungry, and hath covered the naked with a garment;
Verse 7. - Hath restored to the debtor his pledge. The law, found in Exodus 22.25 and Deuteronomy 24:6, 13, was a striking instance of the considerateness of the Mosaic Law. The garment which the debtor had pledged as a security was to be restored to him at night. Such a law implied, of course, the return of the pledge in the morning. It was probably often used by the debtor for his own fraudulent advantage, and it was a natural consequence that the creditor should be tempted to evade compliance with it. The excellence of the man whom Ezekiel describes was that he resisted the temptation. Hath spoiled none by violence. Comp. Leviticus 6:1-5, which Ezekiel probably had specially in view. The sin, common enough at all times (1 Samuel 12:3), would seem to have been specially characteristic of the time in which Ezekiel lived, from the king downwards (Jeremiah 22:13). As contrasted with the sin, there was the virtue of generous almsgiving (Isaiah 58:5-7).
He that hath not given forth upon usury, neither hath taken any increase, that hath withdrawn his hand from iniquity, hath executed true judgment between man and man,
Verse 8. - He that hath not given forth his money upon usury. The word "usury," we must remember, is used, not, as with us, for exorbitant interest above the market rate, but for interest of any kind. This was allowed in commercial dealings with foreigners (Deuteronomy 23:20), but was altogether forbidden in the case of loans to Israelites (Exodus 22:25; Leviticus 25:35, 37; Deuteronomy 23:19: Isaiah 24:2). The principle implied in this distinction was that, although it was, on strict principles of justice, allowable to charge for the use of money, as for the use of lands or the hire of cattle, Israel, as a people, was under the higher law of brotherhood. If money was to be lent at all, it was to be lent as to a brother in went (Matthew 5:42; Luke 6:35), for the relief of his necessities, and not to make profit. A brother who would not help a brother by a loan without interest was thought unworthy of the name. The ideal of the social polity of Israel was that it was to consist of a population of small freeholders, bound together by ties of mutual help - a national friendly society, rather than of traders and manufacturers; and hence the whole drift of its legislation tended to repress the money making spirit which afterwards became specially characteristic of its people, and ate like a canker into its life. The distinction between the two words seems to be that "usury" represents any interest on money; and "increase," any profit on the sale of goods beyond the cost of production, as measured by the maintenance of the worker and his family. To buy in the cheapest market and sell in the dearest was not to be the rule in a nation of brothers, and it was wiser to forbid it altogether rather than to sanction what we call a "reasonable rate" of interest or profit. Hath executed true judgment. The last special feature in the description of the righteous man is that he is free from the judicial corruption which has always been the ineradicable evil of Eastern social life (1 Samuel 8:3; 1 Samuel 12:3; Amos 5:12; Isaiah 33:15).
Hath walked in my statutes, and hath kept my judgments, to deal truly; he is just, he shall surely live, saith the Lord GOD.
If he beget a son that is a robber, a shedder of blood, and that doeth the like to any one of these things,
Verse 10. - A robber. The Hebrew implies robbery with violence, perhaps, as in the Authorized Version margin, the offence of the housebreaker. That doeth the like to any of these things. The margin of the Revised Version, following the Chaldee paraphrase, gives, who doeth to a brother any of these things. Others (Keil and Furst) render, "who doeth only one of these things," as if recognizing the principle of James 2:10. On the whole, there seems sufficient reason for keeping to the text.
And that doeth not any of those duties, but even hath eaten upon the mountains, and defiled his neighbour's wife,
Verse 11. - The word "duties" is not in the Hebrew, but is legitimately introduced as expressing Ezekiel's meaning, where the mere pronoun by itself would have been ambiguous. In English we might say, "He does these things: he does not do those;" but this does not fall in with the Hebrew idiom.
Hath oppressed the poor and needy, hath spoiled by violence, hath not restored the pledge, and hath lifted up his eyes to the idols, hath committed abomination,
Verse 12. - The word abomination probably covers the specific sin named in ver. 6, but not here.
Hath given forth upon usury, and hath taken increase: shall he then live? he shall not live: he hath done all these abominations; he shall surely die; his blood shall be upon him.
Verse 13. - One holes the special emphasis, first of the question, and then of the direct negative, as though that, in the judgment alike of God and man, was the only answer that could be given to it in the very words of the Law (Leviticus 20:9, 11, 13).
Now, lo, if he beget a son, that seeth all his father's sins which he hath done, and considereth, and doeth not such like,
Verses 14-17. - Now, lo! etc. The law of personal responsibility had been pressed on its darker side. It is now asserted in its brighter, and that with the special emphasis indicated in its opening words. The proverb of the "sour grapes" receives a direct contradiction. The son of the evil doer way take warning by his father's example, and repent, as Ezekiel exhorted those among whom he lived to do. In that case he need fear no inherited or transmitted curse. He shall surely live; Hebrew, living he shall live. That truth came to Ezekiel as with the force of a new apocalypse, and it is obviously "exceeding broad," with far-reaching consequences both in ethics and theology.
That hath not eaten upon the mountains, neither hath lifted up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel, hath not defiled his neighbour's wife,
Neither hath oppressed any, hath not withholden the pledge, neither hath spoiled by violence, but hath given his bread to the hungry, and hath covered the naked with a garment,
That hath taken off his hand from the poor, that hath not received usury nor increase, hath executed my judgments, hath 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, spoiled his brother by violence, and did that which is not good among his people, lo, even he shall die in his iniquity.
Verse 18. - The reappearance of the father, with the same emphatic "lo!" seems to imply that Ezekiel thought of the two phenomena as possibly contemporaneous. Men might see before them, at the same time, the father dying in his sins, and the son turning from them and gaining the true life.
Yet say ye, Why? doth not the son bear the iniquity of the father? When the son hath done that which is lawful and right, and hath kept all my statutes, and hath done them, he shall surely live.
Verse 19. - Why? doth not the son, etc.? The words are better taken, with the LXX., Vulgate, Revised Version, and most critics, as a single question, Why doth not the son bear, etc.? What is the explanation of a fact which seemingly contradicts the teaching of the Law? The answer to the question seems at first only an iteration of what had been stated before. The son repents, and therefore does not bear his father's iniquity. A man is responsible for his own sins, and for those only. To think otherwise is to think of God as less righteous than man.
The soul that sinneth, it 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 upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him.
But if the wicked will turn from all his sins that he hath committed, and keep all my statutes, and do that which is lawful and right, he shall surely live, he shall not die.
Verses 21, 22. - But if the wicked will turn, etc. Here, however, there is a distinct advance. The question is carried further into the relations between the past and the present of the same man, between his old and his new self. And in answering that question also Ezekiel becomes the preacher of a gospel. The judgment of God deals with each man according to his present state, not his past. Repentance and conversion and obedience shall cancel, as it were, the very memory of his former sins (Ezekiel's language is necessarily that of a hold anthropopathy), and his transgressions shall not be mentioned unto him (comp. Ezekiel 33:16; Isaiah 43:25; Isaiah 64:9; Jeremiah 31:34). Assuming the later date of Isaiah 40-66, the last three utterances have the interest of being those of nearly contemporary prophets to whom the same truth had been revealed.
All his transgressions that he hath committed, they shall not be mentioned unto him: in his righteousness that he hath done he shall live.
Have I any pleasure at all that the wicked should die? saith the Lord GOD: and not that he should return from his ways, and live?
Verse 23. - Have I any pleasure, etc.? Ezekiel's anticipations of the gospel of Christ take a yet wider range, and we come at last to what had been throughout the suppressed premise of the argument. To him, as afterwards to St. Paul (1 Timothy 2:4) and St. Peter (2 Peter 3:9), the mind of God was presented as being at once absolutely righteous and absolutely loving. The death of the wicked, the loss, i.e., of true life, for a time, or even forever, might be the necessary consequence of laws that were righteous in themselves, and were working out the well being of the universe; but that death was not to be thought of as the result of a Divine decree, or contemplated by the Divine mind with any satisfaction. If it were not given to Ezekiel to see, as clearly as Isaiah seems to have seen it, how the Divine philanthropy was to manifest itself, he at least gauged that philanthropy itself, and found it fathomless.
But when the righteous turneth away from his righteousness, and committeth iniquity, and doeth according to all the abominations that the wicked man doeth, shall he live? All his righteousness that he hath done shall not be mentioned: in his trespass that he hath trespassed, and in his sin that he hath sinned, in them shall he die.
Verse 24. - In the previous argument (ver. 21) the truth that the individual character may change had been stated as a ground of hope. Here it appears as a ground, for fear and watchfulness. The "grey-haired saint may fail at last," the apostle may become a castaway (1 Corinthians 9:27), and the righteousness of a life may be cancelled by the sins of a year or of a day. Whether there was an opening for repentance, even after that fall, the prophet does not say, but the law that a man is in spiritual life or death according to what he is at any given moment of his course, seems to require the extension of the hope, unless we assume that the nature of the fall in the case supposed fetters the freedom of the will, and makes repentance impossible (Hebrews 6:4-7; 2 Peter 2:20).
Yet ye say, The way of the Lord is not equal. Hear now, O house of Israel; Is not my way equal? are not your ways unequal?
Verse 25. - Are not my ways equal? The. primary meaning of the Hebrew adjective is that of something ordered, symmetrically arranged. Men would find in the ways of God precisely that in which their own ways were wanting, and which they denied to him - the workings of a considerate equity, adjusting all things according to their true weight and measure.
When a righteous man turneth away from his righteousness, and committeth iniquity, and dieth in them; for his iniquity that he hath done shall he die.
Verses 26-29. - The equity of the Divine judgments is asserted, as before, by fresh iteration rather than by new arguments. In a discourse delivered, as this probably was, orally, it was necessary, so to speak, to hammer in the truth upon men's minds so that it might be driven home and do its work.
Again, when the wicked man turneth away from his wickedness that he hath committed, and doeth that which is lawful and right, he shall save his soul alive.
Because he considereth, and turneth away from all his transgressions that he hath committed, he shall surely live, he shall not die.
Yet saith the house of Israel, The way of the Lord is not equal. O house of Israel, are not my ways equal? are not your ways unequal?
Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways, saith the Lord GOD. Repent, and turn yourselves from all your transgressions; so iniquity shall not be your ruin.
Verses 30, 31. - That work was to produce repentance, hope, and fear. The goodness and severity of God alike led up to that. For a man to remain in his sin will be fatal, but it is not the will of God that he should so remain. What he needs is the new heart and the new spirit, which are primarily, as in Ezekiel 11:19, God's gift to men, but which men must make their own by seeking and receiving them. So iniquity shall not be your ruin; better, with the margin of the Revised Version, so shall they not be a stumbling block (same word as in Ezekiel 3:20; Ezekiel 7:19; Ezekiel 14:3) of iniquity unto you. Repented sins shall be no more an occasion of offence. Men may rise on them to "higher things," as on "steppingstones of their dead selves."
Cast away from you all your transgressions, whereby ye have transgressed; and make you a new heart and a new spirit: for why will ye die, O house of Israel?
For I have no pleasure in the death of him that dieth, saith the Lord GOD: wherefore turn yourselves, and live ye.
Verse 32. - Turn yourselves, etc. As in Ezekiel 14:6, but there is no ground for the rendering of "turn others," suggested in the margin of the Authorized Version. So we close what we may rightly speak of as among the noblest of Ezekiel's utterances, that which makes him take his place side by side with the greatest of the prophets as a preacher of repentance and forgiveness. In the next chapter he returns to his parables of history after the fashion of those of ch. 17.

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