The word of the LORD came unto me again, saying,
This chapter helps us to clear up a puzzle which has tormented the minds of men in all ages whenever they have thought of God, and of whether God meant them well or meant them ill. For all men have been tempted. We are tempted at times to say: "The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge." That is, we are punished not for what we have done wrong, but for what our fathers did wrong. Men complain of their ill luck and bad chance, as they call it, till they complain of God, and say, as the Jews said in Ezekiel's time: God's ways are unequal, partial, unfair.
I. God does visit the sins of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation—but of whom? Of them that hate Him. If a family, or a class, or a whole nation become incorrigibly profligate, foolish, base—in three or four generations they will either die out or vanish. Whole nations will sink thus; as the Jews sank in Ezekiel's time, and again in our Lord's time; and be conquered, trampled on, counted for nothing, because they were worth nothing.
II. But suppose that the children, when their fathers' sins are visited on them, are not incorrigible. Suppose they are like the wise son of whom Ezekiel speaks (Ezekiel 18:14), who seeth all his father's sins, and doeth not such like—then has not God been merciful and kind to him in visiting his father's sins on him? He has. God is justified therein. His eternal laws of natural retribution, severe as they are, have worked in love and in mercy, if they have taught the young man the ruinousness, the deadliness of sin. Men fall by sin; they rise again by repentance and amendment. They rise—they enter into their new life weak and wounded, from their own fault. But they enter in, and from that day things begin to mend—the weather begins to clear—the soil begins to yield again; punishment gradually ceases when it has done its work, the weight lightens, the wounds heal, the weakness strengthens, and by God's grace they are made men of again and saved.
C. Kingsley, All Saints' Day and Other Sermons, p. 238.
Ezekiel 18:2It is not strange that so well known a law as the fatal persistency with which evil follows on from generation to generation, should find its expression in the Proverbs of Israel, but it is strange that you should find the prophet quoting it only to denounce it. He rises up, having quoted the proverb, and he declares that it is unworthy of those who bear the name of Israel. "It is a heathenish proverb. What mean ye to use it concerning Israel? It is not only heathenish, it does wrong to God; it violates the rights of the Almighty over His creatures. Behold, all souls are Mine."
I. The proverb is unquestionably true. Every land, every race, every age, has seen its truth. We often look round and see how true it is that a man is weighted in the race of life by the folly, by the extravagance, of his father. A man, on the other hand, toils on industriously, accumulates possessions for his children, and in doing so gives them the advantage of the position which he has established. That which is true with regard to personal history is true also with regard to national history. Are we not bearing the weight of our fathers' sins? We are enduring the pain of our teeth being set on edge because of the follies and the sins of past generations.
II. What is the reason, then, that the prophet should take upon himself to denounce what is so obviously true? He denounces its use because it is used in an untrue sense, and for an untrue purpose. It is quoted in the sense of trying to make people cast a shadow upon the lovingkindness of God; therefore, the prophet takes up his parable against them. For every soul, for every nation, there is a glorious destiny; and for men to shelter themselves from their duty by declaring that a hard fate has bound them about with its fetters of iron, and that there is no escape for them; that their whole life is shipwrecked and ruined; that they are the last miserable inheritors of the fatality of their own organisation, of the tyranny of their national position, is to declare that they have lost faith in the power of God; it is to take a solemn truth and wrest it to their own destruction. Life is the prerogative of man, and the power of taking upon them a new life is never denied to those who look God in the face, to those who grasp firmly the weapons of life, and turn to their duty as men. It is not our part to live for ever in the north pole of life, and declare that it is all bitterness, and a blasted fate; it is not our duty to live in the sunny south, and to declare that our life is all sweetness and sunshine; your lot and mine is cast in these moderate poles, where we know that law rules, and love rules above our heads, sweet love beneath our feet, sweet law, both strong, both sweet, both the offspring of God, both heralds of encouragement, to lift up our energies, to exert ourselves in the toil of life, and to be men. It is in the counterpoising truths of law which is inexorable, and love which is never inexorable, that the power of life and heroism of life is found.
Bishop Boyd Carpenter, Christian World Pulpit, vol. xxiii., p. 353.
Reference: Ezekiel 18:2.—Homiletic Magazine, vol. xiv., p. 107.
Ezekiel 18:4I. Every living soul is, in a sense, the subject, the sharer, of the privileges, the attributes of God. (1) There is, without contradiction, the privilege of life. Better than silent stone, or sounding waves, or moving worlds, is one who holds the eternal spark of life. Whatever comes we feel we know it; it is something to have lived. This is what it means. It is to have been single, separate, self-determining. Man is conscious that he is himself a cause, a self-determining power, that he can will, and freely choose between alternative courses. Free, personal, individual, he has indeed a splendid, if an awful, heritage—life and like God's life: "All souls are Mine." (2) Another privilege of this lofty place in the scale of being is immortality. (3) A third privilege is the intuition of moral truth, and with this the sense of moral obligation.
II. If the soul is so endowed by God, it follows necessarily that God has a claim upon the soul. It is on success in realising, remembering, acting upon this truth of our relationship to God, that so much of our true happiness and our true dignity depends. Of what character is this claim? (1) God has a rightful claim upon our conscious dependence. We must render Him this service for many reasons. (a) Clearly because to do so is to recognise and reverence facts. We do depend on God. He holds thee and me in the hollow of His hand. All things bright and dark, and glad and sorrowful, are full of the purposes of His unutterable compassion. (b) Such recognition is only a just outcome of gratitude. To be ungrateful is to be at once thoughtless and selfish and dishonourable. Gratitude is the loving recollection of those who, in some sense, first loved us. (c) The keeping alive the sense of conscious dependence upon God exercises upon our character a great moral influence. We never rise to the dignity of nature but by being natural. This dependence is one of those pure facts of nature which has imbibed none of the poison of the fall. Two powers accrue to the soul from cultivating the sense of it—resignation and strength. (2) God's preserving and so richly endowing the soul gives Him a claim that in its plan and activities He should have the first place. (3) And lastly, God makes this claim upon you that you despise no soul.
III. We learn from this subject two serious lessons: (1) The first is individual responsibility. (2) The second that the soul's true beatitude is to know God.
W. J. Knox-Little, Manchester Sermons, p. 22.
Note some of the elements which constitute the soul's priceless worth.
I. When God says, "All souls are Mine," there is in the term "Mine" a peculiar force, inapplicable in a similar degree to any other created existence on earth. God places Himself by His indwelling in such a relation to the souls of His elect, that the parting with a lost soul becomes the occasion of profound, mysterious sadness to God Himself. He has lived in it. He had purposed to live in it for ever. He made it for this end.
II. The soul possesses the awful attribute of immortality; it is infinite in its duration. The sense of infiniteness is in itself overwhelming. The mind is incapable of conceiving infinite time or space, and is burdened even by the vague shadowy idea that imagination attempts to picture. When it is not in reference to time or space, but to the breathing, thinking soul, we may well shrink back with amazement and fear from the contemplation.
III. There are in the soul capacities which seem as inexhaustible as its duration of existence. The early dreams of youth often embody themselves in after life in actual realities; and in like manner the spiritual imaginations of the soul may be ideal pictures of what will hereafter be realised, of love, or beatitude, or power, or beauty, in worlds where all energies of the life attain their perfect fulness in God.
IV. Again, to enter into the mystery of a soul, it is necessary to consider its special vocation. Each separate soul is the embodying of a distinct idea of the mind of God. Each one is ordained to accomplish some one distinct purpose of God. This is the soul's vocation. It is this distinct personality which gives their dignity to individual men.
V. It is the property of every individual soul to comprehend more or less clearly the fact of its own responsibility, and to contemplate the end of its existence. Each dwells in a sphere of his own, revolving in his own orbit, which is beyond our earthly vision, as the real heavens are within the blue air which is the limit of our eyesight. All these elements of the inner world of life will in great measure depend, as to their character and intensity, on the apprehension which the soul has attained, through grace, of its own true dignity, its origin and purpose, its calling and its end.
T. T. Carter, Sermons, p. 1.
References: Ezekiel 18:4.—Plain Sermons by Contributors to "Tracts for the Times," vol. vii., p. 153; Preacher's Monthly, vol. iv., p. 232; vol. viii., p. 288; vol. x., p. 308. Ezekiel 18:5-9.—S. Cox, Expositions, 3rd series, p. 30. Ezekiel 18:13.—Ibid., p. 16; E. V. Hall, Sermons in Worcester Cathedral, p. 58. Ezekiel 18:16, Ezekiel 18:17.—H. S. Fagan, Good Words, 1874, p. 842.
Ezekiel 18:20(Exodus 20:5)
These passages severally profess to give a rule of Divine dealing, if not with the world generally at least with the people of Israel. And at first sight certainly they seem to enunciate principles which are diametrically opposed. To use the language of modern controversy, the one seems to adopt and the other to repudiate, the doctrine of imputed sin.
I. Quite independently of other difficulties, the picture of the Divine government drawn by Ezekiel at once suggests these questions—Is it true? Is it true that the son does not bear the iniquity of the father, nor the father the iniquity of the son? Ask the history of the world. What answer does it give? Blighted fortune, blighted name, blighted health, descending even to the third and fourth generation—do they not tell you that the son does bear the iniquity of his father? Father of a bad son, sinking brokenhearted into his grave,—can you not read in his withered life that the father does bear the iniquity of the son? It needs but small acquaintance with the world's history to know that in this life vicarious suffering is no mere theological fiction, but a terrible reality.
II. We have but to admit that the lawgiver and the prophet are speaking of different things, and the difficulty of these two passages will almost disappear. (1) The whole scope of the Mosaic law, so far at least as its sanctions are concerned, is in the present life. Gratitude for earthly blessings, hope of earthly prosperity—the law strikes no higher note than these, and therefore we may fairly interpret Exodus 20:5 as referring to this life only, and as containing a statement which, even without Scriptural authority, we should know to be true. (2) The Divine message delivered by Ezekiel tells us, in fact, that the rules by which the world of eternity is governed are not identical with those which rule the world of time. It tells us that things are permitted, done, nay, ordained here, which find no place there. And one of these essentially temporary ordinances is vicarious suffering. The suffering of the innocent does play a large and important part in the history of this world. And if there were no other world than this, it would be hard to reconcile such an ordinance with the existence of a perfectly moral governor. But look to that wondrous existence, some glimpses of which Christianity opens to our view. Think of all the powers of compensation for earthly suffering which may be found there; and then say whether, as a matter of pure selfishness, it may not be well for the innocent sufferer himself that he has suffered. Certainly St. Paul thought so when he declared, "Our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory."
J. H. Jellett, The Elder Son and Other Sermons, p. 103.
References: Ezekiel 18:20, Ezekiel 18:21.—S. Cox, Expositions, 3rd series, p. 1. Ezekiel 18:23, Ezekiel 18:32.—Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xxx., No. 1795.
Ezekiel 18:25It seems that the Jews complained of the law under which they lived as unjust, because it spoke of the sins of fathers being visited upon their children. The proverb of the sour grapes was one which had a very direct bearing upon the conduct of the people; if the proverb generally found favour in their eyes, and spoke the thoughts of their hearts, then it was of no use that Ezekiel should talk of sin and its punishment, and the need of repentance and amendment. Therefore, Ezekiel protested against the proverb as wicked and profane, and he lays down as the great truth which should destroy the effect of the lying proverb, that of the necessary punishment of sin; "the soul that sinneth, it shall die."
I. Ezekiel was not bringing in any new principle of government, but was only asserting a principle as old as the creation; and what he wished the people to believe was this, that although it had been held out as a warning against disobedience and an encouragement to obedience, that those who sinned were bringing in a curse which would affect others besides themselves, and that contrariwise, those who were holy and good were bringing a blessing down upon their children; still this was not to be supposed to be in opposition to the great law of every man standing or falling by his own deeds, being "judged by the things done in the body, whether good or bad.." And so he would urge them to repentance; he would urge them not to speculate about their fathers' sins, but to leave their own.
II. There is still something repugnant to our idea of justice in the law, that the sins of the fathers should be visited upon the children, as the second commandment states that in some cases they are. But the principle of the children suffering for the fathers' sin was not at all peculiar to the Jewish law; it is a principle which, whether just or no, is manifestly the principle upon which the world is governed. It is the Lord's doing, however wonderful it may be in our eyes. God did not put us here to explain difficulties, but to work out our salvation; God does not require us to show how all His doings are the best and wisest that could be; but He requires of us to do His will. "As I live, saith the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of him that dieth." Here is argument enough for a holy life; argument enough for all works of mercy, of patience, of faith, and love.
Bishop Harvey Goodwin, Parish Sermons, 3rd series, p. 1.
References: Ezekiel 18:27.—R. D. B. Rawnsley, Village Sermons, 1st series, p. 91. Ezekiel 18:29.—F. Wagstaff, Christian World Pulpit, vol. xvi., p. 136. Ezekiel 18:30-32.—S. Cox, Expositions, 3rd series, p. 43.
Ezekiel 18:31I. Whoever would teach as the Scriptures do, and especially whoever would teach as Christ does, must be careful to show men both sides of the awful picture beyond the grave: he must tell of judgment, as well as mercy; he must try always to temper fear with love. Observe the tone even of such a consoling passage as the text. Do not the words plainly teach that if sinners will not take our Saviour's most gracious offer—if they will not cast away all their transgressions and make them a new heart and a new spirit... they will most surely die; there is no remedy for it.
II. The Almighty speaks as if in this matter of our salvation He had in some wonderful manner parted with His own power and put it into our hands. The text is the voice of a tender Father, most unwilling to punish His children, yet declaring that He must punish them, if they continue in their disobedience. And on the other hand, when the same gracious voice alters to a more severe and peremptory tone, still the very threatening is a pledge of His unfailing love to the penitent.
III. True and full repentance is a greater work than some of us may have imagined. It is two great works in one; the first is hating the evil, "casting away all our transgressions;" the other is loving the good, "making us a new heart and a new spirit." The conversion and amendment of sinners is in some mysterious way both God's work and their work; they "work out their own salvation," because it is "God that worketh in them both to will and to do of His good pleasure." The mere hating our former sins is not sufficient, for that may be, as in the case of Judas, in mere despondency, for no good end; in fact, it is what the impenitent transgressor must come to in the next world. But those whom Christ is guiding to true repentance are learning to love Him as well as hate their sins. They are learning to delight in His Presence and rejoice in the feeling that He ever beholds them, to take pleasure in denying themselves for His sake, as a mother takes pleasure in what she does and endures for her child.
Plain Sermons by Contributors to "Tracts for the Times," vol. viii., p. 193.
Ezekiel 18:31I. How are we to get a new heart? Some answers come very readily to our lips. They have been preached over and over again to us; they are quite true, but they do not much help an earnest inquirer. He is left in the same position; he does not know where to turn or what to do, and so goes on until he has given up caring about a new heart. For the first step to a new and better heart is the conviction that we need a new heart. The answer usually given to the inquiry, How am I to get a new heart? is this: It must come from God. This is perfectly true; but it does not help a man much. All good comes from God. But the question is, How does it come from God? It is a gift we must seek in a certain way, in accordance with the laws of nature, the laws of our constitution. It must, in some sense, be within our own power; or else we should never have been commanded, as we have been, to make us a new heart and a new spirit.
II. The new heart—that is, a right state of the feelings—consists generally in the dislike and hatred of evil, and the love of goodness and of God. It is a law of our nature that we are ruled and governed by our strongest love. Whatever we care for most in the world, that rules our life; and if we come to love God best of all, whatever our liking for evil might be, it must be driven out, for it can never be gratified, since the love of God rules, and that love does not allow of indulgence in sin. If our feelings towards God are to be changed, if we are to learn to love Him, we must come to know Him, we must come to know something about Him which appeals to our love and reverence. Before Christ the love of God was to a large extent, and in nearly every nation, an impossibility. The civil governments were tyrannies, and the people were slaves, and their religious system was a tyranny, and its service slavery. To Christ we owe our salvation. He taught a truer and more winning faith. He was the one Mediator who took the frightened, hesitating child by the hand, and led him gently up to the throne where sat the great Father, shining forth His infinite tenderness, and the child was converted and forgot to tremble, and began to love and delightedly adore.
III. And if we want to love God, we must, day by day, with Christ to teach us, learn to know our Father, to see His beauty and majesty and saving love; day by day we must try to be with Him, for love comes by nearness; love comes of mutual converse. And this is prayer. Thus we shall come to love God with all our heart, and our soul will get an upward look as the plants feel out to the light; our burdens are lightened, for there is one sure place to which we may fly for refuge, and there be comforted; by earthly anxieties
As by some spell divine,
Your cares drop from you, like the needles shaken
From out the gusty pine."
W. Page-Roberts, Law and God, p. 101.
Ezekiel 18:31I. The nature of our ruin. The death of the body is not meant here. That is inevitable. Natural death will be only the beginning of that most awful death to which our text alludes. (1) This death is not the extinction of existence, thought, feeling, conscience. (2) It is the death of pleasure, hope, and love. (3) It involves exclusion from heaven, from the society of the really great and good, from the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
II. The author of our ruin. Does it proceed primarily and effectually from God's will, or from man's will? The latter, beyond all doubt. The sinner destroys himself. The fact of the sinner's self-destruction is apparent from: (1) the character of the Gospel; (2) the character of man; (3) the character of his future condition.
III. The reason of our ruin. It does not at all depend upon our will whether we shall die in this world. But most of you in reply to this question of the text—Why will ye die?—would have to say: "Because we love the pleasures of the world more than the joys of eternal life; because we desire the approbation of man more than the inheritance of heaven; because we are addicted to the ways of sin,—are not disposed to break off our evil habits; because we have been living in impenitence and unbelief, and have no mind to change our course." The guilt, folly, shame, and ignominy of suicide belong to you.
J. Stoughton, Penny Pulpit, No. 1714.
References: Ezekiel 18:31.—J. Keble, Sermons for Sundays after Trinity, part ii., p. 197; Preacher's Monthly, vol. vi., p. 171. Ezekiel 18:32.—Christian Chronicle, May 3rd, 1883.
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.
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.
But if a man be just, and do that which is lawful and right,
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;
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,
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,
And that doeth not any of those duties, but even hath eaten upon the mountains, and defiled his neighbour's wife,
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,
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.
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,
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.