The Children Bearing the Fathers' Iniquities
Exodus 20:4-6
You shall not make to you any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath…

I. As to THE MATTER OF FACT — that God does visit on the children the iniquities of the fathers — the evidence is so broad and conclusive that, without a singular carelessness it cannot be overlooked. The sin of one man brought death into the world, and caused that, throughout the vast spreadings of humanity, wretchedness, both physical and moral, shall hold a kind of undisputed supremacy.

II. WHETHER SUCH A VISITATION CONSISTS WITH THE PRINCIPLES OF JUSTICE AND EQUITY. In most men's minds, when this question is proposed, there is a feeling that the visitation is not thus consistent: we think it a righteous procedure that every man should bear his own burden; but we see no equity in the appointment that the innocent should suffer for the fault of the guilty. It is, however, worthy of observation, that the proceeding after all cannot be repugnant to our notions of justice, since its exact parallel occurs in human legislation. If the statute-book of the country enact the visiting on children the sin of the father, it will be hard to show that the visitation is counter to common sense and equity. In cases of treason, we all know that it is not the traitor alone who is punished: his estates are confiscated, his honours destroyed; so that, in place of transmitting rank and affluence to his son, he transmits him nothing but shame and beggary. We do not say that the thing must be just because enacted by human laws; we only say that there can be no felt and acknowledged contradiction between the proceeding and the principles of equity, since human laws involve the children in the doom of the parent. If you can show the child to be innocent, and therefore to deserve nothing of what it receives, you will have made good your point that the visitation is unjust; but to maintain the thorough innocence of the child would be to maintain the purity of human nature. Still, you will say, the child is confessedly worse off than it would have been had the parent not sinned; and though we may deserve all we endure for ourselves, we still practically suffer for the misdoings of another. We admit this; but at the same time we contend that you are shifting the argument. If the child endured no more than it has deserved you admit that the course of justice is unimpeached — and this is the main thing we are anxious to establish: but, if after conceding the strict justice of the measure, you profess to think it hard that the child should endure what, but for the parent's offence, it would not have deserved, we are ready to follow you into the new field of debate, and to show you, as we think, the erroneousness of your opinion. The child, for example, is of a diseased constitution, of a dishonoured name, of a broken fortune; these constitute the visitation of whose hardship you complain; but who can prove to us that the child is really injured by the visitation? Nay, who can prove to us that the child is not really advantaged? If we were told that, because the parent died in unrighteousness, the child also must be shipwrecked for eternity, the wrought injury would be tremendous and overwhelming: but there is not the least ground for supposing that the threatened visitation extends to the next world; on the contrary, the whole tenor of Scripture — inasmuch as salvation is offered to all — requires us to believe, that the consequences to the children of the father's transgressions lie confined within our present sphere of being. Why then is it certain that the child is dealt with injuriously, if sentenced for the parent's iniquity to penury and affliction? Are penury and affliction never overruled for good? Is it necessarily an evil to have been born poor in place of rich — to be of weak health instead of strong — to struggle with adversity, in place of being lapped in prosperity? No man who feels himself immortal, who is conscious that this confined theatre of existence is but the school in which he is trained for a wider and nobler still, will contend for the necessary injuriousness of want and calamity: and yet unless this necessary injuriousness is supposed, it cannot be proved that the children who are visited for the father's iniquity are on the whole worse off than they would have been had there been no visitation. Thus the argument against the goodness of the Almighty as much falls to the ground as that against His justice; for proceeding on the principle that physical evil is never subservient to moral good, we overthrow our position by assuming what we know to be false.

(H. Melvill, B. D.)

Parallel Verses
KJV: Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth:

WEB: "You shall not make for yourselves an idol, nor any image of anything that is in the heavens above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth:

Keeping the Commandments
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