In Exodus 34 we find God describing Himself to Moses. He covers many of His great attributes; His righteousness, His faithfulness, and His great love. We also read that He “will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generations“, but what does that really mean?
When I was young, it was explained to me that certain sins are so powerful that God will punish the children for them as well. This text was used as an admonition to me to keep me from sinning as a whole so that, when I did have children, they would not be punished for the sins I committed. This taught me that God is cruel and heartless – punishing people for things they did not do because He is so angry at the first person who committed the sins. The problem here is that the original explanation was not true. In Ezekiel 18, God says exactly the opposite:
“If a man is righteous and does what is just and right— if he does not eat upon the mountains or lift up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel, does not defile his neighbor’s wife or approach a woman in her time of menstrual impurity, does not oppress anyone, but restores to the debtor his pledge, commits no robbery, gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with a garment, does not lend at interest or take any profit, withholds his hand from injustice, executes true justice between man and man, walks in my statutes, and keeps my rules by acting faithfully—he is righteous; he shall surely live, declares the Lord God.
“If he fathers a son who is violent, a shedder of blood, who does any of these things (though he himself did none of these things), who even eats upon the mountains, defiles his neighbor’s wife, oppresses the poor and needy, commits robbery, does not restore the pledge, lifts up his eyes to the idols, commits abomination, lends at interest, and takes profit; shall he then live? He shall not live. He has done all these abominations; he shall surely die; his blood shall be upon himself.
“Now suppose this man fathers a son who sees all the sins that his father has done; he sees, and does not do likewise: he does not eat upon the mountains or lift up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel, does not defile his neighbor’s wife, does not oppress anyone, exacts no pledge, commits no robbery, but gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with a garment, withholds his hand from iniquity, takes no interest or profit, obeys my rules, and walks in my statutes; he shall not die for his father’s iniquity; he shall surely live. As for his father, because he practiced extortion, robbed his brother, and did what is not good among his people, behold, he shall die for his iniquity.
“Yet you say, ‘Why should not the son suffer for the iniquity of the father?’ When the son has done what is just and right, and has been careful to observe all my statutes, he shall surely live. The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.
In this text, God is taking Ezekiel to task over his use of a term “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge”. That term basically means that beacuse of the sins of the father, his sons will suffer. Then God sets up for Ezekiel a scenario where he compares a grandfather, a father, and a son. The grandfather (vs5-9) is a man who never, through his whole life, ever breaks any of the laws of God. He is, as God is, perfect – keeping all of the Ten Commandments. Verse 6 relates to the first and second commandment – not having any other gods before the true Lord God, and to abstain from idolatry. It then goes on to talk about the seventh commandment by stating that he does not defile his neighbor’s wife. Then the eighth with him not stealing from the poor and needy, and the ninth in that he does not lie but executes true justice. Verse 9 wraps it all up by stating that the grandfather “walks in all God’s statutes, and keeps His rules by acting faithfully”. That man, God promises, will live.
The next man is the son of this grandfather. He sees the life of his father, how he always walked in the statues of the Lord, and he decides to go off in his own direction. Verses 10-13 chronicle a life of debauchery. He is a violent murderer, who honors false gods and idols, commits adultery with his neighbor’s wife, steals from the poor and needy, refuses to be a man of his word, and disobeys God’s statutes. This man, God says in verse 13, will die for his sins.
Now, this wicked man has a son. This son sees the sins that his father commits and instead of following in his footsteps, he does as his granfather did and he is a perfect son – keeping all of the commands of the Law. God promises that the son of this wicked man will not suffer for the sins of his father but that the father will suffer for his own sins.
In verse 19, God asks the question again, “Why should not the son suffer for the iniquity of the father?”. He then lays out his heart toward those who follow His commands and who love Him and states the justice that He embodies.
When the son has done what is just and right, and has been careful to observe all my statutes, he shall surely live. The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.
God is not going to unrighteously punish those who keep His laws perfectly.
The first text, way back in Exodus 34, speaks of what are called “generational sins”. Those are things like alcoholism and physical or sexual abuse. They corrupt a family and stain the lives of the children – many follow in the sins of their fathers. This is not by the doing of God but by the corruption that comes from these sins and what they do to the hearts of the children who it impacts. These are horrid and wicked acts which should be sought out and stopped within the body of the church and in the world as a whole.
What this text does, however, is it shows that God is truly angry about sin. He promises that He will punish the sins of mankind. How many sins do you need to commit in order to be condemned before God? God lays it out for us in the book of James:
For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.
Have you ever told a lie? Have you ever stolen anything? Have you ever lusted after someone or hated someone without just cause? Then you are guilty before God and you, just like the father mentioned above, will be rejected by God and cast into Hell. You will “die”. God is so kind as to give us a picture of what that will look like so we won’t be caught off guard when it comes:
Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. From his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.
By God’s standard, everyone will be cast into the lake of fire. Everyone. You. Your parents. Your spouse. Your kids. Everyone goes to hell. Knowing this, that’s why God offered a path of escape. As we’ve read, He is not cruel and He won’t punish you unfairly. If you have sinned, then you deserve the right punishment, but He has provided for you a substitute. In the beginning of time, shortly after the creation, Adam and Eve, our first parents, sinned before God. That started the whole chain of events which have lead to this broken and fallen world we live in today. Immediately after it happened, however, God told Adam and Eve that He was sending a Savior. In Genesis 3, God promises that there would come someone who would end the cycle of sin and death. God then provided, over the next 4,400 years, types and shadows of that promised messiah. The most well known is the Passover lamb that He required the Israelites in Egypt to sacrifice so that they would not die. That perfect lamb was slaughtered and its blood was the sign that the household was covered and free from God’s judgment. 2,000 years ago, God fulfilled that promised messiah by providing His own Son, Jesus. The eternal creator God became physical human being, lived the life that you or I could never live by perfectly following the law of God. He faced a false trial, was beaten, mocked, had his flesh torn by flagellum, spat upon, cursed at, had his beard ripped from his face. All of this by the very hands that He created in love. Then He was nailed to a cross, hoisted up, and left to suffocate for three hours in the sun. Then God the Son died. In that act He took the punishment for your sins upon himself. Three days later, God resurrected Jesus from the dead, signifying that death was defeated and that mankind now had hope for life with Christ in Heaven after death. God provided for His creation a path out of hell.
How do you receive this gift? You need to follow Jesus’ command: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel”. You must repent (turn from – stop your life of sin) and trust in the finished work of Christ. In so doing, God has promised that He will transform your heart. You will no longer desire to sin but will have a new heart and new desires that will seek after God and righteousness. You can’t accept this gift because of a fear of retribution, but you have to turn to Him in response to the work that He’s already done for you on your behalf. That is how you are saved from your sins. Remember, as the ticker to the right states, there are 150,000 people dying every day. 150,000 died yesterday, and 150,000 will die tomorrow. At some point, and often sooner than you think, you will find yourself in that number and by then it will be too late to respond. I pray that for you, that day is today.