Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
Ch. 18 The moral freedom and responsibility of the individual man before God
This great idea is expressed in two parts:
First, Ezekiel 18:1-20. The individual man is not involved in the sins and fate of his people or of his forefathers.
Secondly, Ezekiel 18:21-32. Neither does he lie under the ban of his own previous life. His moral freedom raises him above both.
The prophet as usual attaches himself to the ideas of Jeremiah, who had prophesied that in the ideal days to come, those of the New Covenant, the perfect future that was about to dawn upon men, they should no more say, “The fathers ate sour grapes and the children’s teeth are set on edge,” but every one should die for his own iniquity (ch. Jeremiah 31:29-30). The outlook of Ezekiel is also in some measure ideal, and the principles which he enunciates must be judged in this light (ch. 33). His purpose is in the main practical. He desires to lay a basis for his exhortation “Turn yourselves from all your transgressions” (Ezekiel 18:30-32). His exhortations are addressed to the individuals of the people, for he contemplates the end of the state and only individuals remain, and he has to face and settle questions that from the circumstances of the time had begun to exercise and perplex men’s minds. The strokes that had fallen one after another upon the state might be deserved, when the state was considered a moral person that had sinned all through her history (ch. 16); but the calamities that were deserved by the general mass fell with a crushing weight on many who had not been partakers in the sins that brought them down. The captives carried away under Jehoiachin were more righteous than those still left to inherit the mountains of Israel; and compared with the dark days of Manasseh even the generation subject to Zedekiah might think themselves better men. Such reflections made the people feel themselves involved as by a kind of fate in the deeds of their forefathers, a feeling which found expression in the proverb, “The fathers ate sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” This proverb might express various feelings as it came from different mouths. It might be uttered by some in self-exculpation, and in a satisfied, self-righteous tone; or it might be the expression of a perplexed condition of mind, which found God’s providence dark, and went so far as well nigh to arraign the divine rectitude; or finally it might express the feeling of lying under a hopeless fate inherited from the past—a feeling which crushed out individual life and paralysed all personal effort after righteousness, and delivered over the mind to an inactivity of despair (ch. Ezekiel 33:10). These difficulties could not fail themselves to suggest their own solution. They were partly due to the consciousness, which circumstances were everywhere creating, of the worth of the individual soul; and their solution lay in pursuing this idea further and giving it clearer expression.
The prophet meets the state of the people’s mind with two great principles from the mouth of the Lord: (1) “All souls are mine; as the soul of the father, so also the soul of the son is mine.” Each soul is the Lord’s, his relation to each is direct and immediate (Ezekiel 18:4). And (2) “I have no pleasure in the death of him that dieth,” saith the Lord (Ezekiel 18:23; Ezekiel 18:32).
And two conclusions follow from these principles: (1) “Each soul being immediately related to God, its destiny depends on this relation—the soul that sinneth shall die;” and (2) “Wherefore, turn yourselves and live” (Ezekiel 18:32). The emancipation of the individual soul is complete.
First, Ezekiel 18:1-20. The individual soul shall not be involved in the sins and fate of its people or forefathers.
(1) Ezekiel 18:1-5. Introduction. The current proverb that the children suffer the consequences of the sins of their fathers (Ezekiel 18:1-2). Answer of Jehovah: All souls are mine. None shall answer for the sins of another—the soul that sinneth shall die (Ezekiel 18:3-5).
(2) Ezekiel 18:6-20. Developement of this principle in three instances: first, a man who is upright, doing truth and righteousness—this man shall live (Ezekiel 18:5-9). Secondly, if this righteous man beget a wicked son who doeth evil, this wicked son of a righteous father shall die (Ezekiel 18:10-13). Thirdly, but if this wicked son of a righteous father himself beget a son who, seeing the evil of his father, avoids it and acts righteously, this righteous son of an evil father shall live (Ezekiel 18:14-18). To restate the principle: the righteous shall live in his righteousness, and the wicked shall die in his own evil (Ezekiel 18:19-20).
The word of the LORD came unto me again, saying,
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?2. concerning the land] Rather, in the land, lit, upon: cf. Ezekiel 18:3 “in Israel.”
fathers have eaten] Or, the fathers eat; the proverb being thrown into a general form. The proverb, already noticed by Jeremiah (ch. Jeremiah 31:29-30) means that the children suffer the consequences of the sins of their fathers. Sour or unripe grapes are occasionally eaten, and naturally the effect upon the eater’s teeth is immediate—his teeth are set on edge, lit. blunted, the edge of them turned. Here, however, the effect is first felt by the children. Such feelings could not but arise in the troubled times of the fall of the state, when the righteous suffered with the wicked, and the most righteous were carried into exile, and just because they still slave to their own faith in the midst of heathenism endured severer sufferings than others who accommodated themselves to their circumstances. Soon after the fall of Jerusalem we hear the same complaint in literal terms: “The fathers sinned and are not, and we have borne their iniquities” (Lamentations 5:7).
As I live, saith the Lord GOD, ye shall not have occasion any more to use this proverb in Israel.3. ye shall not have occasion] Or, it shall not be permitted you.
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.4. all souls are mine] i.e. every individual soul stands in immediate relation to God; Numbers 16:22, “O God, God of the spirits of all flesh, shall one man sin, and wilt thou be wroth with all the congregation?” All souls alike belong to God, and this “alike” guarantees the treatment of each by itself, the soul of the son no less than the soul of the father. According to former modes of thought the son had not personal independence, he belonged to the father, and was involved in the destiny of the father.
sinneth, it shall die] It and not another because of its sin. “Live” and “die” are used by the prophet of literal life and death, continuance in the world and removal from it. They have, however, a pregnant meaning arising from the other conceptions of the prophet. He feels himself and the people standing immediately before that perfect kingdom of the Lord which is about to come (ch. 33, 37), and “live” implies entering into the glory of this kingdom, while “die” implies deprivation of its blessedness; for of course, like all the Old Testament writers, Ezekiel considers the kingdom, even in its perfect condition, an earthly one.
But if a man be just, and do that which is lawful and right,5–20. Developement of the principle in three instances, chosen so as to exhibit it in its most paradoxical form
5–9. The man that is righteous shall live. First, his righteousness is defined generally as doing judgment or right and justice, Ezekiel 18:5. Then it is analysed into: (1) religious duties, Ezekiel 18:6; (2) duties relating to marriage and the relations of men and women, Ezekiel 18:6; (3) duties to one’s neighbour, Ezekiel 18:7-8; and (4) finally all these duties are brought under the conception of obedience to the commands of God, Ezekiel 18:9.
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,6. eaten upon the mountains] that is, sacrificed on the high places and partaken of the sacrificial meal following, token of fellowship as a guest with the idols there worshipped. The phrase occurs again Ezekiel 18:11; Ezekiel 18:15, Ezekiel 22:9. In Ezekiel 33:25 the reading is, eaten with the blood; cf. Leviticus 17:13; Leviticus 19:26; 1 Samuel 14:33. Sept. renders Leviticus 19:26, eaten upon the mountains, and it is possible that the same error of reading occurs here, and that Ezekiel 18:6; Ezekiel 18:11; Ezekiel 18:15, Ezekiel 22:9, should be assimilated to Ezekiel 33:25 (W. R. Smith, Kinship, p. 310).
lift up his eyes] In prayer to the idols, or trust in them, or perhaps generally, in acknowledgment of them. Psalm 121:1; Psalm 123:1; Job 31:26.
his neighbour’s wife] Adultery is not seldom charged against the people by the prophets, especially Jeremiah, e.g. Jeremiah 5:8; Jeremiah 9:2; Jeremiah 29:23; cf. Leviticus 20:10; Deuteronomy 22:22. Note Job’s claims for himself, ch. Ezekiel 31:9. On the other impurity forbidden cf. Leviticus 15:24; Leviticus 18:19.
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;7. hath not oppressed] In Ezekiel 18:12 the opposite course reads: hath oppressed the poor and needy. Occasion of oppression would arise when the poor was in debt (Amos 2:6-7); or being unprotected he might be defrauded of his hire, Malachi 3:5 (James 5:4). Cf. the claim made by Job 31:13.
to the debtor his pledge] This refers to the duty of returning to the debtor any pledge which was an article necessary to his existence or comfort, as a garment which was his cover by night. Exodus 22:26; Deuteronomy 24:6; cf. Job 22:6; Amos 2:8. On the positive duties of feeding the hungry and clothing the naked cf. again the claims of Job 31:17-20.
7, 8. Duties to one’s neighbour.
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,8. On usury cf. the humane law, Leviticus 25:35-37. The case supposed is that of lending to the poor, Exodus 22:25; Deuteronomy 23:20.
executed true judgment] When acting as judge, or as umpire 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.9. The man who acts thus (Ezekiel 18:5-8) hath walked in God’s statutes and he shall live. For “to deal truly,” LXX. reads: to do them, by transposition of two letters, which is more natural.
With the ideal of a righteous man here given may be compared these others: Job’s, ch. 31, perhaps the most inward in the Old Testament, Psalms 15; Isaiah 58:5-7. Such ideals differ from ours principally in that they seem to consist of conduct exclusively external, while we express our ideal in terms of the thought and feelings. But first, when these external actions are enumerated it is always assumed that they proceed from a right condition of mind, of which they are the natural fruit. Hence the prophet says, “Make you a new heart, and a new spirit” (Ezekiel 18:31). The same assumption is made when God is spoken of as making men righteous by forgiveness, or by bestowing on them prosperity, the sign of righteousness. The mental state corresponding to this right relation to God is always regarded as present. And in point of fact the righteousness of God himself consists in righteous acts, just as the righteousness of man. The ancient mind fastened on the outward acts as revealing the inward state, while the modern mind goes directly to the internal condition. And secondly, moral conduct was never thought of as the result of a happy or pure disposition, or as the fruit of prevalent social custom, or obedience to laws called moral or natural; it was always regarded as obedience to divine commandment. Morals was part of religion. Every moral law was fulfilled in obedience to God; hence Jehovah says of this moral man, “he hath walked in my statutes, he shall live” (Ezekiel 18:9).
If he beget a son that is a robber, a shedder of blood, and that doeth the like to any one of these things,10–13. Second link in the chain: this righteous man is the father of a violent son who sheds blood and does evil; the wicked son shall not live because of the righteousness of his father, he shall die in his own sin
10. a robber] a man of violence.
and that doeth the like] The text is difficult. LXX. reads: shedding blood, and committing sins, 11 who hath not walked in the way of his righteous father, but hath even eaten, &c. This text gives the general meaning of the Heb., of which it looks like a paraphrase. It is difficult to decide whether the last clause of Ezekiel 18:10 refers to the father or the son. The words in the place where they stand should refer to the wicked son, and so A.V., R.V., but if so they, cannot be reconciled with Ezekiel 18:11. The words rendered “these things” (Ezekiel 18:10) and “those duties” (Ezekiel 18:11) are the same, viz. the things Ezekiel 18:6-9, and cannot be regarded as things forbidden (Ezekiel 18:10) and things commanded (Ezekiel 18:11) at once. The unknown word ach occurring here (cf. Ezekiel 18:18, Ezekiel 21:20) is supposed to be the same as “only” (akh), but is probably a fragment of the word “one” due to an error of the copyist and should be neglected.
And that doeth not any of those duties, but even hath eaten upon the mountains, and defiled his neighbour's wife,11. and that doeth not] Fairer: and he hath not done any of these things, but even hath eaten, &c. The things which he hath not done are those in Ezekiel 18:6-9 regarded as positive commandments. The words naturally refer to the wicked son. They are incompatible with those in the end of Ezekiel 18:10, if these be said of the son. Syr., feeling the incompatibility, omits. It is easier, however, to omit the words in Ezekiel 18:10, as a gloss from Leviticus 4:2, because the words “but even hath eaten” require a negative clause before them.
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.13. shall surely die] The formula common in the law, “shall surely be put to death,” Leviticus 20:11; Exodus 21:15; Exodus 22:18.
his blood … upon him] He shall suffer the death due to his own deeds, ch. Ezekiel 33:4; Leviticus 20:9; 2 Samuel 1:16.
Ezekiel 18:14-20. Third link in the chain of illustration: this unrighteous man on the other hand begets a son who, seeing his father’s iniquities, is deterred by them and lives righteously. This son shall not die for the sins of his father, but live because of his own righteousness.
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,14. and considereth] Lit. even seeth, so Ezekiel 18:28. With a different punctuation the word would mean: and feareth, as R.V.
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,16. withholden the pledge] taken aught to pledge, as R.V.
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.17. taken off his hand] withdrawn his hand—so as not to injure or oppress—the poor. LXX. reads: from iniquity, but cf. ch. Ezekiel 20:22.
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.18. spoiled his brother] LXX. omits “brother;” the word is that referred to Ezekiel 18:10. Here “brother” might stand, though “neighbour” is the term elsewhere used (Ezekiel 18:6; Ezekiel 18:11). The word “violence” or robbery has a different form Ezekiel 18:7; Ezekiel 18:12.
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.19. Yet say ye, Why?] Rather: and ye say, wherefore doth not the son bear …? The prophet refers to the current view, and supposes it quoted as an objection to his principle. So long as the idea prevailed that the son was, so to speak, part of the father, it was natural to suppose that he should be included in the father’s punishment; hence the people ask, Why doth the son not bear, lit. bear part of, share in bearing (so Ezekiel 18:20), the iniquity of the father? In opposition to this idea the prophet states his principle on both its sides, Ezekiel 18:19-20.
Secondly, Ezekiel 18:21-32. As men shall not be involved in the sins of their people or their fathers, so the individual soul shall not lie under the ban of its own past.
The sinner who turneth from his evil and doeth righteousness shall live in his righteousness, Ezekiel 18:21-23. And on the other hand, the righteous man who turneth away from his righteousness and doeth evil shall die in his evil, Ezekiel 18:24.
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.22. mentioned unto him] Or, remembered in regard to him.
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?23. The verse meets a feeling of despair both in regard to themselves and in regard to God which was beginning to take possession of the minds of some, perhaps many, among the people. The despair in regard to themselves is seen in ch. Ezekiel 33:10-11, “We pine away in our iniquities, how should we live?” and the despair in regard to God, which is but another side of that in regard to themselves, is expressed in such passages as Lamentations 3:42-44, “We have rebelled and thou hast not pardoned … Thou hast covered thyself with a cloud that our prayer should not pass through.” The Lord had brought the evil on them which he had purposed (Lamentations 2:8; Lamentations 2:17), and it was final (Lamentations 2:9). The same despondency, though softened in some measure by the lapse of time, appears in another prophet, Isaiah 40:27-31; Isaiah 49:14, “Zion hath said, The Lord hath forsaken me, and my Lord hath forgotten me.” So long as the state existed the covenant might also be thought to remain, and the prophets could sustain the hearts of men by reminding them that the Lord was their God; but when the state fell and Israel was no more to appearance the people of Jehovah, they had to go behind the covenant and fall back on that unchanging nature of Jehovah which originated the covenant—that mercy which endureth for ever. The prevailing disposition of the mind of Jehovah was towards the salvation of men.
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.24. Although it would have sufficed for the prophet’s purpose to assure the repentant sinner of God’s forgiveness, he has a certain theoretical interest in the principle which he is insisting on which makes him develop it on the other side also.
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?25. Yet ye say, The way … equal] And ye say. The “way” of the Lord is the principle on which he acts, or his action on it, Isaiah 55:8, cf. ch. Ezekiel 33:17; Ezekiel 33:20. The objection of the people may really have been expressed (cf. Ezekiel 18:19). The prophet’s principle of the freedom of the individual and his independence was a novelty running counter to cherished notions of that age, notions corroborated by much that is seen in history and life. The instance of Korah, whose children perished with him for his sin, the case of Achan, whose transgression was imputed to the whole camp, the history of Jonathan, and no doubt multitudes of instances were familiar to the people where men were treated as bodies and the individuals shared the fate of the mass though personally innocent. To us now the prophet’s principle is self-evident. Still even to us it is only a theoretical principle, and can be maintained against facts only by drawing a distinction, which the people in Israel had not yet learned to draw, between the spiritual relation of the mind to God and the external history of the individual. See end of chapter.
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.30. iniquity … your ruin] More naturally: that it (your transgressing) be not a stumbling block of iniquity to you. The transgressions which they are called on to renounce are specially their idolatries, cf. ch. Ezekiel 14:3, Ezekiel 7:19, Ezekiel 44:12.
30–32. Exhortation to repentance founded on the principle that God will deal with every man according to the condition in which he is found.
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?31. a new heart] Cf. ch. Ezekiel 11:19, Ezekiel 36:26; Jeremiah 4:4; Jeremiah 24:7; Psalm 51:7. The words are those of practical exhortation; to charge the prophet with assigning to man a power greater than that which Scripture in general allows to him is to distort his language. Cf. what he says on the other side regarding the divine operation on man, ch. Ezekiel 36:25-27, Ezekiel 11:19.
For I have no pleasure in the death of him that dieth, saith the Lord GOD: wherefore turn yourselves, and live ye.32. The appeal to turn from evil sustained by reference to the prevailing nature of God. He is the God of salvation; his will is that men should live. The A.V. marg. to “turn yourselves (cf. Ezekiel 18:30) or others” is altogether false. The active form “turn” is either used intransitively, or yourselves (lit. your faces) is understood, cf. ch. Ezekiel 14:6.
(1) The place of the present chapter may be explained by connecting it with the Messianic prophecy immediately preceding (ch. Ezekiel 17:22-24); the passage enunciates the principles and conditions of entering the perfect kingdom. The same principles are stated in two other passages, ch. Ezekiel 3:16-21, and ch. Ezekiel 33:1-20. They are properly in place in the last passage. The prophet feels himself, however, essentially a prophet of the new age, and writing his Book after the fall of Jerusalem he may have expanded principles less fully developed at an earlier time. The age before which he stands is an ideal one, and principles realized but imperfectly now shall then have full prevalence (ch. Ezekiel 12:16, Ezekiel 14:22).
(2) The principle which the prophet insists upon is not the strict retributive righteousness of God, but the moral freedom and independence of the individual person. The individual is not involved in the destiny of his fathers or of his people; neither does he lie under an irrevocable doom pronounced over him by his past life. The immediate relation of every spirit to God and its moral freedom to break with its own past raises it above both these dooms. What Ezekiel teaches regarding God is that he hath no pleasure that the wicked should die. The prophet’s whole purpose is practical, to strike off from the people the shackles of a despair that was settling upon them, whether they looked to themselves or to God. What he says of men is that each stands in immediate relation to God and shall live or die according as he repents or continues in his sin; and what he teaches of God is that in spite of the dark clouds of judgment behind which he seems now hidden his prevailing will is that men should live.
(3) The conception of the prophet is a complex or double one, having an internal and an external side. The inward element in the conception is the spiritual relation of the individual person to God; the outward element is the form “life” and “death” in which this internal relation is made manifest, rewarded or punished in God’s treatment of the individual person. We perceive a cleavage taking place between these two elements. The principles enunciated by the prophet refer to the spiritual relation of the individual to God, and are true when limited to this. The individual shall not, in this sense, suffer for the sins of his people, nor the child for the sins of his father; and even his own past life does not weave an inexorable fate around him from which there is no escape. In all cases consequences evil enough may descend upon the son from the father, or upon himself from his own past life, but not this particular consequence. His moral freedom and independence raises him above these consequences, and brings him as an independent person into direct relation with God, over against others and even over against his former self. And this is really all that the prophet is teaching of new truth here. It is truth which the New Testament teaches, and which is the foundation of all morals. To charge the prophet with cutting up the individual human life into sections which have no moral relation to one another, or with teaching that a man shall live or die according to the condition in which he shall be found “for the moment” when the judgment overtakes him, is grossly to distort his language.
It may be true that the prophet has not yet been able fully to analyse his own complex conception and separate completely the spiritual relation of the mind to God from the person’s external conditions. No Old Testament writer probably has been able to do this consciously and formally, although it is often done in principle and in moments of spiritual elevation (Psalm 73:23 seq., Ezekiel 17:14-15). But the ideal character of the age which the prophet feels to be about to dawn, and to which he applies his principles, marks an approach towards completing the distinction. This future though imminent ideal time, the time of the perfect kingdom of God, is that which corresponds to our idea of heaven, or another future world, in which external condition will perfectly correspond to spiritual state. The prophet’s ideal world, in which spiritual relation would be perfectly bodied out externally, was still the earth. “Life” and “death,” in the ordinary sense of these words, were the only means by which inward spiritual relations could find proper outward expression.