Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
This chapter connects itself closely with the foregoing series of prophecies. The certainty of the Divine judgments had now been repeatedly and most emphatically foretold, but that this might have the effect of leading the people to true repentance, it was still necessary that the sense of sin should be brought home to them individually. The people were by no means inclined to acknowledge their own personal guilt, but were rather, like sinners of every age, disposed to look upon their sufferings as the consequence of the sins of others who had gone before. This disposition is here met by the most full and emphatic assurance that God deals with each man in view of his own acts—that no one shall be either punished or rewarded for another’s guilt or virtue, but only for his own.
The statements here made are exposed to two difficulties :—(1) that it is expressly declared in the second commandment that God does visit the sins of the fathers upon the children (Exodus 20:5; Exodus 34:7; Deuteronomy 5:9), and that all history shows that this is a law of His moral government of the world; and (2) that it is by no means true that individual suffering and happiness are exactly proportioned in this world to individual character and conduct. On the contrary, from the time of Job to that of our Lord, this was one of those pernicious views of the Jews which the inspired word takes great pains to combat. How, then, are the statements of this chapter to be justified? In regard to the first difficulty, simply by remembering the two-fold relation, the individual and the federal, in which each man stands to his Maker. It is in virtue of the federal relation that, on the one hand, as children of Adam, we are all born into the world with a pre-disposition to sin; and, on the other, are all partakers of the benefits of the redemption wrought out for us by the second Adam. Under the laws of nature it must necessarily come about that the children shall suffer or enjoy in consequence of the uprightness or the sin of their fathers. Yet more important, and prevailing above this federal relation, is the attitude of each individual towards God. By this, through the reconciliation effected by the redemption of Christ, he is brought into communion with God, and becoming one with Christ, is viewed and treated as a member of the body of the only begotten Son. This does not hinder that the laws of nature shall still work out their natural effects—we still must be subject to death, because our first father sinned; but it does bring About that all these natural sufferings become transformed into higher blessings. Even death becomes to us, through Him who has overcome death, but the gateway to a new and higher life. Thus it is true that God does both visit the sins of the fathers upon the children, and at the same time does, through all, punish and reward each single person according to their own individual bearing towards Him.
These considerations have already met the second difficulty. In a sense, and to a certain extent, individual suffering is certainly the consequence of individual sin, for the violation of the laws of nature—in other words, of the will of God—must always be attended with disastrous consequences; but these consequences are often slow in their development, and may fall not upon the individual who has done the wrong, but upon some more or less remote descendant, or even upon some wholly disconnected person, as in the case of David’s suffering with his whole people for Saul’s treatment of the Gibeonites. From this it results that the ills of life are by no means proportioned to the deserts of those upon whom they fall. But more important than this consideration is the fact that these ills are factors in God’s moral government of the world, having in view the development in man of the character which He approves. Hence it comes about that “whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth” (Proverbs 3:11-12; Hebrews 12:6), and leads them through earthly suffering to heavenly joy, The same events happen to the godly and the wicked. God causeth His sun to shine and His rain to fall alike upon the just and the unjust; but the effect of both dispensations depends upon the character of the person to whom they come. To him who is alienated in heart from God the sunshine becomes no blessing, while the rain of calamity and sorrow only too often results in further alienation and hardening; but on him who accepts both as the dispensations of a loving Father, they produce their intended effect, and he finds that in them, as in all else, God makes all things work together for good to them that love Him. This, too, is in accordance with natural law, where the effect of any force is often dependent upon the substance on which it is exerted. The dew is drunk in by the already growing vegetation, but does not fall on the dry and thirsty gravel at its side. It was precisely this sort of discipline through which this very people were now passing. They had been chosen and blessed for the faith of Abraham, yet they were suffering for many generations of persistent neglect of and rebellion against God. (See especially Jeremiah 15:4; Lamentations 5:7; 2Kings 24:3.) All this belonged to their federal relation; but, at the same time, they stood each one individually before the Lord, to hear or to refuse His word. Such as obeyed His voice would find in these very calamities the ground and the means of repentance, and their sorrows would become transformed into the richest of all possible blessings, while those who continued obdurate would find their present calamity but the shadow of the darker approaching judgment of being utterly cast out from God’s presence. This great truth culminated for the Jews in both its parts at the Christian era, when, on the one side, our Lord represents the punishment of the sins of their whole history as coming “upon this generation” (Matthew 23:35-36); and, on the other, He then remembered His promise to their fathers, and established with those who would receive Him an everlasting covenant.
 See Augustine: De Civ. Dei, I. 100:8.
There was thus an important truth contained in the perverted views of the people, and it was very necessary that the still higher truths of this chapter should be impressed upon them; for only thus could the inferior and more obvious facts be correlated with the justice of God and His purposes of love towards His people.
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) What mean ye?—Almost the same expression occurs in Ezekiel 12:22. The literal translation would be, What is it to you who are using this proverb? and the sense is “Why do you, &c.?” Proverb shows that it was a common saying, a way in which the people habitually sought to shirk the responsibility for their guilt. The same proverb is quoted in Jeremiah 31:29, and condemned in the same way. “Concerning the land” should rather be in the land, i.e., among the people, including both those at Jerusalem and in captivity. The teaching of this chapter concerning individual responsibility is, in one form or another, often repeated by Ezekiel. It is set forth in regard to the prophet and people, in Ezekiel 3:18-21; in regard to those upon whom the mark was set, in Ezekiel 9:4-6; in regard to those who enquire of the Lord, in Ezekiel 14:3-9; and generally the teaching of this chapter is repeated in Ezekiel 33:1-20.
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.—This is the basis of the subsequent teaching. Since all alike belong to God and are absolutely in His power. He has no occasion to punish one lest another should escape; and again, since all are His, He loves and would save them all, and inflicts punishment only when it is deserved and His grace is rejected. Four cases are now discussed separately: (1) That of the righteous man who honestly seeks to follow the ways of the Lord (Ezekiel 18:5-9); (2) that of his wicked son (Ezekiel 18:10-13); (3) that of the righteous son of the wicked (Ezekiel 18:14-20); (4) that of a change of character in the individual, whether from sin to righteousness or the reverse (Ezekiel 18:21-29). The word “soul” throughout the chapter does not mean exclusively the immortal part of our nature, but, as so often in Scripture, is equivalent to man, or person, or self; and the word “die” is used, as often elsewhere, in the broad sense of suffer punishment.
But if a man be just, and do that which is lawful and right,(5) If a man be just.—At the opening and close of the statement in regard to the righteous man (Ezekiel 18:5; Ezekiel 18:9), he is described in general and comprehensive terms; while in the intermediate verses various particulars of an upright life are specified as examples of the whole. These particulars have reference, first, to religious duties (Ezekiel 18:6 a), then to moral obligations, such as the avoidance of adultery (Ezekiel 18:6 b), and finally to duties negative and positive towards one’s neighbour (Ezekiel 18:7-8). The whole, including Ezekiel 18:5; Ezekiel 18:9, may be considered as a terse summary of the practical duty of man.
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.—The various sins here specified are all enumerated again, with others, and charged upon Jerusalem in Ezekiel 22:2-12. The particular of eating upon the mountains is mentioned in Ezekiel 18:9, and refers to the feasts in connection with sacrifices to idols which were commonly held in high places. The Lord Himself, indeed, was also worshipped in high places, in express violation of the law (Deuteronomy 12:17-18), but the connection here points to the sacrificial idol-feasts (comp. Exodus 32:6; 1Corinthians 10:7). The lifting up of the eyes to the idols is probably meant to express any longing after them short of actual worship (comp. Genesis 19:26). The other sins mentioned in this verse were expressly forbidden in the law (Exodus 20:14; Leviticus 18:19), and were to be punished either with death (Leviticus 20:10; Deuteronomy 22:22) or with excommunication (Leviticus 20:18).
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) To the debtor his pledge.—In the simple state of early Hebrew society borrowing was resorted to only by the very poor, and the law abounds in precepts against any oppression or taking advantage in such cases (Exodus 22:25-27; Leviticus 25:14; Leviticus 25:17, &c). Especial provision was made for restoring in a considerate way a pledge for borrowed money (Exodus 22:26; Deuteronomy 24:6; Deuteronomy 24:10, &c).
Given his bread.—In addition to the negative duties mentioned, were also the positive ones of feeding the hungry and clothing the naked; and it is to be remembered that these duties, and general helpfulness to those who need our help, are not left optional in Scripture, but are positively required, both in the Old and the New Testament, and their neglect is sin. (See Deuteronomy 22:1-4; Job 31:16-22; Isaiah 58:5; Isaiah 58:7; Matthew 25:34-46; James 1:27; James 2:15-16).
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) Given forth upon usury.—In Scripture usury does not mean excessive interest, as often in modern legislation, but any interest at all. This was strictly forbidden in the law to be taken of any Hebrew, though allowed, without limit as to amount, from foreigners. It had nothing to do with the regulation of commercial transactions, but was simply a law of kindness to a fellow member of the same household of faith in a primitive state of society. The Israelite was to lend freely to his impoverished neighbour to assist him, but without any expectation of gain for himself.
Executed true judgment.—This applies, of course, especially and directly to judicial sentences, but extends also to all cases in which one is brought to intervene in any way in transactions between others. What is required is absolute fairness, truthfulness, and integrity in the constant transactions of man with man.
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) That doeth the like to any one of these things.—The prophet now enters upon the consideration of the second case, that of the son of a righteous father who takes to wicked courses, and it is shown that he shall be dealt with according to his own personal character. It is not necessary that he should be wholly given over to evil or have committed all the sins enumerated, but if he show the alienation of his heart from God by choosing to do any of those things which He has forbidden, he must fall under His righteous condemnation.
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) Hath done all these abominations.—This expression is collective, while that in Ezekiel 18:10 is partitive. This is not because he who commits one sin is considered as having committed all, but because he who willingly commits any sin thereby puts himself into the class of sinners, of those who do not wish or intend to abide by the Divine will, but choose rather to do their own. Such a man places himself among the enemies of God. (Comp. James 2:10.)
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) Doeth not such like.—This is the third case—that of the righteous son of a wicked father. The general principle is the same, that each man is to be judged according to his own individual character. The son of the righteous man has advantages, and the son of the wicked has hindrances in the way of righteousness which are not specified here, although elsewhere we are abundantly taught that responsibility is directly proportioned to privilege; but here the object is only to set forth in the clearest way, and apart from any other issues, the single fact of individual responsibility. In each case the particular examples of sin are somewhat varied, to show that they are mentioned only as examples, in order to set forth more clearly the general principle.
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) As for his father.—There is here a recurrence to the second case, to bring out more sharply the contrast between the two, and to emphasise the fact insisted upon, that each individual must be judged according to his own character, without help or prejudice from that of his father.
This third case was especially adapted to the prophet’s purpose of refuting the proverb, because here was the father who had “eaten sour grapes,” and his son’s teeth were not to be set on edge.
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) Why? Doth not the son bear?—It would be clearer to read this as a single question, “Why doth not the son, &c?” It is the question proposed by the people in objection to what has been declared. To them it seemed the law of nature, the necessity of the case, the teaching of history, that the son should bear the iniquity of his father. Their ideas had not risen to the conception of man’s individual responsibility to God; to them the individual was still but a part of the nation or the family. They ask, therefore, why this universal law should now be reversed. It was not true that any law was reversed, it was only that the superior prevailed over the inferior law; but, as usual in such cases, the Divine word does not reason with the human objection, but in this and the following verse only reiterates most emphatically the law of individual responsibility.
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.(21) If the wicked will turn.—The prophet now takes up the fourth and last case—that of a change in the individual character. This has necessarily two sub-divisions: (1) that of the wicked repenting and doing righteousness (Ezekiel 18:21-23, and Ezekiel 18:27-28), and (2) that of the righteous falling into wickedness, (Ezekiel 18:24-26), which latter case is more briefly treated, because the object is to encourage hope in repentance. This case, in both its parts, is first treated in Ezekiel 18:21-24, and then, for the sake of emphasis, repeated in reverse order in Ezekiel 18:26-28.
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) Shall not be mentioned unto him.—A strong way of expressing the completeness of the Divine forgiveness. Here, again, at first sight, there seems to be an inconsistency between the Divine promise and the actual facts of the world. The penitent and forgiven sinner is continually seen to suffer through life from the consequences of his sin, as David’s whole reign was overclouded with trouble and sorrow after his great sin in the matter of Bathsheba and Uriah. But here also it is the natural law continuing to work in subservience to a higher moral law. The natural consequences of any acts are not changed, or are only partially modified, by the subsequent moral state of him who has done them; but that moral state determines whether those consequences, however painful they may be in themselves, shall or shall not be really for his own highest gain. The absoluteness of the Divine forgiveness is seen by us, under the Christian dispensation, to be a necessary result of the ground on which it rests—the atonement of Christ. If the believer is truly united to Him by faith, he is a new creature (2Corinthians 5:17), and is looked upon no longer as a sinful son of Adam, but, as he is in reality, a member of the beloved and only-begotten Son of God. Hence his forgiveness must be complete, for his sins are atoned for, covered up, hidden from God’s sight.
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) Have I any pleasure at all?—This brings out that fundamental truth which underlies the whole teaching of both the Old and New Testaments, and which should have satisfied Israel of the Lord’s readiness to receive every penitent sinner. God created man; and when he had fallen, ordered both the old and the new dispensations, and employed methods of infinite love to win him to salvation. He can have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; His delight can only be when man fulfils the design for which he was created, and returns to obedience and communion with God. Yet neither, as is declared in the next verse, can the Almighty suffer that His creature should set at nought His love and despise His salvation.
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) The way of the Lord is not equal.—The word means literally, weighed out, balanced. The accusation of the Israelites was still (here and in Ezekiel 18:29) that the Lord was arbitrary and unjust. His statement in reply is that He rewards and punishes according to eternal and immutable principles of right. Every man must reap that which he has sown. (Comp. Romans 2:5-10.)
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.(27) Shall save his soul alive.—This does not mean that any man can by his own power save himself, for that question is not here in view at all, but that the consequence of a certain course of conduct will be his salvation, and that the adoption of that course is within the man’s own choice.
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) Repent, and turn.—The three last verses of the chapter contain an earnest exhortation to the Israelites, based on the principles of God’s dealings with man just now declared, to repent and receive His mercy and blessing. Here, as before, there is no question of human sufficiency; and when the counsel is given (Ezekiel 18:31), “Make you a new heart and a new spirit,” it is not meant to say that this can ever be the work of any other than God’s Holy Spirit; but that Spirit is ever given to them that ask Him, and the question of salvation is still one which each man must decide for himself before God. The whole point of the chapter is that God’s dealing with man is determined by man’s own attitude towards Him. He that is alienated in his heart from God, whatever may have been his previous life, God will judge; and he that now seeks to conform his life to God’s will, God will receive and forgive.