Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary
The word of the LORD came unto me again, saying,
Eze 18:1-32. The Parable of the Sour Grapes Reproved.
Vindication of God's moral government as to His retributive righteousness from the Jewish imputation of injustice, as if they were suffering, not for their own sin, but for that of their fathers. As in the seventeenth chapter he foretold Messiah's happy reign in Jerusalem, so now he warns them that its blessings can be theirs only upon their individually turning to righteousness.
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. fathers … eaten sour grapes, … children's teeth … set on edge—Their unbelieving calumnies on God's justice had become so common as to have assumed a proverbial form. The sin of Adam in eating the forbidden fruit, visited on his posterity, seems to have suggested the peculiar form; noticed also by Jeremiah (Jer 31:29); and explained in La 5:7, "Our fathers have sinned, and are not; and we have borne their iniquities." They mean by "the children" themselves, as though they were innocent, whereas they were far from being so. The partial reformation effected since Manasseh's wicked reign, especially among the exiles at Chebar, was their ground for thinking so; but the improvement was only superficial and only fostered their self-righteous spirit, which sought anywhere but in themselves the cause of their calamities; just as the modern Jews attribute their present dispersion, not to their own sins, but to those of their forefathers. It is a universal mark of corrupt nature to lay the blame, which belongs to ourselves, on others and to arraign the justice of God. Compare Ge 3:12, where Adam transfers the blame of his sin to Eve, and even to God, "The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat."
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 any more to use this proverb—because I will let it be seen by the whole world in the very fact that you are not righteous, as ye fancy yourselves, but wicked, and that you suffer only the just penalty of your guilt; while the elect righteous remnant alone escapes.
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—Therefore I can deal with all, being My own creation, as I please (Jer 18:6). As the Creator of all alike I can have no reason, but the principle of equity, according to men's works, to make any difference, so as to punish some, and to save others (Ge 18:25). "The soul that sinneth it shall die." The curse descending from father to son assumes guilt shared in by the son; there is a natural tendency in the child to follow the sin of his father, and so he shares in the father's punishment: hence the principles of God's government, involved in Ex 20:5 and Jer 15:4, are justified. The sons, therefore (as the Jews here), cannot complain of being unjustly afflicted by God (La 5:7); for they filled up the guilt of their fathers (Mt 23:32, 34-36). The same God who "recompenses the iniquity of the fathers into the bosom of their children," is immediately after set forth as "giving to every man according to his ways" (Jer 32:18, 19). In the same law (Ex 20:5) which "visited the iniquities of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation" (where the explanation is added, "of them that hate me," that is, the children hating God, as well as their fathers: the former being too likely to follow their parents, sin going down with cumulative force from parent to child), we find (De 24:16), "the fathers shall not be put to death for the children, neither the children for the fathers: every man shall be put to death for his own sin." The inherited guilt of sin in infants (Ro 5:14) is an awful fact, but one met by the atonement of Christ; but it is of adults that he speaks here. Whatever penalties fall on communities for connection with sins of their fathers, individual adults who repent shall escape (2Ki 23:25, 26). This was no new thing, as some misinterpret the passage here; it had been always God's principle to punish only the guilty, and not also the innocent, for the sins of their fathers. God does not here change the principle of His administration, but is merely about to manifest it so personally to each that the Jews should no longer throw on God and on their fathers the blame which was their own.
soul that sinneth, it shall die—and it alone (Ro 6:23); not also the innocent.
But if a man be just, and do that which is lawful and right,
5. Here begins the illustration of God's impartiality in a series of supposed cases. The first case is given in Eze 18:5-9, the just man. The excellencies are selected in reference to the prevailing sins of the age, from which such a one stood aloof; hence arises the omission of some features of righteousness, which, under different circumstances, would have been desirable to be enumerated. Each age has its own besetting temptations, and the just man will be distinguished by his guarding against the peculiar defilements, inward and outward, of his age.
just … lawful … right—the duties of the second table of the law, which flow from the fear of God. Piety is the root of all charity; to render to each his own, as well to our neighbor, as to God.
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. not eaten upon … mountains—the high places, where altars were reared. A double sin: sacrificing elsewhere than at the temple, where only God sanctioned sacrifice (De 12:13, 14); and this to idols instead of to Jehovah. "Eaten" refers to the feasts which were connected with the sacrifices (see Ex 32:6; De 32:38; Jud 9:27; 1Co 8:4, 10; 10:7).
lifted … eyes to—namely, in adoration (Ps 121:1). The superstitious are compared to harlots; their eyes go eagerly after spiritual lusts. The righteous man not merely refrains from the act, but from the glance of spiritual lust (Job 31:1; Mt 5:28).
idols of … Israel—not merely those of the Gentiles, but even those of Israel. The fashions of his countrymen could not lead him astray.
defiled … neighbour's wife—Not only does he shrink from spiritual, but also from carnal, adultery (compare 1Co 6:18).
neither … menstruous woman—Leprosy and elephantiasis were said to be the fruit of such a connection [Jerome]. Chastity is to be observed even towards one's own wife (Le 18:19; 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. restored … pledge—that which the poor debtor absolutely needed; as his raiment, which the creditor was bound to restore before sunset (Ex 22:26, 27), and his millstone, which was needed for preparing his food (De 24:6, 10-13).
bread to … hungry … covered … naked—(Isa 58:7; Mt 25:35, 36). After duties of justice come those of benevolence. It is not enough to refrain from doing a wrong to our neighbor, we must also do him good. The bread owned by a man, though "his," is given to him, not to keep to himself, but to impart to the needy.
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. usury—literally, "biting." The law forbade the Jew to take interest from brethren but permitted him to do so from a foreigner (Ex 22:25; De 23:19, 20; Ne 5:7; Ps 15:5). The letter of the law was restricted to the Jewish polity, and is not binding now; and indeed the principle of taking interest was even then sanctioned, by its being allowed in the case of a foreigner. The spirit of the law still binds us, that we are not to take advantage of our neighbor's necessities to enrich ourselves, but be satisfied with moderate, or even no, interest, in the case of the needy.
increase—in the case of other kinds of wealth; as "usury" refers to money (Le 25:36).
withdrawn … hand, &c.—Where he has the opportunity and might find a plausible plea for promoting his own gain at the cost of a wrong to his neighbor, he keeps back his hand from what selfishness prompts.
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. truly—with integrity.
surely live—literally, "live in life." Prosper in this life, but still more in the life to come (Pr 3:1, 2; Am 5:4).
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. The second case is that of an impious son of a pious father. His pious parentage, so far from excusing, aggravates his guilt.
robber—or literally, "a breaker," namely, through all constraints of right.
doeth the like to any one—The Hebrew and the parallel (Eze 18:18) require us to translate rather, "doeth to his brother any of these things," namely, the things which follow in Eze 18:11, &c. [Maurer].
And that doeth not any of those duties, but even hath eaten upon the mountains, and defiled his neighbour's wife,
11. those duties—which his father did (Eze 18:5, 9).
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,
12. oppressed the poor—an aggravation to his oppressions, that they were practised against the poor; whereas in Eze 18:7 the expression is simply "oppressed any."
abomination—singular number referring to the particular one mentioned at the end of Eze 18:6.
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 he … live?—because of the merits of his father; answering, by contrast, to "die for the iniquity of his father" (Eze 18:17).
his blood shall be upon him—The cause of his bloody death shall rest with himself; God is not to blame, but is vindicated as just in punishing 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,
14-18. The third case: a son who walks not in the steps of an unrighteous father, but in the ways of God; for example, Josiah, the pious son of guilty Amon; Hezekiah, of Ahaz (2Ki 16:1-20; 18:1-37; 21:1-22:20).
seeth … and considereth—The same Hebrew stands for both verbs, "seeth … yea, seeth." The repetition implies the attentive observation needed, in order that the son may not be led astray by his father's bad example; as sons generally are blind to parents sins, and even imitate them as if they were virtues.
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.
17. taken off his hand from the poor—that is, abstained from oppressing the poor, when he had the opportunity of doing so with impunity.The different sense of the phrase in Eze 16:49, in reference to relieving the poor, seems to have suggested the reading followed by Fairbairn, but not sanctioned by the Hebrew, "hath not turned his hand from," &c. But Eze 20:22 uses the phrase in a somewhat similar sense to English Version here, abstained from hurting.
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.
19. Here the Jews object to the prophet's word and in their objection seem to seek a continuance of that very thing which they had originally made a matter of complaint. Therefore translate, "Wherefore doth not the son bear the iniquity of his father?" It now would seem a consolation to them to think the son might suffer for his father's misdeeds; for it would soothe their self-love to regard themselves as innocent sufferers for the guilt of others and would justify them in their present course of life, which they did not choose to abandon for a better. In reply, Ezekiel reiterates the truth of each being dealt with according to his own merits [Fairbairn]. But Grotius supports English Version, wherein the Jews contradict the prophet, "Why (sayest thou so) doth not the son (often, as in our case, though innocent) bear (that is, suffer for) the iniquity of their father?" Ezekiel replies, It is not as you say, but as I in the name of God say: "When the son hath done," &c. English Version is simpler than that of Fairbairn.
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.
20. son shall not bear … iniquity of … father—(De 24:16; 2Ki 14:6).
righteousness … wickedness—that is, the reward for righteousness … the punishment of wickedness. "Righteousness" is not used as if any were absolutely righteous; but, of such as have it imputed to them for Christ's sake, though not under the Old Testament themselves understanding the ground on which they were regarded as righteous, but sincerely seeking after it in the way of God's appointment, so far as they then understood this way.
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.
21-24. Two last cases, showing the equity of God: (1) The penitent sinner is dealt with according to his new obedience, not according to his former sins. (2) The righteous man who turns from righteousness to sin shall be punished for the latter, and his former righteousness will be of no avail to him.
he shall surely live—Despair drives men into hardened recklessness; God therefore allures men to repentance by holding out hope [Calvin].
To threats the stubborn sinner oft is hard,
Wrapt in his crimes, against the storm prepared,
But when the milder beams of mercy play,
He melts, and throws the cumbrous cloak away.
Hitherto the cases had been of a change from bad to good, or vice versa, in one generation compared with another. Here it is such a change in one and the same individual. This, as practically affecting the persons here addressed, is properly put last. So far from God laying on men the penalty of others' sins, He will not even punish them for their own, if they turn from sin to righteousness; but if they turn from righteousness to sin, they must expect in justice that their former goodness will not atone for subsequent sin (Heb 10:38, 39; 2Pe 2:20-22). The exile in Babylon gave a season for repentance of those sins which would have brought death on the perpetrator in Judea while the law could be enforced; so it prepared the way for the Gospel [Grotius].
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. in his righteousness … he shah live—in it, not for it, as if that atoned for his former sins; but "in his righteousness" he shall live, as the evidence of his being already in favor with God through the merit of Messiah, who was to come. The Gospel clears up for us many such passages (1Pe 1:12), which were dimly understood at the time, while men, however, had light enough for salvation.
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. (1Ti 2:4; 2Pe 3:9). If men perish, it is because they will not come to the Lord for salvation; not that the Lord is not willing to save them (Joh 5:40). They trample on not merely justice, but mercy; what farther hope can there be for them, when even mercy is against them? (Heb 10:26-29).
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. righteous—one apparently such; as in Mt 9:13, "I came not to call the righteous," &c., that is, those who fancy themselves righteous. Those alone are true saints who by the grace of God persevere (Mt 24:13; 1Co 10:12; Joh 10:28, 29).
turneth away from … righteousness—an utter apostasy; not like the exceptional offenses of the godly through infirmity or heedlessness, which they afterwards mourn over and repent of.
not be mentioned—not be taken into account so as to save them.
his trespass—utter apostasy.
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. Their plea for saying, "The way of the Lord is not equal," was that God treated different classes in a different way. But it was really their way that was unequal, since living in sin they expected to be dealt with as if they were righteous. God's way was invariably to deal with different men according to their deserts.
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.
26-28. The two last instances repeated in inverse order. God's emphatic statement of His principle of government needs no further proof than the simple statement of it.
in them—in the actual sins, which are the manifestations of the principle of "iniquity," mentioned just before.
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. he shall save his soul—that is, he shall have it saved upon his repentance.
Because he considereth, and turneth away from all his transgressions that he hath committed, he shall surely live, he shall not die.
28. considereth—the first step to repentance; for the ungodly do not consider either God or themselves (De 32:29; Ps 119:59, 60; Lu 15:17, 18).
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?
29. Though God's justice is so plainly manifested, sinners still object to it because they do not wish to see it (Mic 2:7; Mt 11:18, 19).
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.
30-32. As God is to judge them "according to their ways" (Pr 1:31), their only hope is to "repent"; and this is a sure hope, for God takes no delight in judging them in wrath, but graciously desires their salvation on repentance.
I will judge you—Though ye cavil, it is a sufficient answer that I, your Judge, declare it so, and will judge you according to My will; and then your cavils must end.
Repent—inward conversion (Re 2:5). In the Hebrew there is a play of like sounds, "Turn ye and return."
turn yourselves, &c.—the outward fruits of repentance. Not as the Margin, "turn others"; for the parallel clause (Eze 18:31) is, "cast away from you all your transgressions." Perhaps, however, the omission of the object after the verb in the Hebrew implies that both are included: Turn alike yourselves and all whom you can influence.
from all … transgressions—not as if believers are perfect; but they sincerely aim at perfection, so as to be habitually and wilfully on terms with no sin (1Jo 3:6-9):
your ruin—literally, "your snare," entangling you in 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?
31. Cast away from you—for the cause of your evil rests with yourselves; your sole way of escape is to be reconciled to God (Eph 4:22, 23).
make you a new heart—This shows, not what men can do, but what they ought to do: what God requires of us. God alone can make us a new heart (Eze 11:19; 36:26, 27). The command to do what men cannot themselves do is designed to drive them (instead of laying the blame, as the Jews did, elsewhere rather than on themselves) to feel their own helplessness, and to seek God's Holy Spirit (Ps 51:11, 12). Thus the outward exhortation is, as it were, the organ or instrument which God uses for conferring grace. So we may say with Augustine, "Give what thou requirest, and (then) require what thou wilt." Our strength (which is weakness in itself) shall suffice for whatever He exacts, if only He gives the supply [Calvin].
spirit—the understanding: as the "heart" means the will and affections. The root must be changed before the fruit can be good.
why will ye die—bring on your own selves your ruin. God's decrees are secret to us; it is enough for us that He invites all, and will reject none that seek Him.
For I have no pleasure in the death of him that dieth, saith the Lord GOD: wherefore turn yourselves, and live ye.
32. (La 3:33; 2Pe 3:9). God is "slow to anger"; punishment is "His strange work" (Isa 28:21).