The Guilt of our Fathers
12 July 2015
Allow me to start off with a little bit of historical background information regarding the life and times of Ezekiel – as this is vital for correctly understanding today’s text in context. The prophet Ezekiel lived from 623 B.C to around 570 B.C. Ezekiel was born in a very special year in the history of the nation of Judah. In that year, the High Priest at the time, Hilkia, namely “discovered” what apparently had been the lost Law-Book of Moses buried in a storage chamber while he was cleaning up the temple.
Now, we know that the great-grandfather of Josiah, the king at the time, king Hezekiah, was a God-fearing man who, Scripture says (II Kings 18:6): “held fast to the Lord [and] did not depart from following Him, but kept his commandments”. There can therefore be no doubt that, during Hezekiah’s reign of Judah, the Law-Book of Moses was established and honored in its rightful place in the public life of the nation. The next two kings of that nation, Manassah and Amon, Josiah’s father and grandfather, who combined ruled for 46 years, were two very evil kings, who desecrated the Temple and instituted pagan worship. From II Chronicles 33, we do know, however, that towards the end of Manassah’s reign, he did repent from many, though not all, of his godless acts and did renovate the temple by removing “foreign gods and idols” from it. Manassah’s half-hearted reforms may perhaps point to the fact that, though knowledge of the Law of Moses might still have been preserved orally within Judah, the Law-book might have already been lost sometime during his reign. During the short two-year reign of his son, Amon, the even more godless father of Josiah, we know for certain, however, that no-one knew or cared where the copy of the Law-book of Moses was. But let’s just stop here for a moment to contemplate the depth of the depravity of Judah shortly before Ezekiel’s birth: that in a nation that had for generations been a theonomy, the very Law-book given by the verbal inspiration of the Holy Spirit to that greatest liberator in the history of God’s people at the time, Moses, was somehow managed to be lost in some storage room in the Temple! Imagine the degree indifference and depth of godlessness of a society that manages to care so little for what God has to say, that, the Law-book, the core manual of the cultural center of Jerusalem – an extremely prominent place in the national life of the people, is somehow “misplaced” in some random storage room, to the extent that, for years, for decades, the priests and the Levites are unable to locate it! This is beyond belief!
By the gracious providence of God, a rebellion occurred during the tyrant Amon’s reign, and he was killed when his son and successor Josiah was only 8 years old, in other words, before his father could manage to mess up his education completely. We have no real record of the actions of his advisors during the young king’s reign, but we know that from the age of 16 he “began to seek the God of his father David”, the Scriptures say (II Chron. 34:3). Then, in the 18th year of his reign, when Josiah was about 25 years old, Hilkiah found the Law of Moses and a great national repentance under the leadership of Josiah followed. Ezekiel would, as a young boy, have been privileged enough to grow up during the last 14 glorious years of the reign of king Josiah. That Ezekiel would be born in this momentous year is doubly exceptional when we observe his heritage. He was namely a descendent of Aaron, born into the priestly family of Zadok, who was the first high priest of Solomon’s temple. One can only imagine the uplifted spirits and enthusiasm for God’s Law that must have characterized the family and clan life when Ezekiel was a boy – what a privilege it must have been for him to grow up under these circumstances.
After the death of king Josiah, apostasy sadly became a characteristic of the national life of Judah once again. Providentially, the imperialist Babylonian empire would also rise up during this time and God would eventually use it as an instrument of righteous judgment. For, despite various warnings from the prophet Jeremiah, the last 4 kings of Judah failed to live in obedience to God and discontinued the righteous path of their God-fearing father Josiah. 11 years into the last king of Judah’s reign, Zedekiah, God finally decided that enough godlessness had been tolerated and He let the Judeans be taken into the Babylonian captivity from 597 BC. Ezekiel was among the first captives to be taken. He received his prophetic call, the famous vision recorded in Ezekiel 1, as a captive in Babylon, at the age of 30. This was before the final destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 587 BC, which he predicts from Divine visions he received, as recorded in Ez. 4-7. The ministries of the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel in Judah overlapped for six years. Another contemporary of Ezekiel was the prophet Daniel, also in captivity in Babylon at the time. By the time Ezekiel starts his ministry, Daniel had already been in civil office in Babylon – an office he would continue in long after Ezekiel’s death.
With this historical information, let us return to the text for today: Ezekiel 18 forms part of a series of reproofs and warnings that Ezekiel made against the sinful cultural practices of his day – combined with prophecies of future restoration. In this first part of chapter 18, God, by the mouth of Ezekiel, rebukes Judah for a proverb in common use at the time: “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge?” Jeremiah also preached against this proverb (Jeremiah 31) and it simply means that descendants are punished for the sins of their ancestors. At that time in Judah, this proverb seems to have been a fruit of their godless culture. The rebuke of their proverb by the prophets must then be understood as fundamentally a critique of the cultural sentiments underlying this proverb. What Ezekiel is saying here is of the utmost cultural relevance for the people at the time. What he is doing, is the equivalent of saying to a people that your dictionaries, your language-instruction manuals need to be revised in order to conform to godliness. For these prophets, speech, daily expressions, language, do not belong to some common realm over which God has no claim to authority. No, all things, even common expressions and seemingly insignificant customs, must be brought under the dominion of God. For us New Covenant believers, this reform advocated by Ezekiel should immediately remind us of II Cor. 10:5, where Paul commands that every thought needs to be taken captive and brought under the obedience of Christ. There is no separation of culture and religion. There is no separation of politics and religion. There is no separation of family life and religion. Christ is Lord over all.
When we read the rest of the text then, Ezekiel explains how theological heresy affected the speech of the people as manifested in this proverb: In trying to justify themselves, this generation lamented that they were being punished for the sins of their ancestors. Rushdoony explains the roots of this sentiment in man which actually has legitimate origins, when he writes: “A sense of guilt leaves a man feeling like a leaky, sinking ship: the energies must all be resolved to the repair of that breach. The psychology of the guilty man is thus geared to self-defense, to spiritual survival, by means of an overcoming of the breach of guilt.” (Guilt & Pity, 1). This feeling of guilt is an inevitable part of being a human being under the fall of Adam and there is nothing wrong with it, it’s normal, but, as Rushdoony adds, it becomes sinful when it leads to masochistic self-atonement or self-justification (Guilt & Pity, 2), as was also the case in Judah during the time of Ezekiel. These people, of course would have heard that very prophet, Jeremiah lament: “Our fathers sinned and are no more, but we bear their iniquities.” (Lam. 5:7). They would have known the phrase from the holy Law of God, that God “[visits] the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations…” (Ex. 20:5). They also knew their own history – and remembered the godlessness committed by their former kings. They now argue that they suffered captivity for their parents’ and grandparents’ sin – thereby wiping themselves clean as if they were innocent and merely being punished for what their forefathers did. Unfortunately, this public opinion was based on a heresy.
They were of course, twisting and perverting a true Biblical teaching. That innocent children get punished because of the sins of their parents and ancestors, is of course not what these passages of Scripture teach. In fact, when the Judeans in captivity were making this claim, they were implicitly charging God with injustice and cruelty. Perhaps they didn’t come out and say it out loud, but they were really rebelling against his Sovereignty. This idea that one can be punished for the real or apparent sins of ancestors is used in a similar way today: what are the promotion of ideas such as “white guilt” and “white privilege” other than attempt at justification for their actions on the part of non-whites? Or a blasphemous and masochistic attempt at self-atonement on the part of whites themselves? What do abortionists advocate other than this heresy that children can be made to pay for the sins of their parents?
Ezekiel explains to us that this is not in accordance with God’s justice: if children follow in the footsteps of their godless parents, they get punished for their own sins, but if they repent, they are liberated from the punishment of sins. Children can therefore take comfort from this passage that, if their parents or grandparents do or did bad things, that God will surely not punish them for those sins – neither in this life, nor in hell. Likewise parents may take comfort that, despite the pain they suffer from the sins of children, that God would not condemn them for it. In verses 19-20, Ezekiel refers to the law of Deuteronomy 24:16, which stipulates that “Fathers shall not be put to death for their children, nor shall children be put to death for their fathers, a person shall be put to death for their own sin.” Thus holding a person or group guilty and culpable for the sins of parents and ancestors is unbiblical.
But how then are we to reconcile this passage from Ezekiel with the passages of Lamentations and Exodus quoted before? It might seem as though God sometimes in Scripture says that every individual is born in innocence, and with a blank sheet before God and acquires guilt only for the sins he commits during his lifetime, and on other occasions that the punishment for the sins of the fathers are bore by the children. Neither of these two statements are completely in line with Biblical teaching. When the text of the Septuagint, in Lamentations 5:7 says that the iniquities of ancestors are bore by descendants, the Greek verb used (ὑπέχω), which literally means to “experience” or “undergo”, while the word used in Exodus 20:5 usually translated with “visit”, can also be rendered as “deposit”. In other words an offspring experiences or undergoes the effects of the sins of their ancestors. But these verbs mean something radically different than the heretics in Ezekiel’s day, or the white-guilters or abortionists of our day.
What these texts practically teach is that God, through lineages, appropriates sin and its effects, just like He appropriates goods and blessings through lineages in his covenant. We have now seen that this is not the same as that children are somehow guilty for the deeds of their fathers. No, the practical outworking of this doctrine is twofold: Firstly, children generally inherit the tendency to the sinfulness of their fathers through the depravity transmitted through generations. No-one is born as a clean sheet before God, but we are all born with certain natural dispositions and inclinations. What these texts mean, therefore, is that children of godless parents tend to be born with a more utterly depraved tendency to repeat the sins of their parents. This transfusion of sinful nature can be understood in a similar way that a pregnant heroine addict’s child is already born with an addiction to heroine. Unless God intervenes by his exceptional grace, sinfulness continues uninterrupted and depravity grows even stronger with each generation. Similarly, when God’s loving covenant blessings is promised to thousands of generations of those who love him, it does not mean that God merely loves and blesses someone because of their parents’ obedience, but that God, under normal circumstances has chosen to use lineage as a covenantal means to communicate his love and graces. Through covenant obedience, God blesses believing parents with believing children, who are in turn blessed for their own obedience. This is a form of sanctification through the generations. The effects of covenant-
obedience is exactly what the Westminster Confession defines as sanctification, namely that “the several lusts [of the body of sin] are more and more weakened and mortified, and they more and more quickened and strengthened, in all saving graces, to the practice of true holiness.” This happens not only in the lives of individuals, but also in the lives of covenant-peoples. God, when He gathers His elect from the world, He does not do this at random, but uses us, uses parents, children and families. Mothers and fathers may know that God primarily gathers his elect from children born into covenant families, your children in other words. Likewise, generational disobedience has the exact opposite effect of increasing depravity. This does not mean that children, a thousand generations into the covenant are not born totally depraved, they still are, but they would be born with much weakened depraved dispositions and inclinations than those born outside of the covenant. Secondly, God providentially almost always confers the same judgments upon families and nations through the generations for both the sins of the ancestors and their descendants. Plagues, debt, wars, poverty generally affects multiple generations of the same family, nation or race, who refuses to repent of the sins they copy from their ancestors. This is the result of inter-generational disobedience to God’s Law. Likewise, blessings, such as a worthy inheritance, a healthy society and community, wealth and health are most often the blessings God confers upon those who descend from multiple generations of obedient Christian ancestors.
This is what Scripture means when it speaks of blessings and curses through generations. And this is by no means at odds with what Ezekiel teaches.
Nonetheless, the text teaches us most clearly that no-one can stand before God and accuse Him of being unjust for placing him in a particular family or nation, as depraved as they may be. God is always just in all He does. Likewise can no-one place the blame for their sinful condition or judgments they receive on their ancestors, but every single human being is a responsible moral agent that must appear before the judgment seat of God and be either damned for his own sin, or be justified and acquitted in Christ.
In conclusion, there is also encouragement and hope to be derived from this message of Ezekiel, the hope that repentance will bear fruit and the re-affirmation that God’s promises that accompany true repentance, will truly come to pass. It is a message intended to give us the same hope it gave the Judeans in captivity thousands of years ago: that we may turn to God, repent and live – that our repentance will most certainly bear fruit and never be in vain. Today’s text lays the groundwork in cultivating hope for the message of repentance and life that Ezekiel is about to bring in the second part of this chapter, a message echoed by the apostle Paul when he writes in Romans 6:22-23: “But now, having been set free from sin, and having become slaves to God, you have your fruit to holiness, and the end, everlasting life. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” If it is the will of God, we will gather again next week to continue treating Ezekiel’s same message of repentance and life as found in the second part of chapter 18.