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Bible Commentaries

Layman's Bible Commentary

Ezekiel 18

Verses 1-32

Corporate Guilt and Individual Responsibility (18:1-32)

In a society where corporate life is the basic assumption of existence, a disruption of organized structure always has a devastating effect. Israel was an entity, God’s people, worshiping as a people in God’s house and with a national mission for God. With the disruption of life in its ordered corporate manifestation, there was need for an understanding of the individual’s responsibility for inherited guilt.

The issue is clearly set in the words of a proverb which Ezekiel, who was always close to his people, heard repeatedly: "The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge" (vs. 2). Obviously the plea is that Jerusalem in the early sixth century is a guiltless city, suffering unfairly for the sins of former generations. As the problem is set in a brief form, so the answer is given: "Behold, all souls are mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is mine: the soul that sins shall die" (vs. 4) . God judges with discretion. Suffice it to say at this point, man has the power to transcend and rise above his heritage to the new heritage God will give; he need not be chained to a particular condition either by his heritage or by his surroundings. It is this that makes him truly man and not just another animal imprisoned by instinct and determined by heredity.

Verses 5-24 give more extensive evidence designed to demonstrate the principle that "the soul that sins shall die," Verses 5-9 list the characteristics of a righteous man who is promised life because of his fidelity. The criteria of righteousness are an interesting reflection of official morality, including: no idolatry, respect for a neighbor’s wife, eschewing sexual relations during the menstrual period, no oppression, restoration of a pledged object to a debtor. Verses 10-13 present the reverse side of the same material, that is, those acts and attitudes which are unrighteous and because of which a man shall die regardless of how righteous his father was. Verses 14-18 come to grips with the problem brought on by the theory that a son begotten of an evil father need not suffer the same fate as his father. Summing up, the author concludes that the person who sins, be he father or son, is the one who stands condemned before the Lord.

Even for the wicked man, son or father, there is hope, because God’s win is that man should live, not that he should die. Yet the man who has followed righteousness for a while dare not turn from righteousness and still expect God’s blessing. In such a case past righteousness will have no bearing on God’s judgment (vs. 24).

A complaint against the ways of the Lord is raised in the succinct outburst, "The way of the Lord is not just" (vs. 25). This kind of outcry against the Lord is understandable when we remember how great was the suffering and tragedy through which these people of God had passed. As always the prophet is a combined defender of God’s ways and prosecutor of Israel’s record. Turning the subject around, the prophet claims that the Lord stands always ready to punish iniquity and reward righteousness. This has been the consistent attitude of God and nothing has changed. The final question put to the listeners by the prophet is rhetorical: "Is it not your ways that are not just?" (vs. 29).

Like so many of the profound passages in Ezekiel, verses 30-32 combine doom and hope within the same breath. Everyone will be judged according to his ways; no one is condemned for what others have done. Because this is true God calls on the people through his prophet: "Repent and turn from all your transgressions, lest iniquity be your ruin" (vs. 30). Then they are advised to get themselves "a new heart and a new spirit." Previously, in Ezekiel 11:19-20, God promised to give the preserved remnant a new heart and a new spirit, while here he requires them to get these for themselves. The Israelite had such a sacramental understanding of life that it was impossible to separate God’s act from man’s response to it.

Verses 31b-32 remind us once more of Hosea. Ezekiel cries out, "Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord God; so turn, and live." The Lord is not a capricious deity, enjoying the discomfort and tragedy of his creatures; on the contrary, he is heartbroken because they refuse the good life which he has proffered.

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Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on Ezekiel 18". "Layman's Bible Commentary". https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/lbc/ezekiel-18.html.