This “word of the Lord” to Ezekiel has the feel of a legal defense and indictment. The Lord addresses a complaint currently circulating among the Jews; they are accusing Him of being unjust and unfair towards the people still in the “land of Israel” (2). Their complaint comes out in a proverb about fathers eating sour grapes and the children’s teeth being set on edge (2). In other words, the children are suffering for the sins of their parents.
The issue of ultimate justice surfaces again as the Lord cites “word on the street” comments about his (in)justice: “Yet you say, ‘The way of the Lord is not just’” (25, see also 19). Dan Block, in his excellent commentary, insightfully brings out another aspect of popular thinking that needs to be corrected. He observes that the proverb about sour grapes conveys a deterministic mindset that sees the fate of children inevitably controlled by parental decisions. This reading of the proverb sees it, not only an oblique way to accuse God of judging the exiles for the sins of their fathers, but also as a way of summarizing their deterministic views of life. Support for Block’s reading comes out in verse 19 where the exiles actually argue that children should (or at least do) suffer for the sins of their fathers. Knowing the Decalogue, they would be aware of God’s warning to visit the sins of the fathers on the third and fourth generations (Exodus 20:4-5). In other words, they are saying, “God is not fair and life is not free—children will reap what their parents sowed.”
The Lord says He’s about to remove this proverb from popular usage. He will cause the people of Israel to know that He deals justly with every person—for, as He says, “all souls are mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is mine” (4). In His justice, He declares, “the soul who sins shall die” (4).
Beginning in verse 5, the Lord lays out several scenarios and how He will deal with them. First, He speaks of a righteous person who lives according to the Law and is faithful to the Lord. This person shall “surely live” (9). Next, the Lord speaks of a righteous man’s son who lives contrary to his father’s example and God’s law (10-13). This wicked son will “surely die” (13). But suppose this wicked son, has a son who learns from his father’s disastrous choices and “does not do likewise” (14). This man shall “surely live” (17).
After these three case studies, the Lord again addresses an accusation leveled against Him: “Why should not the son suffer for the iniquity of the father?” (19). Here the complaint seems to be the opposite of the one initially expressed in the proverb about the sour grapes. Here God is being critiqued for not judging the son of a wicked man! Again, the Lord counters by explaining that He deals with each one according to his own actions: “The soul who sins shall die” (20).
So far it sounds very fair and impartial. However, the Lord introduces a situation that shows He is not only just, but gracious and compassionate. In verses 21-23, the Lord says a wicked person who repents of his sinfulness and “keeps all my statues” will receive mercy. None of this man’s former transgressions “will be remembered against him” but he “shall live” (22). Why? The Lord answers with a rhetorical question: “Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?” (23).
But this doesn’t let the righteous become careless for God’s grace is not sloppy sentimentality. In verse 24, the Lord says a righteous person who turns to wickedness will erase the good he has done and die for his wickedness.
Once again, the Lord raises the objection being spoken by the Jews: “Yet you say, ‘The way of the Lord is not just’” (25). The Lord corrects his people by explaining that the injustice is on their part. He is just is pardoning a wicked person who repents and eliminating a righteous person who goes rogue (27-28). He rejects the accusation of His people about being unjust and insists the fault is with them (29).
The chapter ends with the Lord giving an appeal to the rebellious, sinful “house of Israel” (30-32). He calls them to repent and turn from their transgressions in order to save their lives. He commands them to “make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? (31). Repeating what He affirmed earlier (23), the Lord affirms His heart is to forgive and not judge: “For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord God; so turn and live” (32).
Visions of God
The Lord owns every life. The Lord asserts to Ezekiel, “all souls are mine” (4). As creator He made each life and has the rights over each one He has made. All of us, by rights, are rightfully the Lord’s.
The Lord knows what each person does—good or bad. It’s clear that the Lord closely observes the attitudes and actions of each person He owns. He knows those who have done right and those who have done wrong. He sees the spiritual (idols), sexual and social (bloodshed, injustice) sins we commit (10-13). As Hebrews 4:13 says, “And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.”
The Lord deals justly with individuals. Although He is repeatedly accused of injustice by the Israelites (2, 19, 25, 29), the Lord defends the fairness of His actions. As Abraham knew, the judge of the earth does right (Gen. 18:25). Paul echoes this same thought in Romans 2:6-8. God does not simply judge people for what their parents did. He deals with them as individuals who make or break their own lives.
The Lord is not willing that any should perish (23, 32). The Lord asks a rhetorical question to make a statement about His heart’s desire when it comes to exercising judgment: “Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?” (23). At the close of this chapter, the Lord states the same truth as a declaration, not a question: “For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord God; so turn and live” (32). Here we have the Old Testament precursor to 2 Peter 3:9: “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.”
The Lord forgives those who repent but judges those who regress. A hopeful message that comes out of this chapter is that people can change. Those who had formerly done wickedness can repent and turn from evil and make a “new heart and a new spirit” (27, 32). When they do, they will receive mercy and forgiveness; their former sins will be forgotten (22). The flip side—a sobering reminder—is that those who had been living righteously can also change! If they resort to evil, their former deeds of righteousness will not save them from present evil. Perseverance in doing good is required (24, see Romans 2:7).
Note: Initially, it sounds strange to my gospel-shaped thinking to hear God tell people to “make” new hearts for themselves and get for themselves a new spirit. After all, the Scriptures repeatedly speak of the inability of humans to effect spiritual change by their own efforts (Eph 2:1-3; Titus 3:1-5). Additionally, Ezekiel will convey the good news of the new covenant a few chapters later. In Ezekiel 36 God is the One who promises to give people a new heart and put a new Spirit within them.
So why this command to self-renewal. The answer seems to be that God is correcting the fatalistic, deterministic thinking of his people. They’ve concluded that it is inevitable (but not enviable) that children suffer for parents’ choices. God is trying to instill a sense of personal accountability and hope for change. Hence, the command to repent and change.
Words to Watchmen
Watchmen are instructed by God to correct false perceptions of Him. The word of the Lord that came to Ezekiel (verse 1) challenged and corrected false conclusions the Israelites had drawn about the Lord’s fairness. A.W. Tozer wrote that what comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us. It’s no wonder that the Lord has His spokesman refute and reshape people’s view about His character. In our day, most people in our culture have a sentimentalized view of God that sees Him as excusing all but very worst of sins. Current watchmen will have to address this faulty, unbiblical thinking.
Watchmen must communicate God’s righteous judgment on sin along with His desire to pardon sinners who repent. Ezekiel’s message is two-fold: God will judge sin in a fair but lethal way; God doesn’t want to judge sinners but see them repent and live. Watchmen must showcase both God’s justice and mercy.
Watchmen present people the stark choice between life and death. As Dan Block points out in his commentary on Ezekiel, “In a sense, Ezekiel poses as a second Moses, as Yahweh’s spokesman, presenting to his people two options, the way of life and the way of death, and then appealing to them to choose life” (vol. 1, 557). Preaching is not a dispassionate discussion of theoretical or theological truth; it is truth leading to a life-altering decision.
Watchmen challenge each generation to choose God’s ways. Ezekiel’s three case studies (4-20) show that the choices of the parents do not preclude the choices of their children—either for good or ill. Parents cannot determine their children’s spiritual state; each generation must choose. So God’s watchmen must call every generation to choose to trust the Lord and walk in His ways. They not only speak to fathers/mothers but to sons/daughters and grandsons/granddaughters.
Watchmen let people know God is fair and life can change. Ezekiel confronted and corrected the (mis)perceptions of the exiles that God and life conspired against them. They felt enslaved to forces beyond their control and choices before their time. Watchmen, echoing Ezekiel’s words in chapter 18, help people see that God is fundamentally fair and that they have the options to chart a different path than their parents (if that path was destructive). Later in the book, we will see that our human ability to change involves receiving the changes God does in us (Ezek. 36:26-27). But in this chapter we are reminded that “generational sin” is not unalterable.
Watchmen need to know the message of the new covenant to give gospel hope. This message from God ends with a call for people to “make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit” (31). Later in the book, we hear the new covenant promise that God will “give” people a new heart and “put” a new Spirit within them (36:26-27). What wonderful news since our attempts as self-reformation consistently fall short of God’s expectation. He provides what He commands.