What mean ye, that ye use this proverb, etc.? Another and entirely different section opens, and we see at once from what it started. Ezekiel had heard from the lips of his countrymen, and had seen its working in their hearts, the proverb with which they blunted their sense of personal responsibility. They had to bear the punishment of sins which they had not committed. The sins of the fathers were visited, as in Exo_20:5; Exo_34:7; Le 26:39, 40; Num_14:18; Deu_5:9, upon the third and fourth generations. Manasseh and his people had sinned, and Josiah and his descendants and their contemporaries had to suffer for it. The thought was familiar enough, and the general law of the passages above referred to was afterwards applied, as with authority, to what was then passing (2Ki_23:26; 2Ki_24:3). Even Jeremiah recognized it in Lam_5:7 and Jer_15:4, and was content to look, for a reversal of the proverb, to the distant Messianic time of the new covenant (Jer_31:29-31). The plea with which Ezekiel had to deal was therefore one which seemed to rest on the basis of a Divine authority. And that authority was confirmed by the induction of a wide experience. Every preacher of righteousness in every age has to warn the evil doer that he is working evil for generations yet unborn, to whom he transmits his own tendencies, the evil of his own influence and example. It is well that he can balance that thought with the belief that good also may work in the future with a yet wider range and mightier power (Exo_20:5). Authority and experience alike might seem to favour the plea that the fathers had eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth were set on edge. Ezekiel was led, however, to feel that there was a latent falsehood in the plea. In the depth of his consciousness there was the witness that every man was personally responsible for the things that he did, that the eternal righteousness of God would not ultimately punish the innocent for the guilty, he had to work out, according to the light given him, his vindication of the ways of God to man, to sketch at least the outlines of a theodicy. Did he, in doing this, come forward as a prophet, correcting and setting aside the teaching of the Law? At first, and on a surface view, he might seem to do so. But it was with him as it was afterwards with St. Paul He “established the Law” in the very teaching which seemed to contradict it. He does not deny (it would have been idle to do so) that the sins of the fathers are visited upon the children, i.e. affect those children for evil. What he does is to define the limits of that law. And he may have found his starting point in that very book which, for him and his generation, was the great embodiment of the Law as a whole. If men were forbidden, as in Deu_24:16, to put the children to death for the sins of the fathers; if that was to be the rule of human justice,—the justice of God could not be less equitable than the rule which he prescribed for his creatures. It is not without interest to note the parallelism between Ezekiel and the Greek poet who was likest to him, as in his genius, so also in the courage with which he faced the problems of the universe. AEschylus also recognizes that there is a righteous order in the seeming anomalies of history. Men might say, in their proverbs, that prosperity as such provoked the wrath of the gods, and brought on the downfall of a “woe insatiable;” and then he adds—
“But I, apart from all,
Hold this my creed alone.”
And that creed is that punishment comes only when the children reproduce the impious recklessness of their fathers. “Justice shines brightly in the dwellings of those who love the right, and rule their life by law.” Into the deeper problem raised by the modern thought of inherited tendencies developed by the environment, which itself originates in the past, it was not given to Ezekiel or AEschylus to enter.
Stress is laid on the fact that the proverb which implied unrighteousness in God is no longer to be used in Israel. There, among the, people in whom he was manifesting his righteousness for the education of mankind, it should be seen to have no force whatever. The thought was an essentially heathen thought—a half-truth distorted into a falsehood.
Cambridge Bible Davidson
4. all souls are mine] i.e. every individual soul stands in immediate relation to God; Num_16:22, “O God, God of the spirits of all flesh, shall one man sin, and wilt thou be wroth with all the congregation?” All souls alike belong to God, and this “alike” guarantees the treatment of each by itself, the soul of the son no less than the soul of the father. According to former modes of thought the son had not personal independence, he belonged to the father, and was involved in the destiny of the father.
sinneth, it shall die] It and not another because of its sin. “Live” and “die” are used by the prophet of literal life and death, continuance in the world and removal from it. They have, however, a pregnant meaning arising from the other conceptions of the prophet. He feels himself and the people standing immediately before that perfect kingdom of the Lord which is about to come (ch. 33, 37), and “live” implies entering into the glory of this kingdom, while “die” implies deprivation of its blessedness; for of course, like all the Old Testament writers, Ezekiel considers the kingdom, even in its perfect condition, an earthly one.
Jameson, Fausset, & Brown
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.
But if the wicked shall turn from all his sins … But when the righteous turneth away from his righteousness … 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). (Psa_138:4, “There is forgiveness with thee, that thou mayest be feared.”)
`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 oven 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).
Jamieson, Fausset, & Brown
Ezek 18: 22. In his righteousness that he hath done he shall 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 favour with God through the merit of Messiah, who was to come. The Gospel clears up for us many such passages, which were dimly understood at the time, while men, however, had light enough for salvation (1Pe_1:12).
Have I any pleasure, etc.? Ezekiel’s anticipations of the gospel of Christ take a yet wider range, and we come at last to what had been throughout the suppressed premise of the argument. To him, as afterwards to St. Paul (1Ti_2:4) and St. Peter (2Pe_3:9), the mind of God was presented as being at once absolutely righteous and absolutely loving. The death of the wicked, the loss, i.e; of true life, for a time, or even forever, might be the necessary consequence of laws that were righteous in themselves, and were working out the well being of the universe; but that death was not to be thought of as the result of a Divine decree, or contemplated by the Divine mind with any satisfaction. If it were not given to Ezekiel to see, as clearly as Isaiah seems to have seen it, how the Divine philanthropy was to manifest itself, he at least gauged that philanthropy itself, and found it fathomless.
Cambridge Bible Davidson
25. Yet ye say, The way … equal] And ye say. The “way” of the Lord is the principle on which he acts, or his action on it, Isa_55:8, cf. ch. Eze_33:17; Eze_33:20. The objection of the people may really have been expressed (cf. Eze_18:19). The prophet’s principle of the freedom of the individual and his independence was a novelty running counter to cherished notions of that age, notions corroborated by much that is seen in history and life. The instance of Korah, whose children perished with him for his sin, the case of Achan, whose transgression was imputed to the whole camp, the history of Jonathan, and no doubt multitudes of instances were familiar to the people where men were treated as bodies and the individuals shared the fate of the mass though personally innocent. To us now the prophet’s principle is self-evident. Still even to us it is only a theoretical principle, and can be maintained against facts only by drawing a distinction, which the people in Israel had not yet learned to draw, between the spiritual relation of the mind to God and the external history of the individual. See end of chapter.
25.The way of the Lord is not equal — This is an objection raised by some of his hearers to the novel argument which the prophet has just developed. Is it indeed true that hereafter individual guilt shall determine individual punishment? (Eze_18:3; Eze_18:20.) Certainly heretofore in God’s dealings with men the guiltless individual has often suffered with the guilty (Joshua vii; 1 Samuel 14, etc.). Was the unchangeable God about to change his dealings with his people, or was Ezekiel mistaken in his interpretation of the principles of retribution? This was the dilemma thrown into the teeth of the prophet. His reply was simply a strong, distinct reaffirmation of the principles already stated. He would not argue. He would not discuss theoretical questions; he would not even attempt to explain and justify God’s actions. He merely, with great emphasis, repeated the principles of God’s government as they had been revealed to him. The judge of all the earth would do right. Jehovah could not permit final injustice. In the ultimate outcome disobedience and iniquity would work ruin and death (Eze_18:26; Eze_18:30), while righteousness would keep the soul alive (Eze_18:27). The righteous man “shall not die” (Eze_18:28). We may well regret that Ezekiel did not elaborate and defend his theodicy. The generations would have been enriched by such an exposition. To harmonize the unjust inequalities of earthly condition with God’s justice has been a puzzle to all thinkers, from Job (Job_10:2-3) and Asaph (Psa_73:11-14) to the present time. Unbelievers in every age have been quick to decide that Ezekiel was wrong, declaring that experience contradicts his assertion that outward fortune, “either of the nation or the individual, is determined by the moral condition” (so also Kuenen, Prophet and Prophecy, pp. 353, 354). But pious souls throughout universal Christendom have always believed that the prophet was right; and not only so, but more and more the student of history is being convinced that there is a power in the world that “makes for righteousness.” Moral quality is a determining factor in the life of the man and the nation greater than heredity or environment. Ezekiel did not mean to say that every disagreeable manifestation of fortune was a manifestation of God’s disapproval. He could not have overlooked the distinction between punishment and misfortune. The innocent may suffer temporary calamity — which works good to the sufferer — but such calamity is not punishment. Ezekiel knew many calamities in Israelitish history in which the guiltless had been involved with the guilty, and his favorite study was that law in which Jehovah had himself declared that the sins of the father should be visited on the children (Exo_20:5; Exo_34:7; Lev_26:39-40; Num_14:18); but he knew also that God was just, and therefore a just retribution or reward would at last overtake the sinner and the righteous. (Compare Methodist Hymnal, 596.) He also knew that the calamity about to fall upon Israel — which had been prophesied for many years — was a divine punishment for sin, a punishment which might not yet be fully inflicted if they would turn and walk in the ways of their fathers and show themselves obedient to the word of God and the voice of his prophet. Ezekiel was chiefly concerned to meet the objections of his immediate hearers by bringing to their consciences a sense of guilt. However truly the proverb of the sour grapes might apply to some cases, it could not apply to this. They were guilty and were being justly punished, and could only escape by humble repentance. Yet, while this was the immediate purpose of the prophet, he did succeed in laying down certain universal principles concerning the sovereignty of the individual soul, and the irrevocability with which death follows unrepented sin, and life follows consistent and persistent virtue — principles which were adopted afterward by Jesus and his disciples, and which are accepted to-day as ethical axioms of Christianity. Did this man, who, centuries in advance of his time, established these far-reaching principles, have any glimpse of a future life where the men whom God “took” (Gen_5:24) lived on with God, and where earthly inequalities would be rectified, and did he actually see in the terms “life” and “death” some of that spiritual meaning which the Great Teacher afterward found there? Or did he suppose himself to be announcing merely the ideal principles of an ideal government which should come into operation upon the establishment of his ideal commonwealth? (40-48.) We cannot tell. In either case he “spake not of himself,” but as he was moved upon by the Holy Ghost. He may have had only a dim imperfect conception of the inner meaning of what he said. But, knowingly or unknowingly, he was the first great preacher of the blessed gospel that death, as a penalty for sin, never falls upon the righteous, that the righteous man never dies, that no man is the slave of circumstances, that even the hardened sinner may repent and receive a new heart, and that absolute justice is in some way compatible with everlasting mercy, and that both are being exercised even in this world, with all its mysteries and proud injustice and suffering innocence. Ezekiel’s certainty of conviction and tremendous grasp of faith, as he grappled with this momentous question of the centuries, amazes and thrills us. He did not creep up “the great world’s altar stairs” stretching lame hands and faintly trusting a larger hope; his was a more sublime and confident faith in God’s truth and the truth of his revelation.
Jamieson, Fausset, & Brown
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.
When a righteous man turneth away from his righteousness … Again, when the wicked man turneth away from his wickedness. 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.
And committeth iniquity, and dieth in them – in the actual sins, which are the manifestations of the principle of “iniquity.”
Verse 27. He shall save his soul alive – i:e., he shall have it saved upon his repentance.
Verse 28. Because he considereth – the first step to repentance; because the ungodly do not consider either God or themselves (Deu_32:29; Psa_119:59-60, “I thought on my ways, and turned my feet unto thy testimonies. I made haste, and delayed not to keep thy commandments.” So the prodigal, “when he came to himself,” thought on his ways, and so resolved to return to his Father, Luk_15:17-18).
Jamieson, Fausset, & Brown
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.
Therefore … As God is to judge them “according to their ways” (Pro_1:31), their only hope is to “repent;” and this is a sure hope, because 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 (Rev_2:5. “Repent and do the first works”). In the Hebrew [ shuwbuw (H7725) wªhaashiybuw (H7725)] there is a play of like sounds, ‘Turn ye and return.’
Turn yourselves … – the outward fruits of repentance. Not as 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, not only yourselves (as in the English version), but also all whom you can influence.
From all your transgressions. Not as if believers are perfect: but they sincerely aim at perfection, so as to be habitually and willfully on terms with no sin (1Jn_3:6-9).
Iniquity shall not be your ruin – literally, shall not be your snare, entangling you in ruin.
Verse 31. Cast away from you all your transgressions – 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 and a now spirit. This shows, not what man can do, but what he ought to do: what God requires of us. God alone can make us a new heart (Eze_11:19; Eze_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 (Psa_51:10; Psa_51:12). 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 give 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.
Verse 32. I have no pleasure in the death of him that dieth – (Lam_3:33; 2Pe_3:9). God is “slow to anger;” punishment is “His strange work” and “His strange act” (Isa_28:21).
(1) How common it is for men to lay the blame of their sin on others rather than on themselves; and when the penal consequences of their guilt overtake them, to consider themselves hardly dealt with, as though they were unfortunate rather than guilty. So the favourite proverb with the Jews in Ezekiel’s time was, “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge” – that is, We undeservingly pay the penalty, not of our own, but of our fathers’ sins. No doubt God does often “visit the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation.” But this cannot be the result of caprice or injustice, for the Judge of all the earth cannot but do right. As ‘all souls are His,’ He can have no reason to make any difference between one and another, except in accordance with His own unchangeable justice. We cannot with our finite minds always see the reasons of His dealings, but we do see that the curse descending from the father to the son assumes guilt in the son, which he shares in with the father. There is obvious to all a natural tendency in the child to follow the parent’s sin, and hence, his sharing in the parent’s punishment is just. It is only in so far as the children of the third and fourth generation “hate” God, as their fathers did before them, that God in the second commandment threatened (Exo_20:5) to “visit the iniquities of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate” Him.
(2) The inherited guilt of sin in infants is an awful reality, proved by their liability to death; but it is done away with, perhaps, in all infants as such, and certainly in the children of a believing parent, through the atonement of Christ (1Co_7:14). In the case of adults, whatever penalties fall on communities, on account of the sins of particular members of the community in past times, all the individuals of them who repent shall escape.
(3) This principle always existed in God’s moral government of Israel: for God had commanded, in Deu_24:16, that the fathers should not be put to death for the children, nor the children for the fathers, but that every man should be put to death for his own sin. But, now that the Jews had so misinterpreted God’s dealings as to maintain that He made themselves, the innocent children, to suffer for their fathers’ sins, God declares anew, and more explicitly, the righteous principles of His rule.
First, The just man, whose righteousness and charity toward his fellow-man flow from living faith toward God; one who refrains not merely from the act, but from the thought of sin (Eze_18:6; Job_31:1), who not only does no wrong to his neighbour, but is his active benefactor from the principle of love, shall surely live (Eze_18:9) before God, partaking of His grace here and His glory hereafter ( Eze_18:5-9).
Secondly, The ungodly child of a godly parent shall not escape the wrath of God because of his parent’s piety, but, on the contrary, shall be punished the more severely because he sinned against light and high spiritual privileges (Eze_18:10-13).
Thirdly, If a child walks not in the steps of an ungodly parent, but, considering seriously the fatal consequences of such a course, turns from it to the paths of faith righteousness, and charity, giving his bread to the hungry, and covering the naked with a garment, from genuine love to God and man worked in him by the Holy Spirit, he shall live before God, and not be condemned for his father’s iniquity ( Eze_18:14-18).
Fourthly, The sinner who penitently turns from his sin to God shall have none of his past transgressions imputed to him, but in his righteousness shall live before God (Eze_18:21-22). Not that he shall be accented for his righteousness, but in it, as the fruit of faith and the effect of real conversion. His righteousness is the evidence of his being already in favour with God through the atonement made by Messiah in due time for all the sin of the world, past, present, and to come. It is a gross slander on the loving character of our gracious God to suppose for a moment that He has any pleasure in the perdition of the ungodly (Eze_18:23). So far is God from laying on the children the penalty of their father’s sins, that He will not even impute to them their own sins if they will but turn from them to righteousness. What encouragement this assurance gives to the repenting sinner to have an assured hope of pardon, peace, and life! Why should any be lost with such a promise held out to all? The only barrier in the way of any man’s salvation is that mentioned by the Lord Jesus (Joh_5:40, “Ye will not come to me, that ye might have life”).
Fifthly, The once righteous man who turneth from his righteousness to iniquity shall die in his sin, nor will his former righteousness avail him (Eze_18:24; Eze_18:26). Not that the elect shall ever apostatize utterly for Christ’s word is pledged for their salvation (Joh_10:28-29): but Scripture here speaks of men according to their outward appearance and acts before their fellow-men. One who, as far as man could judge, was righteous, may nevertheless prove in the end never to have had the root of righteousness in him, though having done many acts of righteousness. It is only by enduring to the end that a man can be known by his fellow-men to have been one of the elect saints. Even an inspired apostle could only predicate the spiritual churchmanship and final salvation of himself and his readers, “if,” saith he, “we hold fast the confidence and the rejoicing of the hope firm unto the end” (Heb_3:6). The lesson to be learned hence is distrust of ourselves, watchfulness against sin, and undoubting trust in the faithfulness of God to His promises to His people. True believers watch and pray, and so persevere to the end, and are saved. Self-deceivers presume on their own safety, walk carelessly, fall finally, and are lost.
(4) The commencement and progress of repentance is traced in Eze_18:28. The sinner, who had been heretofore living without regard to the will of God, or to the interests of the immortal soul, now for the first time stops to consider his self-destroying ways: then he turns from, not merely some, but all his transgressions, even his bosom-sins. Since he cannot do this without an entire renewal of heart, he “makes him a new heart and a new spirit” by obtaining from God, through prayer, the new heart and spirit which God requires, and which God alone can impart. God’s command that we should make us a new heart teaches us, in the painful sense of our own inability, to seek the Holy Spirit, which he has promised freely to give to them that ask Him (Eze_18:31). While we know not God’s decrees, we do know His willingness and power to save to the uttermost all who come to God in His appointed way. Let us so come, and we shall never find His ways unequal (Eze_18:29), or that He will send empty away any who hungers and thirsts after His righteousness (Mat_5:6).
Cambridge Bible Davidson
32. The appeal to turn from evil sustained by reference to the prevailing nature of God. He is the God of salvation; his will is that men should live. The A.V. marg. to “turn yourselves (cf. Eze_18:30) or others” is altogether false. The active form “turn” is either used intransitively, or yourselves (lit. your faces) is understood, cf. ch. Eze_14:6.
(1) The place of the present chapter may be explained by connecting it with the Messianic prophecy immediately preceding (ch. Eze_17:22-24); the passage enunciates the principles and conditions of entering the perfect kingdom. The same principles are stated in two other passages, ch. Eze_3:16-21, and ch. Eze_33:1-20. They are properly in place in the last passage. The prophet feels himself, however, essentially a prophet of the new age, and writing his Book after the fall of Jerusalem he may have expanded principles less fully developed at an earlier time. The age before which he stands is an ideal one, and principles realized but imperfectly now shall then have full prevalence (ch. Eze_12:16, Eze_14:22).
(2) The principle which the prophet insists upon is not the strict retributive righteousness of God, but the moral freedom and independence of the individual person. The individual is not involved in the destiny of his fathers or of his people; neither does he lie under an irrevocable doom pronounced over him by his past life. The immediate relation of every spirit to God and its moral freedom to break with its own past raises it above both these dooms. What Ezekiel teaches regarding God is that he hath no pleasure that the wicked should die. The prophet’s whole purpose is practical, to strike off from the people the shackles of a despair that was settling upon them, whether they looked to themselves or to God. What he says of men is that each stands in immediate relation to God and shall live or die according as he repents or continues in his sin; and what he teaches of God is that in spite of the dark clouds of judgment behind which he seems now hidden his prevailing will is that men should live.
(3) The conception of the prophet is a complex or double one, having an internal and an external side. The inward element in the conception is the spiritual relation of the individual person to God; the outward element is the form “life” and “death” in which this internal relation is made manifest, rewarded or punished in God’s treatment of the individual person. We perceive a cleavage taking place between these two elements. The principles enunciated by the prophet refer to the spiritual relation of the individual to God, and are true when limited to this. The individual shall not, in this sense, suffer for the sins of his people, nor the child for the sins of his father; and even his own past life does not weave an inexorable fate around him from which there is no escape. In all cases consequences evil enough may descend upon the son from the father, or upon himself from his own past life, but not this particular consequence. His moral freedom and independence raises him above these consequences, and brings him as an independent person into direct relation with God, over against others and even over against his former self. And this is really all that the prophet is teaching of new truth here. It is truth which the New Testament teaches, and which is the foundation of all morals. To charge the prophet with cutting up the individual human life into sections which have no moral relation to one another, or with teaching that a man shall live or die according to the condition in which he shall be found “for the moment” when the judgment overtakes him, is grossly to distort his language.
It may be true that the prophet has not yet been able fully to analyse his own complex conception and separate completely the spiritual relation of the mind to God from the person’s external conditions. No Old Testament writer probably has been able to do this consciously and formally, although it is often done in principle and in moments of spiritual elevation (Psa_73:23 seq., Eze_17:14-15). But the ideal character of the age which the prophet feels to be about to dawn, and to which he applies his principles, marks an approach towards completing the distinction. This future though imminent ideal time, the time of the perfect kingdom of God, is that which corresponds to our idea of heaven, or another future world, in which external condition will perfectly correspond to spiritual state. The prophet’s ideal world, in which spiritual relation would be perfectly bodied out externally, was still the earth. “Life” and “death,” in the ordinary sense of these words, were the only means by which inward spiritual relations could find proper outward expression.