Sunday, May 23, 2021
Lesson: Ezekiel 18:1-9, 30-32;
Time of Action: 591 B.C.;
Place of Action: Ezekiel preaches to those already in Captivity in Babylon
Golden Text: “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” (Ezekiel 18:4).
I. INTRODUCTION. From the time of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, humans have been blaming others for their wrong choices and excusing themselves. This week’s text teaches us that God holds each person accountable for their individual choices. It’s most important that we own up to our mistakes and take responsibility for our actions. Acknowledging our sins opens the way for a clean conscience and ultimately for a better relationship with both God and man. Our lesson this week records God speaking to the people of Judah who were in exile in Babylon. His words were intended to help them on the path of acknowledging their sins. He encouraged them to turn back to Him for healing and to avoid the negative consequences of sin.
II. THE BACKGROUND FOR THE LESSON. Ezekiel was born and raised in the southern kingdom of Judah and was a priest in God’s temple when the Babylonians attacked a second time in 597 B.C., and carried him away along with 10,000 other captives (see II Kings 24:10-14). The nation was on the brink of complete destruction. There were three deportations and three invasions by Babylon (see II Kings 24:1; 24:10; 25:1). The first was in 605 B.C. (see Jeremiah 52:28), the second in 597 B.C. when Ezekiel was taken captive, and the third and final time in 586 B.C. (see Jeremiah 52:29-30) completely destroying Jerusalem, burning the temple, and deporting the rest of the people (see II Kings chapter 25). Four or five years after he arrived in Babylon about 593 B.C. (see Ezekiel 1:1-3), God called Ezekiel to be a prophet, and he gave his first prophecy to the exiles. Ezekiel dates all of his messages from the year he was taken captive in 597 B.C. Our lesson this week is part of Ezekiel’s first prophecy or message to the exiles in Babylon which covers Ezekiel chapters 4-24. In this first message, the prophet warned them that the punishment they were experiencing was because of their sins and that God was purifying His people. However, the people of Judah believed that they were being punished for the sins of their ancestors, not their own. They thought this way because of how they interpreted the law (see Exodus 20:5). Ezekiel’s message was designed to correct that way of thinking.
III. THE PROVERB AND GOD’S RESPONSE (Ezekiel 18:1-4)
A. A misunderstood proverb (Ezekiel 18:1-2).
1. (vs. 1). In our first verse Ezekiel says “The word of the LORD came unto me again, saying.” This statement was to assure Ezekiel’s fellow exiles that “the word” or message he was about to give to them was not his own, but came directly from “the LORD.” The word “again” indicates that God spoke to the prophet more than once (see Ezekiel 3:16; 12:17, 26; 14:12).
2. (vs. 2). In this verse, God begins His message to His people by asking a question: “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?” In other words, the LORD was asking “Why do you people use this proverb: ‘The parents ate the sour grapes, but the children got the sour taste’?” This was a commonly quoted “proverb” in Israel. The idea comes from a person going into a vineyard and eating “sour grapes” or unripe “grapes” which caused an unpleasant sensation in the “teeth” or mouth. When the Jews quoted this “proverb,” they were claiming that their suffering was because of the sins that their “fathers” or ancestors had committed. Undoubtedly, the Jews no justified this way of thinking because they misunderstood the law where God portrayed Himself as a jealous God saying, “for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me” (see Exodus 20:5). But this statement meant that the children as well as the parents would continue to hate the LORD and therefore suffer for their own sins (see Deuteronomy 7:9-10). The Jews also may have been thinking about the prophecies stating that the nation of Judah would be removed from Palestine because of Manasseh’s sins (see II Kings 24:3-4; Jeremiah 15:4). If this is true, they also misunderstood what the prophets were saying regarding Manasseh. The people admitted that their “fathers” had sinned, but complained that although they themselves were innocent, they had to bear their ancestors’ punishment. But in reality, according to Ezekiel 8:1-18 they had added to their “fathers’” idolatries. Like many people today, the Jews refused to take responsibility for their own actions.
Note: With this type of thinking, the people concluded that “the way of the LORD is not equal” (see Ezekiel 18:25), meaning that God was not being fair with them. God’s response to that was “Hear now, O house of Israel is not my way equal? Are not your ways unequal?” (see Ezekiel 18:25). God is a just God and whether things appear to be fair or not, He is always doing what is right and good. It appears from Scripture that the people of Judah often repeated unbiblical ideas. In Ezekiel chapter 12, the people seemed to be using another proverb saying “the days are prolonged, and every vision faileth” (see Ezekiel 12:22). The people understood this to mean that God was not bringing judgment on them because Jerusalem had not yet been destroyed as the prophets had prophesied. Like we often do, they neglected to realize that just because judgment was delayed did not mean that it wasn’t coming.
B. A divine declaration (Ezekiel 18:3-4).
1.(vs. 3). The LORD continued to say in this verse “As I live, saith the LORD God, ye shall not have occasion any more to use this proverb in Israel.” With the phrase “ye shall not have occasion any more to use this proverb in Israel,” God was saying that His people will not have any reason to use the sour grapes proverb (see verse 2) anymore because He was about to explain what the proverb really meant: that every person, then and now is responsible for his or her own sins. The blame game was now over!
Note: The blame game originated in the Garden of Eden when God asked Adam and Eve what had caused them to hide from Him. Adam immediately blamed Eve and Eve just as quickly blamed the serpent. But God refused to accept that reasoning then and He won’t accept it now.
To emphasize the fact that the “proverb” would no longer be used in Israel, the LORD prefaced His statement with an oath saying “As I live, saith the LORD God.” This “proverb” not only placed guilt on their ancestors, but when they used it they were questioning God’s justice. The LORD then proceeded to refute its use.
2. (vs. 4). In this verse God went on to explain why this proverb (see verse 2) will not be used in Israel anymore. He said “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.” The LORD used the word “Behold” to get the people’s attention. The phrase “all souls are mine” implies several things. First, it implies that God owns everything He created. He breathed into man “the breath of life” making him “a living soul” (see Genesis 2:7). Therefore, everyone who breathes belongs to Him. But this does not mean that everyone belongs to God spiritually, or will have eternal life. For that to happen, each person must go through Jesus Christ (see John 14:6). A second implication for the phrase “all souls are mine” is that all men stand before their Creator on an equal moral basis. God does not respect one generation, class, nation, race, or sex, above another (see Acts 10:34-35). A third implication is that no one is beyond the bounds of God’s justice. He keeps every human being under His judicial control. But so that there would be no misunderstanding, God stated that “as the soul of the father, so also the soul of the son is mine.” Every individual “soul” or person belongs to God, including every “father” and every “son.” This would also include every mother and every daughter. The main thought here is that every individual “soul” or person must give a personal account of his or her activities to the One that owns us. Believers will one day stand before Jesus and give an account of our own life, not the life of someone else (see II Corinthians 5:10). Likewise, unbelievers will stand before God at the Great White Throne judgment (see Revelation 20:11-15). To confirm individual responsibility, in the last part of this verse God emphatically declared “the soul that sinneth, it shall die.” The word “soul” does not refer to a disembodied or nonmaterial entity, for the Hebrew word used here refers to the entire person. The LORD was declaring that the person who sins will “die.” This death, according to the text, no doubt refers to physical death reserved for transgressors of the law (see Deuteronomy 30:15-20). However, Scripture also teaches that sin brings spiritual death as well (see Genesis 2:17; Romans 6:23).
Note: It is true that one generation’s sins often have an effect on the following generations. However, it is also true that God does not punish children for what their parents have done. God punishes individuals, not family lines.
IV. GOD’S EXAMPLE OF A RIGHTEOUS MAN (Ezekiel 18:5-9)
A. The just or godly man avoids defilement (Ezekiel 18:5-6). The LORD now explained more fully how the principle of individual responsibility and punishment worked. He called attention to three consecutive generations and the outcomes of their individual lives: a lawful or righteous man (see verses 5-9), his wicked son (see verses 10-13) and his righteous grandson in verses 14-18 which are not part of our printed lesson.
1. (vs. 5). In this verse, God began by saying “But if a man be just, and do that which is lawful and right.” The LORD began by giving an illustration of what happens to a hypothetical man who was “just,” meaning he did what was “lawful and right” before God. No one stands before God absolutely perfect, but he or she can stand before Him spiritually mature and having dealt with sin.
2. (vs. 6). This just man, God said “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.” The righteousness of this just man was shown by his avoiding defilement. First, God said that the just or righteous man “hath not eaten upon the mountains.” This means that this just man didn’t participate in the observance of pagan festivals at shrines built on the hills (see Deuteronomy 12:2). The just man avoided these centers of idol worship. Second, God said “neither hath (he) lifted up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel.” Lifting up the “eyes” indicated an attitude of prayer. The just man didn’t pray to “idol” gods. The words “idols of the house of Israel” probably refers to the ten northern tribes and their idols which caused their downfall. The northern kingdom had begun its existence under a cloud of apostasy as Jeroboam I introduced the worship of golden calves (see I Kings 12:26-30). By the time of the Assyrian Captivity, pagan worship almost completely gripped the people of the northern kingdom of Israel (see II Kings 17:7-18). Judah, the southern kingdom had also began to worship these “idols of the house of Israel” (see II Kings 16:2-4; 17:19). Third, the just man kept himself from immorality. God said “neither hath (he) defiled his neighbour’s wife” meaning the just man avoided committing adultery which was a crime punishable by death (see Exodus 20:14; Leviticus 20:10; Deuteronomy 22:22). Fourth, God said this just man “neither hath come near to a menstruous woman.” This hypothetical just man in God’s illustration also avoided sexual relationship with his wife during her menstrual period, which caused her to be ceremoniously unclean (see Leviticus 15:19-24; 18:19-20; 20:18). This just man in God’s illustration maintained sexual purity in every way. Although the subject of sexual activity with a woman on her period is not addressed in the New Testament, the subject of adultery is (see Matthew 5:27-28, 32; Romans 13:8-9; Galatians 5:19).
B. The just or godly man promotes justice (Ezekiel 18:7-8).
1. (vs. 7). In this verse, God continues to say that this hypothetical just or godly man “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.” The fact that the just or righteous man “hath not oppressed any,” meaning he was not an oppressor, was demonstrated in several aspects of his behavior. First, it was demonstrated in that he “hath restored to the debtor his pledge.” The Law imposed strict ethical standards on those who loaned money. A creditor was allowed to receive from “the debtor” a “pledge” that he would repay the debt; but he was forbidden to take a millstone (one of a pair of stones used for grinding grain) as a “pledge,” because it was a man’s means of making a living (see Deuteronomy 24:6). However, in this verse the “pledge” is referring to a “debtor’s” garment. If a poor man’s garment was given to be held as a “pledge” for money he had borrowed, “the debtor” had to return it to him at the end of the day so that the poor man would have something warm to sleep in (see Deuteronomy 24:10-13). Second, the just man “hath spoiled none by violence.” The word “spoiled” means to take another person’s property by force. The just man had not robbed anyone by violent means. The Law recognized the right to hold private property, but it condemned anyone who would take it from someone else (see Exodus 20:15, 17). Third, the just man also “hath given his bread to the hungry.” In other words, he shared what he had with the needy. The just man was being obedient to Deuteronomy 15:11: “For the poor shall never cease out of the land: therefore I command thee, saying, Thou shalt open thine hand wide unto thy brother, to thy poor, and to thy needy, in thy land.” But this just man went even further and “hath covered the naked with a garment” meaning he would provide clothing to those who needed it as well.
2. (vs. 8). The LORD continues to describe the just man in this verse saying “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.” The just or righteous man “hath not given forth upon usury, neither hath taken any increase.” The word “usury” comes from a verb meaning “to bite.” It has the idea of inflicting injury on someone by demanding interest on borrowed money. The word “increase” refers to excessive interest. The Law stated that Israelites couldn’t charge interest to their fellow Israelites, but could charge interest to others (see Leviticus 25:35-37; Deuteronomy 23:19-20). In addition, the just or godly man “hath withdrawn his hand from iniquity, hath executed true judgment between man and man.” In other words, the just or godly man maintained high standards of conduct in his actions, avoiding all “iniquity” or wrongs. He also promoted true “judgment” or justice among all those around him.
C. The just or godly man is honored (Ezekiel 18:9). The description of the just man concludes in this verse stating that he “Hath walked in my statutes, and hath kept my judgments, to deal truly; he is just, he shall surely live, saith the LORD God.” The just man is someone who “walked in” or followed God’s “statutes,” or His commandments. He had kept God’s “judgments” or His laws and dealt honestly with others. Because this was the lifestyle of the godly man, and not what he did occasionally, Ezekiel also declared that “he is just, he shall surely live, saith the LORD God.” This is not a declaration of salvation through good deeds. It refers primarily to one who, because he honored God, would not have his life cut short by personal or national judgment. Even if the word “live” should refer to eternal life, it’s evident that the one who receives this promise is not a legalist, one who supports a code of laws, but he or she truly loves God. His or her works merely reveal the soundness of their soul.
V. THE MERCY OF GOD (Ezekiel 18:30-32). Verses 10-29 are not part of our printed text, but in verses 10-13, God declared that if the just or righteous man (see Ezekiel 18:5) had a son who committed all the sins that his father had not committed, the son would be responsible for his own sins and would surely die. Then in verses 14-17, the LORD said that if that son had a son who watched his father commit the sins listed in verses 11-13 but he didn’t commit the same sins, he would not be held responsible for his father’s sin and he would live. In those verses, God was giving a hypothetical illustration using the son of a wicked man and the grandson of a just man. God described the wicked man’s son as having the same godly characteristics as his grandfather. In verse 18, God once again declared that the son’s wicked father would die in his own sins. Then in verse 19, God stated that the people still asked “Doesn’t the son pay for his father’s sins?” And the LORD replied, “no! For if the son does what is right and keeps my laws, he shall surely live.” In verse 20, God restated the fact about individual accountability for sin. Then in verses 21-22, the LORD declares that if a person repents of his or her sins, they won’t be mentioned to them again. In verse 23, God asked “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?” And in verses 24-29, the LORD explained His willingness to change predetermined destinies, either from life to death or from death to life. Our lesson continues with verse 30.
A. A gracious appeal (Ezekiel 18:30-31).
1. (vs. 30). This verse says, “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.” Having concluded His argument, “the LORD” again declared “I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways, saith the LORD God.” In other words, God will judge Israelites as individuals “according to his ways” or his own sins and not someone else’s. Then God appealed to them saying “Repent.” He was reminding His people that repentance, or a change of attitude and behavior was still possible. He invited His people to “repent, and turn yourselves from all your transgressions; so iniquity shall not be your ruin.” This is basically what repentance is—turning away from one direction and going in the opposite direction. God was telling His people that to “repent” meant that they had to “turn yourselves from all your transgressions” or acts of rebellion, which was necessary so that their “iniquity” or sins would not be the reason for their “ruin” or destruction. The LORD through His Word continues to warn sinners of the judgment that He will reluctantly unleash upon humanity, but He pleads with men to repent and He waits patiently for repentance to take place. God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked (see verse 32; II Peter 3:9). In a nut shell, true repentance requires a change of mind, a change of life or behavior, and a change of heart. We can change our mind and reform our life, but only God can give us a new heart as we shall see in the next verse.
2. (vs. 31). In this verse, God says “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?” After challenging His people to repent in verse 30, the LORD commanded them to “Cast away from you all your transgressions, whereby ye have transgressed.” In other words, they needed to get rid of all their “transgressions” or rebelliousness against God. By living contrary to His Word, they had broken away from God and needed to be reconciled to Him. If anyone listening to Ezekiel would do as God commanded, He would give them a “new heart and a new spirit” (see Psalms 51:10; Jeremiah 31:31-33). The words “for why will ye die, O house of Israel?” can be translated as “you don’t really have to die.” If they repented and allowed God to give them “a new heart and a new spirit,” they wouldn’t have to “die” in their sins.
Note: In the Bible death means separation. Physical death is the separation of the body from the soul and spirit. Eternal death is the separation of the soul and spirit from the presence of God forever. Unless the LORD returns in our lifetime, we all will face physical death, but we don’t need to face eternal death (see John 3:16, 36).
B. The logic behind God’s appeal (Ezekiel 18:32). In our final verse God says “For I have no pleasure in the death of him that dieth, saith the LORD God: wherefore turn yourselves, and live ye.” Not only did “the LORD” tell His people that they didn’t have to die because of sin, He added “I have no pleasure in the death of him that dieth.” In other words, God finds no pleasure or enjoyment in human deaths, either physical of spiritual. Although the word “death” here refers basically to physical death, in the context of this chapter with its contrast between righteousness and life and wickedness and death, it’s best to understand the word “death” as referring to spiritual “death.” Whether physical or spiritual, “death” is separation, and God does not delight in His creatures being separated from Him. As a result, He commanded “wherefore turn yourselves, and live ye.” Instead of avoiding responsibility for their actions, Ezekiel called on his audience to “turn yourselves” or repent. God gets “no pleasure” from punishing anyone. He calls for repentance, turning away from sin and to Him. In the end, a loving and gracious God has only one desire and that is to see His people get serious about their sins and turn back to Him “and live ye.”
VI. Conclusion. Although we are living in the New Testament era, the basic principle of individual accountability has not changed since the days of Ezekiel. We all must answer to God individually for how we have lived. We should not delude ourselves by making excuses and blaming others for what is happening to us. We also should not presume we are qualified to question God’s justice, imagining that somehow God has morally shortchanged us. The truth is that everything that God does is always right and good (see Psalms 119:75).