I once had a person who was a pedophile tell me that part of the explanation for this problem was a terrible childhood. While I truly sympathize with having been mistreated as a child (and there is nothing more horrendous!), it still does not make allowance for continued sin. I’m sorry, but a bad upbringing is no excuse.
It seems that some people in the Israel of Ezekiel’s day were getting into the habit of also believing that people are incapable of breaking out of cycles of inherited sin. Or perhaps they were blaming their own sin and suffering on their forefathers’ behavior. This is a common worldview embraced in our time as well. Today we often call it a “Victim Mentality.”
Ezekiel 18 shows us that the people of his day had gone so far as to make this victim mindset into a saying or “proverb.” In repeating it as culturally accepted “wisdom”, they were apparently excusing themselves (or others) for their own sins. It’s interesting that we have a similar modern “proverb” when we label someone in an offhand negative way – “Like Father, Like Son.” Apparently, this is an easy state of mind to fall into. We can do it in our view of ourselves also – “I was raised this way – I just can’t help it!” These attitudes bear really bad fruit, both in our lives, and in those we indifferently label. God, through Ezekiel, has strong words to say about this outlook. He says they are not to use that proverb anymore – meaning they needed to change their thinking now and permanently! Perhaps we do too.
As we dive in to Ezekiel 18, let’s begin-with-the-end-in-mind (to quote Stephen Covey😊), so that we have a full picture of the topic. The conclusion of the discussion has God clearly stating,
I have no pleasure in the death of anyone who dies…
He could not get more explicit than that. This immediately flies in the face of those who claim God (or the sub-category often made of “The God of the Old Testament”) is a judgmental, vengeful, bloodthirsty Being. He is not. He doesn’t like the death. Of anyone.
The middle portion of the chapter outlines variations of sinful relationships from several angles. Good parent/bad child, Bad parent/good child. It doesn’t matter. It then broadens the discussion to say everybody (no matter their heritage) will be held accountable for their own behavior – good or bad. vv.19-22 “The person who sins will die.” v.20 It is never too late to repent (because remember God does not have pleasure in death). So, we are individually accountable to God for our choices – no matter what our life circumstances or heritage may be. Nothing changes that bedrock truth.
The problem is that human nature likes to make excuses for sin. We think; “My father was violent, an idolater, an adulterer, a robber, or an oppressor etc. vv.2-18 I can’t help my own bad choices! I was given a bad lot in life!” This is a victim mentality. Making excuses in this way leads to giving up, or to giving in to permanent entanglement in sin. It is just like Lamentations 5:7 where the Israelites complain that it was their parents’ fault that they were suffering. This is fleshly thinking – weary, stuck, hopeless, helpless. God is very tired of their failure to accept their lot while taking responsibility to change their own ways and asking Him to help them in the process. But man’s ways are not God’s ways.
It is no surprise that there is hope and freedom in God’s outlook. Of course He knows we inherit baggage from the generation(s) before us. But He promises to help loose us of that baggage if we obey and trust Him. He states in Exodus 34:7 that He is the God who
keeps loving kindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations.
This is a very interesting passage to examine in light of our Ezekiel 18 discussion. At first look, it appears to say God DOES hold children accountable for their parents’ sin. But we know that God’s word is always consistent so let’s look a bit more closely, shall we?
The preface to the “visiting iniquity” part is that He keeps loving kindness to thousands, and forgives. The rest of the verse must be considered in that understanding of God’s character. The verse also tells us He does not leave the guilty unpunished. This should help satisfy our need for fairness/justice (part of what they also were complaining about both in Ezekiel 18 and Lamentations 5.) However, He tells us vengeance belongs only to Him. He decides; if, when, how, and what.
Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “VENGEANCE IS MINE, I WILL REPAY,” says the Lord.
So there is an element of forgiveness toward enemies and patient trust that must be resident in faithful hearts. It is very difficult with inherited sin – but it is necessary nonetheless. There is no wiggle room when He demands we must “consider and turn away” from any rebellion we may harbor in our hearts – whether inherited from our parents or brought into our lives by our own hands. We cannot claim (like Israel did) that “the ways of the Lord are not right!” v.29 He says, “I will judge you, each according to his conduct…” v.30
So is it vengeance that God says He will visit on generations of a family for iniquity? Hmmm….what exactly does that phrase mean in light of what we have discovered?
Let’s get out our Concordances (or look it up online on programs like; Blue Letter Bible.) I found that the word “visit” in Hebrew in Exodus 34 means, “to visit with friendly or hostile intent.” So it does not necessitate God’s wrath traveling down through innocent generations. In fact, as we have already established in Ezekiel, His punishment does not travel beyond the individual sinner. Okay. This is good. But again, how does He visit iniquity through subsequent generations?
I looked up the word “iniquity” in the Hebrew too. You recall, the first part of Exodus 34:7 defines 3 types of sin:
- Iniquity: perversion or depravity
- Transgression: rebellion
- Sin: offence, to miss the mark
So this verse is telling us that God visits multiple generations of families that have perversion or depravity in their family tree. How does He visit them? Well, there is always baggage (or consequences) that accompanies this kind of sin. God does not want us to choose iniquity – but He does not interfere with our free will. I would suggest that perhaps it is in that baggage that God works. If, for example, a father is alcoholic – then he has health, relationship and lifestyle problems that accompany that bad choice to give him opportunity to turn around for his and his family’s good. Is that a God visit? His children also have more work cut out for them to lead a healthy spiritual life because of the inheritance their father’s choices (not God) gave them. But God also visits them (in the friendly way) to give them the opportunity for the extra assistance they may require to break the mold handed down to them. An example of this would be the prophets He sent to the Jews of Ezekiel’s day.
You see, the chapter ends by telling us that we must be thoughtful people that live in a constant state of repentance. We all inherit sin from our parents – no exceptions. So we all have to “consider and turn away from” that heritage to one degree or another. v. 28 This is the calling. We probably all know amazing examples of people who have broken the generational sin cycle in their families in astonishing ways. It takes a great deal of trust and faith for people to believe God can completely heal their broken lives – but He can. No matter how broken. Consider the pitiful and extreme case of the man “Legion” in the New Testament. (Mark 5) Even he was healed in body, mind and spirit! That’s the point. That’s the remarkable point! Our weakness is where He shows Himself strong. But only if we let Him. His grace can fill the deepest void and beyond. Consider Jesus’ words to Paul:
…My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.
The deeper the weakness, the greater the power of Christ applied to our lives. This is faith applied to baggage and problems. I don’t know about you, but I find that very encouraging in my own struggles.
It should fill us with wonder that the Lord Jesus did not need to repent because he never committed any, ANY of the 3 types of sin. It’s mind-boggling to contemplate! But even Jesus was visited and helped by God in his inheritance of his sin-nature from his mother, wasn’t he? God sent angels at his times of greatest stress to help him. God gave him wisdom, direction, advice from His word, the power to heal and perform miracles, answers to prayers etc. to encourage him and show His loving kindness and grace. And if God gave this type of help to Jesus, it should be comforting to realize that He knows we need FAR more help than His sinless son.
Jesus came to spread the Good News and release burdens – no matter what we may carry as baggage. He came to set us free! He calls us to repentance/change through awareness of our attitudes – just like God called the people of Ezekiel’s day. No matter where we have come from, we are invited to be a part of that great day when the hard-won struggle against sin will be no more. Jeremiah 31:27-37 poignantly describes a day when Israel will not use the Ezekiel Victim Mentality proverb anymore – because they will finally and completely know Him.
We would do well to take whatever measures necessary in our individual lives to know Him too. Now. We would do well to heed the last phrase of this chapter. “Therefore, repent and live!” Or, as the New Testament puts it:
Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent, because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising him from the dead.
Even so, come Lord Jesus!