The Soul Who Sins Shall Die

1 The word of the Lord came to me: “What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge’? As I live, declares the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. Behold, all souls are mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is mine: the soul who sins shall die.

“If a man is righteous and does what is just and right— if he does not eat upon the mountains or lift up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel, does not defile his neighbor’s wife or approach a woman in her time of menstrual impurity, does not oppress anyone, but restores to the debtor his pledge, commits no robbery, gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with a garment, does not lend at interest or take any profit, withholds his hand from injustice, executes true justice between man and man, walks in my statutes, and keeps my rules by acting faithfully—he is righteous; he shall surely live, declares the Lord God.

10 “If he fathers a son who is violent, a shedder of blood, who does any of these things 11 (though he himself did none of these things), who even eats upon the mountains, defiles his neighbor’s wife, 12 oppresses the poor and needy, commits robbery, does not restore the pledge, lifts up his eyes to the idols, commits abomination, 13 lends at interest, and takes profit; shall he then live? He shall not live. He has done all these abominations; he shall surely die; his blood shall be upon himself.

14 “Now suppose this man fathers a son who sees all the sins that his father has done; he sees, and does not do likewise: 15 he does not eat upon the mountains or lift up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel, does not defile his neighbor’s wife, 16 does not oppress anyone, exacts no pledge, commits no robbery, but gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with a garment, 17 withholds his hand from iniquity, takes no interest or profit, obeys my rules, and walks in my statutes; he shall not die for his father’s iniquity; he shall surely live. 18 As for his father, because he practiced extortion, robbed his brother, and did what is not good among his people, behold, he shall die for his iniquity. Ezekiel 18:1-18 ESV

There was a common proverb among the Israelites in Ezekiel’s day that promoted the idea of transgenerational culpability for sin. It went something like this: “The parents have eaten sour grapes, but their children’s mouths pucker at the taste”(Ezekiel 18:2 NLT).

It was a subtle form of the blame game. Rather than accept responsibility for their own sins and the subsequent consequences, Ezekiel’s peers preferred to blame their problems on their ancestors. In a sense, they had a point. Their forefathers had been guilty of committing egregious sins against God. The previous generations had failed to live their lives in faithful obedience to Him. But He was not going to allow the present generation to blame their current condition on others. They were just as guilty and just as deserving of punishment as their grandparents and parents had been.

God was clearing up a common misunderstanding in their day and letting them know that each and every individual was responsible for their own behavior. And both Ezekiel and Jeremiah were given clear instructions by God to dispel any lingering suspicions among the people of Israel that they were unjustly suffering for the sins of others. And God had Jeremiah predict a future day when everyone will know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that God’s punishment for sin is just and never capricious or misapplied.

“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of man and the seed of beast. And it shall come to pass that as I have watched over them to pluck up and break down, to overthrow, destroy, and bring harm, so I will watch over them to build and to plant, declares the Lord. In those days they shall no longer say:

“‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes,
    and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’

But everyone shall die for his own iniquity. Each man who eats sour grapes, his teeth shall be set on edge.” – Jeremiah 31:27-30 ESV

There is little debate that the sins of one generation can negatively influence the lives of the next. A sinful father can bring great sorrow to his own wife and innocent children. They can end up suffering greatly for his selfish decision to live in disobedience to the will of God. But God wants Ezekiel to understand that God never enacts His justice unfairly or applies His divine judgment inequitably.

God has already gone out of His way to prove the guilt of the current generation of Judahites. He transported Ezekiel to the temple in Jerusalem and revealed the gross sins being committed in the temple. The prophet was exposed to the hidden sins of the priests and civic leaders as they secretly offered sacrifices to their false gods in the inner recesses of God’s house.

By the time Ezekiel was penning the words of his prophecy, Zedekiah had ascended to the throne of Judah and, like the generations before him, he “did what was evil in the LORD’s sight” (2 Kings 24:19 NLT). He may have inherited a lot of his wicked traits from his father and forefathers, but he had made his own bed and would now have to suffer the consequences of having to sleep in it. The prophet Jeremiah warned Zedekiah of the fate that awaited him and his royal officials.

“But thus says the Lord: Like the bad figs that are so bad they cannot be eaten, so will I treat Zedekiah the king of Judah, his officials, the remnant of Jerusalem who remain in this land, and those who dwell in the land of Egypt. I will make them a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth, to be a reproach, a byword, a taunt, and a curse in all the places where I shall drive them. And I will send sword, famine, and pestilence upon them, until they shall be utterly destroyed from the land that I gave to them and their fathers.” – Jeremiah 24:8-10 ESV

And at the end of his book, Jeremiah describes the actual details concerning Zedekiah’s fall.

But Zedekiah did what was evil in the LORD’s sight, just as Jehoiakim had done. These things happened because of the LORD’s anger against the people of Jerusalem and Judah, until he finally banished them from his presence and sent them into exile.

Zedekiah rebelled against the king of Babylon. So on January 15, during the ninth year of Zedekiah’s reign, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon led his entire army against Jerusalem. They surrounded the city and built siege ramps against its walls. Jerusalem was kept under siege until the eleventh year of King Zedekiah’s reign.

By July 18 in the eleventh year of Zedekiah’s reign, the famine in the city had become very severe, and the last of the food was entirely gone. Then a section of the city wall was broken down, and all the soldiers fled. Since the city was surrounded by the Babylonians, they waited for nightfall. Then they slipped through the gate between the two walls behind the king’s garden and headed toward the Jordan Valley.

But the Babylonian troops chased King Zedekiah and overtook him on the plains of Jericho, for his men had all deserted him and scattered. They captured the king and took him to the king of Babylon at Riblah in the land of Hamath. There the king of Babylon pronounced judgment upon Zedekiah. The king of Babylon made Zedekiah watch as he slaughtered his sons. He also slaughtered all the officials of Judah at Riblah. Then he gouged out Zedekiah’s eyes and bound him in bronze chains, and the king of Babylon led him away to Babylon. Zedekiah remained there in prison until the day of his death. – Jeremiah 52:2-11 NLT

Zedekiah was not punished unjustly. He got exactly what he deserved for his rebellion against God. The prophet Jeremiah had warned him repeatedly about the consequences that awaited him if he refused to repent, and God did exactly what He said He would do.

God wanted His people to understand that He took sin seriously and that He always dealt with sin personally. That is what He meant when He said, “the soul who sins shall die” (Ezekiel 18:4 ESV). Each individual must pay for his own sins. But God assures Ezekiel and his audience that anyone who chooses to live righteously will be exempt from His judgment.  Basically, God provides Ezekiel with a brief synopsis of what it means to live righteously by detailing some of the laws contained in His covenant agreement with the nation of Israel. A just and righteous individual…

…does not feast in the mountains before Israel’s idols or worship them. – vs 6

…does not commit adultery or have intercourse with a woman during her menstrual period. – vs 6

…is a merciful creditor, not keeping the items given as security by poor debtors. – vs 7

…does not rob the poor but instead gives food to the hungry and provides clothes for the needy. – vs 7

…grants loans without interest, stays away from injustice, is honest and fair when judging others… vs 8

…and faithfully obeys my decrees and regulations. – vs 8

The problem was not that God meted out His justice unjustly, but that sin had become a pervasive and permanent fixture among His chosen people. Its influence was widespread and there was plenty of guilt to go around. The prophet Isaiah succinctly summed up the sorry spiritual state of the people of Israel.

You welcome those who gladly do good,
    who follow godly ways.
But you have been very angry with us,
    for we are not godly.
We are constant sinners;
    how can people like us be saved?
We are all infected and impure with sin.
    When we display our righteous deeds,
    they are nothing but filthy rags.
Like autumn leaves, we wither and fall,
    and our sins sweep us away like the wind. – Isaiah 64:5-6 NLT

And to make matters worse, Isaiah points out that “no one calls on your name or pleads with you for mercy. Therefore, you have turned away from us and turned us over to our sins” (Isaiah 64:7 NLT).

God was not acting unjustly and He was not punishing unfairly. The all-knowing, all-seeing God of the universe knew exactly what was going on among His people, and He was judging each of them fairly and appropriately, according to their sins.

God is the just judge of the universe who always administers justice righteously. If a righteous man bears a son who decides to live an unrighteous life, it will be the son who will face the judgment of God, not the father. And if that unrighteous son grows up to be the father of a son who rejects his sinful ways, that righteous son “will not die because of his father’s sins; he will surely live” (Ezekiel 18:17 NLT).

Zedekiah, the current king of Judah, did not have to follow in the footsteps of his predecessors. He had every chance to reject the sins of his fathers and return to God in humble obedience. Jeremiah had repeatedly warned Him.

“Be fair-minded and just. Do what is right! Help those who have been robbed; rescue them from their oppressors. Quit your evil deeds! Do not mistreat foreigners, orphans, and widows. Stop murdering the innocent! If you obey me, there will always be a descendant of David sitting on the throne here in Jerusalem. The king will ride through the palace gates in chariots and on horses, with his parade of attendants and subjects. But if you refuse to pay attention to this warning, I swear by my own name, says the Lord, that this palace will become a pile of rubble.’” – Jeremiah 22:3-5 NLT

But Zedekiah remained obstinate and unwilling to pursue a life of righteousness. So, he would eventually suffer a just and equitable punishment for his sin. And he would have no one to blame but himself.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

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