19 “Yet you say, ‘Why should not the son suffer for the iniquity of the father?’ When the son has done what is just and right, and has been careful to observe all my statutes, he shall surely live. 20 The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.
21 “But if a wicked person turns away from all his sins that he has committed and keeps all my statutes and does what is just and right, he shall surely live; he shall not die. 22 None of the transgressions that he has committed shall be remembered against him; for the righteousness that he has done he shall live. 23 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? 24 But when a righteous person turns away from his righteousness and does injustice and does the same abominations that the wicked person does, shall he live? None of the righteous deeds that he has done shall be remembered; for the treachery of which he is guilty and the sin he has committed, for them he shall die.
25 “Yet you say, ‘The way of the Lord is not just.’ Hear now, O house of Israel: Is my way not just? Is it not your ways that are not just? 26 When a righteous person turns away from his righteousness and does injustice, he shall die for it; for the injustice that he has done he shall die. 27 Again, when a wicked person turns away from the wickedness he has committed and does what is just and right, he shall save his life. 28 Because he considered and turned away from all the transgressions that he had committed, he shall surely live; he shall not die. 29 Yet the house of Israel says, ‘The way of the Lord is not just.’ O house of Israel, are my ways not just? Is it not your ways that are not just?
30 “Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways, declares the Lord God. Repent and turn from all your transgressions, lest iniquity be your ruin. 31 Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed, and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? 32 For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord God; so turn, and live.” – Ezekiel 18:19-32 ESV
God has made it clear that the previous generations of Israelites 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 deserving of punishment as their parents and grandparents had been.
In this message to Ezekiel, God clears up a common misunderstanding and lets them know that each and every individual is responsible for their own behavior. But God has anticipated the reaction Ezekiel will get from his audience.
“What?’ you ask. ‘Doesn’t the child pay for the parent’s sins?’ No! For if the child does what is just and right and keeps my decrees, that child will surely live. The person who sins is the one who will die. The child will not be punished for the parent’s sins, and the parent will not be punished for the child’s sins. Righteous people will be rewarded for their own righteous behavior, and wicked people will be punished for their own wickedness.” – Ezekiel 18:19-20 NLT
God informs His people that His justice is not indiscriminate or applied in a one-size-fits-all manner.
“…if wicked people turn away from all their sins and begin to obey my decrees and do what is just and right, they will surely live and not die.” – Ezekiel 18:21 NLT
God was reminding His chosen but rebellious people that there was a way to restore their relationship with Him. All they had to do was reject wickedness for righteousness. If they make the decision to live in obedience to His commands, “all their past sins will be forgotten, and they will live because of the righteous things they have done” (Ezekiel 18:21 NLT). And God informs them that He takes no delight in the deaths of the wicked. His desire is that they repent and replace their wickedness with righteousness.
“I want them to turn from their wicked ways and live.” – Ezekiel 18:23 NLT
This divine mindset was meant to be a source of encouragement to the rebellious people of Judah. They still had time to change their ways. They could reverse the downward spiral of their spiritual trajectory by returning to God in humble contrition. It was not too late. But God was not interested in those who were simply seeking “fire insurance.” In other words, He was not offering His forgiveness to those who thought they could go through the motions by offering up a temporary display of repentance to buy themselves time. God wanted to see true repentance that resulted in a long-term lifestyle of righteousness. To return to a life of righteousness only to reverse course and embrace wickedness again would not cut it with God.
“…if righteous people turn from their righteous behavior and start doing sinful things and act like other sinners, should they be allowed to live?” – Ezekiel 18:24 NLT
God answers His own question with an emphatic, “No!” An individual’s temporary display of righteous behavior would not preserve them from judgment if they decided to jettison a life of godliness for one of wickedness.
“All their righteous acts will be forgotten, and they will die for their sins.” – Ezekiel 18:24 NLT
But God knew that His people found His methods appalling. They even accused Him of practicing injustice.
“The Lord isn’t doing what’s right!” – Ezekiel 18:25 NLT
Because the Jews living in exile believed themselves to be undeserving of their punishment, they found God’s treatment of them to be unfair. He had wrongly punished them for the sins of their forefathers. In their minds, they had done nothing wrong or deserving of such harsh treatment by God. After all, they were His chosen people, the apple of His eye. How could He have allowed their deportation to the land of Babylon?
Yet God pulls no punches when He states, “O people of Israel, it is you who are not doing what’s right, not I.” (Ezekiel 18:29 NLT). They couldn’t blame Him for their predicament. They had brought it on themselves through their repeated acts of unfaithfulness and unrighteousness.
The judgment of God was inescapable without repentance. So God offers them another gracious opportunity to do the right thing and revive their status as His chosen people.
“Therefore, I will judge each of you, O people of Israel, according to your actions, says the Sovereign Lord. Repent, and turn from your sins. Don’t let them destroy you! Put all your rebellion behind you, and find yourselves a new heart and a new spirit. For why should you die, O people of Israel?” – Ezekiel 18:30-31 NLT
As the righteous judge of the universe, God is obligated to deal justly with sin. He cannot overlook or ignore it. He cannot turn a blind eye to HIs peoples’ blatant displays of rebellion and their refusal to live in obedience to His commands. But He wants them to know that His preference for them is that they choose life over death.
“I don’t want you to die, says the Sovereign Lord. Turn back and live!” – Ezekiel 18:32 NLT
God’s standard of righteousness was demanding. He expected obedience, faithfulness, adherence to His Law, and unflinching worship of Him and Him alone. And no man was able to meet that standard. That is the whole reason God gave the Israelites the sacrificial system. It was intended to provide His people with a way of receiving atonement and forgiveness for the sins they committed. But they had turned the sacrificial system into a mechanical and ritualistic performance. Their hearts weren’t in it.
“These people say they are mine.
They honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
And their worship of me
is nothing but man-made rules learned by rote.” – Isaiah 29:13 NLT
The prophet Jeremiah declared God’s dissatisfaction with His peoples’ meaningless sacrifices.
“I will not accept your burnt offerings.
Your sacrifices have no pleasing aroma for me.” – Jeremiah 6:20 NLT
Hundreds of years earlier, God had given His prophet, Amos similarly stinging words to convey to the rebellious citizens of the northern kingdom of Israel. They too had ignored God’s calls to repentance, wrongly assuming that they were immune from God’s judgment. They viewed themselves as deeply religious and, therefore, as righteous in God’s eyes. But God had a different perspective.
“I hate all your show and pretense—
the hypocrisy of your religious festivals and solemn assemblies.
I will not accept your burnt offerings and grain offerings.
I won’t even notice all your choice peace offerings.
Away with your noisy hymns of praise!
I will not listen to the music of your harps.
Instead, I want to see a mighty flood of justice,
an endless river of righteous living.” – Amos 5:21-24 NLT
When King Solomon finished constructing the temple in Jerusalem, he held a magnificent dedication ceremony to commemorate its grand opening. At that event, God made the following promise.
“…if my people who are called by my name will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sins and restore their land.” – 2 Chronicles 7:14 NLT
That time had come. The people were wicked and the wrath of God had begun to descend upon the citizens of Jerusalem. But more was on its way. God was far from done because the people were far from repentant. But there was always an opportunity for God’s people to humble themselves, pray, seek His face, and turn from their wicked ways, and Ezekiel was letting them know that there was no time like the present.
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.