After the Manner of the Fathers

Wherefore say unto the house of Israel, “Thus saith the Lord YHWH: ‘Do ye pollute yourselves after the manner of your fathers? And play ye the harlot after their abominations? And when ye offer your gifts, when ye make your sons to pass through the fire, do ye pollute yourselves with all your idols unto this day? And shall I be inquired of by you, O house of Israel? As I live’, saith the Lord YHWH, ‘I will not be inquired of by you'”! (Ezekiel 20:30-31).

The soul that sins shall die: a person will not bear the iniquity of their father, nor will the father bear the iniquity of their son. The apple does not fall far from the tree: like father, like son; like mother, like daughter. Both of these statements prove equally true, as Ezekiel would have Israel understand.

Ezekiel received the message on August 14, 591 BCE; Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon had already determined on a western military campaign in Beyond the (Euphrates) River, and most likely was on the march (Ezekiel 20:1; cf. Ezekiel 21:21-27). The judgment against Judah and Jerusalem was about to play out in real time. The elders of Israel would inquire of YHWH before Ezekiel; YHWH asked if He would really be inquired of by them, and Ezekiel was to judge them by making known to them the abomination of their fathers (Ezekiel 20:2-4).

Ezekiel then set forth a comprehensive indictment of Israel’s faithlessness and idolatry manifest in the generation liberated from Egyptian bondage: their eyes had feasted on the abominations of Egypt, and in their hearts they never fully parted from the idols of the Egyptians (Ezekiel 20:5-7). The only reason He did not destroy them then or in the Wilderness was on account of His name lest it be profaned among the nations (Ezekiel 20:8-17).

But it was not only this generation: YHWH spoke to their children and urged them to turn aside from the ways and idolatry of their fathers, and to follow in the statutes of YHWH their God, and yet they also rebelled against Him, keeping their eyes on their fathers’ idols (Ezekiel 20:18-24). Again YHWH did not destroy them on account of His name lest it would be profaned.

Successive generations did not fare much better. They blasphemed against God and dealt treacherously with Him even after He brought them into the land He had promised to their fathers: they offered sacrifices on high hills and made provocative offerings to idols on high places (Ezekiel 20:25-29). And thus Ezekiel offered YHWH’s indictment against the elders and people of Israel: they defiled themselves after the manner of their fathers and served their detestable idols, presenting gifts and offering children to the fire (Ezekiel 20:30-31). Thus the judgment YHWH was about to bring against Judah and Jerusalem was more than just.

For many, “Ezekiel” immediately conjures up his message in Ezekiel 18:1-32: the soul that sins will die; fathers will not die because of the iniquity of the son, or vice versa. Ezekiel certainly taught this message, and meant it, yet not in an atomistic individualist way. The Israelites were using a proverb to suggest their doom was fated and thus there was nothing they could do about it (Ezekiel 18:1-2): Ezekiel exhorted them to cease that mentality, to change their hearts and minds so they might live and not die.

However we understand Ezekiel 18:1-32 must also take Ezekiel 20:1-31 into account: both messages come from YHWH and are given by the same prophet to the same audience. It remains correct that the son will not die because of the iniquity of his father: but if the son follows in the iniquitous ways of his fathers, he also will die. Sons can change and no longer walk in the ways of their fathers; and yet children tend to follow in their fathers’ footsteps.

For generations we have seen far too many go to extremes regarding “the sins of the fathers.” Many, insisting on passages like Exodus 20:5-6, suggest predetermined depravity and condemnation: the sons are punished for the sins of the fathers, and that is right and good. Others, insisting on Ezekiel 18:1-32, suggest a complete separation between fathers and sons: sons and fathers are completely different people, a Lockean confidence in children as tabulae rasae, “clean slates” upon whom justice and righteousness might easily be impressed. Each argues against the extreme form of the other; neither end up capturing the truth.

When we understand Ezekiel 18:1-32 and Ezekiel 20:1-31 in light of each other, we can come to a more effective and holistic understanding. Children are not tabulae rasae; they are born with characteristics of their parents for good and for ill. They are acculturated by their parents and culture and will most likely follow after the ways of their parents and culture (cf. Proverbs 22:6). They might rebel against their parents and culture and follow a different path, and yet even then their disposition, actions, and attitudes will reflect that engagement with the ways of their parents. People can change; people can turn from iniquity to righteousness, but also can turn from righteousness to iniquity. We are never compelled to follow in the ways of our fathers; but we generally follow their ways, consciously and unconsciously, because that is how we have been raised.

And so Israelites for generations persisted in the idolatry they learned in Egypt. They served the litany of gods and goddesses of the ancient Near East; they did not fully sanctify YHWH as their God and did not observe His statutes. God continually sent prophets to warn Israel from their ways, to turn aside from the delusions of their fathers; nevertheless, they mostly persisted. Some certainly turned from idolatry to righteousness; a few may have been raised righteous but turned aside to idolatry. They would experience the distress of the trial of judgment and exile; many persisted in idolatry and assimilated into the native populations of Assyria and Babylon, but a precious few did turn sharply to fully dedicate themselves to YHWH and to teach their children likewise.

We do well to compare and contrast Israel in Ezekiel’s day with Daniel and Ezra. Israel in Ezekiel’s day first felt as if they were doomed because of their father’s sins and thus felt justified in doing as they wished (Ezekiel 18:1-2); after the exile, they were convinced they suffered so greatly because of their transgressions and sins that they could not be brought to repentance (Ezekiel 33:10): in both situations they did not seek YHWH but despaired of life, and in many respects did not wish to see their complicity and guilt which led to their circumstances. Daniel and Ezra were conditioned by the trauma of the exile to immediately beg for forgiveness for the sins of their fathers they had continued to commit, whether or not they fully participated in all of their father’s sins (Daniel 9:4-19 and Ezra 9:6-15): they sought to draw near to YHWH, and were willing to identify with the sins of their fathers in order to do so.

No, children do not need to persist in the ways of their fathers. But children tend to go after the manner of their fathers. Our fathers can but leave us with a mixed legacy: we can honor them for what is right, just, and good about what they have done and what they have left us, but we must fully identify, confess, and repent of what is evil, unjust, and ugly about what they have done and what they have given us. Whatever we do not separate ourselves from in sharp relief we will be tempted to continue to practice.

We all remain creatures of our time, place, and context, no matter our pretensions toward transcendence or objectivity. The legacy our fathers and mothers bequeathed us has many praiseworthy and honorable aspects, and we do well to celebrate, uphold, and imitate them. Yet that legacy also has many sinful, evil, and ugly aspects: if we do not identify them, confess them, and repent of them, we will be continually tempted to persist in them. We cannot just uphold the good and pretend the bad does not exist, or think we can suppress or neglect the bad in order to honor those who came before us and come out unscathed. Sons do not bear the iniquity of the fathers merely because the fathers committed iniquity. Yet, more often than not, sons do bear iniquity, because they do not turn away from that on which their fathers feasted their eyes. May we all pursue the ways of our heavenly Father, and glorify and honor Him in Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Iniquity of the Fathers and Children

“…visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, upon the third and upon the fourth generation of them that hate me, and showing lovingkindness unto thousands of them that love me and keep my commandments” (Exodus 20:5c-6).

As God is speaking with Israel, declaring His law to them, He teaches them some things about Himself. As part of the second commandment, in which God declares that Israel is not to make any graven image to bow down to it or serve it, having declared that He is a jealous God, He then establishes that He visits the iniquity upon the third and fourth generation of those who hate Him, but shows steadfast love to those who love Him and keep His commandments (Exodus 20:4-6).

This is one of the most controversial declarations that God makes about Himself. Many wonder about the fairness of all of this, presuming that God is punishing children for the sins of their fathers. But God declares at other opportunities that He does no such thing– each person must bear the guilt of their own sin (Deuteronomy 24:16, Ezekiel 18:1-32).

Some people suggest that there is a contradiction here, but such does not respect the precise wording of what God has said. God says that He visits the iniquity of the fathers upon the third and fourth generation “of those who hate [Him]” (Exodus 20:5). Therefore, those upon whom their iniquity is visited have their own iniquity. “Innocent” descendants will not suffer the penalty for guilty ancestors. If a child repents of the sins in which his fathers walked, God shows mercy upon him (e.g. 2 Kings 22:16-20).

Instead, God is declaring how, as we would say, “the apple does not fall far from the tree.” Children walk in the ways of their fathers. If the fathers disobey God and do not follow Him, the children likely walk in the same way. This is especially true in relation to the second commandment– if the father makes a graven image, bows down to it, and serves it, the children are likely to follow in the same footsteps. That tendency would prove to be the undoing of Israel (cf. 2 Kings 17:15-18)!

God is making it clear that He does not forget. Perhaps the iniquity of a given generation is not immediately visited upon it; such does not mean that God is not there or that God does not care, but that, as Peter will later say, God is patient, not wishing for any to perish but that all would repent (cf. 2 Peter 3:9). When judgment is established and punishment meted out, it is just, righteous, and holy. None can declare that God is unjust!

What is often lost in translation is the other half of this declaration: for those who love God and who keep His commandments, He bestows His steadfast love (Exodus 20:6). This cannot be found with any other; it is not as if any idol has ever loved its maker. God sustains and provides for those who seek after Him, as the Hebrew author demonstrates powerfully in Hebrews 11.

There is much to gain from this declaration of God’s response to people. It shows that we should not be surprised when people follow after their parents down the same path, for better or worse. We can have confidence in the ultimate day of Judgment and that all will receive due recompense for what they have done (Romans 2:5-11); nevertheless, we often like to see justice executed more speedily. If justice is not executed speedily, it is not as if God has neglected to take the sin into account. If such justice is eventually reckoned, it is not as if God can be charged with unfairness or prejudice if one generation gets punished for a sin that previous generations committed seemingly without punishment.

It is far better for us, however, to love God and do His commandments, and thus bask in His steadfast love (cf. 1 John 2:3-6). This opportunity is extended to anyone, no matter what their ancestors have done or believed. No one is forced to live in perpetual fear of God’s punishing hand; all today have access to God’s mercy through Jesus Christ (cf. Romans 5:6-11, 1 Timothy 2:4). Let us not stand in fear of punishment, but let us love God and do His commandments!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Living by our Faith

Behold, his soul is puffed up, it is not upright in him; but the righteous shall live by his faith (Habakkuk 2:4).

Habakkuk has been complaining to God about the sinfulness of Judah. God tells him about the terrible enemy that He is raising up against them, the Babylonians, and the fate that awaits Judah. It is not a pretty picture; one wonders how anyone could survive or be saved in such circumstances!

God then makes a contrast between two sorts of people. There are those whose souls are puffed up inside of them. They have all sorts of confidence about their standing before God and their own “righteousness,” but their confidence is entirely unfounded. Their souls are not upright within them.

And then there are those who will live– those who are truly righteous. They are righteous because they live by their faith.

When Paul makes his grand theological treatise in his letter to the Romans, Habakkuk 2:4b is the centerpiece of his argument regarding justification by faith. The righteous shall live by faith. In the Roman letter Paul effectively demonstrates how no man or woman could ever be justified in the sight of God by their merits or their works since all have sinned (Romans 1:18-3:20). He demonstrates how Abraham received the promise through faith, and therefore those who inherit the promises are those who are children of Abraham by faith, sharing in the same trust in the One True God (Romans 4:1-25, 9:6-13). Paul quotes Habakkuk 2:4b again in the Galatian letter to demonstrate that no one has ever been justified before God on the basis of the Law of Moses (Galatians 3:11). Moses, David, and the prophets themselves lived by faith. Throughout time, therefore, those who belong to God and please Him are those who live by faith. It was not a matter of ethnic identity, as the Jews vainly believed; it was that trust in God, that confidence in His existence and His rewarding of those who seek after Him (Hebrews 11:6).

The righteous, indeed, will live by faith. Nevertheless, there is a minor detail present in the original Hebrew of Habakkuk’s words that was not carried over by Paul that remains important. Yes, the righteous live by faith. But “faith” is not just anyone’s faith. The righteous one lives by his faith.

We all know of people who are able to make it through life on account of the efforts of others. We often call this “riding on coattails.” Many children in this world will never have to worry about money or work; their parents are so unbelievably wealthy that they will never have to work. Many people rise to prominence less because of their own talents and abilities and more because of the fame of their parents or other such relatives.

There are some people who try to do this in their faith lives. They may have a parent or grandparent who was mighty in faith in God’s Kingdom, and they try to “ride their coattails.” They may start in life accepting what they have been taught. Sure, they believe in God; they have their own faith; just ask them. In reality, too many try to get by with their father’s faith or their grandfather’s faith. They have not yet made the faith their own.

Jacob is a great example of this. Few had his pedigree– the son of Isaac, the grandson of Abraham. He certainly did not deserve to be the son of promise, but that was God’s choice for him (Genesis 25:23). When Jacob was fleeing to Paddan-Aram, God appeared to him in a dream and promised that He would be with him and that he would inherit the promises (Genesis 28:12-15). Jacob was astonished; he understood that God was present (Genesis 28:16-17). He certainly believed in the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac. But notice his vow– if God will fulfill His promises, then He will be my God (Genesis 28:20-22). Jacob had faith in the God of his father– but he did not yet have his own faith.

In reality, while some people might get the luxury of “riding the coattails” of their parents, grandparents, or whomever else in their physical lives, no one can truly ride the coattails of anyone else spiritually. It will not work. The faith of your father, mother, child, spouse, preacher, elder, or anyone else cannot sustain you. It cannot stand up for you. Sure, it may remain for awhile, when it remains unchallenged and undisturbed. But then the day of adversity comes.

Maybe the adversity comes from a television show, a friend, or an educator who challenges the validity of faith in the God of the Bible and in Christianity. Maybe the adversity comes in the challenges of life– a harrowing illness, failure in various endeavors, unemployment, betrayal by others. No matter who we are, no matter how much money we have or do not have, regardless of our status in life, days of adversity will come that will cause us to question who we are and how we are to be sustained. And it is in those days that faith grows or dies (James 1:2-4, 1 Peter 1:6-7).

So it was with Jacob. He made it to Paddan-Aram and began working for his deceitful uncle Laban. He faced terrible adversity and there was no human that was there to advocate for him. He clearly perceived how it was the “God of his father” who sustained him, protected him, and blessed him throughout those twenty years (Genesis 29-31; cf. Genesis 31:5-9). As Jacob was returning home, having been delivered by God from Laban his uncle and petitioning for deliverance from Esau his brother, Jacob literally wrestles with God (in the form of an angel; Genesis 32:24-31). He is given the name Israel at that time. And after meeting with his brother Esau, Jacob/Israel moves to the area around Shechem. He builds an altar there, and names it El-Elohe-Israel: God, the God of Israel (Genesis 33:20). Jacob now had his own faith.

The Scriptures make it clear that we cannot ride the coattails of our spiritual ancestors. Time would fail us if we talked about how for every Gideon there was an Abimelech, for every Hezekiah a Manasseh, and for every Josiah a Jehoiakim. Sadly, the children of some of the most righteous people in the Bible end up being some of the most wicked. The faith of their parents could not save them.

Instead, we must be like Jacob. We must make the faith of those who came before us our own faith. We must believe in God and His truth because we have made our investigations and our inquiries and we have been satisfied (Acts 17:11-12). We must be able to make our own defense of our own hope that should be in us (1 Peter 3:15). We must have our own belief, deeply rooted within our own being, so that when we are shaken by trial, we have the resources of faith within us to continue to turn to God for sustenance.

The spiritual world around us is littered with the corpses of those who never developed their own faith, and their profession of acceptance of the faith of their ancestors failed them when the difficult times arose. Let us not be like them, but develop our own faith, and live by it!

Ethan R. Longhenry

God’s Ways

“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? 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. 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. Because he considered and turned away from all the transgressions that he had committed, he shall surely live; he shall not die.
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? 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” (Ezekiel 18:25-30 ESV).

There had been a proverb in Israel for many generations: the fathers eat sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge (cf. Ezekiel 18:2). The idea was that children bear the iniquities of their fathers. The idea made sense to them. Apples don’t far too fall from the tree, in general, and children act in similar ways to their parents. God Himself warned the people that He would visit the iniquity of fathers upon children for multiple generations (cf. Exodus 20:5).

Nevertheless, the concept was faulty. While it was true that children often had to suffer directly and indirectly for the sins of their fathers, and that God would punish one generation and perhaps not the ones before it, it was not true that children bore the iniquities of their fathers. God explains quite clearly in Ezekiel 18 that the soul that sins will die for his sin, and the soul that does what is right will be saved, regardless of how their father or son might act. Furthermore, if the sinful repent, they can be saved; likewise, if the righteous plunge into sin, they will be condemned.

But Israel does not like this message. It is not consistent with the way they look at it. So what do they do? They declare that the way of God is not just!

It is not my intent to get into the complexities of the nature of the discussion here; instead, it is quite interesting to note how Israel is quite willing to declare the Author of justice to be unjust when it does not suit their perspective. Their definition of what is “just” or “fair” is different from God’s definition, and they have figured that their definition is the right one.

We can see the arrogance of their position! How dare they declare God unjust! If God is the Author of Life and all that is good and holy (Genesis 1), and if He loves justice (Psalm 33:5), how can He be declared unjust by mere humans? As it is written:

Thou wilt say then unto me, “Why doth he still find fault? For who withstandeth his will?”
Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God?
Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, “Why didst thou make me thus?” (Romans 9:19-20).

The Israelites were quite in the wrong, as the creation, to declare the Creator to be unjust. If they did not repent of such folly, they would stand to be condemned!

While we can step back and see how arrogant the Israelites were, have we stopped to consider if we have done the same?

Some may be so bold as to declare the way of the God as not being just or fair. Others may not declare it by word but do so by deed. Too many will attempt to subtly change God’s message, or interpret the message in a way that is more consistent with their worldview.

But the end is all the same: if we do any such thing, we are declaring that we know better than God, and our ways are more just than His ways.

In the new covenant, God has provided salvation for all who are willing to hear and obey (1 Timothy 2:4, Romans 6). That may very well mean that people who sin terribly and yet repent may be saved while some who did not live so sinfully may be condemned (1 Timothy 1:12-16, 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9). It very well may mean that sincere people who thought that they knew about God find out that they really did not know Him and will pay the penalty (Matthew 7:21-23). It may mean that things we think are right or fair or just are not right, fair, or just according to God’s standard (Matthew 19:3-9, Galatians 5:19-21). It may even mean that people who worked all their lives for God’s purposes will receive the same reward as the prodigal son who returns to God later in life (cf. Matthew 20:1-16).

Many people hear such things and declare God to not be just. And who are any of us to declare His ways unjust? In so doing, we are no better than Israel, and should expect the same fate. Let us not presume to judge the qualities of God, but instead praise and thank Him for the opportunity to be redeemed from sin and death and to obtain eternal life!

Ethan R. Longhenry