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

A Time For Lament and Confession

We have sinned with our fathers / we have committed iniquity / we have done wickedly (Psalm 106:6).

Israel understood the importance of a time for lament.

The fourth book of the Psalms began with Moses’ meditation on God’s timetable for the fulfillment of His promises (Psalm 90:1-17); it could be said that the Psalter placed it there as an “answer” to the open questions of Heman and Ethan in Psalms 88 and 89. Most of the fourth book of Psalms praises God; it is quite “theological” for the Psalms (Psalms 91-104). The Psalter closes the fourth book with two parallel psalms primarily about the Exodus and Wilderness wanderings: Psalm 105:1-45 extols YHWH for the mighty signs and wonders He wrought in delivering His people. Psalm 106 seems to begin in a similar vein, praising YHWH for His hesed (steadfast love / covenant loyalty) and mighty deeds for His people (Psalm 106:1-2). The psalmist declares the righteous blessed, and asked YHWH to remember him when YHWH shows favor to His people and gives them prosperity, so he can rejoice and glory with his fellow Israelites (Psalm 106:3-5).

But Psalm 106 is no mere repetition of Psalm 105. The psalmist confesses his sinfulness and the sinfulness of their fathers (Psalm 106:6). A retelling of the events of the Exodus and Wilderness wanderings followed, yet this time emphasizing the people’s disobedience and lack of faith toward YHWH: forgetting His works, desiring meat, making a golden calf, despising the land of the inheritance, yoking themselves to Baal of Peor, and tempting Moses at Meribah (Psalm 106:7-33; cf. Exodus 14:1-Numbers 25:18). The psalmist then confessed Israel’s continued sinfulness when they entered the land: they mixed with the nations, they served other gods, they sacrificed innocent children, and they polluted the land with blood (Psalm 106:34-39; cf. Judges 1:1-2 Kings 25:1). On account of these things YHWH’s anger was kindled, and He gave them into the hands of their enemies who oppressed them; He would deliver them, and yet they would return to rebellion (Psalm 106:40-43).

Yet the psalmist drew encouragement from YHWH’s hesed, remembering His people in their distress, and caused them to be pitied by others (Psalm 106:44-46). The psalmist has confessed the iniquity of his forefathers, identified himself as complicit with them, and ended by calling out to YHWH to be saved, gathered in from all the nations (back to Israel) so they can give thanks to His name and glory in His praise (Psalm 106:47).

In Psalm 105 and Psalm 106 we see a sharp contrast between YHWH’s great love, covenant loyalty, and mighty deeds and Israel’s persistent rebelliousness and sinfulness. The fourth book of the Psalms glorifies and praises YHWH; we can understand why Psalm 105 would be included, but may find Psalm 106 to provide an odd conclusion. Yet, for Israel in exile, the conclusion is appropriate: Israel has learned from its experiences. They have come to understand that the God who did all these mighty deeds for Israel had every right to hand them over to their adversaries; God has not proven untrue to Himself. The psalmist gave voice to Israel to confess the sins of their forefathers, and by extension their own sins, so as to acknowledge their immorality and rebellion in the past, to demonstrate the fruit of repentance, and to beg YHWH for favor so as to obtain full restoration.

It is very easy for us today to find Psalm 106, especially Psalm 106:6, to be a bit unsettling. The author of Psalm 106 is not given but its perspective is consistent with the Exile; therefore, he was not among the generation who perished in the Wilderness, or lived in the days of the judges or early kings. For all we know he may have been born and lived in the days of the Exile, and did not personally participate in any of these sins! Did not Ezekiel establish that people are held accountable only for their own sins, and not the sins of their fathers or children (Ezekiel 18:1-32)?

Ezekiel speaks truth: when we all stand before God on the day of judgment, we will be judged for what we have done in the flesh (Romans 2:5-11, 14:4-12). And yet, from the beginning, Israel understood themselves as fully participating in their own history. Such is why Moses speaks to Israel in the first person plural throughout Deuteronomy 1:1-3:29, even though the people to whom he spoke were not the same individuals who actually experienced the Exodus. YHWH spoke of generational consequences for both righteousness and transgression in Exodus 20:5-6; a person is strongly influenced by their ancestors and cultural environment, a truth being rediscovered in our own day through epigenetic and psychological research. The psalmist of Psalm 106 saw his relationship to Israel and his forefathers very much in the same way: whatever he experiences is directly connected to what his forefathers had done, and therefore he is sharing in its guilt, if nothing else, in terms of its consequences. This psalmist is not alone: Daniel confessed similar sins, identifying himself with his forefathers, in Daniel 9:4-8, and Ezra began his prayer regarding the people’s intermarriages in the same vein in Ezra 9:5-9. Israel lived in a delicate balancing act: yes, each individual would stand or fall before God based on what they had done in the flesh and whether they died in sin or in repentance, even if Israel found that unjust (Ezekiel 18:1-32), but no Israelite lived in a vacuum, shaped by his environment and the inheritance, for good or ill, he received from his ancestors, and in which he or she took part by virtue of living as an Israelite.

As Christians we are invited to look at Israel according to the flesh as our spiritual ancestors; we are to learn from their examples so as to not fall by the same patterns of disobedience (1 Corinthians 10:1-12). But we can also draw strength from more positive examples. Confession and lament are not pleasant or comfortable activities. We may want to claim the positive elements of what we have inherited from our ancestors, but we want to quickly and fully jettison all the uncomfortable and ugly things which were handed down to us. We should indeed want to escape from the iniquity of the past; such is the essence of repentance. But Israel was wise to understand the necessity of sitting in lament, for it is all too easy to suppress the negative parts of our history to the point where it is forgotten, and we presume that we and our forefathers are more righteous than is justifiable. As long as Israel lived in denial about its past and present, Israel persisted in rebellion; Israel only made strides in serving God faithfully when they were willing to confront their sins and the sins of their ancestors, confess them, lament over them, and then appeal to YHWH for His covenant loyalty and favor. So it is for the individual Christian (James 1:22-25); so it is for the people of God individually and collectively (Ephesians 2:1-18, Titus 3:3-7).

For better and worse we are the descendants of our forefathers according to the flesh and according to the Spirit. We do well to uphold their stands of righteousness and persist in it while lamenting their failures in iniquity and turn away from them. We do well to consider ourselves to see what things we may be thinking, feeling, or doing which may bring shame and reproach among future generations of Christians so as to repent of them and give Gentiles past and present no reason to blaspheme (cf. Romans 2:24, 1 Corinthians 10:12). May we confess our sins, lament our iniquity, repent, and find favor in the sight of God in Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

David’s Sinfulness

Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me (Psalm 51:5).

Few verses have engendered more controversy than Psalm 51:5. People argue about its meaning. Translations of the Bible are frequently judged by how they render the verse in English.

Psalm 51:5 is “ground zero” for discussions regarding “original sin” and “total depravity.” When taken out of context, the text certainly seems to lend credence to the suggestion that everyone is sinful from birth. Such a suggestion, however, does not sit well with many other passages in Scripture. In order to make sense of the verse in light of these other passages, many seek to blunt its force, suggesting it does not really mean what it seems to mean. The controversy has raged for 1500 years; it will likely continue until the Lord returns.

Such controversy is lamentable and certainly was not David’s intent when writing Psalm 51. If we wish to come to a good understanding of the verse, we do well to consider what David is writing and why he does so.

The psalm’s inscription points the way. We are told in 1 Samuel 13:14 that David is a man after God’s own heart, and most of the time he exemplifies trust in God. Yet in 2 Samuel 11:1-27 we learn of David’s heinous sins with Bathsheba the wife of Uriah the Hittite: he lusts for her, lays with her, attempts to set up a situation by which Uriah will think the child is his, and, failing that, conspires to have Uriah die in battle. When it is accomplished, he takes Bathsheba as wife. He may have been able to deceive his fellow Israelites, but he could not deceive God. God sends Nathan the prophet to David to expose his sins of lust, adultery, deceit, and murder, and David confesses his sin (2 Samuel 12:1-14). Nathan then pronounces God’s judgment: David will not die, but the child of the union will; David will experience trials, tribulation, and upheaval within his family. Most of the rest of 2 Samuel describes how these difficulties came about (2 Samuel 12:15-23, 13:1-20:26).

According to the inscription of Psalm 51, often made part of Psalm 51:1, David wrote Psalm 51 immediately after Nathan made evident his sin to him. The message of the psalm perfectly fits this context: it represents a penitent heart begging for God’s mercy and forgiveness. David has been forced to come face-to-face with his sin and the enormity of the wrong which he has done, and through the psalm he expresses not just the intellectual and rational understanding of the problem but the raw emotions and pain as well. Throughout Psalm 51 David does not merely recognize his sin: he experiences a range of emotions on account of his sin and turns to God wholeheartedly.

It is worth noting how we humans tend to get rather hyperbolic at emotionally charged moments in our lives. We tend to think and talk in extremes if we are quite happy or sad, suffering or relieved, relaxed or frustrated. We talk in terms of “always,” “never,” “forever,” and the like, even though we know intellectually that such language is extreme.

So it is with David in Psalm 51. When confronted with his sin and its terrible consequences, David feels extreme anguish and pain, a pain so real that we can feel it through the psalm. At such a time, when he considers himself, it would be quite easy to get a bit hyperbolic and go to extremes. He saw his sin for what it was, and because of it, he felt as if he was brought forth in iniquity. He felt as if he was even conceived in sin!

Feelings do not necessarily correspond with reality; just because David felt that he was sinful from birth and conceived in iniquity does not make it true in fact. With more sober thinking Ezekiel makes it clear that parents and children do not suffer for the sins of others but for their own sin alone (Ezekiel 18:1-24). Jesus will consider small children as representative of those in the Kingdom of God and will go so far as to declare that the Kingdom belongs to them (Matthew 18:1-4, 19:14, Mark 9:33-37). Such declarations are not consistent with the idea that children actually inherit sin and are in danger of hellfire the moment they leave the womb (or perhaps even earlier!). We must remember that David is writing poetry and expressing the great anguish and pain he is experiencing on account of his sin. He expresses that anguish with hyperbole, and it remains inspired by the Holy Spirit to give voice to others who will come afterward who will feel and experience similar anguish. But the statement is not true in fact, any more than we should believe that God was asleep because the sons of Korah demanded He wake up from sleep in Psalm 44:23. These are figures of speech expressing powerful emotion, and while the emotion is quite real, its expression should not be taken in such a way as to contradict what is known about God and His truth as revealed in the Scriptures. We do well to remember that the sum of God’s word is truth (Psalm 119:160).

Nevertheless, while the statement that David was brought forth in iniquity and conceived in sin is hyperbole and not true in fact, we do not do well if we try to minimize or lessen the emotional expression behind the statement. David said what he did because he was confronted with the magnitude, horror, and terror of his sin and its consequences. He felt it so acutely and thoroughly that he felt as if he was sinful from the very beginning. That is a very real experience of the depth of the problem of sin; have we ever gone through a period of time like David did? Just because we did not actively sin as children does not mean that we have escaped from the snares of sin; we stand as guilty before God of sin as David did. When confronted with his sin, David experienced great and terrible anguish, felt the problem of sin to the extreme, and in so doing turned back to God in full repentance. What would have happened if David attempted to blunt the force of his sin problem, seeking to rationalize or justify what he had done? What if he did not fully experience the anguish of feeling separated from God and in danger of losing the most precious relationship he had? Would he have expressed true contrition? Would he have remained a man after God’s own heart?

David was not, in reality, brought forth in iniquity, or conceived in sin. But he had sinned, and he felt as if he had been. He remained a man after God’s own heart, recognizing the difficulties and misery of sin not just intellectually but emotionally and viscerally as well. In so doing he gives us a voice when we are confronted with our sin and its serious consequences. Have we ever felt anything like what David felt? Are we willing to come to grips with the true depth of our sin problem and its terrible consequences, and endure that pain not just intellectually but emotionally as well, so that we can fully turn to God with a penitent and repentant heart and receive forgiveness? Let us, like David, be people after God’s own heart, recognize our sin problem, repent of it, and find salvation in God 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