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

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

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