“…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