Some of the questions turned in for Honest Q & A relate to the Bible – as in, “What does this mean?” or “How should we properly understand that?” Today we will look at one such example.
In Exodus 20:5, God gives us a certain description of himself,
“I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me.”
That alone might be hard enough to handle as is, but it is made a tad more difficult by something else God says in Ezekiel 18:20,
“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.”
What are we to do with this seeming contradiction? Is there a way to reconcile them? Or the even explain the apparent harshness of the first statement? I think there is.
For the first item, think in terms of the consequences of the fathers’, or even parents’ sins. (Moms don’t get a free ride here, I’m afraid.) These indeed are passed down from generation to generation, whether we like it or not. Consider the too-frequent example of the absent, irresponsible father. There is no denying that the children bear the consequences. And they don’t always overcome these obstacles, but as a result may be more prone to falling into various types of sin themselves, perhaps drunkenness. In that case, the consequences go farther and farther down the line. Sin can have lasting effects. Problems do pass down from generation to generation. Of course positive things can do the same, so the trick is to break any negative cycles and give our own kids a better chance. This is a general characteristic of how God has made the world. We are wise to take note of it and act accordingly.
On the other hand, in Ezekiel it seems necessary to make a distinction between consequences and actual guilt. The prophet is talking about the guilt of specific sins being handed down from parents to children. Therefore children will not suffer punishment from God based upon what the father has done. Referring to the earlier example, we might point out that the children do not bear the guilt of their absent father’s irresponsibility. They do bear the consequences, but not the guilt. He is guilty; they are not. Consequences last. The guilt of a given act is confined to the specific individual who does the deed.
Thanks for asking. I hope that helps!