Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, by Carl Friedrich Keil and Franz Delitzsh, [1857-78], at sacred-texts.com
In the word of God contained in this chapter, the delusion that God visits the sins of fathers upon innocent children is overthrown, and the truth is clearly set forth that every man bears the guilt and punishment of his own sins (Eze 18:1-4). The righteous lives through his righteousness (Eze 18:5-9), but cannot save his wicked son thereby (Eze 18:10-13); whilst the son who avoids the sins and wickedness of his father, will live through his own righteousness (Eze 18:14-20). The man who repents and avoids sin is not even charged with his own sin; and, on the other hand, the man who forsakes the way of righteousness, and gives himself up to unrighteousness, will not be protected from death even by his own former righteousness (Eze 18:21-29). Thus will God judge every man according to his way; and it is only by repentance that Israel itself can live (Eze 18:30-32). The exposition of these truths is closely connected with the substance and design of the preceding and following prophecies. In the earlier words of God, Ezekiel had taken from rebellious Israel every support of false confidence in the preservation of the kingdom from destruction. But as an impenitent sinner, even when he can no longer evade the punishment of his sins, endeavours as much as possible to transfer the guilt from himself to others, and comforts himself with the thought that he has to suffer for sins that other shave committed, and hardens himself against the chastisement of God through such false consolation as this; so even among the people of Israel, when the divine judgments burst upon them, the delusion arose that the existing generation had to suffer for the fathers' sins. If, then, the judgment were ever to bear the fruit of Israel's conversion and renovation, which God designed, the impenitent generation must be deprived even of this pretext for covering over its sins and quieting its conscience, by the demonstration of the justice which characterized the government of God in His kingdom.
The proverb and the word of God. - Eze 18:1. And the word of Jehovah came to me, saying, Eze 18:2. Why do you use this proverb in the land of Israel, saying, Fathers eat sour grapes, and the sons' teeth are set on edge. Eze 18:3. As I live, is the saying of the Lord Jehovah, this proverb shall not be used any more in Israel. Eze 18:4. Behold, all souls are mine; as the father's soul, so also the soul of the son, - they are mine; the soul which sinneth, it shall die. - On Eze 18:2 compare Eze 12:22. מה־לּכם, what is to you, what are you thinking of, that...? is a question of amazement. על־אדמת , in the land of Israel (Eze 12:22), not "concerning the land of Israel," as Hvernick assumes. The proverb was not, "The fathers have eaten sour grapes," for we have not אכלוּ, as in Jer 31:29, but יאכלוּ, they eat, are accustomed to eat, and אבות has no article, because it applies to all who eat sour grapes. Bōsĕr, unripe, sour grapes, like bēsĕr in Job 16:33 (see the comm. in loc.). The meaning of the proverb is self-evident. The sour grapes which the fathers eat are the sins which they commit; the setting of the children's teeth on edge is the consequence thereof, i.e., the suffering which the children have to endure. The same proverb is quoted in Jer 31:29-30, and there also it is condemned as an error. The origin of such a proverb is easily to be accounted for from the inclination of the natural man to transfer to others the guilt which has brought suffering upon himself, more especially as the law teaches that the sins of the fathers are visited upon the children (Exo 20:5), and the prophets announce that the Lord would put away Judah from before His face on account of the sins of Manasseh (Kg2 24:3; Jer 15:4), while Jeremiah complains in Lam 5:7 that the people are bearing the fathers' sins. Nevertheless the proverb contained a most dangerous and fatal error, for which the teaching of the law concerning the visitation of the sins of the fathers, etc., was not accountable, and which Jeremiah, who expressly mentions the doctrine of the law (Jer 32:18), condemns as strongly as Ezekiel. God will visit the sins of the fathers upon the children who hate Him, and who also walk in the footsteps of their fathers' sins; but to those who love Him, and keep His commandments, He will show mercy to the thousandth generation. The proverb, on the other hand, teaches that the children would have to atone for their fathers' sins without any culpability of their own. How remote such a perversion of the truth as to the transmission of sins and their consequences, viz., their punishment, was from the law of Moses, is evident from the express command in Deu 24:16, that the children were not to be put to death with the fathers for the sins which the latter had committed, but that every one was to die for his own sin. What God here enjoins upon the judicial authorities must apply to the infliction of his own judgments. Consequently what Ezekiel says in the following verses in opposition to the delusion, which this proverb helped to spread abroad, is simply a commentary upon the words, "every one shall die for his own sin," and not a correction of the law, which is the interpretation that many have put upon these prophetic utterances of Jeremiah and Ezekiel. In Eze 18:3, the Lord declares with an oath that this proverb shall not be used any more. The apodosis to 'אם יהיה וגו, which is not expressed, would be an imprecation, so that the oath contains a solemn prohibition. God will take care that this proverb shall not be used any more in Israel, not so much by the fact that He will not give them any further occasion to make use of it, as by the way in which He will convince them, through the judgments which He sends, of the justice of His ways. The following is Calvin's admirable paraphrase: "I will soon deprive you of this boasting of yours; for your iniquity shall be made manifest, so that all the world may see that you are but enduring just punishment, which you yourselves have deserved, and that you cannot cast it upon your fathers, as you have hitherto attempted to do." At the same time, this only gives one side; we must also add the other, which is brought out so prominently in Jer 31:29., namely, that after the judgment God will manifest His grace so gloriously in the forgiveness of sins, that those who are forgiven will fully recognise the justice of the judgments inflicted. Experience of the love and compassion of the Lord, manifesting itself in the forgiveness of sin, bows down the heart so deeply that the pardoned sinner has no longer any doubt of the justice of the judgments of God. "In Israel" is added, to show that such a proverb is opposed to the dignity of Israel. In Eze 18:4, the reason assigned fore the declaration thus solemnly confirmed by an oath commences with a general thought which contains the thesis for further discussion. All souls are mine, the soul of the father as well as that of the son, saith the Lord. In these words, as Calvin has well said, "God does not merely vindicate His government or His authority, but shows that He is moved with paternal affection towards the whole of the human race which He created and formed." There is no necessity for God to punish the one for the other, the son for the father, say because of the possibility that the guilty person might evade Him; and as the Father of all, He cannot treat the one in a different manner from the other, but can only punish the one by whom punishment has been deserved. The soul that sinneth shall die. הנּפשׁ is used here, as in many other passages, for "man," and מוּת is equivalent to suffering death as a punishment. "Death" is used to denote the complete destruction with which transgressors are threatened by the law, as in Deu 30:15 (compare Jer 21:8; Pro 11:10). This sentence is explained in the verses which follow (vv. 5-20).
The Righteous Man Shall Not Die
Eze 18:5. If a man is righteous, and doeth right and righteousness, Eze 18:6. And doth not eat upon the mountains, and doth not lift up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel, and doth not defile his neighbour's wife, and doth not approach his wife in her uncleanness, Eze 18:7. Oppresseth no one, restoreth his security (lit., debt-pledge), committeth no robbery, giveth his bread to the hungry, and covereth the naked with clothes, Eze 18:8. Doth not give upon usury, and taketh not interest, withholdeth his hand from wrong, executeth judgment of truth between one and another, Eze 18:9. Walketh in my statutes, and keepeth my rights to execute truth; he is righteous, he shall live, is the saying of the Lord "Jehovah." - The exposition of the assertion, that God only punishes the sinner, not the innocent, commences with a picture of the righteousness which has the promise of life. The righteousness consists in the fulfilment of the commandments of the law: viz., (1) those relating to religious duties, such as the avoidance of idolatry, whether of the grosser kind, such as eating upon the mountains, i.e., observing sacrificial festivals, and therefore sacrificing to idols (cf. Deu 12:2.), or of a more refined description, e.g., lifting up the eyes to idols, to look to them, or make them the object of trust, and offer supplication to them (cf. Psa 121:1; Deu 4:19), as Israel had done, and was doing still (cf. Eze 6:13); and (2) those relating to moral obligations, such as the avoidance of adultery (compare Exo 20:14; Lev 20:10; Deu 22:22; and for טמּא, Gen 34:5), and of conjugal intercourse with a wife during menstruation, which was a defilement of the marriage relation (cf. Lev 18:19; Lev 20:18). All these sins were forbidden in the law on pain of death. To these there are appended duties to a neighbour (Eze 18:7.), viz., to abstain from oppressing any one (Exo 22:28; Lev 15:14, Lev 15:17), to restore the pledge to a debtor (Exo 22:25; Deu 24:6, Deu 24:10.). חוב is hardly to be taken in any other sense than as in apposition to חבלתו, "his pledge, which is debt," equivalent to his debt-pledge or security, like דּרכּך זמּה in Eze 16:27. The supposition of Hitzig, that חוב is a participle, like קום in Kg2 16:7, in the sense of debtor, is a far less natural one, and has no valid support in the free rendering of the lxx, ἐνεχυρασμὸν ὀφείλοντος. The further duties are to avoid taking unlawful possession of the property of another (cf. Lev. 5:23); to feed the hungry, clothe the naked (cf. Isa 58:5; Mat 25:26; Jam 2:15-16); to abstain from practising usury (Deu 23:20; cf. Exo 22:24) and taking interest (Lev 25:36-37); in judicial sentences, to draw back the hand from wrong, and promote judgment of truth, - a sentence in accordance with the true nature of the case (see the comm. on Zac 7:9); and, lastly, to walk in the statutes and rights of the Lord, - an expression which embraces, in conclusion, all that is essential to the righteousness required by the law. - This definition of the idea of true righteousness, which preserves from death and destruction, and ensures life to the possessor, is followed in Eze 18:10. by a discussion of the attitude which God sustains towards the sons.
The righteousness of the father does not protect the wicked, unrighteous son from death. - Eze 18:10. If, however, he begetteth a violent son, who sheddeth blood, and doeth only one of these things, Eze 18:11. But he himself hath not done all this, - if he even eateth upon the mountains, and defileth his neighbour's wife, Eze 18:12. Oppresseth the suffering and poor, committeth robbery, doth not restore a pledge, lifteth up his eyes to idols, committeth abomination, Eze 18:13. Giveth upon usury, and taketh interest: should he live? He shall not live! He hath done all these abominations; he shall be put to death; his blood shall be upon him. - The subject to והוליד, in Eze 18:10, is the righteous man described in the preceding verses. פּריץ, violent, literally, breaking in or through, is rendered more emphatic by the words "shedding blood" (cf. Hos 4:2). We regard אח in the next clause as simply a dialectically different form of writing and pronouncing, for אך, "only," and he doeth only one of these, the sins previously mentioned (Eze 18:6.). מאחד, with a partitive מן, as in Lev 4:2, where it is used in a similar connection; the form מאחד is also met with in Deu 15:7. The explanation given by the Targum, "and doeth one of these to his brother," is neither warranted by the language nor commended by the sense. עשׂה is never construed with the accusative of the person to whom anything is done; and the limitation of the words to sins against a brother is unsuitable in this connection. The next clause, לא עשׂה...והוּא, which has also been variously rendered, we regard as an adversative circumstantial clause, and agree with Kliefoth in referring it to the begetter (father): "and he (the father) has not committed any of these sins." For it yields no intelligible sense to refer this clause also to the son, since כּל־אלּה cannot possibly refer to different things from the preceding מאלּה, and a man cannot at the same time both do and not do the same thing. The כּי which follows signifies "if," as is frequently the case in the enumeration of particular precepts or cases; compare, for example, Exo 21:1, Exo 21:7,Exo 21:17, etc., where it is construed with the imperfect, because the allusion is to things that may occur. Here, on the contrary, it is followed by the perfect, because the sins enumerated are regarded as committed. The emphatic גּם (even) forms an antithesis to אח מאחד (אך), or rather an epanorthosis of it, inasmuch as כּי גּם resumes and carries out still further the description of the conduct of the wicked son, which was interrupted by the circumstantial clause; and that not only in a different form, but with a gradation in the thought. The thought, for instance, is as follows: the violent son of a righteous father, even if he has committed only one of the sins which the father has not committed, shall die. And if he has committed even the gross sins named, viz., idolatry, adultery, violent oppression of the poor, robbery, etc., should he then continue to live? The ו in וחי introduces the apodosis, which contains a question, that is simply indicated by the tone, and is immediately denied. The antique form חי for חיּה, 3rd pers. perf., is taken from the Pentateuch (cf. Gen 3:22 and Num 21:8). The formulae מות יוּמת and דּמיו בּו dna are also derived from the language of the law (cf. Lev 20:9, Lev 20:11, Lev 20:13, etc.).
The son who avoids his father's sin will live; but the father will die for his own sins. - Eze 18:14. And behold, he begetteth a son, who seeth all his father's sins which he doeth; he seeth them, and doeth not such things. Eze 18:15. He eateth not upon the mountains, and lifteth not up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel; he defileth not his neighbour's wife, Eze 18:16. And oppresseth no one; he doth not withhold a pledge, and committeth not robbery; giveth his bread to the hungry, and covereth the naked with clothes. Eze 18:17. He holdeth back his hand from the distressed one, taketh not usury and interest, doeth my rights, walketh in my statutes; he will not die for the sin of his father; he shall live. Eze 18:18. His father, because he hath practised oppression, committed robbery upon his brother, and hath done that which is not good in the midst of his people; behold, he shall die for his sin. Eze 18:19. And do ye say, Why doth the son not help to bear the father's sin? But the son hath done right and righteousness, hath kept all my statutes, and done them; he shall live. Eze 18:20. The soul that sinneth, it shall die. A son shall not help to bear the father's sin, and a father shall not help to bear the sin of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him. - The case supposed in these verses forms the antithesis to the preceding one; the father is the transgressor in this instance, and the son a keeper of the law. The subject to הוליד in Eze 18:14 is not the righteous man described in Eze 18:15, but a man who is described immediately afterwards as a transgressor of the commandments of God. The Chetib וירא bite in the last clause of Eze 18:14 is not to be read ויּרא, καὶ φοβηθῇ, et timuerit, as it has been by the translators of the Septuagint and Vulgate; nor is it to be altered into ויּראה, as it has been by the Masoretes, to make it accord with Eze 18:28; but it is the apocopated form ויּרא, as in the preceding clause, and the object is to be repeated from what precedes, as in the similar case which we find in Exo 20:15, (18). Ewald and Hitzig propose to alter מעני in Eze 18:17 into מעול after Eze 18:8, but without the slightest necessity. The lxx are not to be taken as an authority for this, since the Chaldee and Syriac have both read and rendered עני; and Ezekiel, when repeating the same sentences, is accustomed to make variations in particular words. Holding back the hand from the distressed, is equivalent to abstaining from seizing upon him for the purpose of crushing him (compare Eze 18:12); בּתוך, in the midst of his countrymen = בּתוך עמּו, is adopted from the language of the Pentateuch. מת after הנּה is a participle. The question, "Why does the son not help to bear?" is not a direct objection on the part of the people, but is to be taken as a pretext, which the people might offer on the ground of the law, that God would visit the sin of the fathers upon the sons in justification of their proverb. Ezekiel cites this pretext for the purpose of meeting it by stating the reason why this does not occur. נשׂא ב, to carry, near or with, to join in carrying, or help to carry (cf. Num 11:17). This proved the proverb to be false, and confirmed the assertion made in Eze 18:4, to which the address therefore returns (Eze 18:20). The righteousness of the righteous man will come upon him, i.e., upon the righteous man, namely, in its consequences. The righteous man will receive the blessing of righteousness, but the unrighteous man the curse of his wickedness. There is no necessity for the article, which the Keri proposes to insert before רשׁע.
Turning to good leads to life; turning to evil is followed by death. - Eze 18:21. But if the wicked man turneth from all his sins which he hath committed, and keepeth all my statutes, and doeth right and righteousness, he shall live, and not die. Eze 18:22. All his transgressions which he hath committed, shall not be remembered to him: for the sake of the righteousness which he hath done he will live. Eze 18:23. Have I then pleasure in the death of the wicked? is the saying of Jehovah: and not rather that he turn from his ways, and live? Eze 18:24. But if the righteous man turn from his righteousness, and doeth wickedness, and acteth according to all the abominations which the ungodly man hath done, should he live? All the righteousness that he hath done shall not be remembered: for his unfaithfulness that he hath committed, and for his sin that he hath sinned, for these he shall die. Eze 18:25. And ye say, "The way of the Lord is not right." Hear now, O house of Israel: Is my way not right? Is it not your ways that are not right? Eze 18:26. If a righteous man turneth from his righteousness, and doeth wickedness, and dieth in consequence, he dieth for his wickedness that he hath done. - The proof that every one must bear his sin did not contain an exhaustive reply to the question, in what relation the righteousness of God stood to the sin of men? For the cases supposed in vv. 5-20 took for granted that there was a constant persistence in the course once taken, and overlooked the instances, which are by no means rare, when a man's course of life is entirely changed. It still remained, therefore, to take notice of such cases as these, and they are handled in Eze 18:21-26. The ungodly man, who repents and turns, shall live; and the righteous man, who turns to the way of sin, shall die. "As the righteous man, who was formerly a sinner, is not crushed down by his past sins; so the sinner, who was once a righteous man, is not supported by his early righteousness. Every one will be judged in that state in which he is found" (Jerome). The motive for the pardon of the repenting sinner is given in Eze 18:23, in the declaration that God has no pleasure in the death of the wicked man, but desires his conversion, that he may live. God is therefore not only just, but merciful and gracious, and punishes none with death but those who either will not desist from evil, or will not persevere in the way of His commandments. Consequently the complaint, that the way of the Lord, i.e., His conduct toward men, is not weighed (יתּכן, see comm. on Sa1 2:3), i.e., not just and right, is altogether unfounded, and recoils upon those who make it. It it not God's ways, but the sinner's, that are wrong (Eze 18:25). The proof of this, which Hitzig overlooks, is contained in the declarations made in Eze 18:23 and Eze 18:26, - viz. in the fact that God does not desire the death of the sinner, and in His mercy forgives the penitent all his former sins, and does not lay them to his charge; and also in the fact that He punishes the man who turns from the way of righteousness and gives himself up to wickedness, on account of the sin which he commits; so that He simply judges him according to his deeds. - In Eze 18:24, ועשׂה is the continuation of the infinitive שׁוּב, and וחי is interrogatory, as in Eze 18:13.
The vindication of the ways of God might have formed a fitting close to this divine oracle. But as the prophet was not merely concerned with the correction of the error contained in the proverb which was current among the people, but still more with the rescue of the people themselves from destruction, he follows up the refutation with another earnest call to repentance. - Eze 18:27. If a wicked man turneth from his wickedness which he hath done, and doeth right and righteousness, he will keep his soul alive. Eze 18:28. If he seeth and turneth from all his transgressions which he hath committed, he shall live and not die. Eze 18:29. And the house of Israel saith, The way of the Lord is not right. Are may ways not right, O house of Israel? Is it not rather your ways that are not right? Eze 18:30. Therefore, every one according to his ways, will I judge you, O house of Israel, is the saying of the Lord Jehovah. Turn and repent of all your transgressions, that it may not become to you a stumbling-block to guilt. Eze 18:31. Cast from you all your transgressions which ye have committed, and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! And why will ye die, O house of Israel? Eze 18:32. For I have no pleasure in the death of the dying, is the saying of the Lord Jehovah. Therefore repent, that ye may live. - For the purpose of securing an entrance into their hearts for the call to repentance, the prophet not only repeats, in Eze 18:27 and Eze 18:28, the truth declared in Eze 18:21 and Eze 18:22, that he who turns from his sin finds life, but refutes once more in Eze 18:29, as he has already done in Eze 18:25, the charge that God's ways are not right. The fact that the singular יתּכן is connected with the plural דּרכיכם, does not warrant our altering the plural into דּרכּכם, but may be explained in a very simple manner, by assuming that the ways of the people are all summed up in one, and that the meaning is this: what you say of my way applies to your own ways, - namely, "it is not right; there is just measure therein." לכן, "therefore, etc.;" because my way, and not yours, is right, I will judge you, every one according to his way. Repent, therefore, if ye would escape from death and destruction. שׁוּבוּ is rendered more emphatic by השׁיבוּ, sc. פניכם, as in Eze 14:6. In the last clause of Eze 18:30, עון is not to be taken as the subject of the sentence according to the accents, but is a genitive dependent upon מכשׁול, as in Eze 7:19 and Eze 14:3; and the subject is to be found in the preceding clause: that it (the sinning) may not become to you a stumbling-block of iniquity, i.e., a stumbling-block through which ye fall into guilt and punishment. - The appeal in Eze 18:31 points back to the promise in Eze 11:18-19. השׁליך, to cast away. The application of this word to transgressions may be explained from the fact that they consisted for the most part of idols and idolatrous images, which they had made. - "Make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit:" a man cannot, indeed, create either of these by his own power; God alone can give them (Eze 11:19). But a man both can and should come to God to receive them: in other words, he can turn to God, and let both heart and spirit be renewed by the Spirit of God. And this God is willing to do; for He has no pleasure בּמות המת, in the death of the dying one. In the repetition of the assurance given in Eze 18:23, המּת is very appropriately substituted for רשׁע, to indicate to the people that while in sin they are lying in death, and that it is only by conversion and renewal that they can recover life again.