Editor’s Note: I’m thankful to guest blogger Brandon Hershey for this week’s study of Ezekiel 18!
Do you have older siblings? I have older siblings who went to the same school that I did. Maybe you know the feeling of walking into class on the first day, and the teacher says to you, “Oh… your Brian’s brother…?” All of the sudden a burden of expectation is placed upon you…for better or for worse. If your older siblings were troublemakers, you might feel like you are pre-judged to be a bad student. The teacher might say something like, “I’d better keep my eye on you! Your Brian’s brother.” Likewise, if your siblings were great students, you might feel pressure to live up to higher expectations. You might hear comments like, “Why can’t you be more like your brother?” Whatever the situation, it is very easy to feel judged based on those who came before you. But let me ask you this: though your siblings behavior will almost certainly affect you, of no fault of your own, does that mean you are not responsible for your actions?
As you think about the answer to this question, turn in your Bible to Ezekiel chapter 18. There we’ll find a situation very similar to the scenario of older siblings.
Before we jump into chapter 18, I always like to zoom out and remember some larger context. I find it helpful to situate specific bible stories within the overall biblical narrative. So let’s rewind a bit. The nation of Israel split into two kingdoms around 930 BC. The 10 northern tribes became Israel and the 2 southern tribes became Judah. After a series of unfaithful kings, the people of Israel strayed from their relationship with God and were unfaithful to the covenant that God made with Israel. As a result, God allowed foreign nations (Assyria) to come in and conquer the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 BC. Over 100 years later, Judah starts to fall to the Babylonians in 605 BC when the first group is taken into captivity back to Babylon. Daniel is part of this first group of exiles to be carried off to Babylon. Ezekiel was part of the second group of exiles who were carried off to Babylon 8 years later in 597 BC. He becomes a prophet to the exiles who are in Babylon in 593 BC. This means that the people that Ezekiel is prophesying to have been living in captivity for approximately 12 years.
At the same time, Jeremiah is nearing the end of his ministry by prophesying to the people of Judah who have not been taken into captivity. This means that Jeremiah and Ezekiel are contemporaries. For a period of about 7 years, Jeremiah and Ezekiel were prophesying at the same time, just to two different audiences – Ezekiel to the captives in Babylon; Jeremiah to the people of Judah still living in Judah.
We know from our study of Ezekiel so far that Ezekiel, through symbolic role-playing and metaphors, has been predicting the destruction of the temple and of all Jerusalem as a result of their unfaithfulness to God, which ultimately happens a couple years later in 586 BC. As we pick up in chapter 18, we see a glimpse of how the exiles in Babylon were reacting to these prophecies. Open a Bible and read Ezekiel 18:1-4.
Right from the beginning, God seems to be setting a tone that he is not too happy. Verse 2 could be paraphrased to say, “What are you people thinking by quoting this proverb?” As we have seen in the last number of weeks, the exiles in Babylon were not exactly being faithful to God. They were worshiping other gods and making idols to take the place of God. Yet, in spite of their unfaithfulness to God, they were making excuses for their current sins. The exiles in Babylon were essentially blaming their current sufferings on the sins of their ancestors by quoting this proverb, “The parents eat sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.”
If you are anything like me, the first time you read this proverb, you are probably wondering what it means? Whatever it means, it is pretty clear by verse 3 that God does not want the exiles to be saying this proverb. God is being pretty firm when is says, “As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, you will no longer quote this proverb in Israel.” So why doesn’t God want them saying this proverb? In this proverb, the exiles represent the children and their ancestors represent the parents, so the exiles are experiencing the unpleasant consequences of their ancestor’s actions.
Have you ever eaten a sour grape before? It’s not a very pleasant experience. You might make a weird face or even spit the grape out. By quoting this proverb, the exiles are claiming that they didn’t do anything wrong; they didn’t eat the sour grapes, but they are still experiencing the unpleasant consequences of having eaten the sour grape. It was their “parents” fault for eating the sour grapes so the parents should be the ones to suffer the consequences. It’s not fair that the children suffer for the parent’s mistakes. They thought they were being punished because their great grandparent’s sins.
The problem with this attitude is that it led to a spirit of fatalism and irresponsibility. In other words, because the current exiles believed their suffering was not their fault, but instead the fault of their ancestors, they did not feel any sense of personal responsibility for their current situation. They didn’t think they were guilty of any sin. They were making excuses for their own sin. They felt that God was being unjust by making them suffer in exile, that they were getting punished for something they did not do.
Remember the illustration above that I mentioned at the beginning of this post? Going to a school where your older siblings attended. Hopefully it is obvious to us, that the teacher would be wrong to project expectations onto a student based on a sibling’s actions. As a teacher, we are trained NOT to do precisely that. I know that each student is their own individual and should not be judged based on their sibling’s behavior. While a teacher would be wrong to make a judgement about a student based on a sibling’s behavior, the student would be equally wrong to expect special favor simply because of their last name.
The exiles of Judah wanted to have it both ways. On one hand, they were blaming their ancestors for their current suffering. On the other hand, they also wanted to claim their ancestor’s special privilege as God’s chosen people. In both cases, the underlining problem was an unwillingness to accept individual responsibility for their sins.
So why did the exiles have this attitude that their fate was so closely tied to their ancestors? Although it seems like the exiles are shirking their responsibility by embracing this attitude, they did have some valid reasons for thinking that they were being punished for their ancestor’s sins. To be fair, their ancestors did sin through their unfaithfulness to God.
- Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai: Exodus 20:5, “I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me.”
- Ezekiel had been teaching that the sufferings of the exiled could be traced back to the persistent rebellion, idolatry and unfaithfulness of previous generations of Israelites.
- God’s judgment fell indiscriminately upon the nation, both the bad and the good, leading the exiles to believe that they were not responsible. “If I’m going to be punished whether I’m good or bad, why even try!”
For these reasons, the exiles living in Babylon were not taking responsibility for their own actions. They were confusing the corporate history of the nation of Israel with the call for individual responsibility and God didn’t want to hear their excuses anymore.
Coincidentally, the exiles in Babylon weren’t the only ones quoting this proverb as an excuse; the people who are still living in Judah were quoting the exact same proverb. We know this because the prophet Jeremiah – who remember is prophesying at the same time back in Judah – quotes the same proverb in chapter 31:29-30:
“In those days people will no longer say, ‘The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge. Instead, everyone will die for their own sin; whoever eats sour grapes—their own teeth will be set on edge.”
Jeremiah’s response is identical to the response that God gave to Ezekiel in chapter 18: he wants everyone to take responsibility for their own actions. Jeremiah has more to say and we’ll come back to this verse later.
For now, consider your own life. Are you taking responsibility for your actions? Yes, others’ actions can adversely affect your life. But are you using that real pain and suffering as an excuse to avoid taking responsibility for your actions?
What will God say? In the next post, we turn back to Ezekiel 18 and we’ll see how God responds.