Editor’s Note: I’m thankful to guest blogger Brandon Hershey for this week’s study of Ezekiel 18!
How do you answer the question posed by the title of this post? One person’s view of righteousness might differ significantly from that of another. In America, righteousness is often viewed through whichever political lens a person holds. Republican righteousness is quite different from Democrat righteousness. Around the globe and throughout history, humanity has defined righteousness in still more varied ways. The photo above depicts a typical answer to “What actions are considered righteous?” A man with one hand over his heart, and the other hand reaching up toward the heavens, while his eyes are closed. He looks so righteous as he seems to be praying, meditating or worshiping. But is that truly righteous? Perhaps the better question is, “How does God define righteous action?” The prophecy of Ezekiel 18 raises this question. Keep reading for the answer.
As we’ve seen already in the first two posts on Ezekiel 18 (here and here), God does not want the people of Judah to be quoting the proverb about sour grapes, whether they are living in Judah or in exile in Babylon. God does not want them to be blaming their ancestors and shirking their own responsibility. The main point that Ezekiel seems to be driving home here is everyone will be responsible to God for his own conduct. In God’s eyes, people are individuals and he treats them as such, as he says in verse 4, “For every living soul belongs to me, the father as well as the son – both alike belong to me.” He is very clear that the soul who sins is the one who will die. To illustrate the point that we do not inherit the sins of our fathers/mothers, but instead that we are responsible for our own behavior, Ezekiel tells the story of three generations – a righteous grandfather, his violent son, and his righteous grandson. Open your Bible and read that story in Ezekiel 18, verses 5-20.
We see from this story of three generations that the actions of one generation did not determine the outcome of the next. Even though the grandfather was righteous and followed God’s heart and set a good example for his son, the son still became violent and turned from God, resulting in his death. The violent son did not inherit any special privilege from his righteous father. Similarly, even though the grandson saw all the sins of his father, he still was able to follow God’s heart, keep His laws, and ultimately live. The grandson did not inherit suffering and death for his father’s sins.
Despite this illustration, the people of Judah continue to ask in verse 19: “Why does the son not share the guilt of his father?” The exiles still think that the son should share in the guilt of the father. They seem to be missing the point that each person is responsible for their own sins. If they share in their ancestors’ guilt, if they consider themselves guilty because their ancestors were guilty, then there is no reason for them to try to change. This thinking lets them off the hook. Yet, God is clear in his response in verse 20: “The soul who sins is the one who will die.” Clearly, each person is responsible for their own actions: “The righteousness of the righteous man will be credited to him, and the wickedness of the wicked will be charged against him.”
This verse begs the question, “What actions are considered righteous?” The actions of each generation that Ezekiel describes give us a pretty clear picture of God’s heart for the oppressed. So much of what makes the grandfather and the grandson righteous and consequently what makes the violent son unrighteous concern matters of care for the oppressed. A righteous person seeks to provide clothing and food for those who don’t have it. They do not take advantage of those who have less by charging them excessive interest. Instead, they are generous to those who have less and give them the benefit of the doubt.
As we evaluate our own lives, we must ask ourselves if the behaviors that qualified the grandfather and the grandson as righteous are the behaviors that define our lives. Does our heart beat for the things that God’s heart beats for? How are we using the resources that God has entrusted to us to care for those who have less? What excuses do we make when we don’t?