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Who are you going to blame?

Sermon passage: (Ezekiel 18:1-20) Spoken on: August 14, 2011
More sermons from this speaker 更多该讲员的讲道: Pastor Daniel Tan
For more of this sermon series 更多关于此讲道系列: Ezekiel

Tags: Ezekiel, 以西结书

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About Pastor Daniel Tan: Pastor Tan served as the youth pastor of Jubilee Church till his retirement. He is currently serving actively in missions.
Bible passage (ESV) of the sermon can be found at the bottom of the page.

Sermon on Ezekiel 18:1-20

In the 1950s a psychologist, Stanton Samenow, and a psychiatrist, Samuel Yochelson, sharing the conventional wisdom that crime is caused by environment, set out to prove their point. They began a 17-year study involving thousands of hours of clinical testing of 250 inmates in the District of Columbia. To their astonishment, they discovered that the cause of crime cannot be traced to environment, poverty, or oppression. Instead, crime is the result of individual making, the wrong moral choices. In their 1977 work “The Criminal Personality”, they concluded that the answer to solve the problem of crime is a “conversion of the wrong-doer to a more responsible lifestyle.” In 1987, Harvard professors James Wilson and Richard Herrnstein came to similar conclusions in their book “Crime and Human Nature”. They determined that the cause of crime is a lack of proper moral training among young people during their morally formative years, particularly ages one to six. (Christianity Today, August 16, 1993, p.30). So even though the cause of crime cannot be traced directly to environment, it does somehow to a certain extent relate to one’s upbringing. Thus, we often see that one of the common mitigating factors used by defense lawyer in court is to cite the poor family background of the accused to plead for leniency. Today, the study of the cause of crime is still a hot research subject. We have just witnessed the recent riots and looting in some parts of UK cities, many of the mobs were just young children and teenagers. Various reasons were given as to the cause of riots. Some have attributed the cause to the spending cut of the government, others to the widening gap between the rich and the poor. But the prime minister of UK has clearly viewed the violence as an appalling crime of theft and was not about politics or protest. So, my point of illustration this morning is that when someone does commit a crime or wrong doing, who is he or she going to blame? We all love to play the blame game. Even a child when questioned by his parent for fighting would say: “It’s not my fault. He started it first”. The children of Israel did the same thing. They loved to make excuses for their idolatry. They would often look for someone else to blame for their own sin. In today’s passage, God once and for all wants to stop the blame game they often play. And this is the first point of today’s passage.

(1) We must stop playing the blame game.
How did the people of Israel play the blame game? They like to quote the proverb or slogan commonly circulated among them both in Jerusalem and in exile. And that is: “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge”. What does it mean? It means “the fathers have eaten the sour grapes, and that caused the children to grind their teeth from the sour taste”. Someone has rephrased this saying in modern usage: “The fathers have become drunk and the children experience the hangover”. The Jews in Ezekiel’s day, particularly those living in exile, had widely used this proverb to give voice to their conviction that the present generation suffered not on account of their own sins, but on account of the failures of previous generations. In other words, by quoting the proverb, they are implying that they are not the ones to blame for all the sufferings that have come upon them; it is all their ancestors’ fault. They are suffering the punishment that their wickedness incurred. So, in actual fact, they are mocking or challenging the divine system of justice: Why must they bear God’s punishment for the sins of their forefathers? Why must their fate be determined by the actions of the previous generations?

In fact, this idea of continuing effects of ancestral sins or the trans-generational accountability was widespread in the ancient Near East. It has a long history in Israel as well. It is overtly expressed in the second article of the Ten Commandments: “You shall not bow down to idols nor worship them; for I am Yahweh your God, who punishes children for the sins of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me.” (Exod. 20:4-5) So, does this Second Commandment mean that God would deliberately and arbitrarily punish children for sins they have not committed? In fact, this Second Commandment is talking about the effects of serious sin committed by previous generation upon the generations immediately below. If, for example, parents were to turn away from the covenant obligation to worship Yahweh alone, and instead they started to worship idols, then such apostasy would undoubtedly affect their children and grandchildren in the extended family. The whole family which could include up to four generations of family members would become infected by idolatry. So, whatever judgment fell on the parents would afflict the rest of the family. (N.T Wright) The Second Commandment is thus intended to warn the Israelites to guard against apostasy which inevitably would affect their children and grandchildren, in the consequences of their sin.

The other reason why the proverb was so popular at that time was due to Ezekiel’s own teaching. He traced the sufferings of the exile, the present generation, back to the persistent rebellion, idolatry, and unfaithfulness to God’s covenant of previous generations (e.g. 16:1-59). In other words, the exile was, in effect, the due consequence of these accumulating acts of their forefathers’ disobedience. But Ezekiel’s point is not that the present generation is guiltless. He later pointed out in 20:30-32 that they themselves have shared in the sins of past generations. So, although the suffering they are now undergoing could be in part a judgment on the result of the sins of the previous generations, the present generation are not innocent bystanders but guilty as well. They too have shared in eating the sour grapes, so they cannot pass the buck for the unpleasant aftertaste onto others. For Ezekiel, God’s dealings with them have been nothing other than perfectly just.

But for the Jews in exile, they were quick to seize upon the idea of trans-generation accountability to remove themselves from blame and to throw the spotlight back onto God. Their wrong applications of the Second Commandment together with the proverb of sour grapes eating have become an accusation of divine injustice. As they suffered the discipline of God in exile, their first response was, “This is not our fault!” It is not fair that they “children” are being made homeless in exile for the sins of their “fathers”, their ancestors. They thus see themselves as innocent victims of an unfair God.

To this accusation, God through His prophet, Ezekiel, makes a definitive statement: “As surely as I live, you will no longer quote this proverb in Israel. For every living soul belongs to me, the father as well as the son—both alike (they) belong to me. The soul who sins is the one who will die.” God now rules that this popular proverb of sour grapes eating and its effect on others no longer is valid. Although sin has continuing effects, He would never punish the righteous for the sins of the guilty. As such, God declares a new thesis, “The soul who sins is the one who will die.” The word “soul” here carries the meaning of “person”, and is not to be understood as the nonphysical aspect of the human being, namely the soul dwelling in one’s body. For the Hebrew mind-set, every person is regarded as a “life” or “soul”. So, the meaning of God’s declaration is: “The person who sins will be judged because of that sin.” In other words, all people are personally responsible to God for their own sin. As a matter of fact, already within the Mosaic Law, human courts were prohibited from inflicting punishment upon children for offences committed by parents, or vice versa. “Fathers shall not be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their fathers; each is to die for his own sin.” (Deut. 24:16) So, God is now merely reiterating this fundamental principle of individual responsibility before the law. Through His prophet, Ezekiel, God confronts His people in exile with this reply: “Yes, you are suffering the final consequences of many generations of sin; but no, you are not being wrongly punished as innocent victims of somebody else’s guilt. Far from being innocent, you yourselves are just as guilty of the same sins as your forefathers. If you are being “put to death” (in exile), it is because you yourselves are persons who have sinned. So, stop trying to shift the blame” (N.T Wright). So, the exilic community cannot blame the previous generations for their loss of status and homeland.

Yes, brothers and sisters, the practice of transferring responsibility and blame to someone else apparently is a characteristic of our fallen human nature. We are not to blame, it is always someone’s fault or something else, directly or indirectly. Perhaps it is your parents, relatives or some other adults who wronged you as a child and destroyed your self esteem. Perhaps it is the peer pressure from school friends or colleagues that caused you to fall. Perhaps it is your genes that made you lazy or unmotivated. Perhaps it is the church leaders for not being good enough that caused you to stumble. Worst still, perhaps it is the devil made you do it. And we even blame God for His unfair treatment for allowing bad things to happen to us. But what is the danger of this kind of blame-shifting? By blaming someone or something else for the mess I have made, then I can dismiss or diminish my own personal responsibility. And if I am not really responsible, then I am under no constraint to apologize or repent. Someone says it correctly: All blame is a waste of time. No matter how much fault we find with another, regardless of how much we blame someone, it will not change us. The reason for blaming someone is to keep the focus off of us while we look for external reasons to explain our unhappiness or frustration. We may succeed in making another feel guilty by blaming them, but we won’t succeed in changing and moving away from the sin that is making us unhappy. (Jay Robison) Furthermore, shifting the blame only provides us a misleading sense of security from the wrath of God. As Christians, we know that without repentance or change there can be no forgiveness and no fellowship with God. Yes, blame-shifting tactics were unacceptable to God in Ezekiel time, and are unacceptable even today. So, every generation and every individual needs to face up to responsibility for their own actions. And this is the second point of today’s message.

(2) We must accept proper responsibility for our life.
Yes, all people are personally responsible to God for their own actions. It means we must always be aware that we are accountable for what we do in the eyes of God. To expound this teaching, Ezekiel thus invites the exilic community to imagine three generations of a family—father, son and grandson with their respective behaviors. The behavior of each is assessed against a “checklist” of what is deemed to be righteous behaviors. The father is described as a righteous person who will surely live. Five principles or criteria characterize his life as righteous. The first is the general principle that he does what is just and right (V5). Second, he worships Yahweh alone as the one true God, rejecting all false gods and pagan practices (V6a). Third, he carefully guards and maintains marital fidelity and moral purity (V6b). Fourth, he is a good neighbor in his relationship to other members of the community. He treats others with kindness, generosity and justice. He does not steal but rather gives food and clothing to the poor. He does not wrong or takes advantage of anyone, especially the needy. He also promotes ethical behavior in others (VV7-8). The fifth is the summary of all his behaviors: he respects and observes all the decrees and laws of Yahweh (V9). To such a person, Yahweh offers life. For Ezekiel, the life Yahweh offers does not merely refer to eternal life in the future. In the context of today’s passage, it means escape from divine judgment as well as life in present in all its fullness and blessing, even he is in exile in Babylon.

The son, however, turns to wickedness and becomes a man of violence and bloodshed, indulging in all those unjust and evil things from which his father abstained. In short, he is the antithesis or opposite of his father, reversing all things that his father had done or refrained from doing. The question now is: What is to be the verdict on such a wicked son? Will such a man live? Should he go unpunished because he has a righteous father? The answer from God in His divine courtroom is an unqualified no: He shall not live! So, Ezekiel’s point is clear: If a wicked person is sentenced to death or punished, it is on account of that’s person own sin; any transfer of guilt or righteousness from parent to child is excluded. This wicked son will not be rescued by his father’s righteousness.

But supposed this wicked son also has a son, what would his behavior be? He has carefully compared his grandfather’s life and the life-style of his father, and chooses to follow the example of his godly grandfather. Here comes again the list of his grandfather’s behaviors that he follows. His life is again a model of piety, chastity and charity. In other words, his behavior is a virtual carbon copy of his grandfather’s. So, what should be the divine verdict on this third generation, the grandson? He will not die for his father’s sin; he will be judged on the basis of his own accord and will live. He will not be held responsible for the sins of his father. He will be declared to be as righteous as his grandfather, on the same grounds, and without prejudice from the intervening generation.

As the proverb of sour grapes eating and its bad aftertaste is so widely applied by the exilic community to their present situation, at this point in time, Ezekiel envisages a protest or objection from them: Why does the son not share the guilt of his father? Look at our suffering! That is what is happening to us now! Ezekiel however insists on the strict segregation of generations in God’s moral verdict upon them. The verdict depends on each generation’s own response to God’s law. In fact, Ezekiel is telling them if you think your exile has indeed come under the ‘death’ sentence from God, you must look to your own behavior and stop blaming your ancestors. You certainly do not belong to the righteous third generation but the wicked second generation, neither your forefathers are to be viewed as the righteous first generation. In fact, the history of Israel from the desert period on is one of continuous rebellion against God (20:4-29). Its kings and its people had long since embraced the pagan and secular culture that surrounded them from generation to generation. And you also have shared in the sins of past generations for not following God’s law. So, God’s dealings with you have been nothing other than perfectly just. Ezekiel therefore reaffirms once again God’s principle of judgment: “The soul who sins is the one who will die. The righteousness of the righteous man will be credited to him, and the wickedness of the wicked will be charged against him.”

Yes, brothers and sisters, as children of God we live as a community of faith. But such a community could only be created through the realization of the individuals that each one is held responsible for his or her life before God and to be a good steward in life. In other words, each member of the community is to exercise personal responsibility in life before we can talk about our corporate identity. As in today’s text, we have to be a righteous person first. Only then can we shoulder our own responsibility and at the same time show our devotion to God. We are then able to help each other and together to build a corporate identity. Thus, our individual conduct, our moral life would certainly have great bearing on the life of the community. And that is why individual responsibility is being stressed by Ezekiel again and again. As such, we cannot lay the blame for what we do at the feet of another person. We must own up to our wrongdoings and be responsible for what we do. God has given us everything we need, including His own Son and the Holy Spirit to guide us, there is therefore no excuses for us not to live a responsible and holy life. God has provided us a way out of our penalty of sins through His Son, Jesus Christ, if only we will confess that we are wrong in the first place and face up to our own guilt. It is now our choice whether to continue our blame-shifting or to look to our own behavior to accept our personal responsibility before God. The need for divine grace can never be fully realized until one has accepted first of all one’s own responsibility. Because if you think you are not responsible for anything or for everyone in life, then you certainly do not need God’s grace to help you or to forgive you. You do not even need God at all. So, the choice we make now and our action today would certainly govern our way of life and our own destiny.

(3) We must all come to God as individuals in obedience to Him.
But how can one be responsible for one’s life? He has to be constantly aware that he actually lives in relation to the personal God, Yahweh, to whom all lives belong. This is exactly what Yahweh declares in the beginning verse of today’s passage: “For every living soul belongs to me, the father as well as the son—both alike belong to me. The soul who sins is the one who will die.” This is the universal affirmation of God. God is in fact calling every human soul on earth to come to Him as individuals in obedience to Him in order to live. And this is also the third point of today’s passage.

Yes, we cannot truly understand ourselves and be responsible without recognizing that God has the claim to our lives. God is the source and creator of all, which includes us. He is the personal owner of every human person who has ever lived, lives or will live on the planet. “All lives they belong to me” what an affirming declaration from God! Thus, we know we are personally related to Him and our fates are not abandoned to some distant and impersonal forces. As our personal owner, God sustains our lives not only by His grace, but He also wants us to live in relation to Him as our personal God. This has great significance for us. It means each of us belongs to Him in the same way, on the same conditions, with the same demands, as the other does. The parent as a personal entity and the child as a personal entity, they both relate to God in the same direct way, regardless of generational priority. In other words, we all stand before God on equal footing and each of our life has great value in Him. As such, each of us is to be responsible for the life God has given us, for every one stands before Him in direct personal relationship and moral accountability.

But our personal choice and action would reflect what kind of relationship we want to have with God, and how we see our role as His people. As a personal God, God’s presence cannot be felt without the community of His people. That is to say God cannot be known or honored in the world without His people living in ordered harmony and in obedience to Him. Someone even ventures to say, “Yahweh is not truly a God until He is surrounded by a people faithful to Him.” So, God must manifest who He is through the behaviors and the lives of His people. God wants us to represent Him in this world and this is why we are created in the image of this personal God. Furthermore, God is even affected by the actions of His people. Can you still remember my previous sermon that the evil action and behavior of the Jerusalem community had in fact driven Yahweh out from His own Temple and His City? And because this is so, Ezekiel takes great pains to establish the working of God in Israel history and in today’s text to list out various codes of ethic God demands from His people. This list of ethical requirements is to give concrete shape to the moral character of His people. Righteousness thus describes the right response of the person who is responsible and chooses to live as befits his membership of the covenant community of God. It does not however mean moral perfection, but it certainly implies moral commitment. In other words, the righteous person is the one who takes seriously the Commandments of God and strives to live in a right relationship with Him. He would accept God as his overlord, and therefore to submit to His demands on his life. In short, he shows his allegiance to God in obedience to His law.

In fact, the whole of chapter 18 speaks about obedience and disobedience to Yahweh as an issue of life and death. By stressing and linking the individual responsibility to Israel’s fate as a nation, Ezekiel’s goal is to reconstruct the exilic community to be the holy people of God. In other words, if the people in exile could show their obedience to God and discontinue the rebellious ways of the past, they stand a real chance to be part of Israel’s future. They can indeed escape the penalty of death. Yahweh is not only an impartial judge, but one who wants the exilic community to live. As their personal owner, He is concern with every single life of His people. So, even now it is not too late for the wicked to turn away from wrongdoing to begin a new life following God’s ways (VV 21-22). They must show their fidelity to God in obedience as rightful members of His covenant community. In fact, Israel cannot really call itself the people of God as long as it is not continually and entirely governed by Yahweh and His law. Ezekiel therefore must place great emphasis on the individual responsibility in this chapter, so as to reconstitute Israel as the people of God. For if every member of the community plays his part and acts out his moral and covenant commitments, Israel will be restored once again as truly the people of God.

Thus, for Ezekiel, people are judged by God individually for what they are, not for what they once were. As a personal God, He provides a genuinely open future for each individual based on what that person really has become. We are neither prisoners of the past nor yet captive to the sins of others. So, we have the bold option of imagining and choosing a future that has no precedent. In light of this open future, God calls us to make responsible choice. As I have mentioned before, we all stand before God on our own two feet and our own choice would govern our own destiny. But in case our freedom of chose is radically misused, do we still have a future? Again, as a personal God, God does not desire the death but the repentance of the wrong so that he or she may live. What then is the Ezekiel’s understanding of repentance? It will be dealt with in next Sunday’s sermon. But suffice to say to each person who falls away, God will make an open appeal: “Turn, then, and live.” We must remember that each individual life is unique with great value in the eyes of our personal God: All lives they belong to me!

Yes, all lives they belong to God. This should always be the reminder for us in our attitudes towards others. The lives of the rich and the lives of the poor, the lives of the young and the lives of the old, the lives of the save and the lives yet to be saved, they all belong to God. So, in the caring for people regardless who he or she is, we are caring for God’s property, His treasure. This should be our humbling and sobering perspective on all our relationships with others. For those we are yet to come to Christ, our task is to help them to return to their rightful owner. For those who already belong to Christ, our task is to help them to relate rightfully to their personal owner. For those who are lost, our task is to lead them to a restored relationship with their personal owner through the grace of forgiveness. As for our own self, we must all come to God as individuals in obedience to Him. We cannot base our security on anyone else’s faith. May be you were blessed to have Godly parents, spouse, children or siblings, but they will not save you. You will not be declared righteous by God because of them. Being a member of a church and attending worship service does not save you either. Believing in Jesus is also not good enough because Satan believes in Jesus as well. It is only when you individually turn to Jesus as your Savior and Lord, and appropriate for yourself His righteousness by God’s grace. By acknowledging Him as your Savior and Lord, you stand before Him in direct personal relationship and moral accountability. No one else could take your place because you are responsible for your own life. But the personal God will always be in action in your life to guide you, sustain you and to forgive you, because you belong to Him!

Ezekiel 18:1–20 (Listen)

18:1 The word of the LORD came to me: “What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge’? As I live, declares the Lord GOD, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. Behold, all souls are mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is mine: the soul who sins shall die.

“If a man is righteous and does what is just and right—if he does not eat upon the mountains or lift up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel, does not defile his neighbor’s wife or approach a woman in her time of menstrual impurity, does not oppress anyone, but restores to the debtor his pledge, commits no robbery, gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with a garment, does not lend at interest or take any profit, withholds his hand from injustice, executes true justice between man and man, walks in my statutes, and keeps my rules by acting faithfully—he is righteous; he shall surely live, declares the Lord GOD.

10 “If he fathers a son who is violent, a shedder of blood, who does any of these things 11 (though he himself did none of these things), who even eats upon the mountains, defiles his neighbor’s wife, 12 oppresses the poor and needy, commits robbery, does not restore the pledge, lifts up his eyes to the idols, commits abomination, 13 lends at interest, and takes profit; shall he then live? He shall not live. He has done all these abominations; he shall surely die; his blood shall be upon himself.

14 “Now suppose this man fathers a son who sees all the sins that his father has done; he sees, and does not do likewise: 15 he does not eat upon the mountains or lift up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel, does not defile his neighbor’s wife, 16 does not oppress anyone, exacts no pledge, commits no robbery, but gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with a garment, 17 withholds his hand from iniquity, takes no interest or profit, obeys my rules, and walks in my statutes; he shall not die for his father’s iniquity; he shall surely live. 18 As for his father, because he practiced extortion, robbed his brother, and did what is not good among his people, behold, he shall die for his iniquity.

19 “Yet you say, ‘Why should not the son suffer for the iniquity of the father?’ When the son has done what is just and right, and has been careful to observe all my statutes, he shall surely live. 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.