Ezekiel xviii. 1-4. "The word of the Lord came unto me again, saying, What mean ye, that ye use this proverb concerning the land of Israel, saying, The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge? As I live, saith the Lord God, ye shall not have occasion any more to use this proverb in Israel. Behold, all souls are mine; as the soul of the father, so also the soul of the son is mine: the soul that sinneth, it shall die."
This is a precious chapter, and a comfortable chapter likewise, for it helps us to clear up a puzzle which has tormented the minds of men in all ages whenever they have thought of God, and of whether God meant them well, or meant them ill.
For all men have been tempted. We are tempted at times to say,--The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge. That is, we are punished not for what we have done wrong, but for what our fathers did wrong. One man says,--My forefathers squandered their money, and I am punished by being poor. Or, my forefathers ruined their constitutions, and, therefore, I am weakly and sickly. My forefathers were ignorant and reckless, and, therefore, I was brought up ignorant, and in all sorts of temptation. And so men complain of their ill-luck and bad chance, as they call it, till they complain of God, and say, as the Jews said in Ezekiel's time, God's ways are unequal--partial--unfair. He is a respecter of persons. He has not the same rule for all men. He starts men unequally in the race of life--some heavily weighted with their father's sins and misfortunes, some helped in every way by their father's virtue and good fortune--and then He expects them all to run alike. God is not just and equal. And then some go on,--men who think themselves philosophers, but are none--to say things concerning God of which I shall say nothing here, lest I put into your minds foolish thoughts, which had best be kept out of them.
But, some of you may say, Is it not so after all? Is it not true? Is not God harder on some than on others? Does not God punish men every day for their father's sins? Does He not say in the Second Commandment that He will do so, and visit the sins of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generation; and how can you make that agree with what Ezekiel says,--"The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father." My dear friends, I know that this is a puzzle, and always has been one. Like the old puzzle of God's foreknowledge and our free will, which seem to contradict each other. Like the puzzle that we must help ourselves, and yet that God must help us, which seem to contradict each other. So with this. I believe of it, as of the two others I just mentioned, that there is no real contradiction between the two cases; and that some-when, somehow, somewhere, in the world to come, we shall see them clearly reconciled; and justify God in all His dealings, and glorify Him in all His ways. But surely already, here, now, we may see our way somewhat into the depths of this mystery. For Christ has come to give us light, and in His light we may see light, even into this dark matter.
For see: God visits the sins of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation--but of whom?--of them that hate Him. Now, by those who hate God is meant, those who break His commandments, and are bad men. If so, then, I say that God is not only just but merciful, in visiting the sins of the fathers on the children.
For, consider two cases. Suppose these bad men, from father to son, and from son to grandson, go on in the same evil ways, and are incorrigible. Then is not God merciful to the world in punishing them, even in destroying them out of the world, where they only do harm? The world does not want fools, it wants wise men. The world does not want bad men, it wants good men; and we ought to thank God, if, by His eternal laws, He gets rid of bad men for us; and, as the saying is, civilizes them off the face of the earth in the third or fourth generation. And God does so. If a family, or a class, or a whole nation becomes incorrigibly profligate, foolish, base, in three or four generations they will either die out or vanish. They will sink to the bottom of society, and become miserably poor, weak, and of no influence, and so unable to do harm to any but themselves. Whole families will sink thus, I have seen it; you may have seen it. Whole nations will sink thus; as the Jews sank in Ezekiel's time, and again in our Lord's time; and be conquered, trampled on, counted for nothing, because they were worth nothing.
But now suppose, again, that the children, when their father's sins are visited on them, are NOT incorrigible. Suppose they are like the wise son of whom Ezekiel speaks, in the 14th verse, who seeth all his father's sins, and considereth, and doeth not such like--then has not God been merciful and kind to him in visiting his father's sins on him? He has. God is justified therein. His eternal laws of natural retribution, severe as they are, have worked in love and in mercy, if they have taught the young man the ruinousness, the deadliness of sin. Have the father's sins made the son poor? Then he learns not to make his children poor by his sin. Have his father's sins made him unhealthy? Then he learns not to injure his children's health. Have his father's sins kept him ignorant, or in anywise hindered his rise in life? Then he learns the value of a good education, and, perhaps, stints himself to give his children advantages which he had not himself--and, as sure as he does so, the family begins to rise again after its fall. This is no fancy, it is fact. You may see it. I have seen it, thank God. How some of the purest and noblest women, some of the ablest and most right-minded men, will spring from families, will be reared in households, where everything was against them--where there was everything to make them profligate, false, reckless, in a word--bad--except the grace of God, which was trying to make them good, and succeeded in making them good; and how, though they have felt the punishment of their parents' sins upon them in many ways during their whole life, yet that has been to them not a mere punishment, but a chastisement, a purifying medicine, a cross to be borne, which only stirred them up to greater watchfulness against sin, to greater earnestness in educating their children, to greater activity and energy in doing right, and giving their children the advantages which they had not themselves. And so were fulfilled in them two laws of God. The one which Ezekiel lays down--that the bad man's son who executes God's judgments and walks in God's statutes shall not die for the iniquity of his father, but surely live; and the other law which Moses lays down--that God shews mercy unto thousands of generations, as I believe it means--that is, to son after father, and son after father again, without end--as long as they love Him and keep His commandments.
I do not, therefore, see that there is any real contradiction between what Moses says in the second commandment and what Ezekiel says in this chapter. They are but two different sides of the same truth; and Moses is shewing the Jews one side, because they needed most to be taught that in his time, and Ezekiel showing them the other, because that was the teaching which they needed most then. For they were fancying themselves, in their calamities, the victims of some blind and cruel fate, and had forgotten that, when God said that He visited the sins of the fathers on the children, He qualified it by saying, "of them that hate Me."
Therefore, be hopeful about yourselves, and hopeful about your children after you. If any one here feels--I am fallen very low in the world-- here all has been so much against me--my parents were the ruin of me--Let him remember this one word of Ezekiel. "Have I any pleasure at all that the wicked should die? saith the Lord God: and not that he should return from his ways, and live?" Let him turn from his father's evil ways, and do that which is lawful and right, and then he can say with the Prophet, in answer to all the strokes of fortune and the miseries of circumstance, "Rejoice not against me, O mine enemy: when I fall I shall arise." Provided he will remember that God requires of all men something, which is, to be as good as they can be; then he may remember also that our Lord Himself says, "Unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall much be required;" implying that to whom little is given, of him will little be required. God's ways are not unequal. He has one equal, fair, and just rule for every human being; and that is perfect understanding, perfect sympathy, perfect good will, and therefore perfect justice and perfect love.
And if any one of you answers in his heart--these are good words, and all very well: but they come too late. I am too far gone. I ate the sour grapes in my youth, and my teeth must be on edge for ever and ever. I have been a bad man, or I have been a foolish woman too many years to mend now. I am down, and down I must be. I have made my bed, and I must lie on it, and die on it too. Oh my dear brother or sister in Christ, whoever you are who says that, unsay it again for it is not true. Ezekiel tells you that it is not true, and one greater than Ezekiel, Jesus Christ, your Saviour, your Lord, your God, tells you it is not true.
For what happens, by God's eternal and unchangeable laws of retribution, to a whole nation, or a whole family, may happen to you--to each individual man. They fall by sin; they rise again by repentance and amendment. They may rise punished by their sins, and punished for a long time, heavily weighted by the consequences of their own folly, and heavily weighted for a long time. But they rise--they enter into their new life weak and wounded, from their own fault. But they enter in. And from that day things begin to mend--the weather begins to clear, the soil begins to yield again--punishment gradually ceases when it has done its work, the weight lightens, the wounds heal, the weakness strengthens, and by God's grace within them, and by God's providence outside them, they are made men of again, and saved. So you will surely find it in the experience of life.
No doubt in general, in most cases,
The child is father of the man
for good and evil. A pious and virtuous youth helps, by sure laws of God, towards a pious and virtuous old age. And on the other hand, an ungodly and profligate youth leads, by the same laws, toward an ungodly and profligate old age. That is the law. But there is another law which may stop that law--just as the stone falls to the ground by the natural law of weight, and yet you may stop that law by using the law of bodily strength, and holding it up in your hand. And what is the gracious law which will save you from the terrible law which will make you go on from worse to worse?
It is this,--"when the wicked man turneth away from his wickedness that he hath committed, and doeth that which is lawful and right, he shall save his soul alive." It is not said that his soul shall come in a moment to perfect health and strength. No. There are old bad habits to be got rid of, old ties to be broken, old debts (often worse debts than any money debts) to be paid. But he shall save his soul alive. His soul shall not die of its disease. It shall be saved. It shall come to life, and gradually mend and be cured, and grow from strength to strength, as a sick man mends day by day after a deadly illness, slowly it may be, but surely:--for how can you fail of being cured if your physician is none other than Jesus Christ your Lord and your God?
Oh, recollect that last word. If you will but recollect that, you will never despair. How dare any man say--Bad I am, and bad I must remain-- while the God who made heaven and earth offers to make you good? Who dare say,--I cannot amend--when God Himself offers to amend you? Who dare say,--I have no strength to amend--when God offers to give you strength, strength of His strength, and life of His life, even His Holy Spirit? Who dare say,--God has given me up; He has a grudge against me which He will not lay by, an anger against me which cannot be appeased, a score against me which will never be wiped out of His book? Oh foolish and faint-hearted soul. Look, look at Christ hanging on His cross, and see there what God's grudge, God's anger, God's score of your sins is like. Like love unspeakable, and nothing else. To wash out your sins, He spared not His only begotten Son, but freely gave Him for you, to shew you that God, so far from hating you, has loved you; that so far from being your enemy, He was your father; that so far from willing the death of a sinner, He willed that you and every sinner should turn from his wickedness and live. For that, Jesus the only begotten Son of God, came down and preached, and sorrowed, and suffered, and died upon the cross. He died that you may live; He suffered that you may be saved; He paid the debt, because you could never pay it; He bore your sins upon the cross, that you might not have to bear them for ever and for ever in eternal death. Now, even if you suffer somewhat in this life for your sins, that suffering is not punishment, but wholesome chastisement, as when a father chastens the son in whom he delighteth. All He asks of you is to long and try to give up your sins, for He will help you to give them up. All He asks of you is to long and try to lead a new life, for He will give you power to lead a new life. Oh, say not--I cannot--when Christ who died for you says you can. Say not--I dare not--when Christ bids you dare come boldly to His throne of grace. Say not--I must be as I am-- when Christ died that you should NOT be as you are. Say not--there is no hope--when Christ died and rose again, and reigns for ever, to give hope to you and all mankind, that when the wicked man turns away from his wickedness that he has committed, and doeth that which is lawful and right, he shall save his soul alive, and all his transgressions shall not be mentioned unto him, but in his righteousness that he hath done shall he live.