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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

Ezekiel 18





This chapter connects itself closely with the foregoing series of prophecies. The certainty of the Divine judgments had now been repeatedly and most emphatically foretold, but that this might have the effect of leading the people to true repentance, it was still necessary that the sense of sin should be brought home to them individually. The people were by no means inclined to acknowledge their own personal guilt, but were rather, like sinners of every age, disposed to look upon their sufferings as the consequence of the sins of others who had gone before. This disposition is here met by the most full and emphatic assurance that God deals with each man in view of his own acts—that no one shall be either punished or rewarded for another’s guilt or virtue, but only for his own.

The statements here made are exposed to two difficulties :—(1) that it is expressly declared in the second commandment that God does visit the sins of the fathers upon the children (Exodus 20:5; Exodus 34:7; Deuteronomy 5:9), and that all history shows that this is a law of His moral government of the world; and (2) that it is by no means true that individual suffering and happiness are exactly proportioned in this world to individual character and conduct. On the contrary, from the time of Job to that of our Lord, this was one of those pernicious views of the Jews which the inspired word takes great pains to combat. How, then, are the statements of this chapter to be justified? In regard to the first difficulty, simply by remembering the two-fold relation, the individual and the federal, in which each man stands to his Maker. It is in virtue of the federal relation that, on the one hand, as children of Adam, we are all born into the world with a pre-disposition to sin; and, on the other, are all partakers of the benefits of the redemption wrought out for us by the second Adam. Under the laws of nature it must necessarily come about that the children shall suffer or enjoy in consequence of the uprightness or the sin of their fathers. Yet more important, and prevailing above this federal relation, is the attitude of each individual towards God. By this, through the reconciliation effected by the redemption of Christ, he is brought into communion with God, and becoming one with Christ, is viewed and treated as a member of the body of the only begotten Son. This does not hinder that the laws of nature shall still work out their natural effects—we still must be subject to death, because our first father sinned; but it does bring About that all these natural sufferings become transformed into higher blessings. Even death becomes to us, through Him who has overcome death, but the gateway to a new and higher life. Thus it is true that God does both visit the sins of the fathers upon the children, and at the same time does, through all, punish and reward each single person according to their own individual bearing towards Him.

There was thus an important truth contained in the perverted views of the people, and it was very necessary that the still higher truths of this chapter should be impressed upon them; for only thus could the inferior and more obvious facts be correlated with the justice of God and His purposes of love towards His people.

Verse 2

(2) What mean ye?—Almost the same expression occurs in Ezekiel 12:22. The literal translation would be, What is it to you who are using this proverb? and the sense is “Why do you, &c.?” Proverb shows that it was a common saying, a way in which the people habitually sought to shirk the responsibility for their guilt. The same proverb is quoted in Jeremiah 31:29, and condemned in the same way. “Concerning the land” should rather be in the land, i.e., among the people, including both those at Jerusalem and in captivity. The teaching of this chapter concerning individual responsibility is, in one form or another, often repeated by Ezekiel. It is set forth in regard to the prophet and people, in Ezekiel 3:18-21; in regard to those upon whom the mark was set, in Ezekiel 9:4-6; in regard to those who enquire of the Lord, in Ezekiel 14:3-9; and generally the teaching of this chapter is repeated in Ezekiel 33:1-20.

Verse 4

(4) All souls are mine.—This is the basis of the subsequent teaching. Since all alike belong to God and are absolutely in His power. He has no occasion to punish one lest another should escape; and again, since all are His, He loves and would save them all, and inflicts punishment only when it is deserved and His grace is rejected. Four cases are now discussed separately: (1) That of the righteous man who honestly seeks to follow the ways of the Lord (Ezekiel 18:5-9); (2) that of his wicked son (Ezekiel 18:10-13); (3) that of the righteous son of the wicked (Ezekiel 18:14-20); (4) that of a change of character in the individual, whether from sin to righteousness or the reverse (Ezekiel 18:21-29). The word “soul” throughout the chapter does not mean exclusively the immortal part of our nature, but, as so often in Scripture, is equivalent to man, or person, or self; and the word “die” is used, as often elsewhere, in the broad sense of suffer punishment.

Verses 4-27

The Death of the Soul

The soul that sinneth, it shall die. Again, 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.—Ezekiel 18:4; Ezekiel 18:27.

1. In these simple words the Prophet was directed to answer the sad proverb in which the popular voice had summed up the teachings of Hebrew history. “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the childrens teeth are set on edge,” it was said. Here was a sufficient account of their national ruin; here was the secret of their anguish as they lay in captivity. As men will, the Jews eagerly caught at any theory of life which would divert responsibility from themselves. The Babylonian exile was their misfortune, not their fault. It was the fault of their fathers, for whose sins it was that things had come to such a pass. So they said to Ezekiel, as they had said to Jeremiah, “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the childrens teeth are set on edge.” That the sins of the fathers are visited upon the children was a familiar thought to them. They had been taught from the earliest days of the nation that idolatry—the worship of strange gods—would entail an inheritance of evil upon posterity, and the truth of the lesson had been learnt by a bitter experience. But self-excuse is self-accusation; and when the Hebrews began to appeal to that national heritage which should have been a source of strength as a cause of weakness, it was plain that the conscience of the nation was at fault.

2. Ezekiel met the fixed iron fatalism of the people—the plea, “It is all a matter of heredity”—with the all-encompassing and indefeasible doctrine of the personal responsibility of each man for his own sin, as distinct from the distorted notion of inherited and transmitted guilt and suffering they were proclaiming. God says, he told them, Behold, all souls are Mine; each is of equal and independent value; as the soul of the father, so is the soul of the son; the soul that sinneth, it shall die—it, and not another for it; it alone, and only for its own conscious and inward wrong. Every man is a unit, an integer needing no fraction from the present, or past, or future, to complete his being. His responsibility is personal, exclusive, individual, and entire. Each soul of man dwells in the awful solitude of its individual obligation to God. “Teeth set on edge” are not signs of personal sin; suffering is no proof of personal wrong, and is not “death.” It is sin that kills, and sin is and must be of personal will and individual intelligence. No man sins for another; no man dies for another. Gods ways are all equal, and righteousness is the glory of His administration. Heredity is a fact; but it accounts neither for the sum of human suffering nor for the presence of individual sin. The Jews thought that present suffering was to be explained en bloc by past sin. The fact of a man being born blind was to be accounted for by his parents having sinned. The law of heredity was recognized by the prophet as largely explaining the fact of moral degeneration, but he shows that it does not fully explain it. There are limitations to the law of heredity. Each individual soul stands in a direct and personal relationship to God; each person alone, and from this point of view unaffected by the position of his father, has an individuality—has character, and moral worth. Hence the individual that sins shall die—not for the sin he may have inherited, not because of any relationship to a father, but for the sin he himself has done.

And as sin is individual, so the call to repentance, which is the keynote of the prophets ministry, is addressed to individual men, and, in order that it may take effect, their minds must be disabused of all fatalistic preconceptions which would induce paralysis of the moral faculties. It was necessary to affirm in all their breadth and fulness the two fundamental truths of personal religion—the absolute righteousness of Gods dealings with individual men, and His readiness to welcome and pardon the penitent.

3. So the prophets teaching is that in human history and human life there is something higher than the law of heredity, as we now call it. There is a spirit, a soul in man, and the Almighty has given him understanding. The spirit of man is akin to the Divine Spirit, and in this kinship it has a spring of higher life. It has an impulse of its own, which no circumstances can overbear, which connects it at once with the consciousness and the power of self action, of doing that which is lawful and right, and so, under whatever disadvantages, of saving the soul alive; or again, of doing that which is evil, and so bringing death to itself. Ezekiel, in the Old Testament, is the great teacher of this deepest of spiritual truths. “Other prophets,” it has been said, “have more of poetical beauty, a deeper sense of Divine things, a tenderer feeling of the mercies of God for His people; none teach so simply—and with a simplicity the more remarkable from the elaborate imagery out of which it emerges—the great lesson that the individual soul is free before God, that it has within it the power of good and evil, and that God will judge it, not for anything done by others, but by its own doings.” Every man is responsible for his own life and conduct, and must be held directly accountable to God. Collectivism received its deathblow before such teaching as this, and men were seen to stand or fall according to their lives, which were regarded as the index to the state of the individual heart; God refused to deal with men solely upon principles of moral heredity.

One day, as Ezekiel strayed by the river-side, he had what he calls a vision—what would now be called a spiritual experience. Doubtless there were men besides Ezekiel on the banks of the Chebar that day; but these saw only a sheet of water and heard only a murmuring sound. To Ezekiel the sheet of water was a crystal mirror revealing the Kingdom of God, and the murmuring sound was the voice of the Divine Spirit.

And what did that voice say? What was the message which greeted him by the river-side? Let me try to paraphrase it. It said: Ezekiel, your people have an exaggerated sense of the power of heredity. They are making the sins of their fathers an excuse for their own. They are claiming their iniquities as an inevitable inheritance; they are trying to throw their responsibility upon the long line of their ancestors. Go and tell them they are mistaken! Tell them there is a force in this world besides hereditary force—the force of the individual soul! Tell them there is a power in the personal will which can modify the will of the ages! Proclaim to each man that he is not bound to yield to the current of the stream! Bid him remember that he can resist the current! Reveal to him the secret of his own personality—its secret and its awfulness! Tell him to practise inflexibility, to practise resistance to the waters! Bid him cultivate determination, resolution, unwaveringness of purpose! Teach him to train his will as he would train his eye! Exhort him to withstand by daily exercise the pressure of that ancestral stream of passion which has widened into a river and is deepening into a sea!

That is the message to Ezekiel. I could imagine no more trenchant message for our own day. We are very much in the position of Ezekiels countrymen. We have invested heredity with an absolute power. We are in danger of forgetting our responsibility. We want an Ezekiel—some preacher to tell us, not of the race, but of the individual. We want something to strengthen, not the nation, but the unit. Anything that gives force to the individual man will be our Ezekiel, and ought to be welcomed as such.1 [Note: G. Matheson, The Representative Men of the Bible, ii. 321.]


The Responsibility of the Individual

“The soul that sinneth.”

1. The feeling is deep-seated in our nature that sin is excusable; that it comes from causes which we cannot help; that it has borne us down and carried us away, rather than been of our own seeking. Our circumstances are made to excuse it. The strength of temptation, the weakness of will, our surroundings, the events of our time, the inevitable sequence of our life. There may be much in such facts, and Scripture does not ignore their influence on the side of truth in the necessarian view of life. Scripture not only does not say there is no truth in it; it often emphasizes it. Yet it never forgets the deeper truth, and so never lowers it. It never allows any pressure of circumstances really to excuse us. It appeals from all external conditions to the inner sanctuary of the self, and says to the sinner in the very pride of his sin, when perhaps he has put conscience to sleep, and enthroned sensual appetite above Divine desire, You are the man. You have sinned, and you know it. You have preferred the evil to the good. You have chosen darkness rather than light, your deeds being evil. Do not try to excuse yourself by circumstances; you know that your sins lay deeper than any circumstances—in your own will, your own choice of the evil when you had power to choose otherwise. “Be not deceived; God is not mocked.” Your own higher nature is not befooled. “For whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap. For he that soweth to his flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption; but he that soweth to the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting.”

The Bible is full of the doctrine of heredity. Whatever view we may take of the Fall, it holds as a declaration of the unbroken sequence in cause and effect between the latest generations and the earliest. The Old Testament doctrine, that the sins of the fathers are visited upon the children to the third and fourth generation, is to the same effect. But the Bible, while admitting and affirming the solidarity of the race and the large extent to which mans destiny is shaped for him before his birth, is at direct issue with the materialistic fatalism which would rid the individual of moral responsibility.

What religion, in fact, contends for is that the human ego within a certain limited area—an area conditioned by the facts of heredity and the existing environment—is a fount of creative power. Surrounded by competing and often opposing currents of influence, which beat upon it from both the material and the spiritual world, it has the faculty of choosing which of these it shall yield itself to. The immense changes that come over men as the result of the differing influences under which from time to time they place themselves, show that our characters are not ready-made and irreversible, but are every day in the making. The view of life, in fact, which accords most closely with Scripture, with the facts of experience, and with our deepest moral intuitions, is that which regards it as an inheritance which we are to deal with as we will. We have not made the inheritance. It comes down to us from the far past, carrying with it all manner of burdens, limitations, mortgages and what not, the result of the good or bad stewardship of those who held it before us. For these limitations we are not answerable. What we are responsible for is, when once in possession, to do the best with what there is. That the estate may have been impoverished by a spendthrift ancestor does not absolve us from the obligation of personal thrift. The more does that lie upon us, in order to improve what is left and hand it on in improved conditions to the next heir. And the man who seeks to do this will find in Christs Gospel a store of vital energy which will make him master of his fate.1 [Note: J. Brierley.]

2. Theories of circumstance are ready to affirm that we are what we are by evolution, and cannot help ourselves any more than we can help the shape of our limbs or the strength of our arms. But what human creature—in whom there is any higher life at all—does not know that the soul is mightier than circumstance, and that there is a fear of judgment which penetrates all excuses we can ever make for ourselves? There is in all of us an imperishable sense of individuality which is capable of stemming any stream of influence, and which asserts itself against our lower selves, and makes us responsible for all we say and think and do. And it is out of this that all true sense of religion springs. Because we are souls, and because our souls are Gods, this feeling of responsibility lives; it springs conscious within us, even when we try to kill it. The greatest evil-doer pales at times before the spectre of his own evil-doing, and the most ingenious sophist who tries to call darkness light and evil good knows in his inmost heart that he is deceiving himself. As surely as the soul sinneth it shall die. No excuse will avail. In our hearts we know that no circumstances compelled us to sin. It is no mere denunciation of Scripture. It is the voice of our own hearts. It is the utterance of our own living consciousness. It is a true psychology, the voice of philosophy as well as of Scripture, which tells us we are without excuse. Even when we try to excuse ourselves we are ashamed. We have lost our excuse; our plea of circumstances cannot stand examination. The more our heart is true, the more our spiritual sight is clear, the more does our sin make itself our own, and accuse and condemn us. And if this is not to verify the fact of responsibility, one knows not what verification means.

We are beginning to interpret the world in which man as an individual and apparently separate personality maintains his life, not as a hindrance to his freedom or as the enemy of his private good, but as the means whereby these may be attained. The world is an enemy only when it is misunderstood and misused. It obstructs the ignorant mind and frustrates and reproves the perverse will; but for the mind that is awake and alive, and the heart that is made wise unto goodness, it is a vast, rich inheritance waiting to be entered upon and possessed. Man has but to learn the true proportion of things, distinguishing great things and lasting things from the small, and he will find the truth declared by the Man of Sorrows, who was the greatest optimist the world ever knew, to be valid for all thought and all practice—“Seek ye first the kingdom of heaven, and all these things shall be added unto you.” The natural world is the instrument of moral issues, and the universe a place for the making of souls. If mans environment baffles, hinders, frustrates and ultimately defeats him, so that his whole career looks an empty thing of less than no account and ends in darkness, it is because that environment has been misinterpreted and misemployed by him and his fellows.1 [Note: Sir Henry Jones, Social Powers, 20.]

3. There is a strict balance of justice in all Gods ways. He will not suffer us to be tempted above what we are able to bear; but He will require of us that which He has committed to us. Let us stand in awe and sin not, and let us take heed that the gift of eternal life, of life in Himself, which He has given in the Son, be not lost through unbelief. If we were merely the creatures of circumstance, did the law of heredity bind us in an iron embrace, it would be hard indeed that we should suffer, not from anything in ourselves, but from the inevitable consequences of others sins. The doctrine of the Fall has sometimes been preached as if this were its meaning. We may be sure, whatever its meaning may be, that this is not its meaning. The reach of retribution is proportioned to the egoism of sin, as even the story of the Fall might have told any intelligent reader. As the soul of the father, so the soul of the son is Mine. It has its own individual relation to Me, its own powers and responsibilities; and only when it violates this of its own free act shall it incur the penalty of violation. Only the soul that sinneth shall die, shall receive the heart of death into itself. The principle which the prophet insists upon is not the strict retributive righteousness of God, but the moral freedom and independence of the individual person. The individual is not involved in the destiny of his fathers or of his people; neither does he lie under an irrevocable doom pronounced over him by his past life. The immediate relation of every spirit to God and its moral freedom to break with its own past raises it above both these dooms. What Ezekiel says of man is that each stands in immediate relation to God and shall live or die according as he repents or continues in his sin. Let us never forget that all well-being depends upon well-doing, and that well-doing and ill-doing are essentially individual. We cannot any of us live vicariously in the mass around us. We cannot do our duty by substitute. Even so let us remember that if we do ill we commit sin. Let no one think he can escape in the mass. For though hand join in hand, the wicked shall not go unpunished. Of all things sure in life—in the end if not in the beginning, at the last if not at the first—is the course of Divine retribution. It may be delayed, but it will come. It will fall with pain upon the head of the wicked. “The soul that sinneth, it shall die.”

“The soul that sinneth, it shall die,”—is that a threat? Is it not the deep utterance of a truth? Indeed, there cannot be a threat that is not the deep utterance of a truth, for no man can permanently suffer except by the eternal necessities of things,—not by whim, but by law. Is it not, then, as if it said, “The soul that sinneth dies, dies in its sinning, dies because for a soul there is no life but holiness”? “To sin is just so far to cease to live,” we said. May we not also say, “To cease to live is just so far to sin”? The man who does no duty because he has taught other men and himself to look upon him as an unenterprising, good-natured mortal to whom they are to bring no duties,—the creature who sometimes ventures to demand our respect for the very qualities which make him contemptible, who is conservative because radicalism is troublesome and calm because enthusiasm is a bore;—all these, when we see them as Christ sees them, we shall know are wicked men. The lazy and labour-saving saint is a sinner. The man who is not vitally good, is bad, for he is shutting his heart against the work of Him who came that men might have life. God teach us all that to be alive is the first condition of being good!1 [Note: Phillips Brooks, The More Abundant Life, 128.]


The Retribution of the Individual

“The soul that sinneth, it shall die.”

1. All through Scripture, “spirit” denotes life as coming from God, “soul” denotes life as constituted in the man. Consequently, when the individual life is to be made emphatic “soul” is used. “Soul,” in Scripture, freely denotes persons. “My soul” is the Ego, the self, and when used, like “heart,” for the inner man, and even for the feelings, has reference always to the special individuality. “Spirit,” on the other hand, seldom or never used to denote the individual human being in this life, is primarily that imparted power by which the individual lives, the innermost of the inner life, the higher aspect of the self or personality. The inner nature is named “soul,” “after its special, individual life,” and “spirit” “after the living power which forms the condition of its special character.”

2. Here then it is the “soul” that is spoken of—“the soul that sinneth, it shall die.” The language is metaphorical. Sin is a disease; the end of the disease of sin is death. All through the earlier history of the Jews, sickness and sin had been associated as effect and cause; God had taught them by that association the real kinship which we know exists between the two. And disease had come to be the natural analogue of sin, the visible symbol of the invisible, till they came to look forward to their Messiah as a Great Physician of souls. And when the Christ came, He gave His imprimatur to that association of ideas. He healed every sickness and every disease among the people; but His mission was to heal the broken-hearted, to seek and to save the lost.

The thought of sin as a deadly sickness is perhaps more than a metaphor. For what is disease in the body but the failure of the organism to perform its functions aright? Life, in the language of biologists, is perfect correspondence to environment; and disease, which is imperfect correspondence, is incipient death. And if, as our heart tells us, God has made us for Himself—made us to find our own true life in Him—then sin is, in a very real sense, like a disease, and leads on to dissolution.

3. If physical life may be defined as “the sum total of the functions which resist death,” then spiritual life, in like manner, is the sum total of the functions which resist sin. As it is life alone that gives the plant power to utilize the elements, and as, without it, they utilize it, so it is the spiritual life alone that gives the soul power to utilize temptation and trial; and without it they destroy the soul. This destroying process goes on quite independently of Gods judgment on sin. Gods judgment on sin is another and a more awful fact of which this may be a part. But it is a distinct fact by itself, which we can hold and examine separately, that on purely natural principles the soul that is left to itself unwatched, uncultivated, unredeemed, must fall away into death by its own nature. “The soul that sinneth, it shall die.” It has neglected “the functions which resist death,” and has always been dying. The punishment is in its very nature, and the sentence is being gradually carried out all along the path of life by ordinary processes which enforce the verdict with the appalling faithfulness of law.

What is meant by the death of the soul, human thought can not understand; because we know not what man loses when he loses heaven. The two great elements of the death of the soul are the absence of all that constitutes life and the presence of everything that constitutes despair. There is for ever present to the soul the consciousness of this its twofold misery. The death of the soul does not deprive it of its consciousness—it is ever conscious, ever sensitive, ever active. It is “dead,” indeed, as the Apostle states, “in trespasses and sin”—dead to all influences of spiritual joy and peace, dead to all enjoyments of eternal bliss in heaven, dead to all love to God and things holy and Divine. There is no living joy in such a soul, no active love, no calming peace, no animating hope. Like the Dead Sea, nothing pure, good, lovely, healthful, lives in it, moves over it, grows around it; it is a bleak, bare, stagnant, desolate pool of bitter sorrow, barren of every delight, and breeding only the noxious exhalations of a miasma, which ever wraps the soul as in the winding sheet of eternal death.1 [Note: W. B. Stevens, Sermons, 25.]

The soul that sins dies, not because God utters a sentence of death and inflicts a positive punishment, but by and from the very nature of sin, and in consequence of the ordinary and necessary processes of a well and wisely-ordered world. The “death” of a man or a nation is not from a Divine fiat, and due to the issue of an irresistible edict; it is the inevitable outcome of conscious and intelligent acts on the part of men and nations, and is directly and immediately due to their choice of deeds in a world formed for the perpetuity and eternal reproductiveness of goodness and the sure, if slow, decay and disappearance of wrong. God is love, love of righteousness which is mans highest and most enduring welfare, and therefore

No action whether foul or fair,

Is ever done, but it leaves somewhere

A record, written by fingers ghostly,

As a blessing or a curse, and mostly

In the greater weakness or greater strength

Of the acts which follow it, till at length

The wrongs of ages are redressed,

And the justice of God made manifest!1 [Note: John Clifford, Daily Strength for Daily Living, 277.]

4. There is a yet deeper thought about sin. It is not only a disease of human nature; it is also a transgression of Gods eternal law of right. While the conception of a creditor who will have payment to the last farthing is utterly alien from the belief in a God of love, the very idea of God requires a vindication of the law of right. It is this that makes men feel that mere forgiveness of sins, the mere treating sin as if it were not, is an impossible thing. God cannot relax the moral law. He did not create it; it is eternal as Himself. Right is right not because God makes it so, but because the moral law is the revelation of Gods eternal nature. Every sin, in its degree, separates from God. This is the unvarying note of sin. But separation from God, even a partial separation, or estrangement, has an immediate reflex action upon man. To turn from God is not only to reject His love, it is by that very rejection to degrade human nature. Hence the first act of sin is rightly called a fall, and the expulsion from Eden was the symbol of that change which sin had wrought in man.

A first point in the Christian doctrine of sin is that sin does not arise as part of the necessary order of the universe, but has its origin or spring in personal will, revolting against God and goodness. Apart from special texts, sin is everywhere represented in Scripture as originating in voluntary disobedience on the part of man, as unfaithfulness to better knowledge, as wilful choosing of evil rather than of good—all flesh “corrupting” its way upon the earth. Only on this ground is sin something that God can judge and punish. Sin, as originating in a law-defying egoism, is a principle of God-negation. It cannot cohere with love to God, trust in Him, or enjoyment in His presence. The possibility of a spiritual communion is dissolved. The “love of the world,” with its new ruling principles, “the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the vain-glory of life,” excludes the “love of the Father.” It is easy to see the stamp of egoism which rests on all life in separation from God. Self-centred enjoyment, self-centred culture, self-centred morality, self-centred science, self-centred religion even (Worship of Humanity)—such are among the worlds ideals. John Foster remarks somewhere that men are as afraid to let God touch any of their schemes as they are of the touch of fire. It is the old Stoic αὐτάρκεια, self-sufficiency, not without a certain nobleness where men had nothing else, but sin in its renunciation of dependence on God. Existence on such a basis is doomed to futility.1 [Note: J. Orr, Sin as a Problem of To-day, 100.]

5. This leads us to the thought that retribution for sin does not always end with the sinner. The hereditary taint is not to be denied because it is often abused. Conscious disobedience to a moral law whose authority we recognize as binding us weakens not only the will of the sinner himself, but the will of his descendants when their turn comes to combat the forces of evil. This weakness and waywardness of the will in its warfare with the passions is what has been called by theologians, though the phrase has no Scriptural authority, “original sin.” It may perhaps be said that the phrase is not a very happy one; it is likely to mislead the unwary. For sin is essentially a personal, conscious act. But it is the expression of a truth which is as surely revealed in Scripture, and as firmly established by experience, as that of individual responsibility.

Disease, accidents, pain, and death, reign everywhere, and we call one another mortals, as if our chief peculiarity was that we must die, and you all know how death came into this world. “By one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned;” and disease, disorder, and distress are the fruits of sin, as truly as that apple grew on that forbidden tree. You have nowadays all sorts of schemes for making bad men good, and good men better. The world is full of such schemes, some of them wise and some foolish; but to be wise they must all go on the principle of lessening misery by lessening sin; so that the old weaver at Kilmarnock who, at a meeting for abolishing slavery, the corn laws, and a few more things, said, “Mr. Chairman, I move that we abolish Original Sin,” was at least beginning at the right end.2 [Note: Dr. John Brown, Plain Words on Health, 28.]

The most common cause of blindness is ophthalmia of the new-born. One pupil in every three at the institution for the blind in New York City was blinded in infancy by this disease. One-fourth of the inmates of the New York State Home for the Blind, six hundred sightless persons in the State of New York, between six thousand and seven thousand persons in the United States were plunged into darkness by ophthalmia neonatorum.

What is the cause of this disease? It is a specific germ communicated by the mother to the child at birth. Previous to the childs birth she has unconsciously received it through infection from her husband. He has contracted the infection in licentious relations before or since marriage. “The cruellest link in the chain of consequences,” says Dr. Prince Marrow, “is the mothers innocent agency. She is made a passive, unconscious medium of instilling into the eyes of her new-born babe a virulent poison which extinguishes its sight.” In mercy, let it be remembered the father does not know that he has so foully destroyed the eyes of his child and handicapped him for life. It is part of the bitter harvest of the wild oats he has sown. Society has smiled upon his “youthful recklessness” because society does not know that

They enslave their childrens children who make compromise with sin.1 [Note: Helen Keller, Out of the Dark, 176.]

Heredity may modify and condition responsibility: it cannot destroy or disannul it in the normal individual. A man is not necessarily responsible for the circumstance that certain possessions were bequeathed to him; but in so far as they are his possessions he is responsible for the use he makes of them. Where inheritance and heir are one the conditions are not otherwise. “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.” At the same time, heredity introduces shades of responsibility so subtle and delicate that the more we study men as we see them around us, the more impossible it appears for us to be able to judge any man, the more we feel that God alone can judge righteously.2 [Note: J. Y. Simpson, The Spiritual Interpretation of Nature, 237.]


Gods Offer of Life

“He shall save his life.”

1. Ezekiel urges upon the Hebrews that the pollution of sin is not hopeless. The burden of his exhortation is that the wicked man may turn away from his wickedness and live, that repentance and recovery are within mans power. Here is man; what is his inheritance? The nature of Adam? True; but behind and beyond that he has inherited the image of God. The one inheritance is as surely his as the other. For with the tendency to do wrong, man has also received the power to do right. And thus, although it be true that if he yields to temptation he is yielding to that to which his nature is inclined, for he has inherited the weakness of his forefathers, it is also true that such yielding is sin, for he had the strength to resist had it been his choice. He is not the son of Adam only, but the son of God; and in the power of that Divine inheritance he may overcome. We have inherited the consequences of Adams sin; but it is only in so far as we embrace and accept them, only in so far as we make his sin our sin, by transgressing under temptation some known and recognized law of God, that we are responsible, that we are guilty. Each soul bears its own sin; “the soul that sinneth, it shall die.” But if “the wicked man turneth away from his wickedness, he shall save his soul alive.” How much farther than even this splendid outburst of hope does the teaching of St. Paul reach. What does he say? “As through the one mans disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the one shall the many be made righteous.” In Adam the taint, in Christ the remedy; in Adam the inherited slavery of the will, in Christ the grace which frees us from these bonds.

2. The death of Christ, “the Eternal Son of God,” teaches us, as nothing else can, what sin is, and how awful is the purity and holiness of God. We begin to see why “remission of sins” belongs so especially to the death of Christ rather than to His Incarnation. We begin to see why the cross is so dear to the pardoned sinner. In the cross of Calvary we see that finished work whereby the sins of the past are done away, the wound of nature is healed, freedom from bondage is won, since man is once more reconciled, made just in the sight of God, “accepted in the beloved.” By the sacrifice of the cross is revealed the infinite love of God, in vindicating the eternal law, and yet saving man from death. No legal fiction, no mere vicarious sacrifice, can satisfy our conscience, and make us just before God. It was man that sinned; it is man that must suffer.

O generous love! that He who smote

In Man for man the foe,

The double agony in Man

For man should undergo.

It is a beautiful suggestion of the greatest of the Schoolmen, that the perfect love and obedience of the perfect manhood, taken into God, was to the Father something He loved more than He hated sin. But, in our day, we love rather to think of the summing up of humanity in Christ, the offering up of all the members in Him who is the Head. So viewed, Christs death becomes what it has been finely called, “the Amen of humanity” to the righteous law which sin transgressed. “The soul that sinneth, it shall die”; and Christ, the perfect Man, and man in Him, admits the justice of that law. So is the eternal law vindicated; so is the Father once more well pleased as He looks on man in His well-beloved Son; so to men and angels God shows Himself “just, and the justifier of him that hath faith in Jesus.”

3. In Christ there dwells the eternal life of God, and the eternal life of God through Him is made the inheritance of those who gratefully receive His pardon for sin and the gift of the power that renders righteousness possible. And therefore when we read the story of His uprightness, of His patience, of His goodness, of His gentleness, of His self-sacrifice, we have courage to attempt to imitate Him, or we can live the life that He lived in the power of the life that dwells in Him. He is not remote from us, commanding the reverence of succeeding centuries but altogether beyond our reach. We have discovered that the roots of our life are in Him; and all Christian men know that whenever they attempt the higher forms of goodness, in the strength that comes to them from Christ, those forms become possible to them because they are natural to Him. “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the childrens teeth are set on edge”—that is the imperfect order. “The soul that sinneth, it shall die”—that, too, is not the final order. In the power of another life than ours we, too, live a life transcending our own strength, as through the death of the Son we receive the forgiveness of all our sin. The solidarity of the race, imperfectly revealed in the transient order, has its final interpretation in Gods ultimate conception—the race was created in Christ, and in Christ it is to achieve its eternal perfection.

There is a season in the lifetime of each of us when all that the word “life” expresses has a greater charm for us than any other good thing, though it is then that all good things are poured out before us in the richest abundance. Life seems to flow bounteously within us and around us, and we are slow to tolerate any restraints upon its exuberance. Many things which are then good in our eyes are permitted to draw us away from Him whom the Gospel calls our Life; and at best we find the stream of our inner self divided into many a mazy current. Yet if this inward distraction continues, the life which we prize is condemned to be fleeting in duration and fruitless in result. Now more than ever have we need of the one Master Life to take possession of us and of all His gifts to us. Now more than ever must we hold fast the faith, which experience will ratify in due time, that our own desires are less the ministers than the destroyers of life until they are subdued into glad obedience to His holy and hallowing Will, the Will of the Life that was crucified and rose again from the dead.1 [Note: F. J. A. Hort, The Way, the Truth, the Life, 147.]

The Death of the Soul


Bernard (J. H.), Via Domini, 103.

Campbell (R. J.), The Song of Ages, 91.

Clifford (J.), Daily Strength for Daily Living, 261.

Davidson (A. B.), The Book of Ezekiel (Cambridge Bible), 132.

Davies (T.), Sermons and Homiletical Expositions, ii. 130.

Hutchings (W. H.), Sermon Sketches, ii. 289.

Kingsley (C.), All Saints Day Sermons, 238.

Lewis (H. E.), By the River Chebar, 57.

Miller (G. A.), The Life Efficient, 227.

Moore (A. L.), Some Aspects of Sin, 78.

Skinner (J.), The Book of Ezekiel (Expositors Bible), 143.

Stevens (W. B.), Sermons, 17.

Tulloch (J.), Sundays at Balmoral, 148.

Churchmans Pulpit: Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity, xii. 444 (J. Tulloch).

Contemporary Pulpit, 2nd Ser., v. 24 (R. W. Dale).

Verse 5

(5) If a man be just.—At the opening and close of the statement in regard to the righteous man (Ezekiel 18:5; Ezekiel 18:9), he is described in general and comprehensive terms; while in the intermediate verses various particulars of an upright life are specified as examples of the whole. These particulars have reference, first, to religious duties (Ezekiel 18:6 a), then to moral obligations, such as the avoidance of adultery (Ezekiel 18:6 b), and finally to duties negative and positive towards one’s neighbour (Ezekiel 18:7-8). The whole, including Ezekiel 18:5; Ezekiel 18:9, may be considered as a terse summary of the practical duty of man.

Verse 6

(6) Eaten upon the mountains.—The various sins here specified are all enumerated again, with others, and charged upon Jerusalem in Ezekiel 22:2-12. The particular of eating upon the mountains is mentioned in Ezekiel 18:9, and refers to the feasts in connection with sacrifices to idols which were commonly held in high places. The Lord Himself, indeed, was also worshipped in high places, in express violation of the law (Deuteronomy 12:17-18), but the connection here points to the sacrificial idol-feasts (comp. Exodus 32:6; 1 Corinthians 10:7). The lifting up of the eyes to the idols is probably meant to express any longing after them short of actual worship (comp. Genesis 19:26). The other sins mentioned in this verse were expressly forbidden in the law (Exodus 20:14; Leviticus 18:19), and were to be punished either with death (Leviticus 20:10; Deuteronomy 22:22) or with excommunication (Leviticus 20:18).

Verse 7

(7) To the debtor his pledge.—In the simple state of early Hebrew society borrowing was resorted to only by the very poor, and the law abounds in precepts against any oppression or taking advantage in such cases (Exodus 22:25-27; Leviticus 25:14; Leviticus 25:17, &c). Especial provision was made for restoring in a considerate way a pledge for borrowed money (Exodus 22:26; Deuteronomy 24:6; Deuteronomy 24:10, &c).

Given his bread.—In addition to the negative duties mentioned, were also the positive ones of feeding the hungry and clothing the naked; and it is to be remembered that these duties, and general helpfulness to those who need our help, are not left optional in Scripture, but are positively required, both in the Old and the New Testament, and their neglect is sin. (See Deuteronomy 22:1-4; Job 31:16-22; Isaiah 58:5; Isaiah 58:7; Matthew 25:34-46; James 1:27; James 2:15-16).

Verse 8

(8) Given forth upon usury.—In Scripture usury does not mean excessive interest, as often in modern legislation, but any interest at all. This was strictly forbidden in the law to be taken of any Hebrew, though allowed, without limit as to amount, from foreigners. It had nothing to do with the regulation of commercial transactions, but was simply a law of kindness to a fellow member of the same household of faith in a primitive state of society. The Israelite was to lend freely to his impoverished neighbour to assist him, but without any expectation of gain for himself.

Executed true judgment.—This applies, of course, especially and directly to judicial sentences, but extends also to all cases in which one is brought to intervene in any way in transactions between others. What is required is absolute fairness, truthfulness, and integrity in the constant transactions of man with man.

Verse 10

(10) That doeth the like to any one of these things.—The prophet now enters upon the consideration of the second case, that of the son of a righteous father who takes to wicked courses, and it is shown that he shall be dealt with according to his own personal character. It is not necessary that he should be wholly given over to evil or have committed all the sins enumerated, but if he show the alienation of his heart from God by choosing to do any of those things which He has forbidden, he must fall under His righteous condemnation.

Verse 13

(13) Hath done all these abominations.—This expression is collective, while that in Ezekiel 18:10 is partitive. This is not because he who commits one sin is considered as having committed all, but because he who willingly commits any sin thereby puts himself into the class of sinners, of those who do not wish or intend to abide by the Divine will, but choose rather to do their own. Such a man places himself among the enemies of God. (Comp. James 2:10.)

Verse 14

(14) Doeth not such like.—This is the third case—that of the righteous son of a wicked father. The general principle is the same, that each man is to be judged according to his own individual character. The son of the righteous man has advantages, and the son of the wicked has hindrances in the way of righteousness which are not specified here, although elsewhere we are abundantly taught that responsibility is directly proportioned to privilege; but here the object is only to set forth in the clearest way, and apart from any other issues, the single fact of individual responsibility. In each case the particular examples of sin are somewhat varied, to show that they are mentioned only as examples, in order to set forth more clearly the general principle.

Verse 18

(18) As for his father.—There is here a recurrence to the second case, to bring out more sharply the contrast between the two, and to emphasise the fact insisted upon, that each individual must be judged according to his own character, without help or prejudice from that of his father.

This third case was especially adapted to the prophet’s purpose of refuting the proverb, because here was the father who had “eaten sour grapes,” and his son’s teeth were not to be set on edge.

Verse 19

(19) Why? Doth not the son bear?—It would be clearer to read this as a single question, “Why doth not the son, &c?” It is the question proposed by the people in objection to what has been declared. To them it seemed the law of nature, the necessity of the case, the teaching of history, that the son should bear the iniquity of his father. Their ideas had not risen to the conception of man’s individual responsibility to God; to them the individual was still but a part of the nation or the family. They ask, therefore, why this universal law should now be reversed. It was not true that any law was reversed, it was only that the superior prevailed over the inferior law; but, as usual in such cases, the Divine word does not reason with the human objection, but in this and the following verse only reiterates most emphatically the law of individual responsibility.

Verse 21

(21) If the wicked will turn.—The prophet now takes up the fourth and last case—that of a change in the individual character. This has necessarily two sub-divisions: (1) that of the wicked repenting and doing righteousness (Ezekiel 18:21-23, and Ezekiel 18:27-28), and (2) that of the righteous falling into wickedness, (Ezekiel 18:24-26), which latter case is more briefly treated, because the object is to encourage hope in repentance. This case, in both its parts, is first treated in Ezekiel 18:21-24, and then, for the sake of emphasis, repeated in reverse order in Ezekiel 18:26-28.

Verse 22

(22) Shall not be mentioned unto him.—A strong way of expressing the completeness of the Divine forgiveness. Here, again, at first sight, there seems to be an inconsistency between the Divine promise and the actual facts of the world. The penitent and forgiven sinner is continually seen to suffer through life from the consequences of his sin, as David’s whole reign was overclouded with trouble and sorrow after his great sin in the matter of Bathsheba and Uriah. But here also it is the natural law continuing to work in subservience to a higher moral law. The natural consequences of any acts are not changed, or are only partially modified, by the subsequent moral state of him who has done them; but that moral state determines whether those consequences, however painful they may be in themselves, shall or shall not be really for his own highest gain. The absoluteness of the Divine forgiveness is seen by us, under the Christian dispensation, to be a necessary result of the ground on which it rests—the atonement of Christ. If the believer is truly united to Him by faith, he is a new creature (2 Corinthians 5:17), and is looked upon no longer as a sinful son of Adam, but, as he is in reality, a member of the beloved and only-begotten Son of God. Hence his forgiveness must be complete, for his sins are atoned for, covered up, hidden from God’s sight.

Verse 23

(23) Have I any pleasure at all?—This brings out that fundamental truth which underlies the whole teaching of both the Old and New Testaments, and which should have satisfied Israel of the Lord’s readiness to receive every penitent sinner. God created man; and when he had fallen, ordered both the old and the new dispensations, and employed methods of infinite love to win him to salvation. He can have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; His delight can only be when man fulfils the design for which he was created, and returns to obedience and communion with God. Yet neither, as is declared in the next verse, can the Almighty suffer that His creature should set at nought His love and despise His salvation.

Verse 25

(25) The way of the Lord is not equal.—The word means literally, weighed out, balanced. The accusation of the Israelites was still (here and in Ezekiel 18:29) that the Lord was arbitrary and unjust. His statement in reply is that He rewards and punishes according to eternal and immutable principles of right. Every man must reap that which he has sown. (Comp. Romans 2:5-10.)

Verse 27

(27) Shall save his soul alive.—This does not mean that any man can by his own power save himself, for that question is not here in view at all, but that the consequence of a certain course of conduct will be his salvation, and that the adoption of that course is within the man’s own choice.

Verse 30

(30) Repent, and turn.—The three last verses of the chapter contain an earnest exhortation to the Israelites, based on the principles of God’s dealings with man just now declared, to repent and receive His mercy and blessing. Here, as before, there is no question of human sufficiency; and when the counsel is given (Ezekiel 18:31), “Make you a new heart and a new spirit,” it is not meant to say that this can ever be the work of any other than God’s Holy Spirit; but that Spirit is ever given to them that ask Him, and the question of salvation is still one which each man must decide for himself before God. The whole point of the chapter is that God’s dealing with man is determined by man’s own attitude towards Him. He that is alienated in his heart from God, whatever may have been his previous life, God will judge; and he that now seeks to conform his life to God’s will, God will receive and forgive.


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Bibliography Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Ezekiel 18:4". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". 1905.

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