The Irony of Calling Exodus 20:4-6 and Ezekiel 18:20 a “Contradiction”

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4 Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.

5 Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me;

6 And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.

~ Ex 20:4-6

I briefly covered the “contradiction” of the passage above and Ezekiel 18 earlier, but I want to circle back and fill in some more detail.  I glossed over a couple of things, but mostly the irony of calling these contradictions in the first place.

The above passage is a favorite of skeptics, for, in their view, it portrays God as unfair if not outright unjust.  Why would God punish the children and grandchildren of evil doers?

Curses Passed Down

Frankly, we don’t have to look very far to see that innocent people are affected by the sins of others.  Unborn children die because of the convenience of the mother.  Many women and children in Africa die of AIDS because of the promiscuity of the father.  Alcoholics pass on their weaknesses to succeeding generations, and many children are born already addicted to drugs.

Now, did God come down to earth and personally visit each and every one of these people and punish them because of the sins of their parents?  Obviously not.  God is quite capable of creating a world in which automatic penalties are dealt out for sin.

Skeptics almost always are refusing to see the forest for the tress, and yes I said “refusing”, for it is the hostility of the carnal man that makes one a self-made enemy to God.  That is exactly the point, in fact.  By rejecting God, Adam and Eve and all of their descendants have lived with suffering, pain and eventually death.  Their hatred for God not only causes their own suffering but the suffering of others they come in contact with.  God said He will visit the iniquity of the fathers upon the third and fourth generation, but He did not tell Israel how.

That’s the problem with a critical spirit.  Nothing else can be seen because the critical person is looking for some small piece of evidence to validate their being critical.  The bigger picture becomes hopelessly lost because there is no desire to look up and examine the larger scenery.  It is exactly what the Pharisees did to Jesus.  They nitpicked about various things and lost sight of what God’s word really said about the Messiah.  They even found guilty an innocent man!

Adam and Eve started a family called the human race.  Physical and psychological attributes have been passed down to their descendants.  There is also a spiritual element to humanity, however, and that spiritual element makes us quite different than the animals.  Being created in the image of God is much more than physical looks, but it is more about characteristics like intellect, the ability to create, the ability to study and research, and the ability to go far beyond what any animal can do.

However, human beings are not complete spiritually, and Adam and Eve rejected the way of life that could have made them complete spiritually.  Therefore, their descendants have, for the most part, also been given a less than ideal spiritual condition.  That too has been passed down generation to generation.

God made a human family because God the Father and God the Son are a family.  Created in the image of God, He created a human family.  God wants more children, however!  He is building a spiritual family who will no longer be flesh and blood!

So, if this life is to teach us something about that reality, then it stands to reason that we must learn about what it means to be a family, both on a micro level as husband and wife and on the larger scale as being part of the human family.  When someone misbehaves in a family, all of the family members suffer.  When one in a family triumphs, all in the family rejoice.

Perhaps you have heard the expression, “You’ve broken your mother’s heart.”  Even if the harm is indirect, the actions of one family member affects all family members.  The suffering and the heartache are automatic.

This doesn’t mean there are not times that God doesn’t step in and personally change the tide of human affairs.  Obviously, the Deluge was a catastrophic and worldwide event that killed perhaps 2 billion people.  We speak of Sodom and Gomorrah, but we conveniently forget that there were at least nine city-states in the region, and so there may have been thousands of people who died in fire and brimstone.

Consider even then the bigger picture, though.  God saved 8 people through the Deluge.  Not all of them were necessarily righteous, either.  We are only told that Noah was righteous, and the others pretty much were riding upon his coattails.  God sent angels to save Lot and his family, but his sons-in-law wouldn’t even so much as believe him.  Perhaps it was for their sake (and his daughters if they were different than the two that were with him) that he dawdled so long.  4 people were dragged out of the city, but only Lot was considered righteous.  His wife disobeyed before they could even reach safety.  Lot’s daughters took matters into their own hands and had children by their own father.

If these show God is unfair, then that charge is true.  However, rather than being unfair for punishing innocent people, as skeptics would have you believe, He is unfair because He is merciful first and even sometimes saves the unrighteous.

Of course, we are never told that this life or even God Himself is “fair”.  Rather, the Bible says He is just.  That means at some point, wrongs will be righted.  However, even that means that wrongs are not necessarily prevented.

“That’s Not Fair!”

If you’ve ever had children, you’ve probably heard that line more than once.  Of course, it is usually because some perceived wrong has been perpetrated to us rather than another human being.  Even if it is in relation to another, though, how many children really understand how things work, let alone what fair really is?

We are just as limited, if not more so, before our Parent.  God in His omniscience knows far more than we ever could.  Yes, the hurt and the wrongs can cloud our vision, but we need to look beyond these as much as we are able to see that we really are such a small part of the overall bigger picture.

So, does God punish the children or not?

20 The soul that sinneth, it shall die. The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son: the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him.

~ Eze 18:20

According to Exodus 20, He does, but according to Ezekiel 18, He does not.  Or, at least that is what the skeptic who doesn’t understand God’s plan (and probably doesn’t want to) would have you believe.

Perhaps the most glaring error of all that the skeptic makes in assuming this is a contradiction is that the word “punish” is never given in this entire chapter in the KJV.  God does not say, “The soul that sins will be punished”!  No, He says, “The soul that sins will die.”  That’s quite a different thing.  Death can be a punishment, but dead people do not repent or learn anything.

In fact, in the limited view of the skeptic, just saying the wicked will die is pretty much a non-statement.  All people die.  The patriarchs all died.  The apostles all died.  Jesus died.

26 And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die. Believest thou this?

~ Jn 11:26

Wait a minute!  Didn’t the author of Hebrews write that “it is appointed unto men once to die“?  Yes, but what is the entire verse?

27 And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment:

~ Heb 9:27

The answer to the supposed dilemma is when.  You see, it only appears to be a contradiction if there is no accounting after death.  If this is the only life that there is or ever will be, then Ezekiel 18 and Exodus 20 cannot be reconciled!

God gave Israel a physical promise of national blessings and greatness.  If they would have applied themselves to obedience rather than disobedience, this could have shown them the way towards an even greater benefit, eternal life.  Israel could have been, but failed to be, a training ground for God’s way of life in the here and now.  However, they were unable, for they were carnal human beings without God’s Spirit.

Jesus came and gave different promises for obedience.  He promised eternal life.  Of course, the opposite of eternal life is eternal death, right?  What do we see in the Book of Revelation?

12 And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works.

13 And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works.

14 And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death.

15 And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire.

~ Rev 20:12-15

All will stand before Christ and give an accounting at some point.  The wicked who refuse to repent will be cast into the Lake of Fire and die.  Just as Ezekiel 18 tells us!

Now is it fair?

The Irony

Yet, the irony of complaining that Ezekiel 18 contradicts Exodus 20 is sitting right there in Ezekiel 18!

18 The word of the Lord came unto me again, saying,

2 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?

3 As I live, saith the Lord God, ye shall not have occasion any more to use this proverb in Israel.

4 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.

~ Eze 18:1-4

What is He referring to “the fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge”?

Notice what Matthew Henry’s Commentary says on this verse:

I. An evil proverb commonly used by the Jews in their captivity. We had one before (ch. 12:22) and a reply to it; here we have another. That sets God’s justice at defiance: “The days are prolonged and every vision fails; the threatenings are a jest.’ This charges him with injustice, as if the judgments executed were a wrong: “You use this proverb concerning the land of Israel, now that it is laid waste by the judgments of God, saying, The fathers have eaten sour grapes and the children’s teeth are set on edge; we are punished for the sins of our ancestors, which is as great an absurdity in the divine regimen as if the children should have their teeth set on edge, or stupefied, by the fathers’ eating sour grapes, whereas, in the order of natural causes, if men eat or drink any thing amiss, they only themselves shall suffer by it.’ Now, 1. It must be owned that there was some occasion given for this proverb. God had often said that he would visit the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, especially the sin of idolatry, intending thereby to express the evil of sin, of that sin, his detestation of it, and just indignation against it, and the heavy punishments he would bring upon idolaters, that parents might be restrained from sin by their affection to their children and that children might not be drawn to sin by their reverence for their parents. He had likewise often declared by his prophets that in bringing the present ruin upon Judah and Jerusalem he had an eye to the sins of Manasseh and other preceding kings; for, looking upon the nation as a body politic, and punishing them with national judgments for national sins, and admitting the maxim in our law that a corporation never dies, reckoning with them now for the iniquities of former ages was but like making a man, when he is old, to possess the iniquities of his youth, Job 13:26. And there is no unrighteousness with God in doing so. But, 2. They intended it as a reflection upon God, and an impeachment of his equity in his proceedings against them. Thus far that is right which is implied in this proverbial saying, That those who are guilty of wilful sin eat sour grapes; they do that which they will feel from, sooner or later. The grapes may look well enough in the temptation, but they will be bitter as bitterness itself in the reflection. They will set the sinner’s teeth on edge. When conscience is awake, and sets the sin in order before them, it will spoil the relish of their comforts as when the teeth are set on edge. But they suggest it as unreasonable that the children should smart for the fathers’ folly and feel the pain of that which they never tasted the pleasure of, and that God was unrighteous in thus taking vengeance and could not justify it….

Consider what this means!  Israel was complaining that the principle behind Exodus 20:4-6 was unfair!  Most skeptics will tell you that Exodus 20:4-6 is unfair!  God explains to Israel why it is not unfair in Ezekiel 18, but the skeptics say it is a contradiction!  God addresses their concerns, and they still criticize!

This is what I mean by people who are active skeptics prove that they hate God.  Why devote time, write volumes of books and even “evangelize” so heavily about something you supposedly do not believe in unless it is driven by hatred?  They criticize, God answers their objections, and they find fault with that even!

To the skeptics, God says:

29 Yet saith the house of Israel, The way of the Lord is not equal. O house of Israel, are not my ways equal? are not your ways unequal?

30 Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways, saith the Lord God. Repent, and turn yourselves from all your transgressions; so iniquity shall not be your ruin.

31 Cast away from you all your transgressions, whereby ye have transgressed; and make you a new heart and a new spirit: for why will ye die, O house of Israel?

32 For I have no pleasure in the death of him that dieth, saith the Lord God: wherefore turn yourselves, and live ye.

~ Eze 18:29-32


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