There are a lot of proverbs and sayings that are a common part of our life and culture. “It never rains, but it pours,” “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,” “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” “Beauty is only skin-deep,” “All bad things come in threes.” Some of them are even present in many cultures. For example, I remember learning the saying, “Morgen Rot, Regen Drot, Abend Rot, Gut vetter bot,” in German, which is also in English, “red sky at morning, sailors take warning, red sky at night, sailor’s delight.”
Do we believe these sayings and, if we do, why do we believe them? Some of them have a basis in science. The “red sky at morning” saying is based on the scientific fact that all of our weather systems move from west to east. However, we also believe them because we learned them from our parents and others as we grow up and they became a part of us. We believe them because they are supported by anecdotal evidence, that is someone has a story of when the saying worked and that helps convince us that they are true.
Of course, not all of them are true. I think it is superstitious to believe that all bad things come in threes. Sometimes they come in fours and fives. I also question this one because to make it work you have to manipulate which three count for the three that make up the list. My mother taught me a weather related saying that said that if you can hang a pail on a crescent moon it will be a dry month and if you can’t it will be a wet month. I have never believed that one because I can’t see how it has any basis in scientific fact.
If we believe these sayings we probably are influenced by them in how we live our life. When I have been out in the wilderness and the only weather forecasting we have is watching the sky, we have made decisions based on the “red sky at morning” saying. If we believe that all bad things come in threes, we may become somewhat apprehensive if we have one or two bad things happen, fearing the third, or we may relax when the third thing has happened.
The people of Israel had a proverb that was current in their life. Ezekiel speaks about this proverb in Ezekiel 18:2 – “The fathers eat sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” I don’t have a lot of experience with eating sour grapes, but I can understand the concept that eating something sour results in a funny feeling on your teeth. The proverb says that one generation ate the grapes and the next generation got the funny feeling. What did this mean? The Targum, a Jewish writing, puts it quite succinctly by saying, “The fathers sin, the children suffer.”
What is our experience with this proverb? Probably the first place this proverb applies is when we blame Adam and Eve for our sin nature. A direct fulfillment of the saying would be, for example, if a mother was an alcoholic and her child suffers with FAS. Perhaps we feel that there are certain bad habits which we have learned from our parents which we just can’t shake. They developed the bad habit and we suffer the consequences. So it is a saying we can relate to.
Why did the people of Israel believe and quote this proverb to each other?
One reason was that it was written in the Bible. In Exodus 20:5 God says, “You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me…”
It was also something that had happened in the Bible. In 2 Samuel 12:14–18, the child of David and Bathsheba who was conceived because of David’s sin of adultery died because of that sin. In 2 Sam 21:5–9 seven of Saul’s grandchildren were put to death because of Saul’s sin.
So the truth of the saying was well supported in Scripture. One writer says, “Scripture warns us that there is such a thing as corporate responsibility. None of us functions in complete isolation from the society and neighborhood to which we are attached.”
Of course we use sayings and proverbs, when we need them. If I say, “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” I am probably saying this because I am trying to excuse laziness or because I really do need a break. Why was the proverb about grapes and teeth set on edge current in the life and conversation of these people?
They were saying it because they were living it. Daniel was a righteous man as we know. Ezekiel was a prophet of God but where were they living? They were in exile in Babylon because of the sins of their nation. They were the children whose teeth were set on edge because of the sin of their fathers. Ezekiel had warned them about the things that were about to happen to Jerusalem. The whole nation – righteous and unrighteous – were about to suffer because of the sins of the nation from many previous generations. Present problems were because of the persistent sin of previous generations. Exile was due to accumulating disobedience.
What effect would such thinking have on people?
The other day a parent told about their child. He had done something wrong and knew that he was about to be punished and began to do a whole bunch of things wrong. He thought that if he was going to be punished anyway, he might as well make it worth while. If we live by this proverb and believe that we are being punished for things we have not done, we may think, “why not do some things wrong so that the punishment will be worthwhile.” Seems kind of crazy, but some people think that way, they become careless about sin.
If we believe that we are suffering for things we have not done, it is easy and perhaps somewhat justifiable to blame others for our problems. The quite natural consequence of that would be to blame others for all our wrongdoing.
This is, of course, the oldest dodge in the book. Way back in the garden of Eden when Adam was approached about his sin of eating the forbidden fruit, he said, it is not my fault, Eve made me do it. When Eve was confronted with her sin, she also passed blame on to the serpent.
Carla’s niece is married to a lawyer who works for some of the major car manufacturers. He defends them against law suits. He told us about a 16 year old who got a brand new Corvette for his birthday. He was driving 160 miles per hour, crashed his car, walked away from it and was suing GM for his smashed up car because the air bag did not deploy. A number of years ago a woman sued McDonalds because she had scalded herself while drinking hot coffee in her car. These are examples of people not taking responsibility for their wrongs. When we blame parents or others for our sins, we do the same thing.
Another consequence of living by this proverb might be giving up. Since Israel was going to be punished for the sins of the fathers, they might have thought, “why even try?”
We can easily fall into this trap as well. If we were to say, “well, that is just how my family is” in order to excuse anger or gossip or some other bad habit, we would be doing the same thing. If we were to excuse our sins by saying, “I’m just human, we would be doing the same thing.
The proverb allows us to give up and keep sinning. One writer says, “Fatalism results in inactivity and is deadly to the soul. To live by the proverb of verse 2 is to capitulate and die.”
A fourth consequence of this proverb is the thinking that God is not just. This is exactly what the people were saying in 18:25 and 29.
If God punishes the children for the sins of the fathers, that just doesn’t seem right. Our sense of justice causes us to question God because of this proverb. Of course, such thinking has severe consequences. If God is not just, then what hope is there for life. If God rewards one person even though they have done wrong and punishes another even though they have done many good things, then we can’t really trust God. Have you ever thought or felt that God is not fair? If this proverb is true, then there is reason to believe that He is not fair. If God is not fair, then why even relate to Him? why seek to know Him? why follow His ways? There is no point!
So the proverb was common in Israel. The people had grounds for believing it and it had an impact on their life, their obedience and their relationship to God. But, the impact was not good! The other question that needs to be asked about a saying or proverb is, “Is it true?” Was it true that God punished children for the sins of the fathers? Is God unjust in the way that he deals with the consequences of sin?
The argument in this chapter is that the proverb is not true. In verse 4, Ezekiel already says very clearly and succinctly, “the soul who sins is the one who will die.” In other words, each individual is accountable to God for his or her own sin.
He proceeds with an example. He describes three generations in verses 5-18. In the first generation he describes a man who lives in righteousness. He does not engage in practices that deny God. He treats others with purity and justice. He is generous and follows God. The conclusion, given in verse 9, is that “he will surely live.”
The son of this righteous man is very different. The list of moral behaviour which characterized the man of the first generation is repeated, but with opposite behaviour. He does worship idols, he does live in immorality and he is violent and does detestable things. How is such a man judged? Verse 13 says, “he will surely be put to death and his blood will be on his own head.”
The third generation reverses the trend. Once again we have a very similar list as we had with the previous generations. The individual in the third generation, however, does not do evil. He is more like his grandfather. The conclusion on his life is found in verse 17, “he will surely live.”
This is difficult to understand. How can it say in Exodus 20:5 that God is “punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me…” and then say here that each person is accountable for his own sin?
There are several aspects to the answer. One is to recognize that we live in a world community. Whatever one does has an impact on others. Therefore, there are consequences to every person’s actions and those consequences impact others. The other day newspapers in Europe published derogatory comments about Muhammad, the founder of Islam. I suspect that some innocent people may suffer the consequences of what these newspapers did. The righteous in Israel in exile were experiencing consequences because of the actions of previous generations.
But that is not the whole story. I believe that what Ezekiel was talking about was a person’s own accountability before God. Every person on earth is responsible for their own sin and will have to appear before the judgment seat of God. Sometimes consequences for sin or righteousness happen on earth, but if they do not, they will certainly happen in eternity.
The implications of this are first of all that each person must watch their own life. We can’t blame our parents, we can’t blame our neighbours, we can’t blame society. We are responsible for our own sins.
The other implication of this is that God is not in consistent or unjust. The charge of Israel that God is unjust is unfounded. What good news to know that we can trust God to do what is right.
But the passage tells us more about God. Not only is God just, He is also compassionate. Twice in this passage, in verse 23 and 32, Ezekiel says that although God is just in punishing those who sin, this is far from what he wants to do. These two verses demonstrate the compassion and love of God. God does not want anyone to die for their sins.
When we discover that God is just, we learn that he is not a man with a big stick indiscriminately hitting anyone he wants to. He is a righteous judge fairly punishing those who have done wrong. But when we learn that he “takes no pleasure in the death of the anyone,” we learn that he is compassionate. God isn’t even a man with a big stick who hits bad people. He hates to see people end up in the consequences of their sin. God wants people to find life.
We sometimes see the Old Testament as a place where the justice of God is revealed, and the New Testament where His love is revealed, but here we discover the love of God revealed in the Old Testament. The New Testament reinforces this understanding in II Peter 3:9 which says, “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.”
If the proverb is not true then what is the new reality by which people can live? Let me suggest that we should live by a new proverb.
If we are all accountable for our own sins and can’t blame anyone else for our sin, then it is up to each individual to deal with their own sin. Sin isn’t inevitable and punishment isn’t inevitable. There is a way out. The way to deal with that sin is to repent. The invitation to repentance is found throughout this chapter. In 18:21 it says, “But if a wicked man turns away from all the sins he has committed and keeps all my decrees and does what is just and right, he will surely live; he will not die.” The passage makes the invitation to repent a number of times including the last verse which invites “repent and live.”
The word for repentance is the word “turn.” On a trip to Pennsylvania Carla and I missed an exit. By the time we realized it, we were a few miles down the road. Since we were on a freeway, we had to drive quite a few more miles before we could turn around and get to the exit. But if we were going to go to the right place, we had no choice, we had to turn around. That is what repentance means. We turn from the way we are going and go in a new direction. Before we began to look for an exit where we could turn around, an important decision was required. We had to admit that we were going the wrong way. This is the beginning of repentance. We admit that we are going the wrong way and we turn around. Ezekiel invites in 18:31, “Rid yourselves of all the offenses you have committed and get a new heart and a new spirit.” Repentance means turning from the wrong ways of living and going in a new way. Next week I want to talk more about getting a new heart because repentance is only the start.
If we have been careless about sin, if we have blamed others for our wrongdoing, if we have walked away from God, His invitation still comes to us to repent.
Notice what happens when you repent? The promises are given in Ezekiel 18:24, 27 and 32. The final invitation is “Repent and Live! The good news is that repentance leads to life.
You know those mazes that sometimes appear on cereal boxes or in children’s books? They are designed to give you several possible options to get to the goal, but only one way actually leads to the goal. The only way to life is through repentance.
You may remember that in the last message on Ezekiel 4-24, we thought about the fact that God hates sin and is going to act against his people because of all their “wicked practices.” Both Ezekiel 17 and 19 pronounce death to the people. In between these two chapters, in chapter 18, there is an invitation to life. Death and destruction are not inevitable. We have already noted that God does not want anyone to perish. He deeply desires to give life to everyone. Repentance is the way to find that life.
Life does not come by being careless about sin. Life also does not come by legalism. Life does not come by ignoring the wrong we have done. Life is promised as a result of repentance. What a joy to know that there is a way to life!
Be careful about the proverbs that you live by. “The fathers eat sour grapes and the children’s teeth are set on edge” is not a good one. It makes us apathetic about sin and causes us to think that God is unjust. We need to recognize that we are responsible for our sin and accept the invitation of God to repent and live. Perhaps that is the new proverb which needs to become a part of our vocabulary - “Repent and live!” So if you are tired of your past and have come to recognize that you need to be changed, I invite you to repent and get on the path that leads to life.