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Spring Quarter: Prophets Faithful To God’s Covenant
Unit 3: Courageous Prophets of Change
Sunday school lesson for the week of May 23, 2021
By Dr. Hal Brady
Lesson Scripture: Ezekiel 18:1-9, 30-32
Key Verse: Ezekiel 18:4
A word about Ezekiel and the lesson context
- Quote the mistaken proverb the exiles believed.
- Explain the reasons for the exiles’ misconception regarding how God judges people.
- How can anybody refrain from or avoid blame-shifting?
Ezekiel was a member of the priestly family of Buzi and contemporary of Jeremiah and Daniel.
As one would expect, the whole book is written from the priestly point of view of Ezekiel’s priestly background (note sacrifices, the Temple, etc.).
Ezekiel prophesied during and after the final chaotic years of the kingdom of Judah. He was called by God “in the fourth month on the fifth day … the fifth year of the exile of King Jehoiachin (Ezekiel 1:1-2). Jehoiachin reigned only three months in 597 BC before the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem and took him, along with thousands of the most prominent and skilled people of Judah, to Babylon (2 Kings 24:14). This detail dates the beginning of Ezekiel’s book in 592 BC.
The name “Ezekiel” means “strengthened of God” and Ezekiel exhibited this quality as he spoke to the captives concerning God’s mighty hand in judgment on the nations and in the religious restoration of Israel.
Almost needless to say, the ruin of Jerusalem was devastating for the exiles. Jeremiah’s book of Lamentations captures the anguish that the destruction of the city and loss of human life caused. Thousands were left in Jerusalem and wider Judah; the survivors to whom Ezekiel spoke were those taken away to Babylon. They lived together by the river Kebar.
The writer of the lesson points out that the Babylonian exile created great uncertainty about the people’s relationship with God. Could God, who had allowed his holy city to be ravaged and his people carried into exile, still care for the people? And if he still cared, could he actually take care of them in a foreign nation?
In a nutshell, the lesson today points out the dangerous flaw of a faulty self-assessment and the crucial importance of accepting personal responsibility. The exiles simply didn’t understand their own role in the difficult situation the nation was facing. They assigned fault to their parents while claiming their own moral innocence.
“The word of the Lord” is a common phrase used in Ezekiel to emphasize that the Lord spoke to his prophet. This phrase occurs far more often in Ezekiel than in any other Bible book. Its frequent use in Ezekiel points out that God communicated with his people even in exile. And his continuing to speak to Ezekiel was meant in part to reassure the people that God was still with them in a foreign land.
As the exiles wallowed in the misery of their situation, now in its sixth or seventh year (Ezekiel 8:1, 20:1), they naturally began searching for a reason for it. At that point, they landed on a “proverb” that became popular. A proverb is a short pithy statement used to express a general truth in a memorable way. The prophet Jeremiah was also confronted with this same proverb in his situation back in Judea (Jeremiah 31:29-30).
We are informed that the “Targum,” a first-century AD Aramaic paraphrase of the Hebrew Bible, gives the meaning of the proverb: “The fathers sin, the children suffer.” Therefore, “The parents eat sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge” expresses the belief that those in exile (the children) are unjustly bearing the punishment for the sins of earlier generations (the parents). Claiming that their problem is inherited, the exiles deny responsibility or guilt on their part.
And, like most profound deceits and delusions, there was an element of truth in their thoughts. Previous generations had indeed been evil, their actions inviting divine judgment. But for each generation, there had been the opportunity to avert the evil of the earlier times. As we are aware, judgment was not a bulldozer with no one at the helm. The brake could always be applied if persons exercised their responsibility by turning from evil back to God and the lives of righteousness.
However, it is a balance in the minds of those who have taken a simple truth and warped it that is sought here. It was certainly true that the evil actions of a parent could have scary consequences for his or her children. Even Ezekiel himself pointed out that the exile was the result of covenant unfaithfulness by many generations of Israelites (Ezekiel 16). God had revealed himself as the one “punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation” (Exodus 20:5). The exiles’ ancestors were indeed guilty (2 Kings 21:1-16).
But the fact that the sins of one generation have consequences for another is not the same as saying that God punishes an innocent group for the sins of the guilty group. Although there are times when the all-knowing and sovereign God deems this to be fitting, the scholarly suggestion is that is rare. I repeat: the problem in today’s text is that the exiles specifically apply their “proverb” to disavow any wrongful responsibility for their situation. And in so doing, they can claim that God is unjust in his dealing with them (Ezekiel: 18:25-29; 33:17-20).
Since God is the sovereign Creator, everyone belongs to him. This includes his chosen people as well as their Babylonians oppressors. God’s justice is not limited by national boundaries. Therefore, he has the right to declare the “the one who sins is the one who dies.” Each person is responsible to God for his or her own sin, and God will deal with each person individually. In giving the Israelites his law,
God commanded that “parents are not to be put to death for their children nor children put to death for their parents; each will die for their own sin” (Deuteronomy 24:16). Thus, it was pointless for the exiles to insist on their innocence (Romans 3:23).
A minister had been listening to an alcoholic who blamed his problem on everybody else. He blamed the mayor, the president and the congress. He even cursed God for letting him be born.
Then he turned to the minister and said, “Well, aren’t you going to say anything?”
The minister answered, “I was just wondering whether there’s anybody else we could think of to blame this on.”
The man looked at the minister angrily but then looked down. And after a few moments of silence, he said, “It is all my fault I’ve made such a mess of my life, haven’t I?”
“Well,” the minister answered, “you are a mess right now, but your life is not over, you can start again.”
So these exiles could not blame their entire fate on their predecessors; they needed to recognize and acknowledge their own responsibility in creating their prison so far from home. Unless they made that recognition and accepted responsibility, they could not turn from their evil and, consequently, there would be no hope for a restoration of liberty and the fullness of life.
A case study
Verse 5 sets up the first of three case studies. The second and third, verses 10-13 and 14-18 respectively, are not part of today’s lesson text. However, Ezekiel’s three text cases perform at least two functions. On the one hand, they systematically refute the people’s understanding of how divine justice operates. On the other hand, they articulate guidelines for just and righteous living.
For the hypothetical “man” introduced in today’s case study to be “just” is another, parallel way of saying that he does “what is just and right.” Specifics follow.
Eating at the mountain shrines refers to participation in idolatrous practices that were common in the mountain regions. These high places featured altars, often dedicated to the worship of Canaanite deities such as Baal. To “look to the idols of Israel was to worship and seek help from fake gods or to make an image of the true God for worship.
Proper love for God always begins with worshipping no other gods (compare Exodus 20:3-6). The righteous person doesn’t turn to fake gods for assistance. He or she remains dependent on God alone for health and protection.
Important to note! The temptation of straying to other gods remained real to the exiles. This was especially true when the exiles were uncertain of God’s continuing care.
The just man is also careful to stay morally pure. The Laws of Moses prohibits not only adultery (Exodus 20:14) but also intercourse during a woman’s menstrual period (Leviticus 15:19-33; 18:19). The penalty for violation of the latter was that “both of them are to be cut off from their people (Leviticus 20:18). Some suggest that the reason for this restriction was because of the special role of blood in atoning for sins, respecting certain rights of women, or to maintain ceremonial purity. Whatever the reason, the righteous man observes this statute as well.
The righteous man also exhibits love toward others. Righteousness consists of more than merely doing no harm. That’s the reason we Methodists have more than one General Rule. “Do good” and “Stay in love with God” were also added to our General Rules.
At any rate, a righteous or just person uses his or her resources to provide for the material needs of others (James 2:15,16). These examples are all forms of economic righteousness shown to the debtor and “the hungry” and “the naked.” And these are representative of other needy neighbors as well. In short, the righteous person puts God’s law above any opportunity to gain at the expense of another.
The economically vulnerable often found themselves (and still do today) in positions where they had no choice but to accept the terms of predatory lenders. God viewed the practice as evidence that his people had forgotten him (Ezekiel 22:12). God is the protector of the downtrodden, and he expects his people to be the same (Psalm 82:3; Proverbs 14:31).
While the wicked people took advantage of the poor in various ways, the righteous person in Israel did not charge “interest” on loans to fellow Israelites. And while interest could be charged to a foreigner, it still had to be restrained (Deuteronomy 23:19-20).
In verse 9a we have a notable example of the parallelism that is a hallmark of Hebrew poetry: “follows” is another way of saying “keeps.” Likewise, God’s “decrees” are the same as his “laws.” These same two sets of parallels of the underlying Hebrew terms are also found in several places in Ezekiel (11:20; 18:9; 20:19,21; 37:24). The point is that the righteous person does not follow the selfish, sinful ways of others in any respect.
In verse 9b, we see God’s verdict! God will not judge or punish the “righteous” person for the sins of others – period!
In this section, God said that he would judge the “Israelites [plural, corporate aspect]. “Each of you according to your own ways” [individual aspect]. Although each person was responsible for his or her own guilt before the Lord, individual decisions affected the community as a whole. The collective singular “house of” (CEB translation) shows that the covenant God had with Israel was corporate; it included the whole of Israel. The singular “each of you” shows that the overall moral tone of the community was formed on the collective choices of individuals. Therefore, the Israelites were to look not at the conduct of their ancestors but to their own. The people were to rid themselves of any and all personal sins. To repent is to avoid the judgment of death that sin brings. God would be gracious and forgive all who turn to him in repentance.
In this passage, God makes it unmistakably clear that condemnation isn’t inevitable. He defines repentance as the rejection of one’s past sinful ways, and he appeals to the “people of Israel” and to us to accept “a new heart and a new spirit.” God had already promised to do this (Ezekiel 11:19).
Because of God’s offer of forgiveness through repentance, each individual has the freedom to choose life or death. If people did not have free will they would not have had or have been responsible. People are capable of knowing right from wrong and God deals with us on that basis. Therefore, the blame for one’s sin and judgment cannot be shifted to God, Satan, nature, parents or circumstances.
We are told that God takes no pleasure in the destruction of creation (Ezekiel 33:11). He desires to deliver people from their unfaithfulness and the “death” that it brings. He judges, but he also provides all people with the means of salvation so they can escape that judgment. God’s invitation to all of us is to “repent and live.”
Bishop Will Willimon tells about going with his wife to the funeral of a friend which was held in a little country church out in the backwoods. The minister took advantage of the occasion to berate those who had come: “you people need to decide for Jesus now. This dear, departed brother is safe because he had chosen Christ. Now is the time! Repent before it is too late!”
After the service, Willimon said, “Can you get over that guy, taking advantage of having all of us here, to beat us over the head about how important it is to make a decision right now.”
“Yes,” replied Willimon’s wife, “and the worst thing about it is – he’s right.”
He is right! God says, “Repent and live!” The time to repent is now, and the Holy Spirit will daily recreate our hearts and minds in the likeness of Christ.
Resources for this lesson
- What old sayings do you need to let go of? Who will hold you accountable for progress?
- What are some of the practical ways for Christians to be accountable to one another in keeping sin the rearview mirror?
- Which thought in today’s text do you have the hardest time coming to grips with?
Dr. Hal Brady is a retired pastor who continues to present the Good News of Jesus Christ and offer encouragement in a fresh and vital way though Hal Brady Ministries (halbradyministries.com).
- “2020-2021 Standard Lesson Commentary, Uniform Series, International Bible Lessons for Christian Teaching,” pages 321-328.
- “The New Interpreter’s Bible Volume VI” pages 1255-1258, 1264-1266.
- “The Daily Study Bible Ezekiel,” Peter Craigie, pages 131-134.