Summary: From blame to shame. A call to repentance.
It seems to be very much a part of fallen human nature that we want to blame someone else for the things that go wrong in our lives. This all began in the garden of Eden, after the first couple ate of the forbidden fruit. Adam blamed both his companion AND God: ‘The woman YOU gave me’; and the woman blamed the serpent (Genesis 3:12-13).
This tendency to blame both others and God is enshrined in the proverb spoken by the children of Israel, both in the homeland (cf. Jeremiah 31:29-30), and in exile in Babylon (Ezekiel 18:2). So saying, they may have thought they were being smart: for had not the LORD said that He would ‘visit the iniquity upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me’ (Exodus 20:5)? But why stop there? for He continues: ‘And showing mercy unto thousands of them that love me’ (Exodus 20:6).
This popular proverb could be a random observation about life in our own age also. If one generation turns away from worshipping the true and living God, then their children will grow up without the fear or reverence of God. The grandchildren will know little different; and the great-grandchildren, without outside influence, will be totally ignorant of the things of God.
If children grow up with an abusive, drunken father and a couldn’t-care-less mother, then they will have no better model on which to base their own family life. In this example, it is always the children that suffer. The repercussions of our own sins and ignorance rumble on down through the generations.
However, it is no use blaming past generations (and hypocritical to blame a God in whom we no longer believe), but that is what people do, nevertheless. The answer of the LORD is to affirm His sovereignty over all flesh: fathers, sons, and all. It is the one who sins who shall die (Ezekiel 18:4; cf. Jeremiah 31:30; Ezekiel 18:20).
The Lord works this out at length in an imaginary (or perhaps not) case study in Ezekiel 18:5-18. But the people still feel they have cause to complain (cf. Ezekiel 18:19a). ‘Have I any pleasure at all that the wicked should die?’ counters the Lord GOD, ‘and not that he should return from his ways, and live?’ (cf. Ezekiel 18:23).
The call to repentance is out there, but still people try to squirm their way out of their own responsibility by suggesting that, somehow, “the way of the Lord is not equal” (Ezekiel 18:25a). I have heard this in my own generation when it was suggested to me that even the Cross of Jesus was somehow ‘unjust’! Yet through the Cross, God can be both ‘just, and the justifier of those who have faith in Jesus’ (cf. Romans 3:26). It is our ways that are unequal, not His, says the Lord (Ezekiel 18:25b).
Again, the Lord spells out the life and death importance of repentance (Ezekiel 18:26-28). But the complaint is still there: “the way of the Lord is not equal” - and the response is the same: it is our ways that are unequal, not His (Ezekiel 18:29). So the Lord turns His appeal into a command: “Repent, and turn from all your transgressions”; but a command nevertheless tempered with compassion “so iniquity shall not be your ruin” (Ezekiel 18:30).
Repentance is further defined as “casting away” our transgressions and “making” ourselves “a new heart and a new spirit” (Ezekiel 18:31a). This is not, therefore, merely a call to outward reformation, but to inward regeneration (cf. John 3:3) - a thing which only God can accomplish (cf. John 3:5-7). Again the reasoning is compassionate, “for why will ye die, O house of Israel?” (Ezekiel 18:31b).
Is He teasing us by asking of us the impossible? No, because later He offers it as a part of the whole package of restoration (cf. Ezekiel 36:25-27). When the Prodigal son determined to return to his father, he found his father already running towards him (Luke 15:18-20). Without wanting to restrict spiritual experience to a timeline, I would suggest that it is even as we repent and turn and cast away, that the work of regeneration is going on.
The Lord is ‘not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance’ (2 Peter 3:9). “For I have no pleasure in the death of him that dies,” says the Lord GOD: “wherefore turn, and live” (Ezekiel 18:32). ‘Choose life, that both you and your seed may live,’ (Deuteronomy 30:19).
Our response should be, ‘As for me and my house, we will serve the LORD’ (Joshua 24:15).