We must begin with some widely repeated verses from the Old Testament: Exodus 20:5 “You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me.”
Exodus 34:6-7 “The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.”
Is God saying that the children and the grandchildren of the father would have to pay for the sins of their father? What does God mean by this? Especially since Deuteronomy 24:16 says “Fathers shall not be put to death for their sons, nor shall sons be put to death for their fathers; everyone shall be put to death for his own sin” and that “The son will not bear the punishment for the father’s iniquity, nor will the father bear the punishment for the son’s iniquity; the righteousness of the righteous will be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked will be upon himself” (Ez 18:20).
The idea that the sins of the father will be laid on the son, grandson, and other generations has long been understood and misunderstood by many Bible students.
Certainly, the lessons we teach by word or deeds are often repeated by family members, and that just reminds each of us to be careful what we teach AND do.
As the Father Goes, so Goes the Family
What God is saying is that if a father misleads his family, the family will pay for it. Each will have to pay for their own sins but the father could have prevented many of the sins that his children and grandchildren would fall into had he led his family in obedience to the Law of God. The effects of this fatherly mismanagement would be felt by multiple generations because what has been sown will be reaped because God cannot be mocked (Gal 6:7). God is not punishing the children for their father’s sins but they are feeling the consequences and having to pay for them. That is what God means in Exodus 20 and 34. These verses deal with the descendants of those children who would follow their father’s example of disobedience but each one of us are ultimately responsible for our own sins and this is what Ezekiel 18 and Deuteronomy 24 is saying. The father’s disobedience to God’s commandments have a ripple effect that keep on going until some other father in his lineage breaks that cycle.
God Doesn’t Punish Innocent Children
We cannot read these verses by themselves. Anytime there is an unclear passage we must read other plain passages so that we can clarify the unclear. In the first place, those who are too young to know good from evil cannot be responsible for knowing and obeying God.
Jeremiah addresses this question in chapter 16:10-13 “Why has the Lord pronounced all this great evil against us? What is our iniquity? What is the sin that we have committed against the Lord our God?’ then you shall say to them: ‘Because your fathers have forsaken me, declares the Lord, and have gone after other gods and have served and worshiped them, and have forsaken me and have not kept my law, and because you have done worse than your fathers, for behold, every one of you follows his stubborn, evil will, refusing to listen to me. Therefore I will hurl you out of this land into a land that neither you nor your fathers have known, and there you shall serve other gods day and night, for I will show you no favor.’”
God says that those who disobey God cannot blame their fathers because sometimes they “have done worse than [their] fathers” did, therefore they will have to pay for their own iniquities because God says that “every one of you follows his stubborn, evil will, refusing to listen to me.”
The sins of the fathers being visited upon the children is a biblical principle. We see, for example, that Isaac seems to learn deception from his father, Abraham. Isaac passes off his wife as his sister, just as Abraham did with Sarah (see Genesis 12:10ff.; 20:1ff.; 26:7). On the other hand, when one looks at the kings of Judah, one can see that some godly kings had wicked sons, just as some wicked kings had godly sons. There is a tendency and a trend, but not an irreversible certainty.
The most encouraging text, however, is found in Jeremiah chapter 31, which speaks of the “new covenant.” Jeremiah 31:29-34 (ESV) “In those days they shall no longer say: “‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’ 30 But everyone shall die for his own iniquity. Each man who eats sour grapes, his teeth shall be set on edge. 31 “Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, 32 not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD. 33 For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”
In this text God assures His people that under the New Covenant the sins of the fathers will no longer be visited upon their children. Praise God! ([ Walvoord, John F., and Zuck, Roy B., The Bible Knowledge Commentary, (Wheaton, Illinois: Scripture Press Publications, Inc.) 1983, 1985.])
But we also need to listen to the repeated lessons from Ezekiel 18:1-32 (ESV).
As you read this chapter, you find the prophet answering the erroneous statements the Jewish exiles were making about God and their difficult situation (vv. 2, 19, 25, 29). God knew what His people were saying and so did His prophet. Ignoring the inspired Word of God, the people were building their case on a popular proverb: “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” In other words, “Our fathers have sinned and we, their children, are being punished for it.” Their philosophy was a kind of irresponsible fatalism. “No matter what we do,” they argued, “we still have to suffer because of what the older generation did.” The Prophet Jeremiah quoted the same familiar proverb and preached the same truth that Ezekiel preached: God deals with us as individuals and punishes each of us justly for what we do (Jer. 31:29-30). He is a just and righteous God who shows no partiality (Deut. 10:17; 32:4). If He withholds punishment, it’s only because of His grace and merciful longsuffering. (from the Bible Exposition Commentary (BE Series) – Old Testament – The Bible Exposition Commentary – The Prophets.)
It seems that these ideas might have come from a proverb often repeated: “The word of the LORD came to me: 2 “What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge’?
A new time is now made known from God: “As I live, declares the Lord GOD, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. 4 Behold, all souls are mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is mine: the soul who sins shall die. 5 “If a man is righteous and does what is just and right— 6 if he does not eat upon the mountains or lift up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel, does not defile his neighbor’s wife or approach a woman in her time of menstrual impurity, 7 does not oppress anyone, but restores to the debtor his pledge, commits no robbery, gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with a garment, 8 does not lend at interest or take any profit, withholds his hand from injustice, executes true justice between man and man, 9 walks in my statutes, and keeps my rules by acting faithfully—he is righteous; he shall surely live, declares the Lord GOD.
10 “If he fathers a son who is violent, a shedder of blood, who does any of these things 11 (though he himself did none of these things), who even eats upon the mountains, defiles his neighbor’s wife, 12 oppresses the poor and needy, commits robbery, does not restore the pledge, lifts up his eyes to the idols, commits abomination, 13 lends at interest, and takes profit; shall he then live? He shall not live. He has done all these abominations; he shall surely die; his blood shall be upon himself.
14 “Now suppose this man fathers a son who sees all the sins that his father has done; he sees, and does not do likewise: 15 he does not eat upon the mountains or lift up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel, does not defile his neighbor’s wife, 16 does not oppress anyone, exacts no pledge, commits no robbery, but gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with a garment, 17 withholds his hand from iniquity, takes no interest or profit, obeys my rules, and walks in my statutes; he shall not die for his father’s iniquity; he shall surely live.
18 As for his father, because he practiced extortion, robbed his brother, and did what is not good among his people, behold, he shall die for his iniquity. 19 “Yet you say, ‘Why should not the son suffer for the iniquity of the father?’ When the son has done what is just and right, and has been careful to observe all my statutes, he shall surely live.
20 The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself. 21 “But if a wicked person turns away from all his sins that he has committed and keeps all my statutes and does what is just and right, he shall surely live; he shall not die. 22 None of the transgressions that he has committed shall be remembered against him; for the righteousness that he has done he shall live.
23 Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord GOD, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live? 24 But when a righteous person turns away from his righteousness and does injustice and does the same abominations that the wicked person does, shall he live? None of the righteous deeds that he has done shall be remembered; for the treachery of which he is guilty and the sin he has committed, for them he shall die.
25 “Yet you say, ‘The way of the Lord is not just.’ Hear now, O house of Israel: Is my way not just? Is it not your ways that are not just? 26 When a righteous person turns away from his righteousness and does injustice, he shall die for it; for the injustice that he has done he shall die. 27 Again, when a wicked person turns away from the wickedness he has committed and does what is just and right, he shall save his life. 28 Because he considered and turned away from all the transgressions that he had committed, he shall surely live; he shall not die. 29 Yet the house of Israel says, ‘The way of the Lord is not just.’ O house of Israel, are my ways not just? Is it not your ways that are not just?
30 “Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways, declares the Lord GOD. Repent and turn from all your transgressions, lest iniquity be your ruin. 31 Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed, and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? 32 For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord GOD; so turn, and live.”
The conclusion of this message was an invitation from the Lord for the people to repent (change their minds), turn from their sins, cast away their transgressions like filthy garments, and seek a new heart and a new spirit. God promised them a new heart if only they would seek Him by faith (Ezek. 11:19; see 36:26). This was one of the key themes in the letter Jeremiah had sent to the captives in Babylon (Jer. 29:10-14), but the people hadn’t taken it to heart. God made it clear that He found no delight in the death of the wicked (Ezek. 18:23, 32), but if the wicked found delight in their sinful ways and would not repent, there was nothing the Lord could do but obey His own covenant and punish them.