The Word Made Fresh
1The LORD said to me:
2“What is meant by this proverb about the land of Israel: ‘The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’ As surely as I live,” says the LORD God, “this saying will be used no more in Israel. 4All lives belong to me – the parents and the children. Only those who sin shall die.
5“If a person is good and does what is lawful and right; 6if he doesn’t eat on the mountains or worship the idols of the house of Israel, doesn’t lay with his neighbor’s wife, or attempt to have sex with any woman during her monthly period; 7if he doesn’t harm anyone and pays his pledge as agreed; if he doesn’t steal; if he gives bread to the hungry and provides clothes for those in need; 8if he doesn’t charge interest or advance payment on money he has loaned; if he refrains from sin and rules justly between two who are arguing; 9if he obeys my laws and is careful to keep my counsel faithfully – anyone who lives like this is righteous and will certainly live,” says the LORD God.
10“If a person has a son who is mean and violent and harms others, even shedding their blood, 11and does any of these things even though his father has never done them; who eats at the mountain shrines, violates his neighbor’s wife, 12lords it over the poor and needy, steals, doesn’t do what he promised, honors idols, does wicked things, 13or takes interest in advance; should he then be allowed to live? No. He should not. He has done all these detestable things and therefor he will die, and it will be his own fault.
14“But if this man has a son, who sees all the evil his father commits, but refuses to do the same; 15if this son doesn’t eat meals on the holy mountain or look up to the idols worshiped by the people of Israel; if he doesn’t violate his neighbor’s wife, 16doesn’t cheat anyone, requires no pledge for a loan, doesn’t steal but freely gives his food to the hungry and clothes the naked; 17if he refuses to sin or to accept advanced or accrued interest; if he obeys my rules and follows my laws, he will certainly live. 18But his father will die because he has extorted money from others and robbed his brother and cheats the people around him. He will die for his sin.
19“But you might ask, ‘Why shouldn’t the son suffer for the father’s crimes?’ When the son has lived according to the law and has been careful to obey all my rules, he will certainly be allowed to live. 20The one who sins is the one who will die. Children shouldn’t be punished for the sins of their parents; nor should a parent suffer the consequences of a child’s sins. The righteousness of the righteous will be his own righteousness; the wickedness of the wicked will be his own wickedness.
21“However, if the wicked should turn away from their wickedness and obey all my laws, doing what is lawful and right, they shall certainly live. They shall not die. 22None of their sins will be held against them; they will live because of the good they have done.23Have I been pleased when wicked people die because of their sins? No, says the LORD, but I am pleased when they turn away from their wicked ways and live. 24But when the good people turn away from the right and commit sins and copy the things the wicked do, shall they be allowed to live? No. Their good deeds will be forgotten, and because of their treacherous and sinful ways they shall die.
25“Yet, some of you might say, ‘The LORD’s word is not fair.’ Listen, house of Israel, is my way unfair? Aren’t your ways unfair? 26When good people turn away from doing right and commit crimes or sins, they shall die for it. They should die because of the corruptness of their deed. 27But when wicked people turn away from their sins and begin to live according to God’s laws, their lives shall be saved.
27“They save their lives by turning away from their sins and doing only what is lawful and right. 28They will certainly live and not die because they looked at and then threw away all their errors. 29Still, the people of Israel say, ‘The LORD’s way isn’t fair!’ Really? People of Israel, are my ways unfair? Isn’t it your ways that are unfair?
30“That is why I will judge all the people of Israel, each according to their behavior, says the LORD. Therefore, repent and change your ways. If you don’t, your sinfulness will be your ruin. 31Throw away all the sins you committed against me, and obtain new hearts and new spirits. Why should you die, you family of Israel? 32I have no pleasure in anyone’s death,” says the LORD God. “Turn away from you sins, and live.”
1-4: We have seen this proverb before, at Jeremiah 31:29-30. The sins of the parents will no longer be visited on the children, says God. This is a revocation of the old rule that God is “a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and fourth generation of those who reject me” (see Deuteronomy 5:9). However, God apparently intended that rule to be applied to children who continue to behave as their parents behaved. Later on, it is clearly stated that children will no longer be punished for the sins of their parents (Deuteronomy 24:16).
5-9: The righteous man is described. Not “eating upon the mountains” is a reference to the altars on the high places dedicated to the worship of pagan deities.
10-13: If such a righteous person has a son who behaves in the opposite fashion he will surely die, but his parents will not be held responsible for the son’s iniquities.
14-18: Just so, if the father lives sinfully and the son lives a righteous life the father will be punished but the son exonerated.
19-20: The popular idea was that it is fair that children should pay for their parents’ mistakes, but God insists that is not the case, or perhaps we should say, no longer the case.
21-24: Now we run into a bit of difficulty. If a sinner reforms, he won’t die but will live. The problem is this; if the judgment was that he should die for his sins, why is he still alive long enough to change his ways? The answer appears to be that God will allow sinful people to live long enough to determine whether or not they will turn from their sinfulness. In a similar vein, the righteous who forsake their faithful ways will die — or perhaps the meaning is that they will be marked for death but will be allowed a time to see if they repent.
25-29: Those who question the fairness of God’s judgment in this regard are themselves unfair.
30-32: God urges them to turn from their wickedness so that they will live. One way of interpreting the chapter is to say that the terms “living” and “dying” are used here to refer to the disposition of the soul when this life is over. The righteous will survive their death, the wicked will not; but that is reading Christian ideas into a text that was written nearly 600 years before the birth of Christ.
We are, each one, responsible for our actions. If our parents or anyone else should lead us in the wrong direction, we will be guilty of sin. Each of us bears responsibility for our own behavior. We can’t dump our sinfulness onto someone else; they aren’t responsible for our actions.