Evil manners, we say, beget good laws; and in like manner sometimes unjust reflections occasion just vindications; evil proverbs beget good prophecies. Here is,
I. An evil proverb commonly used by the Jews in their captivity. We had one before (Ezek. 12:22) and a reply to it; here we have another. That sets God’s justice at defiance: “The days are prolonged and every vision fails; the threatenings are a jest.” This charges him with injustice, as if the judgments executed were a wrong: “You use this proverb concerning the land of Israel, now that it is laid waste by the judgments of God, saying, The fathers have eaten sour grapes and the children’s teeth are set on edge; we are punished for the sins of our ancestors, which is as great an absurdity in the divine regimen as if the children should have their teeth set on edge, or stupefied, by the fathers’ eating sour grapes, whereas, in the order of natural causes, if men eat or drink any thing amiss, they only themselves shall suffer by it.” Now, 1. It must be owned that there was some occasion given for this proverb. God had often said that he would visit the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, especially the sin of idolatry, intending thereby to express the evil of sin, of that sin, his detestation of it, and just indignation against it, and the heavy punishments he would bring upon idolaters, that parents might be restrained from sin by their affection to their children and that children might not be drawn to sin by their reverence for their parents. He had likewise often declared by his prophets that in bringing the present ruin upon Judah and Jerusalem he had an eye to the sins of Manasseh and other preceding kings; for, looking upon the nation as a body politic, and punishing them with national judgments for national sins, and admitting the maxim in our law that a corporation never dies, reckoning with them now for the iniquities of former ages was but like making a man, when he is old, to possess the iniquities of his youth, Job 13:26. And there is no unrighteousness with God in doing so. But, 2. They intended it as a reflection upon God, and an impeachment of his equity in his proceedings against them. Thus far that is right which is implied in this proverbial saying, That those who are guilty of wilful sin eat sour grapes; they do that which they will feel from, sooner or later. The grapes may look well enough in the temptation, but they will be bitter as bitterness itself in the reflection. They will set the sinner’s teeth on edge. When conscience is awake, and sets the sin in order before them, it will spoil the relish of their comforts as when the teeth are set on edge. But they suggest it as unreasonable that the children should smart for the fathers’ folly and feel the pain of that which they never tasted the pleasure of, and that God was unrighteous in thus taking vengeance and could not justify it. See how wicked the reflection is, how daring the impudence; yet see how witty it is, and how sly the comparison. Many that are impious in their jeers are ingenious in their jests; and thus the malice of hell against God and religion is insinuated and propagated. It is here put into a proverb, and that proverb used, commonly used; they had it up ever and anon. And, though it had plainly a blasphemous meaning, yet they sheltered themselves under the similitude from the imputation of downright blasphemy. Now by this it appears that they were unhumbled under the rod, for, instead of condemning themselves and justifying God, they condemned him and justified themselves; but woe to him that thus strives with his Maker.
II. A just reproof of, and reply to, this proverb: What mean you by using it? That is the reproof. “Do you intend hereby to try it out with God? Or can you think any other than that you will hereby provoke him to be angry with you will he has consumed you? Isa. this the way to reconcile yourselves to him and make your peace with him?” The reply follows, in which God tells them,
1. That the use of the proverb should be taken away. This is said, it is sworn (Ezek. 18:3): You shall not have occasion any more to use this proverb; or (as it may be read), You shall not have the use of this parable. The taking away of this parable is made the matter of a promise, Jer. 31:29. Here it is made the matter of a threatening. There it intimates that God will return to them in ways of mercy; here it intimates that God would proceed against them in ways of judgment. He will so punish them for this impudent saying that they shall not dare to use it any more; as in another case, Jer. 23:34, 36. God will find out effectual ways to silence those cavillers. Or God will so manifest both to themselves and others that they have wickedness of their own enough to bring all these desolating judgments upon them that they shall no longer for shame lay it upon the sins of their fathers that they were thus dealt with: “Your own consciences shall tell you, and all your neighbours shall confirm it, that you yourselves have eaten the same sour grapes that your fathers ate before you, or else your teeth would not have been set on edge.”
2. That really the saying itself was unjust and a causeless reflection upon God’s government. For,
(1.) God does not punish the children for the fathers’ sins unless they tread in their fathers’ steps and fill up the measure of their iniquity (Matt. 23:32), and then they have no reason to complain, for, whatever they suffer, it is less than their own sin has deserved. And, when God speaks of visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, that is so far from putting any hardship upon the children, to whom he only renders according to their works, that it accounts for God’s patience with the parents, whom he therefore does not punish immediately, because he lays up their iniquity for their children, Job 21:19.
(2.) It is only in temporal calamities that children (and sometimes innocent ones) fare the worse for their parents’ wickedness, and God can alter the property of those calamities, and make them work for good to those that are visited with them; but as to spiritual and eternal misery (and that is the death here spoken of) the children shall by no means smart for the parents’ sins. This is here shown at large; and it is a wonderful piece of condescension that the great God is pleased to reason the case with such wicked and unreasonable men, that he did not immediately strike them dumb or dead, but vouchsafed to state the matter before them, that he may be clear when he is judged. Now, in his reply,
[1.] He asserts and maintains his own absolute and incontestable sovereignty: Behold, all souls are mine, Ezek. 18:4. God here claims a property in all the souls of the children of men, one as well as another. First, Souls are his. He that is the Maker of all things is in a particular manner the Father of spirits, for his image is stamped on the souls of men; it was so in their creation; it is so in their renovation. He forms the spirit of man within him, and is therefore called the God of the spirits of all flesh, of embodied spirits. Secondly, All souls are his, all created by him and for him, and accountable to him. As the soul of the father, so the soul of the son, is mine. Our earthly parents are only the fathers of our flesh; our souls are not theirs; God challenges them. Now hence it follows, for the clearing of this matter, 1. That God may certainly do what he pleases both with fathers and children, and none may say unto him, What doest thou? He that gave us our being does us no wrong if he takes it away again, much less when he only takes away some of the supports and comforts of it; it is as absurd to quarrel with him as for the thing formed to say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus? 2. That God as certainly bears a good-will both to father and son, and will put no hardship upon either. We are sure that God hates nothing that he has made, and therefore (speaking of the adult, who are capable of acting for themselves) he has such a kindness for all souls that none die but through their own default. All souls are his, and therefore he is not partial in his judgment of them. Let us subscribe to his interest in us and dominion over us. He says, All souls are mine; let us answer, “Lord, my soul is thine; I devote it to thee to be employed for thee and made happy in thee.” It is with good reason that God says, “My son, give me thy heart, for it is my own,” to which we must yield, “Father, take my heart, it is thy own.”
[2.] Though God might justify himself by insisting upon his sovereignty, yet he waives that, and lays down the equitable and unexceptionable rule of judgment by which he will proceed as to particular persons; and it is this:—First, The sinner that persists in sin shall certainly die, his iniquity shall be his ruin: The soul that sins shall die, shall die as a soul can die, shall be excluded from the favour of God, which is the life and bliss of the soul, and shall lie for ever under his wrath, which is its death and misery. Sin is the act of the soul, the body being only the instrument of unrighteousness; it is called the sin of the soul, Mic. 6:7. And therefore the punishment of sin is the tribulation and the anguish of the soul, Rom. 2:9. Secondly, The righteous man that perseveres in his righteousness shall certainly live. If a man be just, have a good principle, a good spirit and disposition, and, as an evidence of that, do judgment and justice (Ezek. 18:5), he shall surely live, saith the Lord God, Ezek. 18:9. He that makes conscience of conforming in every thing to the will of God, that makes it his business to serve God and his aim to glorify God, shall without fail be happy here and for ever in the love and favour of God; and, wherein he comes short of his duty, it shall be forgiven him, through a Mediator. Now here is part of the character of this just man. 1. He is careful to keep himself clean from the pollutions of sin, and at a distance from all the appearances of evil. (1.) From sins against the second commandment. In the matters of God’s worship he is jealous, for he knows God is so. He has not only not sacrificed in the high places to the images there set up, but he has not so much as eaten upon the mountains, that is, not had any communion with idolaters by eating things sacrificed to idols, 1 Cor. 10:20. He would not only not kneel with them at their altars, but not sit with them at their tables in their high places. He detests not only the idols of the heathen but the idols of the house of Israel, which were not only allowed of, but generally applauded and adored, by those that were accounted the professing people of God. He has not only not worshipped those idols, but he has not so much as lifted up his eyes to them; he has not given them a favourable look, has had no regard at all to them, neither desired their favour nor dreaded their frowns. He has observed so many bewitched by them that he has not dared so much as to look at them, lest he should be taken in the snare. The eyes of idolaters are said to go a whoring, Ezek. 6:9. See Deut. 4:19. (2.) From sins against the seventh commandment. He is careful to possess his vessel in sanctification and honour, and not in the lusts of uncleanness; and therefore he has not dared to defile his neighbour’s wife, nor said or done any thing which had the least tendency to corrupt or debauch her, no, nor will he make any undue approaches to his own wife when she is put apart for her uncleanness, for it was forbidden by the law, Lev. 18:19; 20:18. Note, It is an essential branch of wisdom and justice to keep the appetites of the body always in subjection to reason and virtue. (3.) From sins against the eighth commandment. He is a just man, who has not, by fraud and under colour of law and right, oppressed any, and who has not with force and arms spoiled any by violence, not spoiled them of their goods or estates, much less of their liberties and lives, Ezek. 18:7. Oppression and violence were the sins of the old world, that brought the deluge, and are sins of which still God is and will be the avenger. Nay, he is one that has not lent his money upon usury, nor taken increase (Ezek. 18:8), though, being done by contract, it may seem free from injustice (Volenti non fit injuria—What is done to a person with his own consent is no injury to him), yet, as far as it is forbidden by the law, he dares not do it. A moderate usury they were allowed to receive from strangers, but not from their brethren. A just man will not take advantage of his neighbour’s necessity to make a prey of him, nor indulge himself in ease and idleness to live upon the sweat and toil of others, and therefore will not take increase from those who cannot make increase of what he lends them, nor be rigorous in exacting what was agreed for from those who by the act of God are disabled to pay it; but he is willing to share in loss as well as profit. Qui sentit commodum, sentire debet et onus—He who enjoys the benefit should bear the burden. 2. He makes conscience of doing the duties of his place. He has restored the pledge to the poor debtor, according to the law. Exod. 22:26. “If thou take thy neighbour’s raiment for a pledge, the raiment that is for necessary use, thou shalt deliver it to him again, that he may sleep in his own bedclothes.” Nay, he has not only restored to the poor that which was their own, but has given his bread to the hungry. Observe, It is called his bread, because it is honestly come by; that which is given to some is not unjustly taken from others; for God has said, I hate robbery for burnt-offerings. Worldly men insist upon it that their bread is their own, as Nabal, who therefore would not give of it to David (1 Sam. 25:11); yet let them know that it is not so their own but that they are bound to do good to others with it. Clothes are necessary as well as food, and therefore this just man is so charitable as to cover the naked also with a garment, Ezek. 18:7. The coats which Dorcas had made for the poor were produced as witnesses of her charity, Acts 9:39. This just man has withdrawn his hands from iniquity, Ezek. 18:8. If at any time he has been drawn in through inadvertency to that which afterwards has appeared to him to be a wrong thing, he does not persist in it because he has begun it, but withdraws his hand from that which he now perceives to be iniquity; for he executes true judgment between man and man, according as his opportunity is of doing it (as a judge, as a witness, as a juryman, as a referee), and in all commerce is concerned that justice be done, that no man be wronged, that he who is wronged be righted, and that every man have his own, and is ready to interpose himself, and do any good office, in order hereunto. This is his character towards his neighbours; yet it will not suffice that he be just and true to his brother, to complete his character he must be so to his God likewise (Ezek. 18:9): He has walked in my statutes, those which relate to the duties of his immediate worship; he has kept those and all his other judgments, has had respect to them all, has made it his constant care and endeavour to conform and come up to them all, to deal truly, that so he may approve himself faithful to his covenant with God, and, having joined himself to God, he does not treacherously depart from him, nor dissemble with him. This is a just man, and living he shall live; he shall certainly live, shall have life and shall have it more abundantly, shall live truly, live comfortably, live eternally. Keep the commandments, and thou shalt enter into life, Matt. 19:17.