Q&R with Brad: What does “the one who sins is the one who will die” mean in Ezekiel 18?
Thank you for your Christianity Without the Religion resources. I haven’t been able to find others who will discuss ideas and questions with me as I study the Bible. Would it be too much trouble for someone to give me their perspective on Ezekiel 18? Namely, that “the righteous will live and the wicked will die.” All I’ve been able to find in commentaries so far are references to eternal life and eternal death.
Thanks for your intriguing question about Ezekiel 18. I’d like to offer a few thoughts that I think will help us understand that text in both its immediate and broader context.
First, if we just pull that key phrase, “The one who sins is the one who will die,” out of its immediate place in that particular conversation, we might get a partial truth, but it would be a bit like overhearing one line in any conversation and thinking that those words are true in every situation.
Of course, it is true that ultimately, “the wages of sin is death” (so says Romans 6:23), and that by one man’s sin (Adam), death entered the world. Even then, what kind of “death” are we talking about? Is it physical death at the end of our lives, or is it some kind of state of death in this life, such as experiencing alienation (or what Jesus called ‘perishing’)? We won’t really know unless we read the chapter as a whole and sort out what the conversation is referring to.
As it turns out, the statement, “The one who sins is the one who will die” seems to be the prophet’s counter-argument against a trendy slogan that had been circulating:
- “The parents eat sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.”
In other words, people were complaining that they were suffering the effects of a generational curse passed down from their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. They seem to be blaming the bad things they were experiencing on the sins and guilt of previous generations. And maybe the reason they were complaining about that was to excuse themselves of their own sins.
Now they could have certainly drawn this proverb from the Torah (Moses’ five books of the Law and its covenants) to back up their slogan. There were indeed curses that could be passed down three, four and even ten generations, and not just for sin… you could be the great-grandchild of immigrants from the wrong race (e.g., a 4th-generation Moabite) and still be excluded from Temple worship. Even regular sins were said to be ‘punished’ even to the third and fourth generations.
I suppose this was a hot topic for the people of God who were born in exile. Ezekiel was part of the exile in 597BC when a large contingent of Judeans was taken captive into Babylon. Ezekiel himself seems to have probably died there. So the people could “reverse engineer” their woes… “We’re suffering in exile because of the sins of our forefathers, who broke the covenants. They were warned this would happen but now we’re the ones suffering.”
Read between the lines: (1) It’s not our fault, and (2) it’s not fair.
Ezekiel is now responding… and there may be two ways to read this (or both might be true).
1. First, he may be saying, “Actually, that proverb is NOT QUITE TRUE, is it? If we take a close look at your lives, actually, you need to stop blaming previous generations for the trouble you’re now in and take responsibility and ownership for your own sin and guilt. This isn’t about your parents. You’re stuck now because of your own sins. So when you die, maybe even in exile, it will be about how you lived your life. You can let go of that proverb. It no longer applies.
2. Second, Ezekiel might be saying, “Actually, that proverb HAD BEEN true, but God is establishing a new covenant in which that proverb and the old covenant curses are abolished. So, sure, maybe you did end up in exile because of your parent’s sins, but under the new covenant, generational curses will be powerless to exclude you, punish you, or destroy you. Yes, you’ll still experience the effects of your own sin (alienation), but God will give you a new heart with which to follow him into life.
I think this latter point is important because, actually, we have no business reading Ezekiel without reference to the many ways that Christ fulfills his prophecies. Indeed, Christ showed up at the beginning of the book on a hovering throne, then he shows up later in the book to resurrect a valley of dry bones, and at the end of the book, he IS the river of life flowing from the new temple at the end of the book.
So it only makes sense to read this passage in light of the dramatic way in which the new covenant is superior to the old covenant, namely, no more generational curses. From now on, life and death is about choosing to follow the Messiah’s new covenant OR turning from it and following the way that leads to death and alienation. But the invitation to every generation stands: come, follow Christ into eternal life, which is less about heaven and more about the life abundant of knowing him.
I hope that’s of some help.