June 15 Bible Studies for Life: God is just
Jun 5, 2014
By W. WILEY RICHARDS
Ekeziel 18:21-24, 30-32
I suppose most families have their own set of aphorisms, a pithy saying they use to describe the way we live or ought to live. I have heard my sainted mother observe, “Every tub has to sit on its own bottom.” The tribe of Judah had adopted a saying at the time of Ezekiel. His ministry coincided partly with that of Jeremiah, chapters 1-24 were written before the fall of Jerusalem under Babylon in 587 B.C., where he prophesied for at least 22 years (1:2 with 29:17-21). His message was much the same as Jeremiah’s, the impending destruction of Jerusalem.
By quoting the aphorism that their fathers ate sour grapes and their sons’ teeth were set on edge (18:2), they were accusing God of being unjust (v. 20). From their perspective, they probably thought they had a strong case. After all, when giving the Ten Commandments to Israel via Moses, God explicitly forbade Israel to make any graven images before which they bowed down in worship to serve (Ex. 20:5). The prohibition was followed by a curse upon the iniquity of the fathers to be visited “upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me.” The pronouncement of judgment was not arbitrary. It would be imposed on those families who sold out to heathen gods and worship, involving their children in the moral catastrophe.
Almost any social worker today can cite page after page in their records of the cumulative tragedies of broken families. When the home lacks leadership, when mothers give birth without a husband, when drug gangs roam the streets, individual moral victories can be won, but against incalculable odds. Judah in Ezekiel’s time saw themselves as inheritors of a tragic moral condition they did not create.
Nevertheless, God offers hope for repentant sinners (vv. 21-22). He made a clear distinction between Israel’s national reputation and individual loyalty. As to the former, God freed Israel from Egyptian bondage by performing wonders and showing great power. The nations could not fail to note the horrendous destruction of Pharaoh’s armies as they chased Israel across the dry bed of the sea. God miraculously clothed and fed Israel in the wilderness. The moral code He placed on Israel was calculated to place the standard He demanded to be a testimony to the nations and an implicit invitation for them to be drawn into the new era. Unfortunately, the reverse happened. Israel succumbed to the Canaanite system of worshiping fertility gods and goddesses.
That is not the full story. God never abandoned His moral objectives. For any individual who repented, He forgave them (v. 21). All the righteous acts performed by the repentant shall be remembered.
In the midst of this spiritual turmoil, God interjects His commitment to justice (vv. 23-24). He stated He gains no pleasure from the death of the wicked. What His heart desires is for the wicked to turn from wickedness and live. All the righteousness one commits is not sufficient to cancel his trespasses. At this point, we should inject a brief reference to developments in our legal world. Some argue that most, if not all, so-called crimes should be treated as forms of mental illness. Further, attempts to assess just punishments are merely expressions of one’s desire for vengeance, or so the argument goes. Hence, the legal system needs to be radically revamped. Closely allied to this view is the observation that just punishment is impossible because judges, who impose the penalties, vary widely in their views. These issues must be countered by informed people in the public arena who are in a position to counter such squeamish arguments.
Ultimately, we place our hopes in our just God, One who is unmoved by quirks in the law or loop holes brought up by a panel of defense attorneys. God promises to judge every one in Israel as well as among us, according to one’s ways. His advice to Israel is relevant for us today. We should cast aside all transgressions in favor of a new heart and new spirit. Only those who are transformed by the new birth will make the cut.
Wiley Richards is professor emeritus of theology and philosophy at The Baptist College of Florida in Graceville.
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