Personal Responsibility and The Judgment Of God

Personal Responsibility and the Judgement of God

One of the common themes which ties the minor and major prophets together is the threat of the judgment of God against His covenant people because of their sins. Repeatedly God used the prophets to warn the people that their current course of action would lead to divinely allowed calamity. We see in the exilic era of Judah the people began to believe that they had been unjustly punished for the sins of their ancestors. Was this accusation against God correct or did the people miss the point of the judgment they had endured. This leads us to the larger question, what is the correlation between personal responsibility and God’s judgment on his people?

A Proverb about the Judgment of God

During the exilic era and even in the years leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem the people had adopted their own parable to explain what had happened to them. “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” This proverb is understood to mean “Children atone for the misdeeds of their fathers, or the sins of the fathers are visited on their innocent children.”[1] Through this understanding the people believed that in their eyes they were innocent and did not deserve the calamity which they had experienced.

This complaint from the people did not escape the ears of God nor the prophets as both Jeremiah and Ezekiel addressed this complaint. First Jeremiah stated in 31:28-30;

28 And it shall come to pass that as I have watched over them to pluck up and break down, to overthrow, destroy, and bring harm, so I will watch over them to build and to plant, declares the Lord. 29 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.” (ESV)

Here we have the image which “depicts a person’s involuntary reaction to an extremely unpleasant taste. Since experience cannot be transferred, the saying implies that the children’s suffering for their parents’ sin is unnatural.” [2] God is attempting to assure the people that it is their actions which will bring the sourness into their own lives.

Years later in another country Ezekiel also faced the same complaint from the people taken in the earlier exile to Babylon, in 18:1-4 the prophet states;

“The word of the Lord came to me: “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’? As I live, declares the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. 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.” (ESV)

Ezekiel and Personal Responsibility

The effect of time is evident as “Jeremiah looked forward to the day when this proverb would no longer be used; but Ezekiel insists that it should cease forthwith.”[3] On a theological level “Ezekiel was a pioneer in developing the doctrine of individual responsibility”[4] and tried to demonstrate that the people in exile with him were there because of their own participation in their parent’s sins. The covenant people which had been compared to sheep, children and a wife had come to the theological conclusion that they could act in whatever manner they chose and not face judgment because of the presence of YHWH in the temple and the covenant of Moses.

We see then that the judgment of God fell upon Judah not because of the sins of previous generations but because the present generation continued in the sins of their fathers. While there were reprieves under Josiah and Hezekiah the overall atmosphere of the nation had remained spiritually corrupt. The people did not recognize the grace given to them but continued to act in whatever manner they pleased, for they assumed that God would only bring good things upon them as long as they maintained the rituals. This belief also created the acceptance of the prophets which would do nothing more say pleasing words to the people and assured eternal protection of Jerusalem. It is these same prophets which held influence over the priesthood which would go on to reject and assault Jeremiah.

The Judgment of God on His Stubborn Sheep

Those who witnessed the destruction accomplished by Babylon only did so because they like misguided sheep continued in the rutted path their others set out. Despite warnings from the true prophets they did amend their hearts or ways. “The Lord had expected from his people fidelity (honesty/truth), wisdom and the practice of godliness. Instead, graft, power, cheating, greed and perfidy were the order of the day.”[5] Therefore, the judgment of God was just upon them, as they were not innocent of the crimes of their ancestors because they themselves were also committing them. The people had lost sight of living in a real covenantal relationship with God and settled for the routine religiosity they had adopted. The words of Hosea 6:6 were far from their hearts, “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.”

Even with the covenant which they had put their trust in, the people ignored Moses’ warning in Deuteronomy 24:16. “Fathers shall not be put to death because of their children, nor shall children be put to death because of their fathers. Each one shall be put to death for his own sin.” The people also ignored the long line of potential curses in Deuteronomy 28 and the promise of destruction in exchange for covenant unfaithfulness in Deuteronomy 7. Among all of this evidence “here the belief that God had no direct concern with the individual is opposed: the fact that God will restore the innocent descendants of the original exiles affirms the doctrine of individual responsibility for sin.”[6]


Now then what is the correlation between personal responsibility and the judgment of God on his people? It is a correlation that God will not judge a child for the actions of their parents if they do not do as their parents did. Conversely a wicked child would not be spared judgment because of the righteousness of their parents. Each generation is judged upon their own actions, and what we saw with the destruction of Samaria and Jerusalem was God’s intervention against a generation which did not repent but made the deplorable actions of their ancestors look like child’s play. Even when God acted in judgment He always did so as a last resort when the people refused to repent and whenever judgment was passed a remnant was preserved and a hope was given to the few that did not share in the sins of the nation.

[1] Carl Friedrich Keil and Franz Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament, vol. 8 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1996), 279–280.

     [2] John D. Barry et al., Faithlife Study Bible (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012, 2016), Eze 18:2.

[3] John B. Taylor, Ezekiel: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 22, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1969), 148.

[4] Duane A. Garrett, “Ezekiel, Theology Of,” Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology, Baker Reference Library (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996), 231.

[5] William VanGemeren. Interpreting The Prophetic Word (Grand Rapids MI: Zondervan, 1990), 302

[6] B. M. Pickering, “Jeremiah,” in A New Commentary on Holy Scripture: Including the Apocrypha, vol. 1 (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1942), 506.

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