Questions From Readers
● How can we harmonize Ezekiel 18:20, which says the son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, with Exodus 20:5, which says God will visit the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations?—M. L., Germany.
Ezekiel 18:20 shows that each individual, after reaching an age of responsibility, is judged on the basis of his own attitude and conduct. Early training and family environment can be a big help or hindrance to the offspring, and as a general rule children continue in the behavior patterns established during their formative years. (Prov. 22:6) Yet it is not always or invariably so, and upon reaching an age of responsibility the offspring acts on his own choices, regardless of how little or how much such decisions may be influenced by early training and environment. He adopts a certain course in life, and he is judged according to his own deeds. “God is not one to be mocked. For whatever a man is sowing, this he will also reap.” “He will render to each one according to his works.” Jesus showed that families would be divided over him, some choosing to follow him in Jehovah’s service and others of the family opposing: “I came to cause division, with a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother.” The Christian son of an opposing father would not bear the iniquity of his father, but would be favorably judged on the basis of his own Christian works.—Gal. 6:7; Rom. 2:6; Matt. 10:35, NW.
Ezekiel 18:20 involves the extreme penalty of death: “The soul that sinneth, it shall die.” If the wicked turned to righteousness, “he shall surely live, he shall not die.” If the righteous turned to wickedness, “in his trespass that he hath trespassed, and in his sin that he hath sinned, in them shall he die.” Hence Jehovah’s climactic cry: “Why will ye die, O house of Israel? . . . turn yourselves, and live ye.” (Ezek. 18:21, 24, 31, 32) Thus Ezekiel 18:20 corresponds with Deuteronomy 24:16 regarding who suffers the death penalty: “The fathers shall not be put to death for the children, neither shall the children be put to death for the fathers: every man shall be put to death for his own sin.”
The case of Exodus 20:5 is different. Through Moses Jehovah said to Israel: “If you will strictly obey my voice and will indeed keep my covenant, then you will certainly become my special property out of all other peoples, because the whole earth belongs to me. And you yourselves will become to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” The older men, representing the nation, gave to Moses the nation’s answer to God: “All that Jehovah has spoken we are willing to do.” The covenant was being made with the nation, not individuals. The opening words of this covenant were to the effect that Jehovah was their God, that they were to have no others in defiance of him, and that they were never to make images for worship. Then, in connection with this prohibition of idolatry, God gave his reason for this command: “Because I Jehovah your God am a God exacting exclusive devotion, bringing punishment for the iniquity of fathers upon sons down to the great-grandsons and great-great-grandsons in the case of those who hate me, but exercising loving-kindness toward thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.”—Ex. 19:3-8; 20:1-6, NW.
This states the principle of how God recompenses faithfulness and unfaithfulness, and this principle can be applied against individuals as well as a nation for idolatry or other sin. The national history of Israel that later unfolded was in keeping with Jehovah’s warning. When the nation turned to idolatry it suffered the evil consequences for generations afterward. There were always some who maintained integrity, and at times those who loved God and kept his commands numbered into the thousands, despite the nation’s idolatrous course. (1 Ki. 19:14, 18) Faithful ones were not punished for the nation’s sins, but, although they suffered the effects of it, they benefited from God’s loving-kindness. Though individuals could and did shun the nation-wide idolatries, it was difficult for them to swim against the national tide of religious delinquency.
When the national leaders fell away to idolatry the people in general fell with them and the national environment became spiritually unhealthful. In this bad environment the new generation grew up and the strong tendency was for them to drift along in the idolatrous religions of their fathers. Sometimes it was generations later before accumulating woes from their idolatry precipitated a national crisis, which usually resulted in a partial if not complete recovery from impure worship.
At any rate, the nation suffered for generations after its fall, if there was no repentance on the part of those later generations with respect to the covenant of Jehovah God. The book of Judges is filled with accounts of national relapse and the disastrous consequences. (Judg. 2:11-19) The same situation is found during the period that kings reigned. For instance, Jehovah determined to punish the nation for its idolatry during the reign of Manasseh, and even a subsequent good reign by Josiah did not turn God from that purpose. (2 Ki. 22:13-20; 23:25-27) Despite a temporary recovery during Josiah’s reign, the nation went from bad to worse until it was taken captive to Babylon and remained there seventy years. There was a case where the nation was punished for the misdeeds of parents for a period of three or four or even more generations. In Jesus’ day the nation’s leaders influenced the people to cry for Jesus’ death, and when Pilate declared he was innocent of shedding the blood of Jesus the people answered: “His blood come upon us and upon our children.” (Matt. 27:25, NW) The Jewish nation rejected Messiah and turned to the idolatrous Roman empire, and primarily it was the children of these Jewish adults that made up the nation when it did suffer for these parental sins, when the Romans came A.D. 70.
Visiting iniquity upon descendants does not necessarily mean the death penalty, for if death was meant, how would the offending fathers have great-great-grandchildren? Instances of where Jehovah applied the principle against individuals are Eli, who for his neglect was to have the high priesthood cut off from his family, this occurring with Abiathar, the great-great-grandson of Eli. (1 Sam. 2:27-36; 3:11-14; 14:3; 22:20; 1 Ki. 2:26, 27); and Gehazi, who was smitten with leprosy for running after rewards from the cured Syrian general Naaman contrary to Elisha’s wishes and to whom Elisha then said: “The leprosy therefore of Naaman shall cleave unto thee, and unto thy seed for ever.” (2 Ki. 5:1-27) This did not sentence their children or descendants to the extreme penalty of death but did consign them to feel disadvantageous effects of their forefathers’ iniquity. Individuals among these descendants might turn to Jehovah and receive some measure of relief and favor.
● What does Hebrews 4:12 mean, particularly the distinction between soul and spirit?—E. S., Ohio.
Hebrews 4:12 (NW) reads: “For the word of God is alive and exerts power and is sharper than any two-edged sword and pierces even to the dividing of the soul and spirit, and of the joints and their marrow, and is able to discern the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” God’s Word is alive to alter our ways of thinking and living, and to have its truths in our heads and hearts is to have a powerful influence at work within us. It is no dead Word that has lost its interest or truthfulness, its practicalness or right interpretation of present events, and its protective power against the degradation of these immoral times. It has vitality and carries conviction and can show what is in us with a penetration and discernment far sharper than that of any worldly psychologist. It is no dead letter, its principles will stand, its judgments will be executed.
God’s Word does not stop at just a surface view of human actions but it penetrates beneath the surface to discern motives and attitudes, to divide between fleshly desires and mental dispositions. That these two forces exist within an individual Paul shows: “With my mind I myself am a slave to God’s law, but with my flesh to sin’s law.” (Rom. 7:25, NW) With his mind Paul served God’s law, but with his flesh he served the law of sin. So the life one lives as a human soul of flesh and blood may be different from what is one’s mental attitude or spirit. Hebrews 4:12 is differentiating between the life of an individual, or his soul, and his mental and heart attitude and inclination of mind. In the text “soul” means the life of the fleshly organism and “spirit” means the mental disposition or heart attitude of the individual. Christians should always examine their conduct in the light of their inward motives and be sure that any falling short is due to weak flesh and not deliberately done out of wrong heart condition. God’s Word will help us be discerning in examining ourselves and penetrate to the attitudes and heart intentions behind our conduct, to be sure that they are pure even when our lives may fall short of perfection. Jehovah takes all these things into consideration and sees us inside and out, for “all things are naked and openly exposed to the eyes of him with whom we have an accounting.”—Heb. 4:13, NW.