EZEKIEL 18:1-4, 19-32
1The word of the LORD came to me: 2What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge”? 3As I live, says the Lord GOD, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. 4Know that all lives are mine; the life of the parent as well as the life of the child is mine: it is only the person who sins that shall die.
19Yet you say, “Why should not the son suffer for the iniquity of the father?” When the son has done what is lawful and right, and has been careful to observe all my statutes, he shall surely live. 20The person who sins shall die. A child shall not suffer for the iniquity of a parent, nor a parent suffer for the iniquity of a child; the righteousness of the righteous shall be his own, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be his own.
21But if the wicked turn away from all their sins that they have committed and keep all my statutes and do what is lawful and right, they shall surely live; they shall not die. 22None of the transgressions that they have committed shall be remembered against them; for the righteousness that they have done they shall live. 23Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, says the Lord GOD, and not rather that they should turn from their ways and live? 24But when the righteous turn away from their righteousness and commit iniquity and do the same abominable things that the wicked do, shall they live? None of the righteous deeds that they have done shall be remembered; for the treachery of which they are guilty and the sin they have committed, they shall die.
25Yet you say, “The way of the Lord is unfair.” Hear now, O house of Israel: Is my way unfair? Is it not your ways that are unfair? 26When the righteous turn away from their righteousness and commit iniquity, they shall die for it; for the iniquity that they have committed they shall die. 27Again, when the wicked turn away from the wickedness they have committed and do what is lawful and right, they shall save their life. 28Because they considered and turned away from all the transgressions that they had committed, they shall surely live; they shall not die. 29Yet the house of Israel says, “The way of the Lord is unfair.” O house of Israel, are my ways unfair? Is it not your ways that are unfair?
30Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, all of you according to your ways, says the Lord GOD. Repent and turn from all your transgressions; otherwise iniquity will be your ruin. 31Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed against me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? 32For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord GOD. Turn, then, and live.
This whole section from Ezekiel 18:1-32 is about a big complaint and a word to address that complaint. The big complaint comes from those in Jerusalem who believe that God is treating them unfairly because they are being judged for the sins of their ancestors and not for their own sins. It is true that a common theme running through the OT is that judgments tend to be communal and generational. Though individual judgments in the OT are described, large-scale judgments are almost always at a national level and certain judgments go beyond just one generation. To those in Jerusalem, such large-scale judgments are viewed as grossly unfair and so they give vent to this unfairness in this passage.
God, in response, offers a corrective word. The truth of the matter, according to YHWH, is that those in Jerusalem have not turned away from their sinful ways. Just like their ancestors, they too are persisting in their sins. If they had repented, God would have forgiven them. God is saying to them in so many words, I am not judging you based on your ancestors' sinful ways, I am judging you for your own sins! But I would rather desire that you repent, that is, turn away from your sins so that judgment would be unnecessary.
At the heart of the Jerusalemites' complaint is a deep misunderstanding of God. Because of God's judgments, the Jerusalemites think that God somehow takes delight in His judgments -- that God gets a kick out of seeing the wicked die! Twice in this passage we hear directly from God that He gains no such pleasure. The death of anyone, including the wicked, is never a cause of joy for God. Rather, God's joy is to be found when the wicked turn from their wicked ways and live. Not death, but life gives God pleasure!
Like the Jerusalemites, we too are prone to misunderstand God. We see terrible things and we want God to right the wrongs by executing judgments against the perpetrators of evil. We want God to be Wyatt Earp, shooting the bad guys at the OK Corral in Tombstone, AZ. We want God to be a Marvel Comics hero, wiping away the evil characters with His superhero powers. We want vindication. We want retribution, now! We want the Lord to show everyone who's the Boss. But little do we know that God does not delight in wiping away those He created. Perhaps it's more accurate to say that it pains God to bring to an end those He created.
Judgments of God are a last resort. Judgments of God are hidden mercies, to halt the greater devastation that would occur if evil is left unchecked. Such a view gives us a better picture of God: A merciful, loving God even in His judgments.
Let's pray: Father God, help us to grow in our understanding of your character. That you take no delight in judgments, that you take no delight in the death of anyone, including the wicked. That you are full of compassion and mercy. That you delight in people turning from their sinful and harmful ways and turning to you for help. That your pleasure is found in life! Help us to see what's in your heart. In Jesus' Name, Amen.