This morning I read
Ezekiel, chapter 18
Yet say ye, Why? doth not the son bear the iniquity of the father? When
the son hath done that which is lawful and right, and hath kept all my
statutes, and hath done them, he shall surely live.
Exodus, chapter 20
"5": Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me;
Exodus, chapter 34
"7": Keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children's children, unto the third and to the fourth generation.
Deuteronomy, chapter 5
"9": Thou shalt not bow down thyself unto them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me,
Jeremiah, chapter 32
"18": Thou shewest lovingkindness unto thousands, and recompensest the iniquity of the fathers into the bosom of their children after them: the Great, the Mighty God, the LORD of hosts, is his name,
Numbers, chapter 14
"18": The LORD is longsuffering, and of great mercy, forgiving iniquity and transgression, and by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation.
There is no contradiction in the Bible on this issue, even though it seems to say in one place that God makes children suffer for the evil of the father and in another place it says that God will not do that. The answer is, and I will need to explain this, both are true, so the Bible does not have a contradiction.
The answer to what you are seeking to understand lies in the first passage of your morning reading. In Ezekiel 18:19-20, the means of escaping God's judgement upon a man is doing what God says is right. This is a law written even in the foundation of God's creation, and we have Scripture on the matter. When a man does what is right in God's sight, even though he might not know God's word on the subject, God honors it:
For the invisible things of Him from the Creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse. (Romans 1:20)
In short, God says that if you do right he honors the right you do. He does this whether you know Him in salvation or the free pardon of sin, or not.
Now if you know God's statutes and keep them, the Scripture says He honors that as well. (This was present in the text you read.) It is good to do what you observe to be good by the testimony of Creation. It is better to know God's word and obey it. It is best to also know and submit to the Creator God, who is the Lord Jesus Christ.
It is also true that a son bears the iniquity of a father. Four millennia of human observation, and in recent years there has been some failed attempt to make this a science and call it Psychology, have demonstrated this is true. When a father does evil while children are growing up they are affected by it. When they grow up they tend to replicate what they have learned in childhood in their own family life so this affects their children. This is part of what we are describing when we use such terms as "generational curses," but there is also a demonic influence issue in such curses that we are not addressing in this question.
The law of the harvest requires we reap what we sow, and that includes what we sow in our children through our actions and teaching. The things they are quickest to learn from is our example and if it is a bad example they are most likely to not only replicate it, but be worse than we are. And it is also true that many a child has said that they swore they would not be like their mother or their father yet when they were grown complained that they recognized they had become that parent. They see the principle at work even though they might not know what to call it.
The child who chooses to follow God might suffer in his mind because of a parent's and principally a father's sins. He might also suffer in body sometimes. Some babies are born with AIDS or Crack addictions because a mother had those things holding sway in her own body, and we know that some sins like marijuana smoking can actually affect the DNA chain passed on by their fathers so that the body is impacted upon. This should not be surprising because the human body is slated for death because sin entered into the world. The body comes into the world heading toward death as a testimony to the fact we are born in sin. Should it be surprising that the inherited fruits of sin might be active in that body? Nevertheless the person born in such a condition has the choice of whether or not to turn the heart and mind over to the Lord, which is the greater issue.
In relation to this issue some might point to the suffering of the Jews. We see what has happened as a punishment of God for national sin. Some people want to make the sufferings of the Jewish people to be happening because of rejection of Christ. This is not true. The Jewish people had been experiencing judgements for 800 hundred years before the appearance of the Lord and I might remind that the first Christians were Jews. In the two thousand years since, many Jews have come to know the Lord Jesus Christ even though there has been national blindness during that time. Yes, the Jews have suffered for sins, but each generation has made its
own choices as well. But, during this time, Jews who have practiced the principles taught them under the law have prospered in accordance with those principles. So God has kept His word in both parts to the Jewish people. The nation scattered and pealed becomes living evidence for the true understanding of God's Word instead of an argument contrary to what I am saying. They experience both the blessing of doing what they know to be right and the punishment for duplicating and continuing what we can call the sins of the fathers.
Many people have been misled by, as well as have misunderstood the passages you have brought to the fore and it is certainly no disgrace to find this issue difficult. I fully admit that when I first thought about these passages and compared them myself, I felt a great sense of confusion. It took me several years to get this thing sorted out in my own mind, and I fear that how I express the truth might be lacking because there seems to be also some spiritual struggle involved in coming to an understanding of this truth of the Bible. The devil has a vested interest in keeping us confused and uncertain on this subject instead of seeing it clearly. Of that I am convinced. The Scripture is saying exactly what it means. Our danger in approaching it is assuming it to be saying what it is not. The statements have to be read exactly and literally, then they stand like beacons that point to a right understanding of ourselves as well as the divine counsels of God in this regard.
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