This message from the Lord concerns His justice as it applies to individuals. There was apparently a proverb in Israel that taught that the actions of a father affected his sons’ lives. While that is true to an extent, the Israelites must have been using it in a way that made it seem that God was not just in His dealings with people. Just as a man eating sour grapes doesn’t transfer the sour taste to his sons’ mouths, neither does his iniquity get passed down from generation to generation.
It is important to note the distinction between punishment and consequences. Many improper actions have natural consequences that occur simply because they have been done. Liars and traitors become mistrusted, heavy drinking causes health problems, the spendthrift doesn’t have enough money. All of these are mere consequences. Punishments are consequences that are imposed by an external authority in order to get recompense for the crime committed and as a further discouragement from further infractions.
The Lord presents three case studies to help us understand, and they are all related to each other. The first man is righteous as we can see from the list of things he does and does not do, and the Lord says he will live. These are all things listed in the Law of Moses that God’s people were to do or not do. The second man is the first’s son, and he does the opposite of his father in every way. He is thoroughly worthless and wicked, and so the Lord says he shall die. The third man is the second’s son, and after seeing all that his father did, he follows instead in the ways of his grandfather. Unlike his father who brought judgement upon himself through his wicked deeds, the third man lives.
Amazingly, the people of Israel did not think this was right. I can only think that they must have wanted to be pardoned because their fathers and grandfathers were rigtheous. Surely they wouldn’t want their children to be punished for what they have done. It may be that they considered the whole community to be a moral unit, and everyone shared in blessings or curses together. Whatever the case, the Lord refutes their assertion and says He punishes individuals for their own sin. It doesn’t matter who you are related to in terms of morality.
The Lord then drops a bomb into the dialogue by saying that a wicked man can become righteous and a righteous man can become wicked. It is the last state that they persist in that the Lord considers, not the former way that he walked. The hypothetical Israelites also say that this is not just, but the Lord corrects this attitude as well. Since we have the whole, complete inspired Word of God, we can understand that everyone actually starts out wicked, under the curse of sin, but through the work of Jesus Christ we can repent and believe that He will work righteousness through us. The Lord has made a way, so repent.
You do not take pleasure in the death of the wicked, but want all to come to repentence.