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Ezekiel 18:1-4

1. The word of the LORD came unto me again, saying,

1. Et fuit sermo Iehova, ad me, dicendo,

2. What mean ye, that ye use this proverb concerning the land of Israel, saying, The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge?

2. Quid vobis? vos proverbiantes proverbium 199199     That is, “that you use this saying or apothegm.” — Calvin. super terram Israel, dicendo, Patres comederunt omphacem, 200200     Sour grape — I know not why some translate it “the wild vine,” for it does not suit. — Calvin. et dentes filiorum obstupescunt.

3. As I live, saith the Lord GOD, ye shall not have occasion any more to use this proverb in Israel.

3. Vivo ego, dicit Dominator Iehovah, Si erit vobis amplius 201201     Or, “hereafter.” — Calvin. qui utatur hoc dicterio 202202     Or, “utter this proverb.” — Calvin. in Israele.

4. Behold, all souls are mine; as the soul of the father, so also the soul of the son is mine: the soul that shineth, it shall die.

4. Ecce omnes animae mihi, 203203     That is, “are my own.” — Calvin. sicut anima patris sic anima filii mihi. 204204     That is, “are my own.” — Calvin. Anima quae peccaverit ipsa morietur.


We may collect from this rebuke that the Jews were perverse interpreters of the best teaching; yea, they purposely reviled the Prophet’s expression, and drew it to a contrary meaning. For it, is far commoner than it ought to be among unbelievers, always to take occasion of turning backwards, twisting, distorting, and tearing the teaching of heaven. And at this time we see this impudence increasing greatly in the world. For the world is full of buffoons and other deceivers, who wickedly sport with God, and seek material for joking from the law and the gospel: and so also it appears to have been in the Prophet’s time; for although they listened to the wrath of God hanging over them, they did not cease to provoke him, and that too for many years. And not only were their own iniquities set forth against them, but also those of their fathers: hence the occasion for cavil when they heard — For so many ages you do not cease your warfare against God: he has borne with you patiently unto this day. Do you think that you can carry on your audacity with impunity? God wished hitherto to tame you by his forbearance; but your obstinacy is not to be subdued. Since, therefore, not only for one or two generations, but for four and five, your obstinacy has wrestled with God’s goodness, he cannot any longer pardon you. Since the prophets thus gathered up the iniquities of their fathers, impious men scattered abroad their witticisms — then we are to pay the penalty of our fathers’ sins: they provoked God, but we suffer the punishment which they deserved. The Prophet now convinces them of this unfairness, and shows that they had no reason for transferring their faults to others, or to thrust them away from themselves, since God was just in taking vengeance on them. We know that men willingly shuffle so as to free themselves from blame, and then afterwards accuse God of cruel injustice. It is true, indeed, that they are held in such constraint by their own consciences that they are compelled, whether they will or not, to feel that they are suffering punishment justly; but afterwards they become refractory, and suffocate their conscience, and strive pettishly with God. Hence these words —

Though guiltless of your fathers’ crimes,
Roman, ‘tis thine to latest times
The vengeance of the gods to bear,
Till you their awful domes repair.
Horace, lib. 3, Od. 6, as translated by Francis.

Since so many crimes were rife at Rome, why does that trifler say that the men of his own age were undeservedly paying the penalty due by their ancestors? But, as I have said, this is the testimony of a corrupt nature, because we desire to throw off the blame as far from ourselves as we possibly can. Hence we begin to strive with God, and to rebel against his judgments. And hence this destruction is the more useful to us, since it is proposed as a remedy for a disease by far too common. Whatever the meaning is, this sentiment came into common use like a proverb — that the children’s teeth were set on edge, because their fathers had eaten sour grapes. By these allegorical words they wished to free themselves from blame, as if God was unjustly charging the wickedness of their fathers against them. For to eat the sour grape or wild grape has the same meaning as to set the teeth on edge; for we know this to be the effect of acidity. If any one eats a sour grape, his teeth will suffer from its unripeness. To eat then is to cause this effect on the teeth — referring to sin: for they said that their own teeth suffered, not through their own eating the sour grapes, but through its flowing down from their fathers. On the whole, they wished to contend with God, as if he were afflicting the innocent, and that, too, under the fallacious pretext which I have mentioned, as God announced that he would avenge the wickedness which had been perpetrated in former ages.

Ye, says he, use this proverb; but as I live, says the Lord Jehovah, you shall not use this proverb anymore. He does not mean, by these words, that the Jews should repent and become more modest, and not dare to vomit forth such blasphemy against him; for he is not treating of repentance here; but it is just as if he said, I will strike from under you this boasting, since your iniquity shall be made manifest, and the whole world shall acknowledge the justice of your punishment, and that you have deserved it yourselves, and cannot throw it upon your fathers, as you have hitherto endeavored to do. The Jews indeed did not cease their rebellion against God, and there is no doubt that they were more and more exasperated, so as to expostulate with audacity against him; but because their wickedness was really apparent, and God was not hostile to them in vain, or for trifling reasons; and although he was severe, yet they had arrived at the highest pitch of impiety, so that no punishment could be sufficient or too oppressive. We now understand the meaning of the Prophet, or rather of the Holy Spirit, since God took away all pretense for shuffling from the Jews when he detected their impiety, and made it conspicuous that they were only suffering the due reward of their crimes. But God swears by himself, whence we gather how abominable was their blasphemy; and truly men cannot absolve themselves without condemning God; for God’s glory then shines forth, when every mouth is stopped, as we saw before. (Ezekiel 16:63; Romans 3:19.) As soon as men descend into that arena, through wishing to show their innocence, it is just as if they wished to reduce God’s justice to nothing. Hence it is not surprising that God is very angry when he is despoiled of his justice; for he cannot exist without this attribute.

We now see why an oath is interposed, while he pronounces that he will take care that the Jews should not ridicule any longer Behold, says he, all souls are mine; as the sole of the son so the soul of the father, all souls are mine; the soul, therefore, which has sinned it shall die. Some interpreters explain the beginning of the verse thus: that men vainly and rashly complain when God seems to treat them too severely, since the clay does not rise against the potter. Since God is the maker of the whole world, we are his workmanship: what madness, then, to rise up against him when he does not satisfy us: and we saw this simile used by Jeremiah. (Jeremiah 18:6.) The sentiment, then, is true in itself, that all souls are under God’s sovereignty by the right of creation, and therefore he can arbitrarily determine for each whatever he wishes; and all who clamor against him reap no profit: and this teaching it is advantageous to notice. But this passage ought to be understood otherwise; namely, that nothing is more unworthy than that God should be accused of tyrannizing over men, when he rather defends them, as being his own workmanship. When, therefore, God pronounces that all souls are his own, he does not merely claim sovereignty and power, but he rather shows that he is affected with fatherly love towards the whole human race since he created and formed it; for, if a workman loves his work because he recognizes in it the fruits of his industry, so, when God has manifested his power and goodness in the formation of men, he must certainly embrace them with affection. True, indeed, we are abominable in God’s sight, through being corrupted by original sin, as it is elsewhere said, (Psalm 14:1, 2;) but inasmuch as we are men, we must be dear to God, and our salvation must be precious in his sight. We now see what kind of refutation this is: all souls are mine, says he: I have formed all, and am the creator of all, and so I am affected with fatherly love towards all, and they shall rather feel my clemency, from the least to the greatest, than experience too much rigor and severity. At length he adds, the soul which sinned it shall die. Now, Ezekiel expresses how God restrains the Jews from daring to boast any longer that they are afflicted undeservedly, since no innocent person shall die; for this is the meaning of the sentence; for he does not mean that every guilty person should die, for this would shut against us the door of God’s mercy, for we have all sinned against him: so it would follow that there is no hope of safety, since every man must perish, unless God freed sinners from death. But the Prophet’s sense is not doubtful, as we have said, since those who perish are not without fault; neither can they bring up their innocence to God, nor complain of his cruelty in punishing them for the sins of others. Although here a question may arise, since no one at this day perishes who does not partly bear the fault of another, namely, of Adam, by whose fall and revolt the whole human race actually perished. Since therefore Adam, by his fall, brought destruction upon us, it follows that we perish through the fault of another. Since this question will be treated again in its own place, it will now be sufficient to say, in three words, that although we perish through the fault of another, yet the fault of each individual is joined with it. We are not condemned in Adam as if we were innocent in ourselves, but we have contracted pollution from his sin; and so it has come to pass that each must bear the punishment of his own crime, since the punishment which he deserved first is not simply inflicted on the whole human race, but we have been tainted with his sin, as will afterwards be said. Whatever the meaning, we shall not die innocent, since each is held convicted by the testimony of his own conscience. As far as relates to young children, they seem to perish not by their own, but for another’s fault; but the solution is twofold; for although sin does not appear in them, yet it is latent, since they carry about with them corruption shut up in their soul, so that they are worthy of condemnation before God. This does not come under the notice of our senses; but we should consider how much more acutely God sees a thing than we do: hence, if we do not penetrate into that hidden judgment, yet we must hold that, before we are born, we are infected by the contagion of original sin, and therefore justly destined to ultimate destruction: — -this is one solution. But as far as concerns the Prophet’s expression, the dispute concerning infants is vain and out of place, since the Prophet only wished to refute that impious perverseness, as I have said, so that the people should no longer charge God with cruelty. The soul, says he, which has sinned; that is, none of you can boast of innocence when I punish you: as when it is said, He who does not labor, neither let him eat. (2 Thessalonians 3:10.) Surely this cannot be extended to infants. Nature teaches us that they must be nourished, and yet sure enough they do not acquire their food by labor: but this is said of adults, who are old enough to acknowledge the reason why they were created, and their fitness for undergoing labor. So also, in this place, we are not treating of the tender young when newly born, but of adults, who wish to charge God instead of themselves, as if they are innocent; and so, when they cannot escape punishment, they are anxious to transfer the fault elsewhere — first upon others, and then upon God himself.

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