Ezekiel 18:8b - The Righteous Man Does No Wrong, But Judges Fairly Between Parties

Bible Commentary / Produced by TOW Project

As he did earlier in the book, here Ezekiel presents his readers with a general rule (not doing wrong) connected to a specific rule (judging fairly between individuals). Once again, the unifying principle is that the person with more power must care about the need of the person with less power. In this case, the power involved is the power to judge between people. Every day most of us face moments when we have the power to judge between one person and another. It could be as small as deciding whose voice prevails in choosing where to have lunch. It could be as large as deciding whom to believe in an accusation of improper conduct. Seldom do we realize that each time we make a decision like this, we exercise the power to judge.

Many serious problems at work arise because people feel that they are consistently judged to be less important than others around them. That may stem from formal or official judgments, such as performance reviews, project decisions, employee awards, or promotions.  Or it may stem from informal judgments, such as who pays attention to their ideas or how often they are the butt of jokes. In either case, God's people have an obligation to be aware of these kinds of judgments and to be fair in how they participate in them. It could be interesting to keep a record of how many judgments (large or small) we participate in during a single day, then ask how the righteous person in Ezek. 18:8b would act in each one.

Ezekiel 18 is more than a set of rules for living in exile; it is an answer to the despair the exiles feel, expressed in the Ezek. 18:2 proverb, "The parents have eaten sour grapes and the children's teeth are set on edge."[1] The argument of chapter 18 refutes the proverb, not by eliminating transgenerational retribution altogether. Instead, the lesson of personal moral responsibility replies to exilic despair (see Psalm 137) and to questions of theodicy seen in the refrain, "The way of the Lord is unfair" (Ezek. 18:25, 29). In response to the exiles' question — "If we are God's people, why are we in exile?" "Why are we suffering?" "Does God care?" — the Lord rebuts not with an answer, but with a call to live justly.

In the time between past transgression and future restoration, between promise and fulfillment, between question and answer, the exiles are to live justly.[2]It is here that meaning, purpose and ultimate pay-off can be found. God is not simply repeating laws of good and bad behavior for individuals to follow. Instead, he is calling for a national life of righteousness, when Israel will finally be "my people" (Ezek. 11:20; 14:11; 36:28; 37:23, 27). [3]

The marks of righteousness in Ezekiel 18 provide a representative sample of life in the new covenant when the community is characterized by "lawful" ethics (Ezek.18:5, 19, 21, 27). The reader is challenged to live the new covenant life now as a means to secure hope for the future. In our day, Christians are members of the new covenant with the same call in Matthew 5:17-20; 22:37-40. In this way, Ezekiel 18 is surprisingly instructional and transferable to our own lives in the workplace, no matter the venue.[4] Living out this personal righteousness in our professional pursuits adds life and meaning to our present circumstances because it assumes a better tomorrow, ushers the future kingdom of God into the present, and provides a glimpse of what God anticipates from his people as a whole. God rewards such behavior, the type of which is possible only by means of new hearts and spirits (Ezek. 18:31-32; 2 Corinthians 3:2-6).

One could argue that the problem was not with the proverb itself, but rather with the inappropriate application of it to the circumstances in exile. See Peter Enns, Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005), 74.

On this and the integration of theodicy and ethics, see Gordon H. Matties, Ezekiel 18 and the Rhetoric of Moral Discourse (SBL Dissertation Series 126; Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1990), 223-24.

The false proverb of 18:2 is repeated in Jeremiah 31:29-31 where God explicitly contradicts it with the promise of "a new covenant" with Israel in the future. When Israel stops trying to shift the blame to her ancestors, then "the days are surely coming," says the Lord, "when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel." This covenant will accomplish the fulfillment of God's promises and the forgiveness of Israel's sins (Jeremiah 31:34).

Matties, Ezekiel 18, 222; Darr, "Transgenerational Retribution," 223.