The God of Justice

THE WRITER Laurie Lee identified the precise moment when he stopped believing in God. He was walking along a road and he thought of God’s declaration of His character:

The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation (Exodus 34:6–7).

Lee thought: “This is not a God that one should admire, this is an old tribal bully.” And so he turned his back on the God of the Bible.

How about you? What do you think of the God Who presents Himself to us as a God of vengeance?

Grace and Truth

There are two aspects of God’s character—His love, and His justice. His grace and His truth. They are seen consistently throughout the Bible in all the accounts of His dealings with people. They’re expressed in the Bible’s summary of the character of God’s Son Jesus Christ: ‘The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth’ (John 1:14).

None of us deserves God’s favour, but if we turn to Him in faith He will forgive our sins, take us to be His children, and bless us with the promise of eternal life. His grace is not unconditional—if we don’t want it, He won’t give it. The Apostle Paul summarises the principle: ‘Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness’ (Romans 11:22).

That’s not what many people today expect God to be like. However most will understand, from the experience of having or being parents, that if God was infinitely indulgent with the human race and expected no love or obedience from us, we would turn into monsters.

Visiting Iniquity

But perhaps what upset Lee, and what many people find difficult, is that last phrase: ‘visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation’. There’s no getting away from it. God uses the same words on two other occasions (Exodus 20:5 and Deuteronomy 5:9). It is an important and fundamental aspect of His character. What about you—does it make you uneasy?

One difficulty with these words is the fact that God does not appear to abide by them. For instance, Numbers 26 contains the account of a rebellion against God, led by a man called Korah. He and his co-conspirators were destroyed, but his sons were not (v. 11). Evidently they wanted nothing to do with their father’s rebellion and distanced themselves from it. They continued with their roles in God’s service, and later in the Bible we see the ‘sons of Korah’ celebrated, with key roles in the nation’s worship.

God led Israel to the Promised Land and blessed them, as He’d said He would; but over generations they were unfaithful and increasingly wicked, and at length His justice demanded that they be uprooted and cast out. The Babylonian army destroyed the nation and carried most of the survivors captive. The younger generation felt they were suffering for their parents’ sins, and a proverb began  to circulate: ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge’ (Ezekiel 18:2). In this chapter God strenuously refutes this claim, and points out that He will judge everyone for their own actions: ‘The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself’ (v. 20).

The fact was, the younger generation in Ezekiel’s time were just as godless and disobedient as their parents. Children learn from their parents. And this, I suggest, is the reason for that uncomfortable fact that God visits the iniquity of parents upon children. He does not want to, it’s simply the way life usually works.

Ezekiel 18 concludes with a plea: ‘Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways, declares the Lord God. Repent and turn from all your transgressions, lest iniquity be your ruin. Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed, and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord God; so turn, and live’ (vs. 30–32). Parents, as everyone knows, have a huge responsibility. They can give their children a good start or a disastrous start in their lives, and the fact is that very often the parents’ failings will be perpetuated by their children. Our outcomes are determined to a large extent by our environment— but they are not a foregone conclusion. The sons of Korah demonstrated that. The Bible’s message is that we are each responsible for our own outcome, and that God wants to show us His kindness, not His severity.

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