“The fathers eat sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” This was a popular proverb in ancient Judah in the days of the prophets Ezekiel and Jeremiah. It meant that while the older generation might have fooled around in sin, their kids had to pay the price.
The mindset behind the proverb was that God was unfair, that the judgment he brought Judah was because of the wickedness of the folks who lived in it in the past, not because of those alive in the present. It was a mindset aimed at what they perceived was God’s injustice.
The proverb was so widely spoken and believed that it got God’s attention, and he decided to address it. Chapter 18 is his response and includes his charge that those who say it are the unjust ones, misjudging him so they can continue to sin without concern for the consequences. Blame-shifting isn’t God’s game, and he calls them out on it.
The context is this: the southern kingdom of Judah has been conquered by Babylon and is forced to support their economy and their king, Nebucadnezzer. God’s been warning Judah for generations that he will judge them for their idolatry, but only a very few folks have listened. The nation continues to spiral into more heinous acts of idol worship, and in three waves of takeovers, Nebuchadnezzar takes captives from Judah back to Babylon and eventually completely destroys it.
God sends his prophet, Ezekiel, to the exiles who’ve been deported to Babylon to tell them the same message Jeremiah’s been preaching to those still in Jerusalem, “Repent!” But the people are stubbornly committed to life on their terms, both in exile and in Judah, and they don’t listen. Even so, God keeps giving Ezekiel words, and Ezekiel keeps saying them.
The teeth-on-edge proverb has become the thing the people say to explain what’s been going on during their country’s decline. Jerusalem at the time of Solomon had been known throughout the world for its power and prosperity, but it’s been dulled by idolatry and defeat ever since. It reached an all time low as a vassal nation to Babylon with a fool for a king. Despite all the warnings and warfare, the temperature of the times is dialed way up for other gods and way down for God Almighty.
The local mindset goes like this: “God is unreasonable. He takes out his wrath on the kids for the sins of their parents. He’s judging us for a past we aren’t responsible for. Who can serve a God like that? He’s out of touch with the times–a fuddy-duddy. No sex in worship? No proving piety with child sacrifice? These are the newfangled gods that jangle nowadays. His prophets go on and on about justice, but concern for widows and orphans is so last year. Helping the poor won’t get Babylon off our backs.”
But what does God say?
In chapter 18, he says that a righteous person will be judged for his own behavior and an unrighteous one for his. There’s no living under the shadow of an ungodly parent and also no protection of a godly parent for their children. Everyone will stand before God for themselves, as individuals accountable for their own faith-and-action, not for anyone else’s. “The soul who sins is the one who will die. The son will not share the guilt of the father, nor will the father share the guilt of the son. The righteousness of the righteous man will be credited to him, and the wickedness of the wicked will be charged against him,” 18:20.
This feels like strength where I’m weak. My mom-guilt tempts me to rehash my mom-fails, but here God says I’m responsible for my life, not my kids’. While I’m sorry for many mistakes, I don’t have to carry the guilt. The responsibility of my kids’ souls is theirs. Relief.
Further, God says that if a righteous person falls into sinful living, his righteousness will be forgotten. Likewise, if a sinful living person repents and turns to right living, his wickedness will be forgotten. “Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked?…Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?” 18:23.
This is a remarkable piece of news, that both good and bad slates can be wiped away by a person’s present way of living. It’s what we do now that counts, not what we’ve done in the past, whether for good or ill. There’s no coasting on the fumes of past good deeds and no need to stay stuck in shame over bad ones, either. God is all about the present, about how a person is living now. I love God’s do-over nature: he never withholds the opportunity for me to begin again, again. And again.
Next, God takes his people to task for saying he’s unjust. If each person is accountable for their own lives, what’s unjust about that? And by the way, isn’t calling me unjust, unjust? 18:25-29. It’s a bold move, their turning the tables on God, the Merciful Judge, and calling him unjust. He’s the one who embodies justice, the one who created it, for goodness sake. We wouldn’t even know what it is in the first place had he not created us in his image and told us about it in his law.
So far, all this sounds fair and reasonable until I realize, wait. Is anyone truly righteous? Isn’t even the righteous-living-person still full of sin? What keeps him or her from reaping the consequences for everyday sorts of sins? And what makes a person righteous? God must have expected that question, because here he hints at the answer:
“‘I will judge you, each one according to his ways, declares the Sovereign Lord. Repent! Turn away from all your offenses; then sin will not be your downfall. Rid yourselves of all the offenses you have committed, and get a new heart and a new spirit. Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign Lord. Repent and live!'” Ez 18:30-32.
Get a new heart and a new spirit. This isn’t the first time God’s mentioned their needing–or his giving them–a new heart. He’s let the exiles know that one day he’ll bring them back to Jerusalem, and they’ll be given new hearts with God’s law written on them. He says it 24 different times in the book of Ezekiel alone (Holy Bible app), and yesterday, Hebrews said the same thing, 8:10. But those new hearts don’t sound like they’ll arrive in two days by Amazon Prime. From what little I know of Bible history, it’s about 400 more years before Jesus comes and the Holy Spirit is given, who’s known for his extreme makeover, heart edition.
So if new hearts are 400 years away, why does God keep telling his people now to “Repent and live!” Can they repent and live without new hearts and new spirits? I’m guessing that because God is just and merciful, he’s not unreasonable here. He’s unable to be less than perfect. So that means if he’s saying “Repent and live!” it’s because they’re capable of repenting and living now, of being righteous now, even before Jesus comes and actually opens the door into God’s house.
How is that possible?
And then I remember the temple of God in the middle of Jerusalem. This is the picture-of-Jesus they’ve been given until the day Jesus arrives, with its priests and animal blood and offerings. The temple showed them what was needed to have a relationship with God, down to the incense and the lightstands and the lambs. All of it was rich in meaning and all of it pointed to the Savior who would come and live and die and rise and pay for the sin that keeps us from God. There wasn’t any power in the temple, but there was power in the work the temple symbolized and in the Savior who would do it.
Repentance in 600 BC could bring them into right relationship with God because it was a look ahead to the Savior that believers today look back to. It’s in the looking that we’re made right with God, the faith. It’s always been a faith-in-Jesus’ righteousness that connects us to God. Then as well as now.
Jesus’ actual life on earth would one day do away with the temple and its picture of him, the same way you don’t continue to talk to a friend on FaceTime once they show up at your front door. But back then, temple worship was a marker for faith. Right living was keeping God’s laws, repenting at the temple as needed, and continuing to trust that one day, the Messiah would open up the heavens and pave the way.
God wouldn’t insist that we “Repent and live!” if repenting and living wasn’t possible. The truth was, the Jews didn’t want to repent-and-live. They wanted to skip repentance altogether and get right to the living part. I do, too, if I’m honest. But real life can’t be had apart from repentance. They’re mutually exclusive.
And because God loves his people and knows how he made life to work, he insists that we live his way, because he doesn’t want us to wander away and miss out. We can leave it to the Guy who thought up everything we call good–love and beauty, loyalty and luxury, adventure and thrills–to be dependable when it comes to giving us all that he intends life to be.
It’s his enemy that whispers our fears of missing out. FOMO was his tease to Eve in Eden. God didn’t create everything we see to keep us from enjoying it, did he? Now that would be a tease. But he says, “taste and see that the Lord is good.” He tells us to “…take hold of the life that is truly life.” He knows of good things we haven’t yet tasted, “I have food to eat that you know nothing about.” Ps 34:8; 1 Tim 6:19; Jn 4:32.
“You make known to me the path of life; you fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.” Ps 16: 11. The God who prompted these words knows all that he had in mind in them, but I’m guessing that “eternal pleasures” beats anything I’ve ever heard of.
I’m pretty pumped about laying down my pack of mom-guilt. I’m pretty pumped about the constant invitation to a slate-wiping-do-over. Because his mercies are new every morning, every minute is a brand new chance to begin again. These are big pieces of goodness for me to chew on today. Lam 3:22-24.
But the reminder that it’s faith in Jesus’ goodness, the Lamb of-the-temple and of-the-cross, and not my goodness that connects me to the source of life goes deep into my weary soul. This is a piece of grace that I’m constantly surprised by: I can’t do it–my goodness wears thin, and I can’t make the connection with God. But I don’t have to, because it’s already been done. Jesus did it. My job is to rest and enjoy him.
I’m allergic to resting and enjoying, but when I get a glimpse of what God offers me as I have today, I’m overwhelmed by him and his invitation.
“Come to me all you who are weary and burdened,
and I will give you rest.
Take my yoke upon you and learn from me,
for I am gentle and humble of heart,
and you will find rest for your souls.
For my yoke is easy and my burden is light,”
Thank you, God, for the Savior who invites me to hang out and who takes my back pack at the door.
As if right on cue, Hebrews comes in with the layout and list of everything inside the tabernacle, God’s temple:
–In the Holy Place was the lampstand and the table of consecrated bread.
–In the Most Holy Place (behind a curtain) was the incense altar and the ark with the cherubim above it.
The priests entered the Holy Place often, but only the high priest entered the Most Holy Place once a year, bringing blood for his sins and for the people, 9:6-7. Hebrews says, “The Holy Spirit was showing by this that the way in to the Most Holy Place (the way to God himself) had not yet been disclosed as long as the first tabernacle was still standing,” 9:8.
It would take Jesus, the highest priest, to “disclose” the “way in.” Since he didn’t have to offer his blood for his own sins (like human priests had to do), he would come bringing his own blood one time for everyone. And when he did, the curtain in the temple was torn, both literally and spiritually, and the “way in” to God was blown wide open.
Hebrews says that the temple was an “illustration” that showed that what was offered there couldn’t “clear the conscience of the worshiper.” The offerings were only a matter of food and drink and ceremonial washings, “external regulations applying until the time of the new order.” 9:9-10.
But Jesus has come. And he’s ushered in a whole “new order”– a whole new way to worship. We don’t have to go to a particular place anymore; we can worship him wherever we are. We don’t have to have a human priest saying things over us; we get to have the Son of God praying over us and telling God what we need. We don’t have to bring bulls blood with us to come to God, we get to bring a mug of hot coffee and hangout on the porch.
It’s all paid, and all free.
Our job? To rest and enjoy.
As yesterday, the psalmist is a tattle tale, detailing the sins of the desert wanderers as they travel to the Promised Land. They got huffy about not having water; they rebelled against God’s Spirit; they didn’t take over all of the land God said to; they intermarried with other nations and adopted their customs; they sacrificed their children to demons; they shed innocent blood; they defiled and prostituted themselves. It’s a sordid list that hints at more than what it says.
God gets angry and allows their enemies to “rule over them” and “oppress” them. But he never loses sight of them. He doesn’t turn his back. His anger isn’t because he doesn’t love them, it’s because he does. He is angry for them. Pastor Corby preached from Psalm 18 today. He said that when God was angry in this psalm, it was an anger that’s for us, not against us, because of love, (You can hear Corby here, “An All Weather Faith: Risky Desperation,” November 9, http://rockcreekfellowship.org).
His people cry out and he delivers them, but they keep falling back into their sin. The psalmist says they’re so consumed by it, that they’re “bent” on it and “waste away” because of it. Even so–even though they don’t get it together–God still remembers his covenant to be their God, to have their back, and he relents their judgment. “Many times he delivered them, but they were bent on rebellion and they wasted away in their sin. But he took note of their distress when he heard their cry; for their sake he remembered his covenant and out of his great love he relented,” 106:43-45.
Why is God such a forgiving, giving Father? Because of “his great love.” I’m not sure I approve of his parenting–won’t people take advantage of such extravagant grace, particularly when we can be forgiven over and over just for the asking? But I guess God’s not worried about that. And I’m grateful, because I depend on his grace. His great love has brought me out of my distress in my own desert and to my knees over and over (for a story of God’s great love, see “The Comeback” on http://onetruelove.blog).
Thank you for being such a good, good Father and for your grace that doesn’t quit.
My take away today is to rest and enjoy. To rest in Jesus’ work and to enjoy my relationship with God. What a lot of work you did, Jesus, to give me such easy access and such a privileged position with the God of the Universe.
I’m given credit for all your goodness, and I’m given help to repent of my sinfulness, and I’m able to revel in your presence any ole’ time I please. It’s another “too good to be true” kind of message, one that I must still struggle to believe, since I’m still surprised when I get a little handle on it in your word.
Can the gospel be this free and rich, this available and easy? Why doesn’t everyone grab it?
I can’t take hold of it for anyone but me (Ezekiel). And after what I’ve learned today, I realize that really, it’s Jesus that grabs hold of me. It’s his work that puts my hand in God’s and gives me his smile. He took down the curtain; he made the way (Hebrews). And even when I’m to blame for my distress, “bent on rebellion” and “wasting away in sin,” he gives me the open invitation to come back again and again because of his great love that never ends (Ezekiel and Psalms).
It’s like Snow White meets Cinderella meets Pinocchio meets Sleeping Beauty meets Nemo. There are tastes of these tales and others in the gospel, but none of them really quite get it exactly right, because the gospel is just too darned good.
The story of Jesus is far better than any fairy tale, because it’s real.