The Truth about Guilt Meditations: 2. Understanding God
Ex 34:6,7 The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, 7 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.”
Recap: In the first study we faced the words ‘guilt’ and ‘guilty’ and sought to show that although they are words we prefer to keep in the background of our lives, and hope preachers won’t talk about, nevertheless they are essential to help us face our shortcomings or our blind spots. In this study we are going to confront two verses from the Old Testament that are regularly mis-translated and which, therefore cause many people difficulties and in the midst of them is this subject of guilt.
Not Clearing the Guilty: Our starter two verses are key verses for understanding God. They start out by extolling God as the God who is, “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin,” words that are repeated in whole or part again and again throughout the Old Testament. That part we like but then it starts getting uncomfortable: “but who will by no means clear the guilty.” This needs thinking about because most Christian teaching seems to suggest a God who, as we considered previously, forgives and cleanses us of our sin, our guilt. But that forgets the word ‘confess’ we’ve already considered. The work of the death of Christ on the cross is not applied to the unrepentant. The guilty remain the guilty and their guilt stands before justice which demands action. God isn’t going to ‘clear the guilty’, pretend the guilt isn’t there. The Cross is about forgiving and cleansing the guilty – those who acknowledge their guilt. The unrepentant are still in trouble.
Confusion over Ongoing Sin: But our verses get worse: “visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” This again needs thinking about. “visiting the iniquity”? Now most translations impose on this passage a sense of guilt and blame but, I suggest, this is more the translators’ poor appreciation of God’s grace than of accurate conveying of the meaning. For example, the Message version (which I like and use a lot) very badly puts it, “He holds sons and grandsons responsible for a father’s sins to the third and even fourth generation.”
Now the Israelites so misunderstood this that the Lord had to correct them through Ezekiel. Read Ezek 18 which challenges a proverb they used, “The parents eat sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge’” (18:2b) i.e. the kids suffer because of their parents’ wrongdoing. No, says the Lord, “The one who sins is the one who will die.” (v.4b) He then cites a righteous man (v.5-9) who then has an unrighteous son (v.10-13) and only that son will die. The other way round, suppose there is an unrighteous man (v.14) but the son refuses to follow his father’s path, the son will not die: “He will not die for his father’s sin; he will surely live.” (v.17b)
Resolution: Now I don’t believe the Bible is full of contradictions, so how do we resolve this? Back to “visiting the iniquity”. We need to distinguish between the meanings of practical expression, guilt or blame, and freedom of opportunity. I believe a better way to put part of these verses would be to speak of the ongoing expression of sin and their effects as seen in a father which the sons can (or may not!) follow. Because of the closeness of family life, and we see this so often we perhaps miss or forget it, it is almost usual for children to follow in the footsteps of their parents and that includes copying or continuing their iniquities. Visiting the iniquities of the father on the following generations simply means that father’s example is there confronting the children who may or may not follow it. IF they do follow that bad example, it is probable that they follow the description that comes up in a similar passage in the Ten Commandments: “I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me.” (see Ex 20:4-6 & Deut 5:9,10) Following a bad example indicates a wrong heart towards God. That son or grandson has a problem with God, they carry their own guilt. There is an interdependence of father and child which includes the moral or ethical dimension, and thus a bad father is simply leading his child down a similar bad path, if he is unwise enough to follow it and not go his own better way. Love of God restrains sinful behaviour and if that is seen in the father it will reflect into the life of the son.
And Us? There are very strong lessons about family life here. First that each individual, father or child, is accountable to God for their own life. Where there is guilt (i.e. wrongdoing) the individual is responsible for their own life. Second, the older generation can provide a good or bad example and subsequent generations, although vulnerable to bad examples, are responsible for the way they react to those examples, good or bad. Guilt is uniquely individual but behaviour can be transmitted down the generations if the younger ones do not recognize and reject bad. Don’t blame your parents. God will do that. Yet learn from them. If they provided good examples, follow them, if bad examples, reject them. These are vital words for the very mixed up and confused world of family life we have in the West today.