“For I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me.” (Exodus 20:5)
Some have been troubled by an apparent injustice in the Lord’s words. They begin by quoting the Lord in Ezekiel 18:20 – “The soul that sins, it shall die. The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son,” and say that God has contradicted Himself. On the surface it may appear to be like that. Therefore it would be good to investigate that suspicion by a brief enquiry.
However, in Exodus 20:5 the Lord specifically says that the “visiting” will only be upon those who hate Him. The verse may best be understood like this. If a son continues in the sins of his father, the same judgment will fall – in other words “the soul that sins, it shall die.” And if the grandson perpetuates these sins, the same judgment will fall upon him, and so on to the great-grandson. But this is where the mercy of the Lord intervenes. He says that He will not allow this judgment to continue beyond the fourth generation, but will cut it short in mercy. Rather than thinking that God is unjust, it is quite the opposite.
Going back the Ezekiel passage, the Lord says, “You say, ‘The way of the Lord is not fair.’ Hear now, O house of Israel, is it not My way which is fair, and your ways which are not fair? . . . .when a wicked man turns away from the wickedness which he committed, and does what is lawful and right, he preserves himself alive. Because he considers and turns away from all the transgressions which he committed, he shall surely live; he shall not die.”
We might conclude with the following word – “Know therefore that the LORD your God, he is God, the faithful God, which keeps covenant and mercy with those who love him and keep his commandments to a thousand generations.” Such grand hyperbole! A thousand generations! But notice the contrast – “those who love Him” rather than “those who hate Him”.
There is no injustice with God. Any example which might appear to suggest it is soon cleared up with a little bit of investigation. The Bible is its own interpreter. And those who are offended at the “visiting” to the fourth generation should then ask themselves why they are not grossly offended at “everlasting hell fire.”