A couple of weeks ago, I preached a sermon in which I used Ezekiel 18:20 to counter the Calvinist doctrine of original sin. After the sermon, though, a member at Jackson Heights asked me about an apparent contradiction raised by the text. Ezekiel 18 says repeatedly that the son will not die for the sins of the father, but in 2 Samuel 12:13-14, God through the prophet Nathan tells David that because of David’s sin with Bathsheba, his son with Bathsheba will die. What God says won’t happen in Ezekiel 18 apparently does happen in 2 Samuel 12. What gives?
I think there’s a way to resolve this contradiction, but I want to sneak up on it for a little bit first. In Ezekiel 18, God is very definite. Consider “He shall surely live” in 18:9 and “He shall surely die” in 18:13. It’s a no-exceptions kind of rule that Ezekiel is spelling out.
This seems particularly strange, given that Ezekiel himself knew through Scriptural study and experience that on earth, the rule had significant exceptions. For instance, in Ezekiel 14:12-14, Ezekiel cites Job as an example of a righteous man. The whole point of the book of Job is that sometimes the righteous suffer even though they have done nothing wrong. Job’s children didn’t die because they were wicked; they died as collateral damage from Satan’s attempt to get Job to curse God.
Similarly, the climax of the narrative of the book of Ezekiel comes in Ezekiel 24, when God strikes Ezekiel’s wife down. There’s no evidence that she was a particularly wicked woman; in fact, the only thing said about her (that she is the delight of Ezekiel’s eyes) is positive. However, she dies, and she dies so that when Ezekiel doesn’t mourn for her (because God commands him not to), his behavior will be a prophetic figure of the way that the Jews won’t mourn when Jerusalem falls.
In other words, if we take Ezekiel 18 as being about life under the sun (to steal a phrase from Ecclesiastes), God’s just-so promise about the righteous surely living and the wicked surely dying is flatly contradicted by what Ezekiel knew and by what he lived. This means that either Ezekiel is an inattentive idiot, or he isn’t talking about life under the sun at all.
I think the latter is the much more likely alternative. Certainly, God’s people in the time of the Old Testament didn’t know as much about the afterlife as we do. However, the more spiritually aware among them had a sense that there was an afterlife. For example, after David’s son dies, David himself observes in 2 Samuel 12:23, “I shall go to him, but he will not return to me.” David believed that, though dead, his son continued to exist.
As a result, as we’re trying to understand Ezekiel 18, we should place significant weight on God’s declaration in 18:3 that all souls are His. The Hebrew word there, nephesh, can be translated in a number of ways, but I think that “soul” is the correct rendering there, precisely because of the textual clues that Ezekiel has more than earthly life in mind.
Certainly, life under the sun is fraught with injustice, both real and apparent. When Ezekiel speaks of God meting out perfect justice, he isn’t talking about this life, but the life to come. He writes to warn us that, in the words of Solomon in Ecclesiastes 12:14, “God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.”