In Deut. 5:9, it says that God will punish the sins to the 3rd and 4th generation. Then in Ezekiel 18:19-20, it appears that the children will not share in the guilt of the father but each person will be judged separately. Could you please explain this punishing of generations? I have heard it said there is a family curse on some people. Can this be true?
There are number of passages (Ex. 20:5; 34:7; Num. 14:18; Deut. 5:9) in the Old Testament that talk about the sins of the fathers being passed on to their children. Deuteronomy 5:9 is just one.
You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, and on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me . . . (NASB) Deut. 5:9
God’s statement in Ezekiel 18:19-20 is a clue that many have misunderstood Deut. 5:9 and the other passages. You have asked a great question.
Yet you say, ‘Why should the son not bear the punishment for the father’s iniquity?’ When the son has practiced justice and righteousness, and has observed all My statutes and done them, he shall surely live. The person who sins will die. The son will not bear the punishment for the father’s iniquity, nor will the father bear the punishment for the son’s iniquity; the righteousness of the righteous will be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked will be upon himself.” (NASB) Ezek. 18:19-20
Third and Fourth Generation
In order to understand Deut. 5:9, we should go to the first time the Bible records the statement. It first occurs in the Ten Commandments. It is the second command.
You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments. (NASB) Exodus 20:5-6
In the commandment God is warning the Israelites to not worship other gods. This warning is not about just any sin. It is a warning against worshipping other gods. This warning is repeated in each of the other passages.
Most of us understand that God might “punish” someone for rejecting Him and then worshipping another god. But we struggle with the idea that God might “punish” our great grandchildren and great great grandchildren for our sins. We are aware that children mimic their parents and often pick-up their bad habits. If the parents are ungodly and if they reject God, it is often true that the rest of the family will too. It is impossible for children not to be like their parents in some way – good or bad.
Sins of The Father
The “punishment” described in Exodus 20:5-6 is not for sins such as stealing, murder, or lying. It is a warning against worshiping other gods. Parents who reject the true God will have children who usually do the same.
Your second passage tells us that God does not automatically bring the sins of the father on his great grandchildren and great great grandchildren. In Ezekiel 18 God tells us that that our children will not always suffer for parents sins.
Now behold, he has a son who has observed all his father’s sins which he committed, and observing does not do likewise. He does not eat at the mountain shrines or lift up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel, or defile his neighbor’s wife, or oppress anyone, or retain a pledge, or commit robbery, but he gives his bread to the hungry, and covers the naked with clothing, he keeps his hand from the poor, does not take interest or increase, but executes My ordinances, and walks in My statutes; he will not die for his father’s iniquity . .
When the son has practiced justice and righteousness, and has observed all My statutes and done them, he shall surely live . . . The son will not bear the punishment for the father’s iniquity, nor will the father bear the punishment for the son’s iniquity; the righteousness of the righteous will be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked will be upon himself.
God goes on to say that a wicked man can be forgiven.
“But if the wicked man turns from all his sins which he has committed and observes all My statutes and practices justice and righteousness, he shall surely live; he shall not die. All his transgressions which he has committed will not be remembered against him; because of his righteousness which he has practiced, he will live. Do I have any pleasure in the death of the wicked,” declares the Lord GOD, “rather than that he should turn from his ways and live? (NASB) Ezekiel 18:21-23
God does not take joy in punishing people. This implies that the warning in Deut. 5:9 is only about the worship of other gods. It is not about all sins. It also means that unless the parents or the children have a change of heart, the effects of the father will not abate until after the great great grandchildren. God will finally cause the cycle to end.
I loved the statement in Ezekiel 18:23 that God does not take pleasure in the death of the wicked, nor does He take pleasure in “punishing” people. He desires that they believe in Jesus Christ and become holy ones. But He does enjoy the death of His godly ones.
Precious in the sight of the LORD Is the death of His godly ones. (NASB) Psalms 116:15
Why? Because God wants an intimate relationship with us. When we worship Him, we are worshipping the One who should be worshipped. When we worship Him, we draw nearer to Him.