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Sins of the fathers?

A visitor to our website writes:

"During a recent Bible study group session, we were reading 2 Chronicles 25:4; where it forbids that "the children be put to death for their fathers". All of us recalled reading Exodus 34:7; where it says that God visits the iniquities of the fathers on the children. We're questioning the contradiction between these two books and verses; and would be very interested in your explaining this to us."

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Thank you for your question. Actually, I don't believe that there's a contradiction between them at all. I think it will help to show this if we look at these two passages separately.

The first part of your question has to do with the story of Amaziah, the king of Judah. His father was King Joash - a good king so long as his mentor, the priest Jehoiada, lived to influence him in the right direction. When Jehoiada died, however, Joash allowed himself to be influenced by his companions toward the worship of false gods. God even raised up a prophet - Zechariah the son of Jehoiada - to call him to repentance; but Joash had the prophet stoned to death. The Bible tells us that "Joash the king did not remember the kindness which Jehoiada his father [and I take that to mean something like an 'adopted' father] had done to him, but killed his son; and as he died, he said, 'The LORD look on it, and repay!'" (2 Chron. 24:22).

God did indeed repay Joash for this evil act. He permitted the Syrians to come against Joash with a very small army; yet, this small army killed many of the leaders of Judah, and carried a large number of prisoners to Damascus. They even critically wounded Joash himself. And then, as Joash was recovering in bed from his injuries, a few of his servants conspired against the king and murdered him in bed because of what he had done to the son of Jehoiada.

It was into this horrible situation that Joash' son Amaziah became king. The Bible tells us that Amaziah was a good king who sought to do what was right in the sight of the Lord (although it admits that he wasn't always loyal in this). And this brings us to the first verse you asked about. 2 Chronicles 25:3-4 says; "Now it happened, as soon as the kingdom was established for him, that he executed his servants who had murdered his father the king. However, he did not execute their children, but did as it is written in the Law of the Book of Moses, where the LORD commanded, saying, 'The fathers shall not be put to death for their children, nor shall the children be put to death for their fathers; but a person shall die for his own sin.'" (That command, by the way, is found in Deuteronomy 24:16. It comes in a portion of Deuteronomy in which God gives the people of Israel principles of justice under which they are to operate.)

So; that's the background for the first part of your question. Amaziah, in obedience to the Lord's command in Deuteronomy, limited the extent of his act of retribution to the servants who had killed his father - and did not kill the sons of the servants (as perhaps a less godly king might have done in an attempt to eliminate the possibility of future conspiracies against himself). But that leads us to the other verse you mention, and to the apparent contradiction it presents.

In Exodus 34:7, it describes a very remarkable story. God, in response to Moses' request, reveals His glory to him. In doing so, God presents Himself as a merciful, gracious and longsuffering God - a God who abounds in goodness and truth - "keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children's children to the third and the fourth generation."

It's that last statement - the one concerning God "visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children's children" - that seems to be in conflict with the story of Amaziah. (This same principle, by the way, is mentioned in such passages as Exodus 20:5; Leviticus 26:39; Numbers 14:18 and 33; Isaiah 14:21 and Jeremiah 32:18). So how do we reconcile these two things? How do we understand, on the one hand, that God - as He Himself says - visits the iniquities of the fathers on their children to the third and fourth generation; and yet prohibits, in His law, a son from being put to death for the sins of his father?

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In sorting this out, I think that it's very important to notice that it's clearly God - and not man - who visits the iniquities of the fathers on the children. If "iniquity" is to be "visited" on anybody else than the one who committed the sin, it's God alone who is to arrange the visit! Someone may be tempted to "pay back" someone else that they can't get to any longer (perhaps because that "someone else" had already died) by smacking their kids instead. But it's important to remember Hebrews 12:19 - "Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written [in Deuteronomy 32:35], 'Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,' says the Lord." It also says in Leviticus 19:18 (a very famous verse), "You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD."

Vengeance, in the Bible, is always presented as belonging to God and not individuals. The problem with our avenging ourselves is that we can never do it as perfectly or as righteously as God does. We can't see into other people's hearts; nor can we know their real motives perfectly. And so, we'll always tend to avenge ourselves on the basis of faulty information, or out of our own impure motives. Or we'll tend to "over-avenge" ourselves, or avenge ourselves against the wrong parties, or take vengeance in an inappropriate way. This is why God tells us not to do it; but instead, to leave it to Him to do. He says that vengeance is His prerogative alone - and that's good, because only He can do it perfectly. And so, it's God's proper place alone to "visit the iniquity of the fathers upon the children"; and it's never the place of man to do so. In fact, it would be utterly unjust for us to do it.

Another thing that I think is important to notice regarding this apparent contradiction is that the "iniquity" of the guilty fathers being "visited" on the children does not necessarily mean that the children are put to death for the sins of the fathers. It sometimes does (as in the case of King David's child through Bathsheba - 2 Sam. 12:14); but not always. There are many ways that a father's iniquities can be visited on the children.

For example, a father who sins brings unwanted and undesirable consequences on all those around him - including his own household and his own children. We all know many children who suffer because of the sinful choices of their fathers - and, in some cases, those consequences last for a very long time. In ancient times, there were few concerns as important to a man as that of his responsibility to the generations that would follow him. And so, in this case, I think it would be as if God were saying, "Listen, o man - you who intend to sin; I'm giving you a warning! You are not an island. Your actions affect other people close to you. Your sins hurt innocent bystanders - particularly your own children. Don't think that you can sin without serious consequences that hurt those who are most precious to you." An example of such consequences from the Old Testament might be the way David's sin of adultery and murder resulted not only in the death of his innocent child (2 Sam. 12:14), but also the incestuous act of his son Amnon (2 Sam. 13:14), and the rebelliousness of his son Absolom (2 Sam. 12:10-12 and 16:20-23).

Have you ever heard the saying, "I'm gonna' smack you so hard, your parents are gonna' say 'Ouch'"? I think this is the same sort of thing in the reverse direction: God may be warning a man in this passage that, when God punishes a man for his rebellious and heard-hearted sinfulness, He "smacks" him so hard that his kids feel the pain. I've been a pastor long enough to testify that children, grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren, do indeed do feel the pain of God's punishment for the wicked rebelliousness of the fathers! It's a sobering thought; ... and I think it's meant to be.

Another way that the father's iniquities can be visited on the children is in the influence they live to personally have on those children. I think it's interesting that God says that the iniquities of the fathers are visited "to the third and fourth generation". If you think about it, it's possible for a man to live long enough to have a direct influence on his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Rarely would a man live long enough to have immediate influence on a child to "the fifth generation". And remember that a "father" is to be the spiritual head of the family. And so, if this is the case, the "visitation" comes in the way that the sinning father is capable of bringing an immediate and negative influence on those generations that are alive at the same time he lives. In other words, his sins are visited upon the children and the children's children because they learn to adopt his practices and behaviors - and also end up suffering the same consequences.

I'm sure you've seen this sort of thing in actual experience; where some family patriarch can lead his whole clan into the same sort of behavior and characteristics he exhibits - for good or ill. One example of this (although with in reference to a godly man) might be from the Old Testament: how Isaac proved at times to be a deceiver in the same way that his grandfather Abraham had been (Gen. 12:10-20 and 26:6-11). Another example might be the way that the prophet Samuel's learned bad parenting habits from his foster father Eli; and as a result, Samuel's sons were rebellious as Eli's were (1 Sam. 2:12-17 and 8:1-3). If this is true even of the godly; then think how much more true it is of the ungodly! It's a terrible judgment from God for a wicked man's offspring to become as wicked - or even more wicked - than he was! (By the way; if you're studying the stories of the kings of Israel and Judah, you certainly see that played out an awful lot!)

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So then; I really don't think there's a conflict between these two passages. They're actually dealing with two different things. One is dealing with the matter of the limits of human justice (that the children are not to be put to death for the sins of their fathers); and the other is dealing the matter of the results of sin with respect to divine judgment (that the sins of the fathers have unwanted and undesirable consequences that impact their immediate offspring negatively). I hope my suggested answer helps clarify this for you and your Bible study group.

Let me add one more thing in closing. The fact that the consequences of our sins harm other people - especially people we care about the most - is a terrible reality that we cannot escape (as many of us know all too well). We can repent of our sins; but sometimes, repentance comes too late to stop the unwanted consequences and the harm our sins have caused to others. It's important to be realistic and to stress that fact. But it's also important to stress that, as great as our sins might be, God's grace is always far greater than our sins. As the Bible says; "... Where sin abounded, grace abounded much more" (Rom. 5:20). The single innocent Person who most felt the consequence of our sins is the Son of God - and He felt it willingly and in love, when He took our sins upon Himself on the cross and died in our place.

And the good news is that, because Jesus died, we can never 'sin' ourselves beyond the grace of God to forgive us completely, to wash us clean, and to make us to stand in perfect righteousness before Him. God may not remove all the temporal consequences of our sins from us or from our children; but Jesus has most certainly paid the eternal consequences of our sins on the cross. And so, as the apostle John wrote, "If we confess ours sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:9).

Praise God for this! We may blow it horribly in life; but we cannot blow it so much that God cannot still grant us eternal life in Christ.

Thanks for your question.
Pastor Greg Allen

(All Scripture quotes are taken from the New King James Version.)

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