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Ezekiel 18:1-32: Righteous vs. Unrighteous
Individuals: Take time to think back about your past week. Where have you seen God work in your life or answer prayer? Write down any prayer requests you have.
Group: Open the study by sharing life updates, reviewing highs and lows of your past week, or sharing prayer requests and praises.
Icebreaker: Discuss a time in your life that you felt you were righteous. Then share a time in your life that you felt you were unrighteous. What made the difference in your perception of the experience?
All: Begin the study with a word of prayer, asking God to open your heart for today’s study. You can also pray for any prayer requests now, or save that for the end.
Read today’s passage: Ezekiel 18:1-32.
1 The word of the Lord came to me: 2 “What do you people mean by quoting this proverb about the land of Israel:
“‘The parents eat sour grapes,
and the children’s teeth are set on edge’?
3 “As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, you will no longer quote this proverb in Israel. 4 For everyone belongs to me, the parent as well as the child—both alike belong to me. The one who sins is the one who will die.
5 “Suppose there is a righteous man
who does what is just and right.
6 He does not eat at the mountain shrines
or look to the idols of Israel.
He does not defile his neighbor’s wife
or have sexual relations with a woman during her period.
7 He does not oppress anyone,
but returns what he took in pledge for a loan.
He does not commit robbery
but gives his food to the hungry
and provides clothing for the naked.
8 He does not lend to them at interest
or take a profit from them.
He withholds his hand from doing wrong
and judges fairly between two parties.
9 He follows my decrees
and faithfully keeps my laws.
That man is righteous;
he will surely live,
declares the Sovereign Lord.
10 “Suppose he has a violent son, who sheds blood or does any of these other things 11 (though the father has done none of them):
“He eats at the mountain shrines.
He defiles his neighbor’s wife.
12 He oppresses the poor and needy.
He commits robbery.
He does not return what he took in pledge.
He looks to the idols.
He does detestable things.
13 He lends at interest and takes a profit.
Will such a man live? He will not! Because he has done all these detestable things, he is to be put to death; his blood will be on his own head.
14 “But suppose this son has a son who sees all the sins his father commits, and though he sees them, he does not do such things:
15 “He does not eat at the mountain shrines
or look to the idols of Israel.
He does not defile his neighbor’s wife.
16 He does not oppress anyone
or require a pledge for a loan.
He does not commit robbery
but gives his food to the hungry
and provides clothing for the naked.
17 He withholds his hand from mistreating the poor
and takes no interest or profit from them.
He keeps my laws and follows my decrees.
He will not die for his father’s sin; he will surely live. 18 But his father will die for his own sin, because he practiced extortion, robbed his brother and did what was wrong among his people.
19 “Yet you ask, ‘Why does the son not share the guilt of his father?’ Since the son has done what is just and right and has been careful to keep all my decrees, he will surely live. 20 The one who sins is the one who will die. The child will not share the guilt of the parent, nor will the parent share the guilt of the child. The righteousness of the righteous will be credited to them, and the wickedness of the wicked will be charged against them.
21 “But if a wicked person turns away from all the sins they have committed and keeps all my decrees and does what is just and right, that person will surely live; they will not die. 22 None of the offenses they have committed will be remembered against them. Because of the righteous things they have done, they will live. 23 Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign Lord. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?
24 “But if a righteous person turns from their righteousness and commits sin and does the same detestable things the wicked person does, will they live? None of the righteous things that person has done will be remembered. Because of the unfaithfulness they are guilty of and because of the sins they have committed, they will die.
25 “Yet you say, ‘The way of the Lord is not just.’ Hear, you Israelites: Is my way unjust? Is it not your ways that are unjust? 26 If a righteous person turns from their righteousness and commits sin, they will die for it; because of the sin they have committed they will die. 27 But if a wicked person turns away from the wickedness they have committed and does what is just and right, they will save their life. 28 Because they consider all the offenses they have committed and turn away from them, that person will surely live; they will not die. 29 Yet the Israelites say, ‘The way of the Lord is not just.’ Are my ways unjust, people of Israel? Is it not your ways that are unjust?
30 “Therefore, you Israelites, I will judge each of you according to your own ways, declares the Sovereign Lord. Repent! Turn away from all your offenses; then sin will not be your downfall. 31 Rid yourselves of all the offenses you have committed, and get a new heart and a new spirit. Why will you die, people of Israel? 32 For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign Lord. Repent and live!
What is the context for this passage?
At this point in the Bible, the Israelites have been conquered and taken into captivity by the Babylonians. God orchestrated this captivity as a punishment for the Israelites rejecting God and following after other gods. Due to their disobedience, God punished them by taking away their promised land and forcing them into captivity, hoping this would cause them to recognize their sins and return to him.
The book of Ezekiel chronicles the message of Ezekiel, a prophet of God. Ezekiel preached to the Israelites who were taken captive in Babylon. He warned them that the reason this captivity was happening was because of their own rebellion against God. He told them that God was purifying his people so they could once again be a nation that follows God. He challenged them to repent of their wicked ways and turn back to God. This is the path to restoration.
Read the passage again.
Explore a different version if you have one available. If you are online, here is Ezekiel 18 in NIV through Bible Gateway. You can change the version by using the dropdown menu at the top right of the page.
Try to summarize the passage in your own words.
Answer these three questions about the passage:
1. What does the passage say about God?
God speaks to his people. In the time of Ezekiel, God spoke through the prophets. Today, God speaks to us through his word, the Bible. God doesn’t leave us alone to try to figure it out for ourselves. He gives us the instructions we need to follow him in obedience.
God’s punishment for sin is death. Just like we saw in Genesis 3, God makes it very clear in this passage that the punishment for sin is death. He says this over and over again in this passage, none more clearly than in verse 4: “The one who sins is the one who will die.”
God counts as righteous those who are obedient to him. This passage gives a long list of righteous acts—the righteous man doesn’t follow idols, he doesn’t commit adultery, he has honest business dealings, he doesn’t steal, he is generous, and he judges fairly. Many of these fall right in line with the 10 Commandments we studied last week. But most importantly, God counts as righteous the one who is consistently obedient to God’s commands.
God’s reward for righteousness is life. In contrast to the punishment for sin, which is death, the reward for being righteous is life. God clearly sets up the contrast between obedience and wickedness, righteousness and unrighteousness, and life and death. If you are righteous, then God provides life as a reward.
God counts as wicked those who disobey him. There’s a type of person who is not like the righteous man. This person follows idols, steals, commits adultery, is dishonest, and oppresses the poor. In essence, he chooses not to follow the commands of God. God calls these people wicked.
God does not take pleasure in the death of the wicked. One reason that people often reject God is that they see his treatment of wicked people in the Bible as violent and cruel. In this passage, we find that God doesn’t do this for fun. He takes no pleasure in punishing the people who don’t follow him.
God rejoices when people turn from their sin. God is not out there gunning for us to reject him so he can punish us. Instead, he is eagerly waiting for each person to turn away from their sin and turn to him. He’s waiting to offer us life. He rejoices when we make that choice to follow him.
God forgives the sins of those who repent and turn to him. When someone chooses to turn from their sin and follow God’s commands, when that person truly repents, then God forgives. This passage says “none of the offenses they have committed will be remembered against them.” This is the mercy of God at work.
God rejects those who are unfaithful to him. If a person rejects God’s commands, they ultimately reject God. And in the end, God will reject that person. If a person continues in unrighteous ways, or turns away from God and starts following an unrighteous path, then God will reject them in the end. These people will have to face the punishment for sin—death.
God judges people based on their actions and choices. This passage indicates that God’s judgment of us is completely dependent on our own actions and choices. God judges us according to our own ways. Will you follow him? Or will you reject him? That will be the deciding factor in how God judges you.
God is just. God is a judge, and his judgment is always just. He can recognize the righteousness or unrighteousness in each of us. Based on this, he will make the correct and fair judgment for each person. He will reward us with life or punish us with death. This is more than just life or death here on earth. This is talking about eternal life or death.
2. What does the passage say about people?
People belong to God. God created each and every one of us, and as such, we belong to him, just like all of creation belongs to him. Even if we reject him, we still belong to him. That’s why our rejection hurts God so much.
People are free to choose the way they live. In the three scenarios we are given in this passage, it is clear that each person makes the choice for how they will live. Some make the choice to live a righteous life and follow God’s commands. Some make the choice to reject God and follow their own path. And in each situation, God gives the person the freedom to make that choice. We have that same choice to make today.
People are able to learn from others’ life choices. In the third scenario, a son sees his father’s violence and wickedness and decides to make a different choice. He decides to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps of righteousness rather than his father’s footsteps of wickedness. He was able to look at two different models of behavior and choose the one that brings life. If you were brought up in a home that rejects God, you don’t have to follow in those footsteps. You can learn from their wrong actions and choose a different path, just like the second son in this passage.
People are unjust. In contrast to God, who is perfectly just, people are unjust. When people sin and receive the consequences for that sin, they blame God, saying he is unjust. But really, people are the ones who are unjust when they commit acts that are detestable to God. These acts take advantage of other people through oppression, adultery, and robbery. Even if your sins are different than the ones listed in this passage, anyone who sins (which is all of us) is acting unjustly.
3. What does the passage say about God’s plan?
God’s plan is that each person is accountable for their own actions. In verse 20, this passage states that “the child will not share the guilt of the parent, nor will the parent share the guilt of the child.” We are all called on to make our own choices for how we will live, and we will face the outcomes of those choices, whether good or bad. We cannot get to heaven on the coattails of our parents, nor will we receive eternal punishment for choices that someone else made. We must make that choice to follow or reject God for ourselves.
God’s plan is to provide a way for people to turn from their sin. When we sin, God doesn’t just give up on us and condemn us to death. God calls each of us to repent and turn from our sin. He calls us to follow him, and when we make that choice, he rejoices. He forgives, and he changes our outcome from death to life. God didn’t have to do this. He would be perfectly just in condemning each one of us to death. Thankfully, he made a way for us to avoid this punishment and receive life.
God’s plan is to give people a new heart and a new spirit when they repent. When we repent and turn from our sin, God doesn’t just leave us the way we were. He gives us a new heart and a new spirit—one that desires to follow God’s commands.
God’s plan is to give people the power to choose their own eternal destination. Although this passage doesn’t directly refer to the eternal nature of this decision, the underlying context is that the decision we make on this earth will have eternal consequences. If you choose unrighteousness, you will face eternal death. If you choose righteousness, you will be rewarded with eternal life. You are the only one who has the power to make this choice for yourself.
How does the passage fit into the overarching story of the Bible?
Sometimes it’s easier to understand a passage if you have a little outside knowledge from other passages in the Bible. This section will help provide that outside perspective.
The story of the Bible is all about the relationship between God and humans and the choice humans have to follow God or reject him. We see all the way back in Genesis 3 that humans disobeyed God to choose what seemed more appealing in the moment. This pattern of sin and rejection happens over and over again in the stories of the Bible.
In today’s passage, God clearly sets up the two paths that we can take. We can choose to follow God’s commands and find eternal life, or we can reject God’s commands and find eternal death. The choice is up to us. Does this mean that those who follow God will never sin? No. But it’s about the state of the heart. Is your heart striving to follow after God? Or is your heart rejecting him and going your own way?
In the rest of the Bible, we find that no matter how hard we strive to follow God’s commands, we will never live up to God’s standards—his perfect self. All of our righteous acts are like filthy rags to God (Isaiah 64:6). So how do we reach this state of righteousness that it talks about in Ezekiel 18?
The New Testament gives us the answer—it’s only through the grace of God, who sent his Son to take the place of punishment for us on the cross. If we accept the gift of Jesus’ sacrifice for our sins, if we repent of our sins, then we will receive Jesus’ righteousness in place of our sins. God will no longer see our sins. Instead, he will only see the righteousness of Jesus. This is enough for God to turn away from his wrath and invite us in to eternal life. Just like in Ezekiel 18, the choice to accept or reject this gift is entirely up to us, and the choice we make will be the difference between life and death.
Individual: Answer the following questions thoughtfully for yourself.
Group: Pose these questions for discussion.
All: If you are willing to share, I’d love to hear your thoughts to these questions. Feel free to use the comment section to start a discussion about this passage.
What else strikes you about this passage?
How does the passage affect how you view God? How you view yourself?
How does this passage affect how you will live your life?
For additional study related to this topic, read Romans 8:1-17.
For Bible Essential studies, you can use my thoughts as your devotional, or you can download and use the journaling sheet to work through the passage on your own. If desired, you can then compare your thoughts to mine. Journal sheets can be downloaded and used now or later. They can be printed and filled in by hand or saved and filled out electronically. Journal sheets are available for individual or group use.
If you plan to lead a group study, a PowerPoint presentation is also available.
You can access these resources by clicking here: Ezekiel 18 Resources