Yesterday, as part of his sermon message, my local pastor spent a great deal of time seeking to differentiate between two aspects of the lingering effects of the sins of the father. In doing so, he found an elegant, but personally painful, solution to an apparent biblical contradiction. We may see this contradiction very openly by comparing two biblical passages. Let us first look at Exodus 20:4-6:
“You shall not make for yourself a carved image—any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.”
For the other side of the apparent contradiction, let us look at Ezekiel 18:1-4:
“The word of the Lord came to me again, saying, “What do you mean when you use this proverb concerning the land of Israel, saying: ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge’? As I live,” says the Lord God, “you shall no longer use this proverb in Israel. Behold, all souls are Mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is Mine; the soul who sins shall die.”
How are we to account for and resolve this apparent contradiction, where the iniquity of the fathers is visited on children to the third and fourth generations while each person is made responsible for their own deeds, whether good or bad, and are not to be punished for the sins of others. It should be noted at the outset that we will not solve this apparent dilemma by attacking either of those verses, as both of them are supported strongly by other important scriptures, with the principle of Ezekiel 18:1-4 supported by Deuteronomy 24:16 and the principle of Exodus 20:4-6 supported by Acts 2:39. So, if we pit these two principles against each other we will find it inconclusive, and therefore heretical and unbiblical. Instead, we must find a way for both principles to be true, and to do that requires that we distinguish between different cases where some aspects of behavior may pass down from generation to generation  while others do not .
Is such a distinguishing possible? Indeed, it is, but it is not necessarily a comfortable area to distinguish, even though it harmonizes with the biblical accounts of both areas of different spiritual salvation between generations as well as the presence of lingering effects of the sins of the fathers in the lives of their children. The example of Heman is instructive in both of these tendencies. As I have discussed his life in detail elsewhere , I will merely summarize what we can learn from him in regards to both of these elements. For one, on the side of the lack of transference of one’s spiritual state, the story of Haman closely resembles Ezekiel 18 in terms of its generational scope. Heman’s grandfather was Samuel, an extremely righteous man and godly man, whose salvation is pretty clearly assured from scripture. On the other hand, Heman’s father Joel was a corrupt and unjust man who took bribes and whose wickedness was an excuse used by the people of Israel to demand a king in 1 Samuel 8. Heman was a righteous man, like his grandfather, and had learned from the wicked deeds of his father and rejected that example for himself. He stands, therefore, as an example of a godly man who overcame the bad example of his father, a noble man who was accounted as one of the wisest men of the time of Solomon .
Yet Heman, even though he was clearly a godly and wise man who served Israel in a conspicuous and noble fashion, did not escape altogether the repercussions and consequences of the sins of his father. For Heman is best known as the author of Psalm 88, and this psalm painfully and openly demonstrates the intense suffering that Heman endured as a result of his family background . This suffering included social isolation, years of depression, and the feeling that God had abandoned Him to suffering and anguish and did not hear his prayers or desire to help provide him with healing and wholeness from the burdens that weighed his heart and spirit down. As a result of these two contrary tendencies, we can clearly see that Heman was able to escape the example of his father when it came to salvation, but he was not able to escape the repercussions of the sins of his father as they related to his own life, presenting a poignant example of a righteous and godly man who suffered greatly because of the sins of others in a way that refined his character, but was deeply unpleasant to endure.
And that is something that I find painfully and personally relevant to my own life. For most of my life I have strongly and directly identified with the example of Heman, and his psalm was included in the Bible, I believe, as a way of describing the legitimacy that God gave to the expression of such a fervent longing for wholeness and restoration, even where that appears to be unrewarded during the course of an entire life. I have long and fervently prayed for God to remove from me certain barriers, certain struggles, and like Paul (and Heman) that request has not been granted, with the implied reason that this is for my own benefit. God willing, I will see the fruits in time, so that I may rejoice in the results of such anxious labor and such immense difficulty, and may have less cause to mourn what I have not had the chance to enjoy despite the intensity and length of my own longings and expectation.
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