The problem with proverbs
The pen is mightier than the sword,
There’s no such thing, as a free lunch,
The early bird catches the worm,
You can’t judge a book by its cover,
A watched pot never boils,
Practice, makes perfect,
The grass is always, greener on the other side.
Every day, we encounter wisdom, distilled down into a sentence or two, in the form of a proverb.
And, of course, the thing with proverbs and sayings, is that they capture what is generally true, or mostly true, most of the time,
But rarely does a proverb capture the entire truth of a situation, does it?
And I guess we shouldn’t expect that a single sentence to account for all the complexities and nuances, of every possible situation.
“The pen is mightier than the sword”.
We know what that means,
Writing can have a greater influence than violence sometimes.
On some occasions, the pen is mightier than the sword.
Except of course, if you’re having a swordfight.
And if your swordfighting opponent, has a sword, but you, being a great believer in proverbial wisdom, you have armed yourself, not with a sword, but with your Trinity Mount Barker plastic pen, You are going to have a bad day!
The pen will almost certainly not be mightier than the sword, on that occasion!
There is no such thing, as a free lunch.
Well, yes, generally speaking, we know to be on the lookout for the catch, the hidden cost, when someone offers us something seemingly for nothing.
But do you know, on the 27th of October, we’re having a Welcome Lunch at our place, and if you’ve joined our church in the last few months, we’d love you to come to lunch and meet some other newish people.
We aren’t going to swipe your credit card at the door, or anything like that!
You can come, and eat lunch for free, and then you can go home!
On the 27th of October, there is such a thing, as a free lunch!
So that one falls down too,
“The early bird catches the worm”,
One my parents tried hard to distil into me as a teenager as they sought to rouse me from bed before midday,
But let me just say, The early bird may get the worm, but it’s the second mouse, that gets the cheese! Think about that one!
Do I need to go on?
No, we get the fact, don’t we, that proverbs contain some truth, but don’t explain all the complexities of every situation?
The proverb that the people of Israel have been quoting to God, recorded there in the 2nd half of verse 2, falls exactly into that category.
The parents eat sour grapes,
and the children’s teeth are set on edge
We get that picture, don’t we? Take a bite of something, and pull a face, because of how sour it is!
But actually, what would happen if you eat the sour food, and someone else pulled the face!
If it worked that way, it’s the sort of thing some of us would do for amusement, isn’t it?!
The preacher’s preaching away, you’re sitting down in the front row, and you take a huge bite of the sour grapes, just to watch his face contort in the middle of the sermon!
Job interviews, weddings, the possibilities are endless!
But it’s pretty easy to see what the people of Israel mean when they say this;,
“We’re suffering, for the sins of our parents.”
It is in many ways, what every generation thinks, isn’t it?
Those who have gone before us have made a mess of things, and we’re suffering for it.
Now we don’t know where this particular proverb came from.
It was well-known enough at the time, that another prophet, Jeremiah, engages with it as well, because people are obviously quoting it around him also,
And there is, undeniably, an element of truth in that proverb, isn’t there?
We do suffer, from the mistakes and the decisions of others.
Children, particularly, suffer because of the mistakes and poor decisions of their parents.
If I decide that I need to stop for coffee on the way to taking my daughter Heidi to school, she’s the one who suffers, when she walks in late to class!
And of course, we can probably all think of families, where, in much more serious terms, the children suffer, because of their parents sin’ and foolishness.
The pen is mightier than the sword,
The parents eat sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge
Yes, there is some kernel of truth contained in that proverb, but God says that proverb does not explain Israel’s current situation.
God says “you are not exiled in Babylon, because you’re being punished, for the sins of a previous generation.
That’s not how my justice and punishment work.”
“As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, you will no longer quote this proverb in Israel. 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
And to explain this point, Ezekiel gives 3 case studies of God’s justice.
Case studies in God’s justice
Lest there be any confusion, or uncertainty, about who’s accountable, and who is responsible for who’s conduct, I’ll give you 3 examples, God says.
There’s a grandfather,
And a son,
Or we could say a righteous man,
The wicked son, of a righteous man,
And the righteous son of a wicked man.
The righteous man trusts in God and it shows 3 - 9
The righteous grandfather is pictured as someone whose devotion to God can been seen in the way he keeps the Law of Moses.
Keeping the law wasn’t the means of getting into a right relationship with God. The law laid out for Israel, how they ought to conduct themselves, as the people whom God had already made his own.
So someone’s conduct, for Ezekiel, demonstrated their standing before God.
And so the verdict if you like, passed on this man by God, is, verse 9, That man is righteous; he will surely live.
Of course, that’s not to say that because he lived a good life, God will reward him, as if it were somehow possible, to do enough good things, for God to welcome us into heaven!
It’s important that we see that distinction, otherwise we’ll end up thinking, “If I do enough good stuff, God will be pleased with me!” That’s never been the way of getting into a right relationship with God.
But from Ezekiel’s perspective, clearly this man’s good life, was evidence of his trust in God and his promises.
He believed that God’s pattern for life was the best, and so he followed it in every aspect; financial, sexual, his giving to charity, his working for justice.
It’s quite amazing, that in just 5 short verses, so many aspects of this man’s life, are shown to be shaped by his commitment to God.
Notice, that when God describes a righteous person, someone who has come to an understanding of who God is, and what he’s done for us, there is no part of life, that is off-limits, that is quarantined, from the effects of that relationship with God.
As we were preparing the employment contract for Darren, our new Associate Pastor, I noticed that we included in it, a statement that for a Christian person there can be no distinction between conduct in public life, and in private.
That is, no Christian person can say, “sure, the public part of my life is obviously shaped by my response to God’s kindness to me in Jesus, but there are some private parts of my life, where my Christian faith doesn’t have any impact.”
God’s picture of a righteous life, is one in which every area, is a reflection of the person’s commitment to God, and trust in his promises.
Here is someone, who actively seeks for his trust in God, to be worked out in every arena.
See it’s not just that he doesn’t commit robbery, verse 7,
He gives food to the hungry.
He doesn’t just not do wrong.
He acts for justice.
As I said, these things don’t make him right with God, but they show that he is right with God.
And he will receive from God, the due reward, for the trust in God that his life demonstrates.
The wicked son is his own god v 10 - 13
This righteous man though, has a wicked son. He’s described in verses 10 to 13, and pretty much everything his father didn’t do, this man does,
Again, he’s not condemned, because of his behaviour, as if, if only he could have done a few good deeds, he could have tipped the scales in his favour.
But his life demonstrates his rejection of God,
He clearly and deliberately throws off God’s pattern for life.
He obviously doesn’t have God’s heart for the poor and vulnerable,
He defiles his neighbor’s wife,
He commits robbery,
He does not return what he took in pledge,
He lends at interest and takes a profit, that is, at the expense of the poor and vulnerable in his community, which was forbidden by God.
This guy has swallowed that National Mutual superannuation advertisement from the 90s hook, line and sinker, hasn’t he?!
“the most important person in the world, him”
Now if ever there was a description of a person controlled by the spirit of our age, this is it, isn’t it?
If it feels good do it.
If it looks like it works, do it.
If it doesn’t hurt too many people, or, actually, even if it does, as long as it’s what you want, do it.
You can imagine him, can’t you, “No one’s going to tell me what to do,
I’ll decide what’s right and wrong,
Religion has no place in public life,
I am the master of my own destiny”,
He would be right at home in our society.
The description of his life, is a tally of the way that our friends and family live their lives.
Sure they might dispute the accusation of robbery;, “I’ve never stolen anything big”,
And the things that God describes as detestable, they find quite palatable,
They don’t think that they’re defiling anybody, or oppressing the poor and needy,
But if you’ve ever wasted a few minutes reading through the advice columns of a newspaper or webs site, you’ll know that having an affair, or breaking your word in a way that inflicts significant cost on someone, that is easily justifiable today.
But how does God see him?
Well, even just the word translated violent in our NIV, gives us a hint. It’s the word used in other parts of the Bible, to describe ravenous wild animals, the kind that tear people to pieces.
That’s what God says of the self-centred lifestyle that pushes God to the edge of life, and beyond.
Verse 13, 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.
Should this man, the wild animal, go unpunished because his father honoured God?
He is judged, because of his own standing before God, as demonstrated by the way he’s lived his life.
And we’ll come back to think about that pronouncement of the death sentence in a moment.
The righteous grandson deliberately chooses to honour God 14 - 18
But first, the grandson, 14 to 18.
He’s pictured as someone who sees all the sins his father commits, and deliberately chooses not to follow his father in his rejection of God.
Instead he reaches back a generation, and he’s virtually a carbon copy of his grandfather.
God’s assessment of him:, He will not die for his father’s sin; he will surely live
He’s not punished because of his father’s rebellion, but equally, he’s not automatically welcomed by God, because of his grandfather’s right standing before God.
His standing before God, is solely between him and God, nobody else determines that.
There are some families that have particular inherited characteristics, aren’t there?
You know, like the Fopp family wisdom,
Or the Fopp family good looks,
Or the Fopp family humility!
But you know what I mean, you look at some families, and there are very obvious character traits passed down.
Righteousness, a right standing before God, is not one of those characteristics.
Guilt, before God, is not one of those characteristics. You do not inherit it from your parents.
Now Ezekiel’s original audience, they listen to these case studies, and they’re surprised!
They listen to God describe how his justice works, and they think, “but that’s now how it’s worked in our case!”
Did you see their question in verse 19? “Yet you ask, ‘Why does the son not share the guilt of his father?’
Why doesn’t the son, the grandson, suffer because of the guilt of his father?
That’s what happening to us!
We’re the grandson!
And we’re suffering because of the sins of our fathers!
But God answers no.
That’s not how my justice works.
If you’re facing God’s judgment, death and separation, it’s because you have chosen to turn your backs on God, not because of anyone else’s sin and rebellion.
God’s justice has always worked this way
At different times, Christians have thought that this concept of individual responsibility for sin, is introduced in the Bible for the very first time, here in Ezekiel.
They’ve thought that, from the giving of the law at Mount Sinai, right up until now, 586 BC, or something, God’s people have been judged, for the sin of their parents,
And then Ezekiel comes along, and completely changes the way that God deals with his people and administers justice.
I read a review of new commentary on Genesis once, and the reviewer said of the author of the commentary, that he “ploughs his own theological furrow.” Which I take it to mean that he’s off in an entirely new direction!
That’s what people have thought that Ezekiel is doing right now; Ploughing his own theological furrow.
Changing forever, the way that God deals with his people.
But even in Ezekiel’s teaching, we see that God hasn’t abandoned his commitment to the people of Israel corporately, not that all in Israel are automatically condemned or justified purely on the basis of their citizenship, but this is still the community of people God had committed himself to, and who received the benefits of God’s blessing and presence with them.
But actually this idea of individual responsibility for sin isn’t a new theology,
Ezekiel isn’t ploughing his own theological furrow.
It has always been the case, that each generation of God’s people have to respond to God for themselves.
And even in those previous generations, God had said explicitly . unmistakably, one might have thought, that each person will be accountable for their own sin, not the sin of others.
Deuteronomy 24:16 as an example, Parents are not to be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their parents; each will die for their own sin.
I don’t know if you ever sit there listening to a preacher and think “Hasn’t he said this before!
Or surely we know this! Why are we hearing the same thing over and over?”
If you feel that, rest assured, I feel that!
I wonder, do I really need to say what I find on these pages?
Don’t we know this already?
And this idea, really the sole theme of chapter 18, that each person will be accountable for their own sin, to me, that sounds pretty obvious!
Do we really need to hear it again?
But look at the 2nd half of verse 19, and verse 20 with me.
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.
In one and a half verses, God says, almost exactly the same thing 6 times!
Do you think that in preserving these words for us, God really wants to make sure we understand this!
Does sin really lead to death?
See, the stakes are high, aren’t they?
What’s that repeated phrase?, The one who sins is the one who will die.
The language of receiving life or death, as the due reward or penalty for the way you’ve responded to God, it sounds very strong to us, overly strong, some might feel.
But it’s true, sin leads to death.
God says it multiple times in this chapter.
And it’s what God said at the very beginning, way back in Genesis 2. “If you throw off my rule, and set yourselves up as rulers of my creation, but you don’t recognise my rule.
If you want to be the ones to determine good and evil,
If you want separation from me”, God says, “that’s what you’ll get, you will certainly die.
Even so, for Ezekiel, in his Hebrew way of thinking, shaped by the promises of God, life and death, mean more than, what we might think of, in terms of our fairly narrow definitions.
For us, life and death are two mutually exclusive states.
Do you remember Venn Diagrams from school?
There’s Set A, and Set B, and they can be mutually exclusive, there’s no overlap between the two.
For God’s people though, life and death were more akin to 2 poles, at opposite ends of the one spectrum.
At one end, are death, suffering, separation, and at the other end, blessing, prosperity, happiness life!
Ezekiel longs for those in exile in Babylon to experience life in all its fullness,
The blessings of God’s presence, and of being God’s people.
That’s the “life” that he holds out for them, longing for them to grab hold of,
See it’s much more than simply “not being dead.”
And in fact, Ezekiel’s concept of life, is remarkably similar to the way Jesus talked about life, even eternal life.
What did Jesus say about his purpose in coming into the world? You might know these words from John 10, I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.
And to hear Jesus speak of eternal life, you realise that that eternal life starts now.
Eternal life becomes ours the moment we trust in Jesus, and turn to him for forgiveness, trusting in his promises.
Even Ezekiel’s phrase, “That man is righteous he will surely live”, that language echoes words in the Psalms, celebrating being able to enter the temple, and enjoy the presence of God, in the present tense.
Yes, sin leads to death, and ultimately, to ultimate death;, separation from God and his blessing forever, but righteousness, and ungodliness, carry life and death within themselves.
The parents eat sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge really is no explanation for the circumstances of Ezekiel’s contemporaries.
Fatalism is a mistake
But in using those words as means of explaining where they find themselves in life, the people of Israel are doing two things, They’re demonstrating their fatalistic approach to life, and they’re absolving themselves of responsibility, for their present situation.
If the exile, captivity in Babylon, is purely because of somebody else’s behaviour, then there’s no reason to think I can do anything to change my situation!
And so there’s no motivation for change, is there?
If the proverb is true,
I can ignore God, and suffer under his judgment,
Or I can turn to God, and still suffer under his judgment!
And you can see pretty easily, what the implications of that might be.
The Israelites knew what was morally right, and morally wrong,
They knew what was pleasing to God, and displeasing,
But if their circumstances were fatalistically predetermined, there’s no point putting any effort into pursuing what is right, is there?
If I think that proverb is true, well, that means my moral decision-making and my daily conduct don’t matter.
But actually no, the moral decisions, and the conduct of the Israelites did matter!
Their own sin will have consequences in their own lives. The one who sins is the one who will die God says
And lest we think that the implications of this kind of fatalism are just limited to Israelite captives 2 and a half thousand years ago, this kind of fatalism is inherent in much of the religion and spirituality we encounter every day, and which many of our friends embrace.
Think of your Muslim friends, they care captured by exactly this kind of fatalism.
If something happens to me, it must be Allah’s will, and there is no point trying to change my situation, or consider adjusting my behaviour, because it’s all been predetermined, according to Allah’s will.
I read a report just a few weeks ago, about a plane crash in Indonesia, where the chief air crash investigator had stated that because of his Islamic faith, he did not believe that the relatives of those killed should receive insurance money, because the plane crash was the will of Allah.
Why bother with anything, when you’re absolutely powerless.
I know plenty of people who profess no religion, but they too see themselves as powerless against the “system”,
Against the universe.
“What’s the point? In doing anything” they ask, when you can’t effect any real change?
Here’s a good example of where we see belief shaping behaviour.
Why does it matter what people believe?
You might have been asked that question by your friends. Sure, you’re a Christian, but why do you care what other people believe?,
Well part of the reason, is because belief doesn’t stay up here (HEAD), belief shapes behaviour,
And if I don’t believe that my behaviour and decision-making have any real outcomes, I’ll think my behaviour doesn’t matter.
God says to Israel your behaviour does matter,
God does care how you live.
Responsibility cannot be avoided
But not only does God deny fatalism, he also wants them to know they can’t avoid personal responsibility for their situation.
The parents eat sour grapes,
and the children’s teeth are set on edge
We didn’t eat sour grapes, the Israelites are saying!
And yet we’re suffering the consequences!
They were wicked, we’re the ones who got exiled.
If the proverb were true, the Israelites in Babylon could be absolved of any responsibility for their situation.
But in saying, “we’re in exile, because of the sins of our parents”, not only are the Israelites blaming mum and dad, and the rest of the previous generations, they’re also blaming God.
If God is sovereign, and in control, then the fact that we’re suffering in exile, is his fault.
The Israelites would rather accuse God of injustice, than admit that they are responsible for what’s happening to them.
God had warned the generations of Israelites before the exile, about the consequences of turning their backs on him, including the consequences for their children.
The 10 Commandments, in Exodus 20 for example, include a warning about the third and fourth generations suffering the consequences of the present generation’s rebellion.
Now, of course that doesn’t mean that God deliberately sets out to punish some child, for the sin of his or her parents, and that he would let the sinful parent get off scot-free!
There were some ancient legal systems that worked like that! The very famous Hummurabi’s Code, from Babylon, as it happens, included laws that, if for example, a builder built a house for someone, and the house collapsed, killing the owner’s son, then the builder’s son would be put to death as punishment.
But that wasn’t to be the pattern for God’s dealings with his people.
No, the point of God speaking of the sufferings of third and fourth generations, was to warn the parents, about how their conduct would affect their children.
So serious is sin and rebellion, God says, that the consequences will linger long after you’re gone.
Your children will be caught up in the outworking of your actions.
And when we stop and think about it, that’s actually an incredibly kind warning from God isn’t it?
He’s saying, “Stop and think about your children!”
Don’t be so selfish or naive, to think that you exist in a bubble, and that no one else is impacted by the choices you make
But now it’s the children, or the children’s, children’s, children, who are accusing God of not being concerned for their well-being!
Of course, if you can blame God, and you can blame your parents, you don’t have to shoulder any of the responsibility yourself!
But God’s response, through Ezekiel, is to say “Yes, your ancestors sinned against me, but you’re not bring punished as innocent victims, you’re just as guilty as all of those who came before you!
The one who sins is the one who will die
Change is possible 21 - 32
But the last part of the chapter shows that, the past doesn’t necessarily determine the future.
God honours repentance and faith, and even if someone has lived a terrible life, change is possible.
See verse 21, 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, then all the blessings tied up in that language of life, become theirs.
None of the offenses they have committed will be remembered against them.
Because of the righteous things they have done, they will live
Again, let’s not trip ourselves up by thinking, “Oh, if this person, if we, we’re as much on view here as anybody, if someone does enough righteous things, then the good deeds will outweigh the bad deeds, and they will live.
Notice the language of repentance, of turning.
I used to generally think of repentance, simply as changing direction, doing a U turn.
But that’s not repentance, that’s doing a U turn.
Repentance is turning to God,
See how far out of place the fatalistic approach to life is?!
Real change, eternity-shaping change, is possible
Of course, God also warns against people who have lived a righteous life, and then choose to pursue wickedness.
“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?
The point of this section isn’t to answer that question that some Christians love to discuss ad naseum, “can you lose your salvation?”!
That’s not Ezekiel’s point!
His point is that God’s judgment is always deserved!
And you can’t put deposits in a righteousness bank, and then live a wicked life, progressively drawing down on your investment, like some retiree living off their superannuation! As long as you’ve got a little bit left stored away at the time you die, you’re all good!
No! If that’s your approach, it would seem that your good deeds probably weren’t actually a response to God’s kindness at all, but more an attempt to win his favour!, to earn your right standing.
Some of you will remember the Jesus All About Life media campaign that ran here in Adelaide in 2005, seeking to stimulate conversations about Jesus.
That campaign was based on a similar campaign run in Ireland a couple of years beforehand, which was called “Power to Change”
And one of the significant reasons that campaign connected with people right across the spectrum of the Irish population, was because it explained that by believing in God’s promises,
And trusting in the forgiveness and right standing before God offered through Jesus,
And by the power of God’s Spirit working within people who follow Jesus, real lasting change in people’s lives can be a reality.
So many people had swallowed the lie of fatalism,
I’m a victim,
Or, I’m powerless,
Or there’s nothing I can do,
That to be told that change is possible, was a life-changing moment, for many people.
But as unexpected as that possibility of real change may be for people who have thought themselves adrift and powerless in life, we shouldn’t be surprised, since God delights when sinful people repent, because it allows him to forgive, and to restore, and to welcome.
It’s not the death of sinners that God seeks, verses 23 and 32, make that clear, as just and right as that outcome would be.
No, God longs to give people a new heart, and a new spirit, so we might repent, and live.
No matter how bad a life has been, what kind of wickedness someone has indulged in, real change, repentance and faith are possible.
See, in God’s eyes, there’s another proverb that’s true,
Better late than never!