Q: What does it mean that God will visit the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate Him (compare Exodus 20:5)?


Doesn’t this contradict Scriptures such as Deuteronomy 24:16, stating that children are not to be put to death for their fathers, but that a person “shall be put to death for his own sin.”?

A: This question has puzzled many over the years. To fully understand what God is saying in Exodus 20:5, let us read the entire passage in context, beginning with verse 4:

“(4) You shall not make for yourself a carved image… (5) 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, (6) but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.”

Similar statements can be found in Exodus 34:6-7; Numbers 14:18; and Deuteronomy 5:8-10.

In addition, passages like Deuteronomy 24:16 state that children are not to be put to death for the sins of their fathers. The same is expressed in 2 Kings 14:6. Also, Ezekiel 18:4, 17, 19-20 tells us, “(4) Behold, all souls are Mine; The soul of the father As well as the soul of the son are Mine; The soul who sins shall die…(17) [The righteous son] shall not die for the iniquity of his father; He shall surely live…(19) Yet you say, ‘Why should the son not bear the guilt of his father?’ Because the son has done what is lawful and right, and has kept all My statutes and observed them, he shall surely live. (20) The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not bear the guilt of the father, nor the father bear the guilt of the son.” (Compare, too, Exodus 32:31-33.)

All these passages don’t contradict each other; rather, they compliment each other.

Notice how some commentaries explain the passages in Exodus 20 and in Ezekiel 18:

The Companion Bible comments to Ezekiel 18: 4, 20: “Descendants were not punished for the sins of their ancestors unless they persevered in their ancestors’ sins.” The same thought is expressed in Exodus 20. Note that Exodus 20:5 speaks of those “who hate Me.” Soncino points out that the phrase, “of those that hate Me,” applies to the children, i.e. God will punish the children if they [the children] hate Him. Soncino comments, too, that the punishment will be brought upon the children, “when they retain the evil deeds of their fathers.”

Those who hate God will be “visited” by God. Note, though, it does not necessarily say that they will die. Those who love God will receive His mercy. At the same time, the conduct of the parents may have a lot to do with the fact whether their children or grandchildren love or hate God.

The sins of the fathers do affect future generations — and so does the penalty for sin, which is oftentimes automatic. Soncino explains that the “effects of the penalty imposed upon a sinner are felt up to and including the fourth generation.” The New Commentary of Holy Scripture, S.P.C.K., 1951, comments, “It is an everlasting law of human society that children suffer by reason of the sins of their fathers.” This shows, then, how parents must consider the consequences of their actions – not just for their own sakes, but also for the sakes of their children, grandchildren, and future generations (A wrong lifestyle might very well affect the parents’ offspring – even in physical ways).

For instance, as long as even one parent is in the church, his or her children are sanctified (1 Corinthians 7:14), that is, they can and do have access to God. If both parents leave the Church, their children’s access to God is no longer guaranteed and may in time totally disappear. We note that because of Lot’s righteous conduct, God saved his daughters, while David’s adultery caused the death of his child (2 Samuel 12:13-14, 19-23). It should be pointed out here, however, that God did not consider David’s child to be guilty in any way and worthy of punishment. God punished David. The innocent child will be brought back to life by God at a time of peace and happiness, when prejudice and the hatred towards illegitimate children (compare Judges 11:1-2), who did nothing to deserve their fate, will be a thing of the past.

When Adam and Eve sinned, the penalty imposed on them affected all mankind. Through their sin, they cut themselves – and man – off from God. Sin separates us from God (Isaiah 59:1-2), and since all have sinned, all have incurred the death penalty for sin (Romans 5:14). One might say that the sin of Adam and Eve affected, at the very least, the third and fourth generation, but since Cain sinned, his sin affected the next four generations, and so on. The effect of sin is cumulative. Finally, sin had become so all-encompassing that God decided to destroy the entire world in a flood.

Christ, in showing the evil influence of their parents and their own culpability in their continued hate of God, pointed out in Matthew 23:31-36, how the principle of Exodus 20:6 was fulfilled in the persons of the scribes and Pharisees at Christ’s time.

The vicious cycle of sin, penalty, and death can be interrupted, however, when a person turns to God, repents, and obtains forgiveness. Noah was found righteous, and because of his righteousness, eight souls were spared from death, and through them, mankind survived. God’s mercy, extended to Noah, affected “thousands.” Because of the righteousness of Abraham, the father of the faithful, “thousands” experience God’s mercy to Abraham, due to the unconditional promises given to him, pertaining to national greatness and spiritual grace. Then, because of God’s mercy towards obedient David, his offspring were blessed, in that his throne would always be occupied by one of his descendants. We can also think of the harlot Rahab, who, by virtue of her righteous deed of saving the spies and God’s mercy extended to her, saved her family and offspring.

The most shining and outstanding example of God’s mercy, extended to a Man, and through that Man, to “thousands,” is of course Jesus Christ. Through His sacrifice and death, all of us can be saved, if we respond to God’s call. Although all of mankind has become an enemy of God, due to the sins of Adam and Eve, the resulting penalty of being cut off from God, and man’s continued disobedience of God’s law, man can return to God through the deeds of one Man, Jesus Christ, the second Adam. Only a few are called today to return to God, but all will be given the same opportunity of accepting God’s mercy, in due time (1 Corinthians 15:23-24).

When God tells us that His mercy will extend to “thousands” who love Him, He is really talking about man’s ultimate potential to join His very family, for all eternity. Notice how the Jewish Bible translates Exodus 20:6, “…but showing kindness to the thousandth generation of those who love Me and keep My commandments.”

If you count all generations from the creation of Adam until the time of the end of the Great White Throne Judgment (Revelation 20:11-12), you will still not have a thousand generations. Therefore, the thought is conveyed here that all who love God and keep His commandments will obtain God’s love and mercy, due to the love and obedience of their forefathers – including Noah, Abraham, David, and of course Jesus Christ. Especially through Christ who kept the law perfectly, and who loved God the Father perfectly, God’s love and mercy are extended toward all of us, if we, too, follow in the footsteps of Christ (1 Peter 2:21). The end result of God’s love, if we abide in it by keeping His Word, is our entrance into the Kingdom and Family of God (2 Peter 1:10-11).

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