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(In the previous post, I laid out six reasons why “the soul that sinneth” does not concern spiritual death.  In the next several posts, I am going to go into detail concerning each reason.  I apologize in advance for the length of this post.  I thought about splitting this up into two or three separate posts but thought it better to just leave the information together for continuity of thought sake.  Yes, I am aware how much this violates the intent of the blogosphere!  Thanks for your indulgence.)

Reason #1 – “Death” In Ezekiel Means Physical Death, Not Spiritual Death

Those who believe people Old Testament saints were justified unto eternal life by keeping the Law make the assumption that the subject of dying and death in Ezekiel 18 refers to spiritual death.  But this is a huge assumption and an even bigger presumption on the passage.  First, it must not be assumed spiritual death is in view just because the words “soul,” “sin,” and “dieth” occur together.  Secondly, it is presumptuous to take the doctrine we understand today as spiritual death and force it on the understanding and situation of the Old Testament people in this passage.  Grave error occurs when passages are interpreted out of context both historically and dispensationally.

In the King James Version, the word “die” is used 30 times in Ezekiel.  Let’s look at a few instances where this occurs and see if we can understand the meaning of the passages, specifically Ezekiel 18.

The Death of the Wicked Is Literal, Physical Death

(Ezekiel 3:18)  “When I say unto the wicked, Thou shalt surely die; and thou givest him not warning, nor speakest to warn the wicked from his wicked way, to save his life; the same wicked man shall die in his iniquity; but his blood will I require at thine hand.”

  • Who is the wicked? Ezekiel 3:17 tells us the Lord is talking about the “house of Israel.”

(Ezekiel 3:17)  Son of man, I have made thee a watchman unto the house of Israel: therefore hear the word at my mouth, and give them warning from me.

Question:  Is “…house of Israel” referring to an individual or a nation?

Answer:  It should be obvious the context, like most warnings in Ezekiel, is national in scope.

  • Why are they considered “wicked?” Ezekiel 3:7 tells us, “…for all the house of Israel are impudent and hardhearted.”
  • According to this verse, when the wicked dies, there is bloodshed. There are only two ways to interpret this – spiritually or literally. If the watchman does not warn the wicked (the disobedient house of Israel), the watchman will be held accountable. This is the principle laid out in Genesis 9.

(Genesis 9:5-6)  “And surely your blood of your lives will I require; at the hand of every beast will I require it, and at the hand of man; at the hand of every man’s brother will I require the life of man.  Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man.”

The bloodshed refers to the taking of physical life.

  • Conclusion: This is a warning to the prophet. He must fulfill his duty to warn the house of Israel of their wicked ways and the coming physical consequences. Otherwise, he (the prophet) will be held accountable for the deaths of his fellow Israelites. The accountability is literal, the shedding of the blood of the wicked is literal, and thus the death of the wicked is literal.

Dying “In Iniquity” Is Physical Punishment

(Ezekiel 3:19)  “Yet if thou warn the wicked, and he turn not from his wickedness, nor from his wicked way, he shall die in his iniquity; but thou hast delivered thy soul.”

  • What does “thou has delivered thy soul” mean in this context? There are two possible interpretations:
    • This is a passage on soul salvation. By warning the wicked of the coming judgment of God, Ezekiel himself as the watchman gains justification unto eternal life. If he fails to warn the wicked, he is condemned to eternal damnation.
    • The literal interpretation is: By warning the wicked, Ezekiel will deliver his soul from something. What is the something? It is the resulting guilt and accountability of not warning the wicked.
  • A comparison passage is found in chapter 14. For the sake of brevity, we won’t exposit all the pertinent verses. Here are just a few to help us get the point:

(Ezekiel 14:17-20)  Or if I bring a sword upon that land, and say, Sword, go through the land; so that I cut off man and beast from it:  Though these three men were in it, as I live, saith the Lord GOD, they shall deliver neither sons nor daughters, but they only shall be delivered themselves. Or if I send a pestilence into that land, and pour out my fury upon it in blood, to cut off from it man and beast:  Though Noah, Daniel, and Job, were in it, as I live, saith the Lord GOD, they shall deliver neither son nor daughter; they shall but deliver their own souls by their righteousness.

  • The sword comes upon the land – physical punishment
  • Man and beast will be cut off from it. What is “it?” It = the land, not eternal death. “Cut off” from the land. In other words, a figure of speech for physical death. Looked at another way – If this was eternal death, why would “beast” be mentioned?
  • The three men refer back to Noah, Daniel, and Job (verse 14). What shall they be delivered from? “A sword” as we saw in verse 17. This is deliverance from physical punishment.
  • Pestilence = physical punishment
  • Blood = a euphemism for death as seen again in the cutting off of man and beast.
  • “Deliver their own souls” = must refer back to the salvation from the physical punishment in verse 19 (pestilence and blood).

Conclusion:  Once again the passage concerns physical death.  Spiritual death is not in view.

Pointing Back to Context

(Ezekiel 3:20)  Again, When a righteous man doth turn from his righteousness, and commit iniquity, and I lay a stumblingblock before him, he shall die: because thou hast not given him warning, he shall die in his sin, and his righteousness which he hath done shall not be remembered; but his blood will I require at thine hand.

In case you didn’t notice, the first two examples were from verses adjacent to one another.  Now, in Ezekiel 3:20, let’s ask the question once again – Is the context in this passage physical death or spiritual death? Notice the Lord says “Again” to let us know He is continuing the thought of the previous verses – the context is physical punishment, not spiritual.

Additionally, the word “deliver” is used 16 times in the book of Ezekiel and each time it refers to something physical occurring.  Check it out in: Ezekiel 7:19, Ezekiel 11:9, Ezekiel 13:21, Ezekiel 13:23, Ezekiel 14:14, Ezekiel 14:16, Ezekiel 14:18, Ezekiel 14:20, Ezekiel 21:31, Ezekiel 23:28, Ezekiel 25:4, Ezekiel 25:7, Ezekiel 33:5, Ezekiel 33:12, Ezekiel 34:10, Ezekiel 34:12

A Few More Considerations

For the sake of saving time (and space!) here are some of the other verses that contain the word “die”:  Ezekiel 5:12, Ezekiel 6:12, Ezekiel 7:15, Ezekiel 12:13, and:

(Ezekiel 13:19)  “And will ye pollute me among my people for handfuls of barley and for pieces of bread, to slay the souls that should not die, and to save the souls alive that should not live, by your lying to my people that hear your lies?”

  • Here is an indictment against the false prophetesses in Israel. If the death in this verse is spiritual death:
    • The false prophetesses had the power to condemn innocent people to eternity without God.
    • The false prophetesses had the power to deliver those who were guilty unto eternal life.

Obviously, this was not the case and this verse refers to physical death and physical life.

  • The terminology in this verse also occurs in similar fashion in a comparison verse in Ezekiel 18!

(Ezekiel 18:27)  “Again, when the wicked man turneth away from his wickedness that he hath committed, and doeth that which is lawful and right, he shall save his soul alive.”

The phrase in Ezekiel 13 “save the souls alive” refers to physical life, and the phrase “save his soul alive” refers to physical life.  In Ezekiel 13 it is the unrepentant and untruthfulness that causes the death of the innocent.  In Ezekiel 18, it is the change of mind and the obeying of the truth that saves life of the repentant.  This is a consistent use of the phrase.

Here is a list of verses with the word “die” in Ezekiel except those in chapter 18.  Ezekiel 17:16, Ezekiel 28:8, Ezekiel 28:10, Ezekiel 33:8, Ezekiel 33:9, Ezekiel 33:11, Ezekiel 33:13, Ezekiel 33:14, Ezekiel 33:15, Ezekiel 33:18, Ezekiel 33:27

An honest study would reveal these verses refer to physical punishment, not eternal death in Hell.  So far, we’ve considered every verse in Ezekiel except those in chapter 18.  If the verses in this one chapter do concern eternal life and death, then this chapter stands out as the great exception in the entire 48 chapters of Ezekiel!

So you can study it on your own, here are the rest of the verses that contain the word “die” in Ezekiel:   Ezekiel 18:4, Ezekiel 18:13, Ezekiel 18:17, Ezekiel 18:18, Ezekiel 18:20, Ezekiel 18:21, Ezekiel 18:23, Ezekiel 18:24, Ezekiel 18:26, Ezekiel 18:28, Ezekiel 18:31

Conclusions

1)      In Ezekiel, “the death of the wicked” refers to physical death.

2)      In Ezekiel, to “die in iniquity” refers to physical death.

3)      In Ezekiel, when a soul is “delivered,” refers to physical deliverance.

Once again, it must be stated that the interpretation of spiritual death in Ezekiel 18 assumes a meaning on the passage without taking into account the context of the passage or the entire Book of Ezekiel.  There is no comparison passage in Ezekiel that supports the conclusion that life and death should be interpreted as spiritual rather than physical.

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The Crux of the Issue

(Ezekiel 18:4)  Behold, all souls are mine; as the soul of the father, so also the soul of the son is mine: the soul that sinneth, it shall die.

This phrase is repeated again in verse 20.

(Ezekiel 18:20)  The soul that sinneth, it shall die. The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son: the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him.

Christians who believe this verse is part of the Old Testament message of justification also look to other verses in Ezekiel 18.  They do this to demonstrate their viewpoint that soul salvation (justification unto eternal life) was partly based on continued compliance with the Mosaic Law.  We must be very careful in the terminology used.  There are different types of salvation and justification in Scripture based on the context of the passage.  Those who believe there was a works message for salvation in the OT point to additional verses in Ezek 18 such as:

(Ezekiel 18:24)  But when the righteous turneth away from his righteousness, and committeth iniquity, and doeth according to all the abominations that the wicked man doeth, shall he live? All his righteousness that he hath done shall not be mentioned: in his trespass that he hath trespassed, and in his sin that he hath sinned, in them shall he die.

As we consider these verses, we must conclude either God’s response to the proverb points to a soul salvation obtained and maintained on the basis of human performance or it doesn’t.  When a careful student considers the context of the passage, comparing Scripture with Scripture, we find six reasons[1] why this passage does not present the Old Testament message of justification unto eternal life.

  1. “Death” in Ezekiel means physical death, not spiritual death.
  2. “Soul” in Ezekiel refers to the whole person, not just the spirit of man, and so cannot refer to eternal death.
  3. The terms of the contract between God and Israel in the context of Ezekiel 18 refer to physical punishment.
  4. No one could ever perfectly comply with the Law enough to earn eternal life.
  5. If this chapter was about spiritual death, there would be a direct contradiction between the words of Ezekiel and the words of the Lord Jesus Christ
  6. God’s response to the proverb is pointing Israel to her need for national repentance.  Individual salvation is not in view.

[1] We are not limited to these six reasons.  But for the sake of space, I am only including six.

Ezekiel 18:3  As I live, saith the Lord GOD, ye shall not have occasion any more to use this proverb in Israel.

In Scripture, proverbs common amongst the people of Israel were recorded.  They were the result of human observation.  They were brief encapsulations about life intended to teach something.  These proverbs are not to be confused with the Book of Proverbs given by God Himself as Scripture. Instead, these observations were invented by people and passed down as “wisdom.”  Here are a few examples.

(1 Samuel 10:12)  And one of the same place answered and said, But who is their father? Therefore it became a proverb, Is Saul also among the prophets?

(1 Samuel 24:13)  As saith the proverb of the ancients, Wickedness proceedeth from the wicked: but mine hand shall not be upon thee.

(Ezekiel 16:44)  Behold, every one that useth proverbs shall use this proverb against thee, saying, As is the mother, so is her daughter.

(Genesis 22:14)  And Abraham called the name of that place Jehovahjireh: as it is said to this day, In the mount of the LORD it shall be seen.

  • The observation of Abraham is encapsulated in a saying recorded in this verse.  “As it is said to this day,” is not to be confused as an inspired word given by the Lord.  But rather it is a phrase that teaches the meaning or intent of the name Jehovahjireh.

It is God Himself Who tells Israel to stop repeating this proverb.  It was wicked because it communicated the hopelessness of God’s people.  They portrayed themselves as “victims” of the sins of their forefathers.  God sets Israel straight by rejecting the idea that their distress is a result of generational guilt.

The Proverb

(Ezekiel 18:1)  The word of the LORD came unto me again, saying,

“The word of the LORD came unto me…” occurs 46 times in Ezekiel.  The prophet is about to communicate something directly from God Himself.

(Ezekiel 18:2)  What mean ye, that ye use this proverb concerning the land of Israel, saying, The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge?

Although the destruction of Israel was yet to be accomplished by the Babylonians, a proverb was circulating amongst the exiled people at that time.  Jeremiah, a contemporary of Ezekiel, also wrote about this proverb in Jeremiah 31:29-30.  Both quoted the proverb to let the nation know the time had come for the people of Israel to stop using it as an excuse for their circumstances.  Please notice the proverb is about “the land of Israel.”

This proverb concerned the collective guilt of the nation and the object of blame for their current predicament.

…the fathers –  The previous generations prior to the one currently in Babylonian captivity.

…sour grapes – The sins which they (the fathers) committed.

…the children – The current generation.

…the children’s teeth are set on edge – The consequences, which is the suffering they were enduring – exile into a foreign land.

There are different ideas regarding what “set on edge” means.  Obviously, the “sour grapes” mean they are unripe.  They are bitter, which is what John Wycliffe states in his early English translation.  The taste of these grapes the fathers ate has an effect on the mouths of their children.  Some commentators suggest the proverb is talking about the acidic reaction on the teeth.  Regardless of the chemical explanation, the proverb provides a human explanation of the current condition of Israel during Ezekiel’s time.  God commands an immediate stop to this proverb.

The proverb tries to explain the reason for the suffering of the current generation.  It points to the sins of the previous generations, and attempts to avoid the guilt or at least waters down the idea of individual responsibility.  Both Ezekiel and Jeremiah write a strong rebuke rejecting the proverb.  The human tendency to avoid bearing personal accountability for sin goes all the way back to Genesis 3 where Adam blamed Eve and Eve blamed the serpent.  The remainder of Ezekiel 18 is designed to set Israel straight regarding accountability.

Ezekiel 18:4 – “Behold, all souls are mine; as the soul of the father, so also the soul of the son is mine: the soul that sinneth, it shall die.”

Ezekiel 18:20 – “The soul that sinneth, it shall die. The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son: the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him.”

Outline and Setting of Ezekiel 18

The book of Ezekiel is full of compelling and exciting prophecies.  Ezekiel was a prophet and priest living in Babylon during the exile ordered by Nebuchadnezzar.  While Ezekiel lived with his fellow refugees in a community called “Telabib,” the prophet Jeremiah lived in the land of Israel.  Both men heaped condemnation on the nation of Israel at a time when she was about to go through the devastating judgment of God.

Ezekiel 18 is God’s response to a wicked proverb designed to protest God’s justice.  We find the proverb in verse 2.  The chapter outlines three objections.  Here is the structure of the chapter in relation to these objections:

  • Vs 2 – The proverb disputing the justice of their fate
    • Ezekiel answers the proverb in vss 5-18 through 3 case studies
      • Vss 5-9 – The righteous person
      • Vss 10-13 – The wicked son
      • Vss 14-17 – The righteous grandson
  • Vs 19 – The question of Divine Justice – “Why?”
    • The answer – Vss 20-24
  • Vs 25 – The objection to the fairness of God – “The way of the Lord is not equal”
    • The answer – vss 26-32

It would be worthwhile to examine the details of the generational case studies presented in this chapter.  However, to keep this article at a reasonable length, we will only have the opportunity to look at a limited amount of information.

Ezekiel 18:4 – “Behold, all souls are mine; as the soul of the father, so also the soul of the son is mine: the soul that sinneth, it shall die.”

Ezekiel 18:20 – “The soul that sinneth, it shall die. The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son: the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him.”

Clarifying Terms – “Old Testament Salvation”

Many Christians wonder about “salvation” in the Old Testament.  However, it is first important to clarify what “salvation” is being discussed.  “Salvation” is a term that can mean many different things.  Many times in the Old Testament, “salvation” or “deliverance” refers to relief from physical infirmities, physical punishments, or physical captivity.  However, without understanding the context and meaning of passages in question, some have been lead to wrong conclusions.  When most Christians think about salvation in the Old Testament, they think about salvation of the soul from Hell.  In this article, we will equate the use of the term “salvation” with individual salvation “from the debt and penalty of sin.”    At a very high level, there are two basic views of soul salvation for the Old Testament saint.  On one side, there are those who believe Old Testament people were saved from the debt and penalty of sin by performing good works in accordance with their covenant relationship with God.  On the other side are those who believe Old Testament people were individually saved from the debt and penalty of sin by faith alone, believing in the message God provided at various times in history. (This does not negate the fact that there was a covenant relationship between God and Israel)

Interpretations

…”the soul that sinneth, it shall die…” at first glance seems innocuous enough.  But when the full scope of the implications are thought out, combined with some of the bold claims by preachers, the very character and nature of God comes into question.  In the scope of our examination, there are two main categories of error when it comes to this passage.  Both stem from failure to understand the literal context of Ezekiel 18.  Both stem from people claiming to be proponents of dispensationalism.  Both stem from people claiming to hold to the literal interpretation of the Scriptures.  Yet, when their positions are examined, they fall short both in dispensational and literal interpretations.

Interpretation #1 – Gospel-Today Position

Those who hold this position use the phrase “…the soul that sinneth, it shall die…” in their gospel presentation to show people today that all sinners are doomed to eternal separation from God.

Another belief, not as common, concerns the eternal fate of those who are unable to make a conscious decision about the gospel.  There are some people who believe little children, including infants, and those who do not have the mental capacity to understand the death, burial and resurrection of Christ on their behalf will be condemned to Hell because they possess a “soul that sinneth.”

Interpretation #2 – Old Testament Salvation Position

Those who hold this position claim “…the soul that sinneth, it shall die…” demonstrates how people were saved in the Old Testament.  This view claims those in the Old Testament who died without continuing in the works of the Law were eternally lost.  Furthermore, the proponents of this view claim that God only provided righteousness to those who upheld and performed the Mosaic Law.  (In my article, Old Testament Salvation and The Rich Young Ruler I identified two different “flavors” of erroneous beliefs regarding soul salvation and the Mosaic Law.  For the sake of simplicity, I make no distinction here and refer you to that article for further explanation)

Foundations

The foundations of both interpretations rest on a failure to correctly understand the context of the passage.  Both interpretations fail to recognize the literal and historical setting of the passage.  Instead, an attempt is made to spiritualize a passage that had very definite physical implications for Israel.  The result ultimately impacts how the character and nature of God is presented and perceived.

Maybe the questions raised and answered in this article have always been swirling around me and I just missed them.  Maybe my sensitivity to these issues is more acute now than in the past.  Recently, the subject of salvation from the debt and penalty of sin for the Old Testament saint has been addressed in conversations, forums and sermons.  A passage brought up to me on several occasions is Ezekiel Chapter 18.  The basic question to consider is, “Does Ezekiel 18 prove that God required individuals in the Old Testament to demonstrate their faith by works of righteousness in order to be acceptable to Him?”  In order to narrow down the passage, this article will address this question based on two verses used to “prove” that God accepted the Old Testament saint on the basis of works rooted in faith.

Ezekiel 18:4 – “Behold, all souls are mine; as the soul of the father, so also the soul of the son is mine: the soul that sinneth, it shall die.”

Ezekiel 18:20 – “The soul that sinneth, it shall die. The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son: the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him.”

(For the purpose of this article, I make no distinction between the terms “faith plus works” and “faith that works.”  “Faith that works” is a term recently invented.  It describes the viewpoint that Old Testament saints’ faith must be demonstrated (through works of righteousness) in order to be righteous with God.  Essentially, this is “faith plus works” by another name.)