(Continued from yesterday)
I believe this is only an apparent contradiction, since the Bible is God’s word and He does not contradict Himself. The difficulty is in the phrase “visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generations“, which on the surface does not seem fair. What exactly does it mean?
First, let’s tackle the issue from the perspective of “cause“. Notice from the first set of verses the following:
• The LORD is abundant in loving kindness for thousands, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin i.e. He is compassionate and willing to forgive.
• He will by no means clear the guilty and leave them unpunished i.e. He is just and will always punish the guilty.
• Thousands is contrasted with to the third and fourth generations i.e. His loving kindness far exceeds His severity.
Then note from the second set of passages that:
• The person who sins will die. Each and everyone shall be put to death for his own sin. There are no exceptions.
• Fathers and sons shall not be put to death for each other’s iniquity. Each bears his own responsibility. There will be no miscarriage of justice.
The logical deduction then, for both sets of proposition to be true, is that when the Lord visits the iniquity of the fathers on the children, those children themselves are NOT innocent but guilty. Of what? Of the sin they learned from their fathers. What sin? Ex 20:5, 34:7 and Deut 5:9 are all in the context of the 10 commandments, in particular dealing with idolatry.
These fathers hate God (Ex 20:5; Deut 5:9). In what sense?
• Disrespectful and ungrateful – Even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks (Rom 1:21).
• Idolatrous – They exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures (Rom 1:23). They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator (Rom 1:25).
• Ignored God – They did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer (Rom 1:28).
In so doing they become haters of God (Rom 1:30).
Not only did the fathers do this themselves, by their example they taught their children to do the same (Rom 1:32). The children are therefore guilty of the same sin and deserve the punishment. They are the “cause” of their punishment. God had not treated them unfairly by punishing an innocent “next generation”. Beware of what you are teaching your children. It need not be explicit instructions. They learn far more from your actions and attitudes than from your words.
Secondly, let’s look at the issue from the “effect” angle. Some children suffer the consequences of their parent’s guilt through no fault of their own. For example, parents with AIDS give birth to HIV-positive children. Drug addicts give birth to babies who may be addicted to the drug. They did not ask for it, they did nothing to deserve it, but they are affected nonetheless.
The iniquity of the fathers is visited on the children, who in this case could not exercise free-will to avoid it. Is that fair? Of course it’s not fair, but that’s what sin does. Sin robs and destroys, and through the hereditary principle infect the next generation. But our God is a gracious and merciful God. Even such sad cases could be redeemed through the compassionate action of people who care, or the suffering cut short in infant mortality. Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world (Jas 1:27). I hope we can all do our part.