Must Every Tub Sit On Its Own Bottom?
“1 The word of the Lord came to me: 2 ‘What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge”? 3 As I live, declares the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. 4 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.’” Ezekiel 18:1-4 ESV
“Race pride is a luxury I cannot afford. There are too many implications behind the term. Now suppose a negro does something really magnificent, and I glory, not in the benefit to mankind, but in the fact that the doer was a negro. Must I not also go hang my head in shame when a member of my race does something execrable? If I glory, then the obligation is laid upon me to blush also…. Every tub must sit on its own bottom, regardless.” Zora Neale Hurston, Dust Tracks on a Road (1942)
Dear Church Family,
Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960) was a black author, anthropologist, and filmmaker. The quotation from her autobiography above is even more controversial today than it was in 1942. I quote her to bring up an issue about which I believe the Bible offers some important insights. I’m talking about guilt or glory based on what other people in your “group” might have done.
Ezekiel was addressing the common belief in Israel that their current exile was due to the sins of “the fathers.” The belief was rampant that repentance and right living were futile because God’s judgment had already been determined. The rest of Ezekiel 18 corrects this thinking. If a godly man has a violent son, God will judge the son, not the father, for his sins (vv. 5-13). If this son, then, had a son who was righteous, that son “will not die for his father’s sin; he will surely live” (v.17b). The passage also affirms that a wicked person can repent and receive the mercy of God (vv. 21-23). In fact, the passage as a whole is precisely this: a call on Israel to repent.
None of this is to deny that people suffer for the actions of others. World War 2 resulted in 21-25 million military deaths, but civilian deaths were 50-55 million. It is a part of the injustices of this world that people suffer unjustly for the actions—the sins—of others. So, doesn’t that mean God judges some for the wickedness of others? I think the key here is to think about the “judgment” of God with some nuance. Suffering is part of living in a broken world; the injustices in this world are part and parcel of God’s judgment against sin. That, however, is to paint with a very broad brush. I may suffer in this world, but that does not mean that my suffering is a judgment of God on me, personally, for my own transgressions.
I understand that those in exile in Babylon might feel that they were suffering because of the sins of their forefathers. They were. Ezekiel, however, set the record straight: God knows the difference between the righteous and the wicked; living for him is not in vain. Hurston’s adage (“every tub must sit on its own bottom”) needs to be adjusted by the biblical doctrine of grace. Even when our own bottom is wobbly, God provides a sure foundation—we stand by grace.