Visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children?!

Goose and goslings on grassy river bank

Father misbehaves and the sons pay? There is more to “visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children” than the first glance shows.

This year, I am reading through the Bible. As you have probably noticed yourself, some things in the Bible are harder to understand than others. I came across one of those harder things this week.

The Bible passage I was reading included II Samuel, chapter 21. As I read through the first fourteen verses, I must admit, my initial reaction was “What’s up with that?” The best thing I have found to do in those situations is to ponder the passage, pray for wisdom, look up some cross-references…and move on.

God gives answers in His time. Sometimes it’s sooner; sometimes it’s later.

I wrote down the reference of the puzzling passage. By the time my morning Bible study time was over, I had some vague ideas about the implications of it.

Later that day, I was talking with my son, Jonathon, and we ended up discussing II Samuel 21:1-14. His thoughts were very similar to mine; plus, he had some helpful points to add.

I pondered it all for a couple more days.

The puzzling story

Before I go any further, I encourage you to read the Bible passage linked above. I will sum up the gist of it here:

First of all, David was king.

In those days, there were three straight years of famine. When David asked God why, the Lord’s answer was, “It is for Saul, and for his bloody house, because he slew the Gibeonites.” (You can read the history behind Israel’s league with the Gibeonites in Joshua, chapter 9.)

That’s not the odd part. The odd part is that Saul was dead. He had long been dead.

Visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children

The conclusion that David arrived at with the Gibeonites was that seven of Saul’s descendants should be delivered up to the Gibeonites to be hung. David delivered the men up; the Gibeonites hung them; David gathered the bones of the dead men, including those of Saul and Jonathan (Saul’s long-dead son); “and after that God was entreated for the land”.

That is the odd part.

Saul’s descendants were (apparently) caused to pay for Saul’s sin.

Things aren’t always what they first appear to be

It seems this story lines up perfectly with Exodus 20:5, where, as part of the Ten Commandments, God says that He is “a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me….”

But, what’s up with that?

Doesn’t Ezekiel 18:20 teach us “The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son”? Yes, it does.

But hear the rest of the story. It’s powerful.

Visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children–the other side of the story

You are probably well aware of the fact that Exodus 20:5 does not end where we left it. There are two sides to the story–two options, really. If we insist on a sinful life, God is righteous and He will judge, “visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate” Him.

Have you ever thought about that time frame? It likely takes at least that long to erase the effects of a parent’s lifestyle on the children. Parents are leaving a legacy for their children. What are they handing down?

“The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father”, but once the son chooses the sin for himself, it becomes the iniquity of the son. Let’s take a look at Ezekiel 18:20 in context. Listen carefully.

The word of the LORD came unto me again, saying,

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?

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

Now, lo, if he beget a son, that seeth all his father’s sins which he hath done, and considereth, and doeth not such like…[but] hath executed my judgments, [and] hath walked in my statutes; he shall not die for the iniquity of his father, he shall surely live….

Yet say ye, Why? doth not the son bear the iniquity of the father? When the son hath done that which is lawful and right, and hath kept all my statutes, and hath done them, he shall surely live.

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.

But if the wicked will turn from all his sins that he hath committed, and keep all my statutes, and do that which is lawful and right, he shall surely live, he shall not die. All his transgressions that he hath committed, they shall not be mentioned unto him: in his righteousness that he hath done he shall live.

Have I any pleasure at all that the wicked should die? saith the Lord GOD: and not that he should return from his ways, and live?

Ezekiel 20:1-3,14,17,19-23

Feel free to read the entire passage.

Train up a child

As the Proverb says, “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” (Proverbs 22:6) We must realize that the training can go either way–good or bad, to a righteous life or a sinful.

And the fact of the matter is that a parent does not necessarily have to intentionally train their child for the child to be trained. Another Proverb says, “As in water face answereth to face, so the heart of man to man.” (Proverbs 27:19) Paul said, in 2 Corinthians 3:18, that, by beholding, we “are changed into the same image”.

Our merciful God

Praise the Lord that He is merciful. The actions, attitudes, and decisions of the parents have an incredibly powerful impact on the children. But ultimately, the decision of the child’s way belongs to the child.

The descendants of Saul paid for Saul’s sin–but by choice, at some point, it had become their own.

Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways, saith the Lord GOD.

Repent, and turn yourselves from all your transgressions; so iniquity shall not be your ruin. Cast away from you all your transgressions, whereby ye have transgressed; and make you a new heart and a new spirit: for why will ye die, O house of Israel?

For I have no pleasure in the death of him that dieth, saith the Lord GOD: wherefore turn yourselves, and live ye.

Ezekiel 20:30-32


~Do any other Bible passages come to mind when you consider II Samuel 21:1-14? Feel free to share them in the comments.


Visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children?! — 2 Comments

  1. Haven’t heard from you in a while. Then I realized I haven’t visited you in a while, either. Good teaching. Glad things seem good with you.

    • Hey, Linda! It’s good to hear from you. I have actually been having troubles commenting on blogs lately. It’s a bit frustrating, but I do think of you a lot. I am so encouraged to have you come by! I think I’ll head over your way again and see if I can get a comment through with my Twitter handle–once in a while, that works. It’ll be worth another try. 🙂 God bless you.

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