Love to a Thousand Generations
by Pastor Gene
There’s a beautiful and oft-overlooked promise in the book of Exodus. There, God describes Himself as “a jealous God” who visits “the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate” Him, but shows “steadfast love to thousands of those who love” Him and keep His commandments” (Exodus 20:5-6).
It’s an interesting and provocative thing to consider. “Visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children” – yikes!
It seems to say that God promises to punish children for the sins of their fathers. But that’s not what this is about. In fact, Ezekiel 18:20 says, “The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.” Deuteronomy 24:16 expresses a similar idea: “Fathers shall not be put to death because of their children, nor shall children be put to death because of their fathers. Each one shall be put to death for his own sin.”
Old Testament scholar Walter Kaiser writes, “Children who repeat the sins of their fathers evidence it in personally hating God; hence they too are punished like their fathers.” (“Exodus” in F.E. Gaebelein, eEd., The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, pp. 422–423).
“The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself,” Ezekiel says, therefore “the soul who sins shall die” – each individual is responsible for his or her own sins.
However, this promise does point up a profound reality. It points up the very real generational impact that an iniquitous father will have on his family. God promises that his “iniquity” will pay a “visit” to his children. The sinful life he models will very likely be repeated by them and this will cycle of sin will continue to bring forth a harvest of despair trans-generationally. The family is in a very real sense under a curse and will remain so – that is, until someone reverses it.
But up against this ‘visiting of iniquity’ upon the next generation is God’s promise to show “steadfast love to thousands of those who love [Him] and keep [His] commandments.” The Hebrew phrase is tricky. Many translators prefer to render it, “showing faithful love to a thousand generations of those who love Me and keep My commands” (HCSB, NIV, NLT, NET, etc.). This is reminiscent of Psalm 105:8: “He remembers His covenant forever, the word that He commanded, for a thousand generations.”
What I really find interesting about the Exodus 20 passage is its context. What is the context of God promising to ‘visit iniquity’ or ‘show steadfast love’? In a word: idolatry.
The “visiting iniquity/but showing steadfast love” promise is found at the end of the Second Commandment – the one about not making idols. God, it turns out, is really serious about this.
While the First Commandment described YHWH as the only legitimate object of worship, the Second Commandment considers how He is to be worship. Hint: not through an idol or image of any kind! “God is Spirit,” Jesus told us, “and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24).
So, in Exodus 20:5 God made it crystal clear to Moses. He was to tell the people that no matter what the image is, “You shall not bow down to them or worship them.” Image worshipping an idol of wood or stone – a idol that we made, fashioned with our own hands? Silly, right?
But we still make idols today, only we don’t call them Ba’al or Molech or Asherah. We call them by other names and they usually involve the pursuit of prestige, sex or ‘stuff’.
Many of us fall into the trap of pursuing a god of our own making. We live for it. Serve it. Give it the time that God has set aside for our rest, writing as He has a 1-to-6 rest/work ratio into the very fabric of creation. And we foolishly reason that, once apprehended, the idol we’ve placed between ourselves and God will somehow make us happy.
Of course, it never will. It’s a ruse. A fake. A plot of the enemy to get us to burn out the best part of our lives on things that cannot survive our own deaths.
Oh, but something does. Something does survive our death. The curse. The curse or the blessing.
If I bow to anything but God – if I live for it, serve it, put it between me and God – then I should not be surprised when my children value those very same things. And the cycle of iniquity will continue from generation to generation, from our children to their children to their children’s children, our children’s children’s children.
And therein lies the curse: we tend to become what we behold (1 Corinthians 15:33). Jesus said just that Luke 6:40, “A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher.”
Dads, you are an extremely important teacher in the lives of your sons and daughters. What matters to you will very likely matter to them too, and through them to your grandchildren.
In his article, Rising to the Challenge of Christian Fatherhood, Rick Johnson calls fathers “indispensable” and he shares an astonishing statistic:
When only mom takes her sons to church while they’re growing up, approximately 15 percent of boys remain churchgoers after they become adults. However, if dad takes an active role with mom in leading the family to church, the number who continue their spiritual journey increases to somewhere around 75 percent.
That’s a significant difference that speaks to the power a father has to set the direction of his children’s lives. We have tremendous influence – spiritually and in every other way – on our kids. We can point them toward God or away from Him. And the way we point is often the way they will walk.
God’s Word is true and, in this case, it’s been shown to be true in study after study. What matters to me will very likely matter to my kids. And any idol I set in the place of God in my own life, they’ll eventually wrestle with too. And this cycle will continue until someone flips it around and says, ‘No more! I don’t know what others will choose, but as for me and my family, we will serve the Lord’ (cf. Joshua 24:15).
Some of us have experienced this. We’ve had a dad (or a mom) who was less than Christ-centered. And, as a result, we’ve had to struggle with many of those things he or she struggled with before us. But here’s the good news: we can be the first of a new generation that truly puts God first, that worships Him in Spirit and in truth. Ours can be the generation that breaks the curse, that shatters the trend of godlessness.
May our children be blessed, even to a thousand generations!
To consider …
- Who’s looking at your life?
What are they seeing? Is what they’re seeing consistent with what they’re hearing?
- Have you been plagued by some of the same sin-patterns that tripped up your parents?
How can you turn it around for the next generation?
- Why do you think the “visiting iniquity/but showing steadfast love” promise is found at the end of the Second Commandment – the one about not making idols?
- Is there anything in your life that you’ve place between you and God?
Some idol you serve?
- Do you honor the time of rest that God has built into His creation?
Do you have regular time to consider Him, to think about how He’s working in your life, what He’s trying to show you?
- How does it make you feel to think that your actions today may be impacting future generations of your children’s children?
- Is there something you need to talk over with God today?
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