Exodus 34:6 The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.”
Ezekiel 18:20 says,“The soul that 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 second problem in this text [Exodus 34] comes from the next words in verse 7. It says that God “visits the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children to the third and the fourth generation.” But Ezekiel 18:20 says,“The soul that sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son.” How can these two texts keep from contradicting each other?
What Ezekiel Has in View
The most crucial thing to see is that Ezekiel has in view a son who does not follow in the sinful footsteps of his father, but Exodus has in view children who do continue in their parents sinful footsteps.
Ezekiel 18:19 says, “When the son has done what is lawful and right, and has been careful to observe all my statutes, he shall surely live.” In other words, he won’t die for his father’s sins because he is not following in his father’s footsteps.
What Exodus Has in View
But the parallel to Exodus 34:7 in Exodus 20:5 says that God visits “the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me.” In other words, the children share in the father’s punishment because they share in the father’s sins.
So Ezekiel teaches that any child that turns from the sinful ways of his father and obeys God will not be punished for the sins of his father. And Exodus teaches that any child that goes on sinning like his father will share the father’s punishment.
When God visits the sins of the fathers on the children, he doesn’t punish sinless children for the sins of their fathers. He simply lets the effects of the fathers’ sins take their natural course, infecting and corrupting the hearts of the children. For parents who love their children this is one of the most sobering texts in all the Bible.
The more we let sin get the upper hand in our own lives, the more our children will suffer for it. Sin is like a contagious disease. My children don’t suffer because I have it. They catch it from me and then suffer because they have it.