“You shall have no other gods before me.”These are commandments "One" and "Two" in what we commonly call the “Ten Commandments” as found in Exodus 20. (Although there are more than ten commands that are given to Moses on Mt. Sinai and these are not actually called "The Ten Commandments" in the text.) On their face the two commandments are pretty straight forward. But what about the second part of that second commandment?
“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.”
Does God punish children for the sins of their parents? Does he reward future generations for the good things that people do?
On the one hand this is actually not that hard to understand. Both my brother and I have some of the very same habits of our dad. Everything from the way we think to the way we sit. Choices that my dad made before we were born shaped how we were raised. There is a whole theory of psychology based on how the family system operates and affects decisions and reactions for generations.
There is no question that when a parent commits a crime and is sent to jail that it has a direct effect on their child. The opposite effect of “blessings” through the money that is inherited can be seen when you consider families like the Rockefellers or the Kennedys. (The sins of the parents continuing on in the children are also apparent when looking at these families.) These examples show how both the good and the bad move down through the generations.
But does God actively punish future generations? If my dad were to commit a sin would God hold me responsible and punish me?
The system that God set up for this world places great importance and an influence of parents on their children. And this works both for good and bad. It is through this system that we see these things happen but God does not hold me personally responsible for my parent’s sins. In the same way, no one else will ever be held responsible for my sins.
What I believe God is communicating through this verse (and the same message also found directly and indirectly in Exodus 34:7, Numbers 14:18, Psalms 79:8, 109:14, Isaiah 65:6-7 and Jeremiah 32:18) is the contrast between God’s desire to punish sin verse his desire to be merciful to sinners. Yes God is a God of righteousness and of justice that demands punishment for sins but he desires to show his mercy and grace even more.
Jesus quoted Hosea 6:6 when he said, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” It is helpful for us to remember this when we approach God in regards to our sin. Yes we have committed a great offense against God but he desires to show us an even greater mercy.
Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.