They looked lovely on the vine, but the acid bursts into your mouth and you realise they are unripe. You spit them out proclaiming, “I didn’t want them anyhow!”
“Sour grapes” has come to mean disparaging something you had previously desired – probably because you can’t attain it. This particular sense originates with Aesop, though it’s difficult to know whether Aesop came before or after Ezekiel.
Both Jeremiah and Ezekiel use the phrase, but in a surprising way.
“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.” (Ezekiel 18:2-3; cf Jeremiah 31:29-30)
The context is exile. Ezekiel is with the people in Babylon and they have a popular saying: “The fathers eat sour grapes, but the children’s teeth are set on edge”. In other words, the Israelites claim to be suffering because of the sins of their ancestors.
The Lord GOD wants to set the record straight. Ezekiel 18 refutes such fatalism. It highlights three case studies of prominent men who either sin or act righteously. Their actions are typical kingly behaviour and the verdicts pronounced on their lives sound very much like the verdicts given on Israel’s rulers in the books of Kings.
In verses 5-9 we have a righteous man. He begets a son who acts wickedly (verses 10-13). This son begets another son who does righteously (verses 14-17).
What should we take from these three case studies? Well it’s certainly true that none of these exalted men suffer for the sins of their fathers, they are responsible for their own lives. As the repeated saying goes: “The soul that sinneth: it must die.”
But step back for a second and we see something else: the prophet is telling us a story. The narrative turns from a good king to a fall and finally, a return to righteous rule. The Israelites in exile would still have remembered good king Josiah. They knew of his sons – who ruled wickedly and presided over their exile. But the people were waiting for a righteous royal Son to set things straight.
This story is the real antidote to fatalism. The LORD’s answer is not a proclamation of individualistic self-determination. Instead it’s a proclamation of the coming King, who determines us for life and not death.
Ezekiel writes of Him in places like chapter 34. There the LORD says,
“I will set up one shepherd over them, and he shall feed them, even my servant David; he shall feed them, and he shall be their shepherd. And I the LORD will be their God, and my servant David a prince among them; I the LORD have spoken it. And I will make with them a covenant of peace”. (Ezekiel 34:23-25)
When fatalism threatens, individualism is no response. God’s answer is the reign of a Messiah whose kingdom brings righteousness to wayward sheep like us. Through a stronger King, God is for life and not death:
“I have no pleasure in the death of him that dieth”, saith the Lord GOD: “wherefore turn yourselves, and live ye”. (Ezekiel 18:32)
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