Sour grapes

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They looked so nice 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.  That particular meaning 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 it seems like there was a popular saying among them: 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 is an extended refutation of such fatalism.  It runs through three case studies of prominent men who either sin or act righteously.  The things that they do are especially the sorts of things kings would do and in fact the description of their activities sounds 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 the prophet telling us a story.  The story goes from a good king to a fall to a return to righteous rule.  The Israelites in exile would still be able to remember good king Josiah.  They knew of his sons – all of whom ruled wickely and presided over their exile .  But the people awaited the righteous royal Son to set things straight.

And it is this story that is the real antidote to fatalism.  The LORD’s answer is not a proclamation of individualistic self-determination.  No, the answer to fatalism is to proclaim 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, the response is not to trumpet individualism.  God’s response is the reign of a Messiah whose kingdom brings righteousness to wayward sheep like us.  The good news is that 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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