Four Classes-Four Groups
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The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge” (Ezekiel 18:2).
In Ezekiel chapter 18, God delivered His message to the nation of Israel through the use of a question, a promise, and a challenge.
(1) The Question
“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?” (Ezekiel 18:2).
It is not difficult to imagine why such a proverb became popular in Israel in the days of Ezekiel. The Israelites had been forcibly removed from their land and were held captive in a foreign country. They had been told by the prophets that these circumstances were a result of their own misdeeds and those also of their “fathers” (Jeremiah 2:5, 3:25, 7:25 for example).
Additionally, they had been taught in the Old Testament that the inherited sickness and death that they shared with the other nations were a consequence of Adam’s disobedience in the garden of Eden. Years later, when proclaiming the unparalleled merit of Jesus’ sacrificial death, the Apostle Paul eloquently explained divine justice at the foundation of this condemnation by telling us in Romans 5:18, “as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people” (NIV).
However, regardless of its origin or however much this proverb may have been used in Israel, it was seized upon by God as a preface for some important teachings regarding the future of His human creation.
The proverb is also referred to in the contemporary book of Jeremiah. “In those days they shall say no more, The fathers have eaten a sour grape, and the children’s teeth are set on edge. But everyone shall die for his own iniquity: every man that eateth the sour grape, his teeth shall be set on edge” (Jeremiah 31:29- 30).
Jeremiah proceeds in verses 31 through 34 to give a set of promises regarding God’s future dealings with mankind that have collectively were termed “a new covenant” (verse 31). These promises, quoted and expounded upon in Hebrews chapters 8 through 10, tell of a time a new covenant would supersede the old covenant established with Israel at the Exodus. The details describe a time yet future when mankind will be reconciled with God.
(2) The Promise
“As I live, saith the Lord GOD, ye shall not have occasion any more to use this proverb in Israel … all souls are Mine; as the soul of the father, so also the soul of the son is Mine: the soul that sinneth, it shall die” (Ezekiel 18:3,4).
Group A — Ezekiel 18:5-9 Ancient Worthies
Group B — Ezekiel 18:14-17 Those who attain earthly life during the Kingdom
Group C — Ezekiel 18:10-13 Those who do not conform during the Kingdom
Group D — Ezekiel 18:18 Those who rebel at the close of the Millennium
C— did commit robbery
C— did shed blood
D —did that which is not good among his people
A B C— did (or did not) eat upon the mountains
A B C —did (or did not) lift up one’s eyes to the idols of Israel
A B C— did (or did not) defile his neighbor’s wife
A B C— did (or did not) withhold the debtor’s pledge
A B C—did (or did not) give forth upon usury and take an increase
A B C D —did (or did not) oppress the poor and needy
A B C D— did (or did not) spoil his brother by violence
A— is just
A —did do that which is lawful and right
A —did avoid contact with menstruous women
A —did withdraw his hand from iniquity
A— did execute true judgment between men
B —did see, consider and avoid his father’s sins
A B —did cover the naked with a garment
A B —did walk in God’s statutes
A B —did keep God’s judgments
God here promised that the old rules would be re-written to abolish the common proverb. The foundation of this promised change was in the declaration by God that the sons mattered to him as much as the fathers. All people will be individually judged under more favorable circumstances than they had previously experienced. The favorable conditions prevailing then are described in Isaiah 35 as a “way of holiness … for … the ransomed of Jehovah” (verses 8,10). If they eventually die, that will be from their own transgressions and not as an inevitable result of father Adam’s disobedience.
(3) The Challenge
The challenge to Israel, and by extension to humanity, is in the form of a description of four groups of individuals. These four groups comprise all mankind who will live on the earth during the time that the new covenant would be mediated by Jesus and the church. The fate of these four groups will manifest the fulfillment of God’s promise that the old proverb of verse two will no longer apply to the earthly seed of Abraham. These four groups will be —
Group A — Those who enter this time period on Earth having already been found worthy of everlasting life (verses 5 through 9).
Group B — Those who respond completely and obediently to the favorable conditions of this period and thus gain everlasting life (verses 14 through 17).
Group C — Those who are destroyed during this time because they persist in disobedience even under favorable conditions (verses 10 through 13).
Group D — Those who respond only outwardly to the favorable conditions of this period and are destroyed at its conclusion (verse 18).
These four groups are differentiated in Ezekiel chapter 18 on the basis of their obedience or disobedience to various ordinances associated with the original law covenant established between Jehovah and Israel. The manner in which these ordinances are applied to each of the four groups by the prophet provides the basis by which each group can be identified. A different subset of ordinances is used to examine the worthiness (or unworthiness) of each group to gain life. The distribution of ordinances by group is given in the box at the top of this page.
Those who enter this time period on earth having already been found worthy of everlasting life (verses 5 through 9). This is one of two groups (A and B) that is found to be worthy of life. God’s judgment concerning them is “he is just, he shall surely live” (Ezekiel 18:9).
We read of this group in Hebrews 11, described as the “fathers” who obtained a “good report” through their faithfulness during the time preceding the Gospel Age. These “all died in faith, not having received the promises … God having provided some better thing for us [the Gospel Age followers of Jesus], that they without us should not be perfected” (Hebrews 11:13,40).
These alone were found to have been just, that is, justified by their faith. They are unique of the four groups in that they were in a position to execute true justice between men. They were commended for their purity (verse 6), justice (verse 7), abstaining from iniquity (verse 8), and keeping the statutes of God (verse 9).
These respond completely and obediently to the favorable conditions of Christ’s earthy kingdom, thus gaining everlasting life (verses 14-17). This is the second of the two groups (A and B) that gains life. God’s judgment concerning them is “he shall not die for the iniquity of his father, he shall surely live.” They are the ones who manifest the undoing of the proverb that applies during mankind’s experience with sin and evil.
This group is unique in one important characteristic. They saw, considered, and avoided their father’s sins. They fully and effectively benefit from the permission of evil currently allowed to hold sway upon the earth.
These persist in disobedience despite the favorable conditions of the kingdom (verses 10- 13). This is one of the two groups (C and D) that fail to gain life. The Lord’s judgment concerning them is “he shall surely die; his blood shall be upon him” (verse 13).
These are they who refuse “to hear [obey] that prophet [the Christ] and “shall be destroyed from among the people” (Acts 3:22,23). In the midst of Isaiah’s description of God’s earthly kingdom (chapter 65), this group is mentioned in verse 20 as “the sinner being an hundred years old” that is “cut off.” They persist in transgression, symbolized by robbery and the shedding of blood.
Those who respond only outwardly to the favorable conditions of this time period on earth and are thus destroyed at its conclusion (verse 18). This is the second of the two groups (C and D) that fail to gain life. God’s judgment concerning them is “he shall die in his iniquity.”
Our Lord Jesus spoke of this group in the parable of the sheep and goats (Matthew 25:31-46). These are the goats who maintain an outward appearance of righteousness (unlike group C who openly transgress) while the new covenant is mediated by the heavenly rulers. The members of this group manifest their true selfish heart condition when they come against “the camp of the saints” at the close of the “thousand years” as recorded in Revelation 20:7-9.
There are only two specific transgressions mentioned regarding this group in Ezekiel 18. They fall short regarding the poor and needy (as do the goats of the parable), and they attempt to spoil their brothers by violence (at their end of the age rebellion). Of this class alone is it said that they did that which is not good among the people.
The remainder of chapter 18 records a dialogue between Ezekiel and the nation of Israel in which the people articulate continued doubts about God’s promise concerning this cherished proverb. Ignorance and confusion regarding the permission of sin, evil, sickness, and death continue unabated with those unfamiliar with God’s plan to the present time.
In John 9:1-5, “as Jesus passed by, he saw a man which was blind from birth. And his disciples asked him saying Rabbi, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?” Just as Jesus was about to heal the man of his blindness, Jesus offered a gentle response that remains the best answer to those seeking an explanation for the present suffering of mankind. “Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him.”1
1) Looking for deeper meaning in Old Testament books, such as this article does, is always engaging. The most brilliant mind of the universe has arranged many deep things in the Bible. “It is the glory of God to conceal a thing: but the honour of kings is to search out a matter.” In searching for these things, interpretive options necessarily come into play. Not all the editors are persuaded that four distinct groups of mankind are distinguished in Ezekiel 18. But it is a thoughtful approach worth our readers’ attention.