Some behavioral experts say the first six years of life are the most formative for we humans. For sure our years growing up with our parents (and other relatives if they are close by) have a lasting effect on the way we see and handle life.
Because of my own journey of self-examination, particularly surrounding the decline and death of my father in 2017, and the experiences others have shared with me, I around that time began to study in earnest the scriptural theme of what some call “generational sins”, sometimes referred to in scripture as the “sins of the fathers”.
In the process I discovered two extremes in the body of Christ that I believe have kept us from experiencing the freedom God has intended for us from generational sins. One extreme is to label them as curses and make too much of a fuss over them. The other extreme (and more prevalent) is to discount the reality of generational sins by stating positional truths or half truths such as: “We are all under the blood”, or “We are new creatures in Christ, the old has passed away" and therefore we who are "raised up with Christ" have no need to ever revisit the past again. I have sought to give some attention to every passage in scripture on this subject. To my surprise there were more than I expected. Clearly God has concerns about the impact the “sins of the fathers” has on future generations.
So my objective in this study is to categorize or synthesize these scriptures with comments where deemed necessary.
Perhaps you sense the Holy Spirit leading you down this journey to be free from generational sins. Or perhaps you long to see the trajectory of your clan or extended family changed from bondage to freedom, and unrighteousness to righteousness. In any case, may the Holy Spirit bless and anoint your journey!
1. God “visiting” sins of fathers on subsequent generations:
Exodus 20:5 “You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing lovingkindness to thousands,..
Ex. 34:7 “who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations.”
Numbers 14:18 “The Lord is slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, forgiving iniquity and transgression; but He will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generations.”
Deut. 5:9,10 “You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, and on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.”
“Visiting” – NASB Lexicon – po·ked = to attend to, visit, muster, appoint = a prim. Root
Other Translations: NIV – “…punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth…”
ESV – “….visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children….”
Amplified = “visiting”
Message = “…I’m a most jealous God, punishing the children for any sins their parents pass on to them to the third, and yes, even to the fourth generation of those who hate me.”
“For I, YHWH your Elohim, am a jealous God, visiting the guilt of wicked fathers upon their rebellious children . . . if the children continue to sin like their fathers.” Exodus 20:5 in the Babylonian Targum = Aramaic translation of the Hebrew text
Commentaries: “This is a typical Semitic phrase denoting continuity, not to be understood in an arithmetical sense.” R. Alan Cole
“Anything that detracted from this essential relationship of the of the covenant, the commitment of love, led to the jealousy of God …And such false forms of worshipping the Lord inevitably had consequences for future generations (punishing the iniquity…) for it meant that children and grandchildren would not be instructed properly concerning the covenant relationship which was essential to their life and well-being. Thus, in the covenant community, no man was an island; his acts had repercussions for others and the breach of this commandment could affect his posterity for more than one generation.” P.C. Craigie
Comment: Obviously the thought of God visiting or punishing multiple generations for the sins of their fathers is not a happy thought (especially for those of us who have children or grandchildren). I would point out that there is emphasis in all these passages on God’s lovingkindness and mercy extended to all of those who love Him. And the “visiting”, however we interpret it is for those who “hate” Him (starting with the “fathers”).
The following three passages do not use the word “visit”, but have some similarities otherwise. Jeremiah 2:4-9 “Hear the word of the Lord, O house of Jacob, and all the families of the house of Israel. Thus says the Lord, “What injustice did your fathers find in Me, That they went far from Me And walked after emptiness and became empty? …..Therefore I will yet contend with you,” declares the Lord, “And with your sons’ sons I will contend.”
Jeremiah 32:18, 19 “who shows lovingkindness to thousands, but repays the iniquity of fathers into the bosom of their children after them, O great and mighty God,,,..giving to everyone according to his ways, and according to the fruit of his deeds.”
Ezekiel 20:36 “As I entered into judgment with your fathers in the wilderness of the land of Egypt, so I will enter into judgment with you.” Declares the Lord God.” (implied because the subsequent generation walked in the same sins as their fathers).
2. God punishing/disciplining for the children’s sins & for their fathers’ sins
Isaiah 65:6,7 “Behold, it is written before Me, I will not keep silent, but I will repay; I will even repay into their bosom, Both their own iniquities and the iniquities of their fathers together,” says the Lord……”
Ezekiel 20:36 “As I entered into judgment with your fathers in the wilderness of the land of Egypt, so I will enter into judgment with you.” Declares the Lord God.”
3. Promise that Children will not be punished for sins of Fathers:
Deut. 24:16 “…nor shall sons be put to death for their fathers.” Jeremiah 31:29, 30 “In those days they will not say again, ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, And the children’s teeth are set on edge. But everyone will die for his own iniquity; each man who eats the sour grapes, his teeth will be set on edge.”
Ezek. 18 – crucial chapter to see we will not be punished for our fathers’ sins unless we are committing them ourselves. Excerpts: “The person who sins will die. The son will not bear the punishment for the father’s iniquity, nor will the father bear the punishment for the son’s iniquity; the righteousness of the righteous will be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked will be upon himself.” (vs. 20)
“Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, each according to his conduct,” declares the Lord God. “Repent and turn away from all your transgressions, so that iniquity may not become a stumbling block to you.” Vs. 30
4. God reminding present generation of the sins of their fathers:
Deut. 32:15-25 esp. vs. 17c “…new gods who came lately, Whom your fathers did not dread.”
Jeremiah 16:10-13 “….Then you are to say to them, ‘It is because your forefathers have forsaken Me,’ declares the Lord, ’and have followed other gods and served them and bowed down to them; …..”
Jeremiah 44:1-10 (esp. vs. 3c, 9, 10) “…..Have you forgotten the wickedness of your fathers, the wickedness of the kings of Judah, and the wickedness of their wives…”
Ezek. 2:3 “Then He said to me, “Son of man, I am sending you to the sons of Israel, to a rebellious people who have rebelled against Me; they and their fathers have transgressed against Me to this very day.” God felt it necessary to include (or link or connect) the sins of the fathers in his call to Ezekiel the prophet.
5. Others reminding present generation of the sins of their fathers:
Stephen: Acts 7:39 – “Our fathers were unwilling to be obedient to him, but repudiated him and in their hearts turned back to Egypt.”
Paul: I Cor. 10:1-6 “For I do not want you to be unaware, brethren, that our fathers were all under the cloud and all passed through the sea; and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and int he sea; and all at the same spiritual food; and all drank the same spiritual drink, for they were drinking from a spiritual rock which followed them; and the rock was Christ. Nevertheless, with most of them God was not well-pleased; for they were laid low in the wilderness. Now these things happened as examples for us, so that we would not crave evil things as they also craved.”
Peter: I Peter 1:17-19 “….knowing that you were not redeemed with perishable things….from your futile way of life inherited from your forefathers,…”
6. God commanding the present generation to depart from sins of their fathers:
Joshua 24:14, 15 “Now, therefore, fear the Lord and serve Him in sincerity and truth; and put away the gods which your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. If it is disagreeable in your sight to serve the Lord, choose for yourselves today whom you will serve: whether the gods which your fathers served which were beyond the River…”
Psalm 78:6-8 “That the generation to come might know, even the children yet to be born, That they may arise and tell them to their children, That they should put their confidence in God and not forget the works of God, But keep His commandments, And not be like their fathers, A stubborn and rebellious generation, A generation that did not prepare its heart And whose spirit was not faithful to God.” (see vs. 3-5)
Psalm 95:8,9 “Do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah, As in the day of Massah in the wilderness,
Zechariah 1:2-4 “The Lord was very angry with your fathers. Do not be like your fathers, to the whom the former prophets proclaimed…”
Ezek. 20:18 – “I said to their children in the wilderness, “Do not walk in the statutes of your fathers or keep this ordinances or defile yourselves with their idols.”
Zechariah 1:2-4 “The Lord was very angry with your fathers. Do not be like your fathers, to the whom the former prophets proclaimed…” Hebrews 3:7-11 “Do not harden your hearts as when “they” provoked me”
7. Statements of someone’s sins being that of their fathers:
I Kings 15:25,26 “Now Nadab….did evil in the sight of the Lord, and walked in the way of his father and in his sin which he made Israel sin.”
I Kings 22:51-53 “Ahaziah the son of Ahab became king over Israel in Samaria in the seventeenth year of Jehoshaphat king of Judah, and he reigned two years over Israel. He did evil in the sight of the Lord and walked in the way of his father and in the way of his mother….”
II Kings 15:9 He did evil in the sight of the Lord, as his fathers had done; he did not depart from the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, which he made Israel sin.”
II Kings 17:14 “However, they did not listen, but stiffened their neck like their fathers, who did not believe in the Lord their God.” (see following verses)
II Kings 17:41 “So while these nations feared the Lord, they also served their idols; their children likewise and their grandchildren, as their fathers did, so they do to this day.”
Psalm 78:56, 57 “Yet they tempted and rebelled against the Most High God And did not keep His testimonies, But turned back and acted treacherously like their fathers; They turned aside like a treacherous bow.”
Jeremiah 11:10 “They have turned back to the iniquities of their ancestors (lit. former fathers) who refused to hear My words, and they have gone after other gods to serve them; the house of Israel and the house of Judah have broken My covenant which I made with their fathers.” (see vs. 7,8)
Acts 7:51,52 – “You men who are stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears are always resisting the Holy Spirit; you are doing just as your fathers did. Which one of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? They killed those who had previously announced the coming of the Righteous One, whose betrayers and murderers you have now become;”
8. Statements of the awful consequences of the father’s sins upon their children:
Leviticus 26:39 “So those of you who may be left will rot away because of their iniquity in the lands of your enemies; and also because of the iniquities of their forefathers they will rot away with them.”
II Chron. 34:21 “…..great is the wrath of the Lord which is poured out on us because our fathers have not observed the word of the Lord…”
Nehemiah 13:17,18 “Then I reprimanded the nobles of Judah and said to them, “What is this evil thing you are doing, by profaning the Sabbath day? Did not your fathers do the same, so that our God brought on us and on this city all this trouble? Yet you are adding to the wrath on Israel by profaning the Sabbath.”
Job 27:13,14 “This is the portion of a wicked man from God, And the inheritance which tyrants receive from the Almighty. Though his sons are many, they are destined for the sword; And his descendants will not be satisfied with bread.”
Isaiah 14:21 “Prepare for his sons a place of slaughter Because of the iniquity of their fathers. They must not arise and take possession of the earth and fill the face of the world with cities.”
Lamentations 5:7 “Our fathers sinned, and are no more; It is we who have borne their iniquities.” Commentary: “The thought in verse 7 is in accord with the second commandment (Ex. 20:4f). The continuity of the successive human generations precludes personal isolation. Consequently children reap the fruits of their parents’ lives and activities (cf. Deut. 5:9f). ….R. K. Harrison “Jeremiah & Lamentations” – An Introduction and Commentary p. 239
Ezek. 20:23, 24 – “Also I swore to them in the wilderness that I would scatter them among the nations and disperse them among the lands, because they had not observed My ordinances, but had rejected My statutes and had profaned My sabbaths, and their eyes were on the idols of their fathers.”
9. Examples of God’s people confessing/repenting for the sins of their fathers:
Neh. 9:2 “The descendants of Israel separated themselves from all foreigners, and stood and confessed their sins and the iniquities of their fathers.”
Nehemiah 9:34 “For our kings, our leaders, our priests and our fathers have not kept Your law Or paid attention to Your commandments and your admonitions with which You have admonished them. (see vs. 35-37)
Psalm 106:6 “We have sinned like (lit. with) our fathers, We have committed iniquity, we have behaved wickedly.”
Jeremiah 3:25 “Let us lie down in our shame, and let our humiliation cover us; for we have sinned against the Lord our God, we and our fathers, from our youth even to this day. And we have not obeyed the voice of the Lord our God.” (see vs. 24)
Jeremiah 14:20 “We know our wickedness, O Lord, The iniquity of our fathers, for we have sinned against You.”
Daniel 9:16 – “O Lord, in accordance with all Your righteous acts, let now Your anger and Your wrath turn away from Your city Jerusalem, Your holy mountain; for because of our sins and the iniquities of our fathers, Jerusalem and your people have become a reproach to all those around us.”
10. Examples of sins of the children being worse and contrasted with their fathers
Jeremiah 7:26 “Yet they did not listen to Me or incline their ear, but stiffened their neck; they did more evil than their fathers.”
11. Examples of God attributing children having learned sins from their fathers:
Jeremiah 9:13-15 “The Lord said, “Because they have forsaken My law which I set before them, and have not obeyed My voice nor walked according to it, but have walked after the stubbornness of their heart and after the Baals, as their fathers taught them,” therefore thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, “behold, I will feed them, this people, with wormwood and give them poisoned water to drink”
Amos 2:4 “Thus says the Lord, “For three transgressions of Judah and for four I will not revoke its punishment, Because they rejected the law of the Lord And have not kept His statutes; Their lies also have led them astray, Those after which their fathers walked.”
I Peter 1:17-19 “….knowing that you were not redeemed with perishable things….from your futile way of life inherited from your forefathers,…”
12. God’s servants commanded to make sins of fathers known to present generation:
Ezek. 20:4 – “Will you judge them, will you judge them, son of man? Make them know the abominations of their fathers;”
Ezek. 20:27 – “Therefore, son of man, speak to the house of Israel and say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord God, “Yet in this your fathers have blasphemed Me by acting treacherously against Me.”
Ezekiel 20:30 “Therefore, say to the house of Israel, “Thus says the Lord God, “Will you defile yourselves after the manner of your fathers and play the harlot after their detestable things?”
13. Jesus re: Sins of the Fathers & their Relation/Relevance to Us:
Matthew 23:32 “Fill up, then, the measure of the guilt of your fathers.”
Comment: “of the guilt” is italicized, which means it is not in the original. The Bible translators insert it because they are reasonably sure this is what is meant. Most commentators on Matthew do not seek to explain it.
The following commentary was helpful: (32) Fill ye up then . . .–The English fails to give the pathetic abruptness of the original: And ye–fill ye up the measure of your fathers. The thought implied is that which we find in Genesis 15:16, and of which the history of the world offers but too many illustrations. Each generation, as it passes, adds something to the ever-accumulating mass of evil. At last the penalty falls, as though the long-suffering of God had been waiting till the appointed limit had been reached, and the measure of iniquity was at last full. Ellicot
Luke 11:47,48 “Woe to you! For you build the tombs of the prophets, and it was your fathers who killed them. So you are witnesses and approve the deeds of your fathers; because it was they who killed them, and you build their tombs.”
Comment: Often we say, “I will never be like me Dad or my Mother,” and yet years later we are found to be very much like them, sometimes worse. Jesus acknowledges herein the sins of the fathers, but doesn’t let the present generation off the hook; instead He states their sins are worse and the consequences will be worse.
Observations/Conclusions: 1. In case anyone wonders about this: There are 517 references to “fathers” in the Bible. 9 references to “mothers” in the Bible. Now some of if not many of these references to fathers is a general reference that includes mothers. But clearly God expects much of fathers, and the consequence of fathers not obeying Deut. 6:4-9 is huge on their children and grandchildren. The Blessing on those who do is also huge!
2. “Fathers” in the Bible could refer to: biological fathers; all the older relatives in one’s clan or extended family that had influence over the younger generation; all the older people of influence in the community of faith over the younger generation in that community (e.g. priests, elders, prophets, pastors, etc.); etc.
3. There has to be a way to honor our mothers and fathers, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and people of influence in the congregations we grew up in, and yet also identify the sinful practices and ways of the same so we can repent of them and depart from them. The Psalmist said, “From Your precepts I get understanding; Therefore I hate every false way.” (Psa. 119:104). Wouldn’t that include the “false ways” of our fathers? When Paul commands us to “abhor evil”, wouldn’t that include the evil of our fathers? (Rom. 12:9). Is it possible when Jesus said, “If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother….” (Luke 14:26), that He among other things had the identifying and renouncing of the sins of our fathers and mothers in mind? The Holy Spirit who commanded us to honor them will show us how to do this.
4. In most cases you and I were not forced to follow in the sinful ways of our fathers. We chose to do so. So we are not blaming them for our sin. Rather in our pursuit of freedom and cleansing from all sin, we are in obedience to the Holy Spirit’s leading and direction identifying these sinful ways (or “futile ways of life” to quote Peter) so we can leave no stone unturned in our quest for holiness and cleansing.
5. Some believe Jesus’s command to “remember from where you have fallen” (Rev. 2:5) could include identifying these generational sins.
6. If God speaks to the present generation about the specific sins of their fathers, as seen in some of the passages above, shouldn’t we also be willing to identify those sins for the purpose of avoiding them and being freed from them?
7. If the sins of our fathers have no effect on us, then why did Nehemiah, the Psalmist, Jeremiah and Daniel (at least) confess these sins and cry out to God for mercy concerning the sins of their fathers (and of course their own sins)?
8. Because most of the scriptures I have referenced are from the Old Testament, and because many believers are very weak in the Old Testament, and somehow mistakenly think it is not as relevant to us as the New Testament, these truths continue to be ignored or made light of at our great hurt. Many of us need to repent for not really believing: "Man shall not live alone, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God." Matt. 4:4 "For whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instruction,....."Romans 15:4"All scripture is given by inspiration from God and is profitable...." II Tim. 3:16
9. Finally for those of us who are worrying about how our parents might feel if they hear of us repenting of and renouncing their sin patterns – – it won’t be long before our children are doing the same. Is there a parent out there who has not at one time or another seen in their child or children some of their own sinful tendencies? God have mercy on us all!