This chapter connects itself closely with the foregoing series of prophecies. The certainty of the Divine judgments had now been repeatedly and most emphatically foretold, but that this might have the effect of leading the people to true repentance, it was still necessary that the sense of sin should be brought home to them individually. The people were by no means inclined to acknowledge their own personal guilt, but were rather, like sinners of every age, disposed to look upon their sufferings as the consequence of the sins of others who had gone before. This disposition is here met by the most full and emphatic assurance that God deals with each man in view of his own acts—that no one shall be either punished or rewarded for another’s guilt or virtue, but only for his own.
The statements here made are exposed to two difficulties :—(1) that it is expressly declared in the second commandment that God does visit the sins of the fathers upon the children (Exodus 20:5; Exodus 34:7; Deuteronomy 5:9), and that all history shows that this is a law of His moral government of the world; and (2) that it is by no means true that individual suffering and happiness are exactly proportioned in this world to individual character and conduct. On the contrary, from the time of Job to that of our Lord, this was one of those pernicious views of the Jews which the inspired word takes great pains to combat. How, then, are the statements of this chapter to be justified? In regard to the first difficulty, simply by remembering the two-fold relation, the individual and the federal, in which each man stands to his Maker. It is in virtue of the federal relation that, on the one hand, as children of Adam, we are all born into the world with a pre-disposition to sin; and, on the other, are all partakers of the benefits of the redemption wrought out for us by the second Adam. Under the laws of nature it must necessarily come about that the children shall suffer or enjoy in consequence of the uprightness or the sin of their fathers. Yet more important, and prevailing above this federal relation, is the attitude of each individual towards God. By this, through the reconciliation effected by the redemption of Christ, he is brought into communion with God, and becoming one with Christ, is viewed and treated as a member of the body of the only begotten Son. This does not hinder that the laws of nature shall still work out their natural effects—we still must be subject to death, because our first father sinned; but it does bring About that all these natural sufferings become transformed into higher blessings. Even death becomes to us, through Him who has overcome death, but the gateway to a new and higher life. Thus it is true that God does both visit the sins of the fathers upon the children, and at the same time does, through all, punish and reward each single person according to their own individual bearing towards Him.
These considerations have already met the second difficulty. In a sense, and to a certain extent, individual suffering is certainly the consequence of individual sin, for the violation of the laws of nature—in other words, of the will of God—must always be attended with disastrous consequences; but these consequences are often slow in their development, and may fall not upon the individual who has done the wrong, but upon some more or less remote descendant, or even upon some wholly disconnected person, as in the case of David’s suffering with his whole people for Saul’s treatment of the Gibeonites. From this it results that the ills of life are by no means proportioned to the deserts of those upon whom they fall. But more important than this consideration is the fact that these ills are factors in God’s moral government of the world, having in view the development in man of the character which He approves. Hence it comes about that “whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth” (Proverbs 3:11-12; Hebrews 12:6), and leads them through earthly suffering to heavenly joy, The same events happen to the godly and the wicked. God causeth His sun to shine and His rain to fall alike upon the just and the unjust; but the effect of both dispensations depends upon the character of the person to whom they come. To him who is alienated in heart from God the sunshine becomes no blessing, while the rain of calamity and sorrow only too often results in further alienation and hardening; but on him who accepts both as the dispensations of a loving Father, they produce their intended effect, and he finds that in them, as in all else, God makes all things work together for good to them that love Him. This, too, is in accordance with natural law, where the effect of any force is often dependent upon the substance on which it is exerted. The dew is drunk in by the already growing vegetation, but does not fall on the dry and thirsty gravel at its side. It was precisely this sort of discipline through which this very people were now passing. They had been chosen and blessed for the faith of Abraham, yet they were suffering for many generations of persistent neglect of and rebellion against God. (See especially Jeremiah 15:4; Lamentations 5:7; 2 Kings 24:3.) All this belonged to their federal relation; but, at the same time, they stood each one individually before the Lord, to hear or to refuse His word. Such as obeyed His voice would find in these very calamities the ground and the means of repentance, and their sorrows would become transformed into the richest of all possible blessings, while those who continued obdurate would find their present calamity but the shadow of the darker approaching judgment of being utterly cast out from God’s presence. This great truth culminated for the Jews in both its parts at the Christian era, when, on the one side, our Lord represents the punishment of the sins of their whole history as coming “upon this generation” (Matthew 23:35-36); and, on the other, He then remembered His promise to their fathers, and established with those who would receive Him an everlasting covenant.
 See Augustine: De Civ. Dei, I. 100:8.
There was thus an important truth contained in the perverted views of the people, and it was very necessary that the still higher truths of this chapter should be impressed upon them; for only thus could the inferior and more obvious facts be correlated with the justice of God and His purposes of love towards His people.
Given his bread.—In addition to the negative duties mentioned, were also the positive ones of feeding the hungry and clothing the naked; and it is to be remembered that these duties, and general helpfulness to those who need our help, are not left optional in Scripture, but are positively required, both in the Old and the New Testament, and their neglect is sin. (See Deuteronomy 22:1-4; Job 31:16-22; Isaiah 58:5; Isaiah 58:7; Matthew 25:34-46; James 1:27; James 2:15-16).
Executed true judgment.—This applies, of course, especially and directly to judicial sentences, but extends also to all cases in which one is brought to intervene in any way in transactions between others. What is required is absolute fairness, truthfulness, and integrity in the constant transactions of man with man.
This third case was especially adapted to the prophet’s purpose of refuting the proverb, because here was the father who had “eaten sour grapes,” and his son’s teeth were not to be set on edge.