God says, “I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments” (Exodus 20:5-6).
Yes, God himself says that he is jealous. But jealousy is not always the same as envy and coveting. At root, the meaning of jealousy is wanting to keep that which is one’s own. A husband who is jealous does not want to share his wife with other men. His jealousy may tempt him into sinful behavior, but the desire that one’s wife or husband remain faithful is not sinful. In fact, a man who willingly shares his wife with others shows that he does not love her.
God loves his people. He does not want to share his people with false gods. God does not envy false gods, because he needs and wants nothing from them. But he is jealous, wanting his people not to have other gods or to worship graven images. Whether the false gods are those worshiped by ancient religions—Baal, Zeus, Thor, Osiris, and the rest—or whether they are the modern false gods of money, fame, pleasure, political causes, and the like—God does not want to share. He loves his people too much to let them be deceived and harmed by anything that looks like a god and sounds like a god but cannot accomplish what God alone can do.
For that reason, God allows us to see the price of evil, the damage that it causes. He intends that we see what is wrong with evil and prefer that which is good. Evil is unfair, but God is fair. He would not punish children for the sins of their parents. Through Moses, he forbade the government of Israel to follow that practice (Deuteronomy 24:16). Other ancient governments did that, reasoning that a man’s concern for his family might deter him from crime even more than his concern for self-protection. But God says, “The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself” (Ezekiel 18:20).
Unfortunately some translations do misinterpret Exodus 20:5-6, reporting that God punishes the children for the sins of the fathers. These translations miss the sense of “visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children.” That visit of iniquity is not a punishment from God; it is a consequence of sin and evil. God does not work this way, but the sinful world works this way.
Children who were abused by their parents often become parents who abuse their children. It’s not fair, but it happens. Children whose parents misuse alcohol or other drugs are more likely to misuse the same drugs. It’s not fair, but it happens. It’s not fair that some children are born with defects, and others are born already addicted to drugs, because of bad decisions their mothers made during pregnancy. It happens because evil is unfair, and God wants us to see evil for what it really is.
When iniquity visits, it stays for a while. The consequences of sin do not disappear, not even when the sin is already forgiven through the sacrifice of Christ. God measures the durability of evil as lasting “to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me.” He contrasts that with his love. God’s love lasts for a thousand generations. (According to the Bibles account, nowhere near that number of generations has yet lived on the earth.) Rather than resenting God for the evil he permits—and he does so for good reasons—God’s people rejoice to know that the love of God and his mercy overwhelm the power of evil. All victims are rescued because God himself became a victim, suffering unfairly on the cross so he could redeem those who trust in him. And that really isn’t fair either, but it is unfairness that is given for our benefit. J.