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Only four times in Scripture this phrase is recorded. In Exodus 20:5, Exodus 34:7, Numbers 14:18, and Deuteronomy 5:9. These are all in the writings of Moses. In Exodus 20:5 and Deuteronomy 5:9 the appearance of the phrase is a part of the Ten Commandment law. It says:

Visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments. (Exodus: 20:5, 6) 

Please note that there are only two groups mentioned here. It is these two groups that get the reward-be it positive or negative. It is important to note that God does not say that those who don’t know Him will receive the curse but, rather, those who “hate” Him. You cannot hate a person or love a person unless you know that person. Obviously, the ones who have known God, and deliberately reject Him after seeing His goodness, deserve to be cut off from His goodness. But God says this rebellious action will have an influence, or bearing, only till the third or fourth generation. But on the other hand, you need to see the goodness of God; He says the influence of a good action will have a bearing unto thousands, or “a thousand generation” (Deuteronomy 7:9). So we see clearly that God takes pleasure only in the bestowal of good things and not in the negative aspect. What a merciful God we serve!

ONE MIGHT SAY: Is it fair for the next two or three generations to be punished for the actions of their ancestors? But I ask you-Is it fair for a thousand generation to receive blessings for the action of their ancestors? We have no complaints on the blessings part! Why then complain on the punishment that is relatively insignificant?

Before we proceed, let us consider man’s judgment. There have been many bandits, terrorists and various criminals who have been punished for their crimes in our earthly courts. But their children or descendents, who have not participated in their crimes, are not punished. If man can use discretion and be just in his judgment, how much more the all-knowing and merciful Judge of Heaven!

Are we better than God? In fact throughout the Bible God tells us to be like Him, who is full of mercy. Jesus said:

Be ye therefore merciful, as your Father also is merciful. (Luke 6:36) 

Does the merciful Heavenly Father punish the innocent? Well, let us see what is passed on to the next generation. It simply says:

Visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me. (Exodus: 20:5) 

“Iniquity” means sin. Is it the guilt of sin that is passed on to the next generation; or is it the wages of sin that is visited on their descendants, or is it the consequences of sin that will be seen in the following generations? It simply states, “visiting the iniquity”. But it does not state whether it is the guilt / condemnation, OR the wages / penalty part of it, OR the consequences / result part of sin. Well, other parts of Scripture reveals to us as to what exactly is passed on.

The same Moses records the Word of God concerning the same topic:

The fathers shall not be put to death for the children, neither shall the children be put to death for the fathers: every man shall be put to death for his own sin. (Deuteronomy 24:16) 

The people understood and practiced just that (See 2 Chronicles 25:4). So it is very clear that the wages or the penalty of sin is not passed on to the next generation.

What about the guilt being borne by their descendants? In Ezekiel’s days many thought the guilt is carried on and people felt the burden of it as they were taught thus by their Bible teachers. God told the people who believed this view:

Yet say ye, Why? doth not the son bear the iniquity of the father? (Ezekiel 18:19) 

The Lord told them that this concept was not true. Let us read the truth about this matter from the mouth of God Himself.

Yet say ye, Why? doth not the son bear the iniquity of the father? When the son hath done that which is lawful and right, and hath kept all my statutes, and hath done them, he shall surely live. The soul that sinneth, it shall die. The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son: the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him. But if the wicked will turn from all his sins that he hath committed, and keep all my statutes, and do that which is lawful and right, he shall surely live, he shall not die. All his transgressions that he hath committed, they shall not be mentioned unto him: in his righteousness that he hath done he shall live. Have I any pleasure at all that the wicked should die? saith the Lord GOD: and not that he should return from his ways, and live? But when the righteous turneth away from his righteousness, and committeth iniquity, and doeth according to all the abominations that the wicked man doeth, shall he live? All his righteousness that he hath done shall not be mentioned: in his trespass that he hath trespassed, and in his sin that he hath sinned, in them shall he die. Yet ye say, The way of the Lord is not equal. Hear now, O house of Israel; Is not my way equal? are not your ways unequal? When a righteous man turneth away from his righteousness, and committeth iniquity, and dieth in them; for his iniquity that he hath done shall he die. Again, when the wicked man turneth away from his wickedness that he hath committed, and doeth that which is lawful and right, he shall save his soul alive. Because he considereth, and turneth away from all his transgressions that he hath committed, he shall surely live, he shall not die. Yet saith the house of Israel, The way of the Lord is not equal. O house of Israel, are not my ways equal? are not your ways unequal? Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways, saith the Lord GOD. Repent, and turn yourselves from all your transgressions; so iniquity shall not be your ruin. Cast away from you all your transgressions, whereby ye have transgressed; and make you a new heart and a new spirit: for why will ye die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of him that dieth, saith the Lord GOD: wherefore turn yourselves, and live ye. (Ezekiel 18:19-32) 

So we see that neither the wages/punishment, nor the bearing of the guilt of sin is passed on. Therefore, it has to be only the natural consequences of sin that is seen in the succeeding generations. What exactly is passed on from parents to children? The tendencies and inclinations are passed on through the genes from parents to children. Listen to the reason that Jesus gives for the evil act of the people in His day.

Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! Because ye build the tombs of the prophets, and garnish the sepulchers of the righteous, And say, If we had been in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets. Wherefore ye be witnesses unto yourselves, that ye are the children of them which killed the prophets. Fill ye up then the measure of your fathers. (Matthew 23:29-32) 

It was their ancestors who had murdered God’s people in the past. Naturally that murderous blood was running through their veins. They now had the natural tendency to repeat their fathers’ sins. Christ predicted that they would do it.

Wherefore, behold, I send unto you prophets, and wise men, and scribes: and some of them ye shall kill and crucify; and some of them shall ye scourge in your synagogues, and persecute them from city to city. (Matthew 23:34) 

Of course they would be held guilty only for their act, if they did it. But that is the natural law. From parent to children many things are transferred by inheritance and example, good and bad.

On the other hand, look at young Timothy. Paul wrote about his grandmother and mother who possessed certain qualities that Timothy now had. Paul told him:

When I call to remembrance the unfeigned faith that is in thee, which dwelt first in thy grandmother Lois, and thy mother Eunice; and I am persuaded that in thee also. (2 Timothy 1:5) 

So propensities, tendencies and natural inclinations are passed on as God has set them as the laws of nature. Brilliant parents normally have brilliant children; it’s same with the not-so brilliant parents too.

What else is passed on to the succeeding generation?-Sickness, weakness, disease, etc. Many have weak lungs, high sugar, delicate hearts and many chronic illnesses as a legacy from their ancestors.

 That is a natural law. Because of sin that is rapidly increasing by the passing of time in the world, the bodies are becoming weaker and the resistance level is dropping, and therefore the rapid deterioration too. That is what sin does overall. It is the natural consequence that is passed on because of sin, and God does not hold us accountable, if we are not responsible for it. The same Timothy who had a legacy of faith passed on to him had a weakness in the body. He had a weak stomach and often infirmities. Paul wrote to him:

Drink no longer water, but use a little wine for thy stomach’s sake and thine often infirmities. (1Timothy 5:23) 

Well, we need to do our part to get well and do the repair as far as possible; we need not feel guilty or discouraged, if our outward body is perishing for any reason that is not in our control. Jesus said:

And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. (Matthew 10:28) 

Whether someone is killing our bodies, or whether the consequences of sin is taking its toll on our bodies, if it is out of our control, we shouldn’t fear at all, as long as our soul (spiritual standing with God) is healthy. Paul was not worried about what was happening to him. He said:

For which cause we faint not; but though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day. (2 Corinthians 4:16)

Elisha, the great prophet of the Old Testament, a man who had the double portion of the Holy Spirit than did Prophet Elijah, died of sickness. It is written:

Now Elisha was fallen sick of his sickness whereof he died. (2 King 13:14)

We might inherit a weak body because of the legacy that our parents have passed on to us. But we need to do our part not to follow any bad habits, be it wrong habits of eating (most diseases have its root cause in wrong eating habits), drinking, abusing our bodies in any way. Our body is the temple of God, and no person should destroy it. (See 1 Corinthians 3:16, 17)

There are many who are born deformed, mentally and physically too. It may not always be true that because of the sins of their own ancestors people are suffering. As mentioned earlier, the whole of humanity is degenerating because of the curse of sin. Because of this, the whole creation is suffering. Aren’t there animals too that are physically deformed? What sins have their parents committed? Paul says in Romans:

For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now. (Romans 8:22)

So it may be wrong, many a time, to judge anyone who is suffering. Only God knows the true cause. In the book of prophet Micah God links sickness and sin. It is written:

Therefore also will I make thee sick in smiting thee, in making thee desolate because of thy sins. (Micah 6:13)

Yes, it is true that it is because of sin there are all kinds of sicknesses and calamities in the world. Sin is the root cause. Sometimes it might be because of our sins that we are punished with sickness, and many times it is because of the sin that is prevalent in the world, for it affects us too.

Probably having this text in mind the people asked Jesus regarding a blind man in John Chapter 9.

And his disciples asked him, saying, Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind? Jesus answered, Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him. (John 9:2, 3)

The disciples, too, thought that all sicknesses are directly linked to a man’s sin or his immediate ancestor’s sin, as was commonly believed.

What did Jesus mean when He said, “Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him”? Was Jesus saying that God made him blind for God’s glory? No! Jesus simply said, “The works of God should be made manifest in him”.

First of all Christ ruled out that it was because of the sins of his parents or his own sin this man was born blind. Well, he was born blind-therefore how could it be because of his sin! Christ did not go to the root of the problem, but went to the final solution of that problem. Christ said-“The works of God should be made manifest”. When he would be healed, God’s work would be seen, that God loves to heal, and restore people; and God’s name would be glorified. We know it is the devil and sin that is the reason for all problems, and it is God who is the solution to all of it!

Therefore we see, one cannot conclude things on the surface; only God knows it. But the truth remains-the succeeding generations will be affected because of the practices of their ancestors.

Now, if the children continue repeating the sins and faults and bad habits of their fathers/mothers, it will continue to show its ugly face for another three or four generation. But if remedial actions are taken, then by the third or fourth generation it would be annulated.

That is the law God placed in our natures. Paul summed it up beautifully, when he wrote:

Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap. For he that soweth to his flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption; but he that soweth to the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting. (Galatians 6:7, 8)

So, neither the wages of sin is passed on, nor the guilt of sin is borne by the successive generations, but the natural consequences of sin-the tendencies to evil, the weakness, the sickness, the attitude, passion, etc.

There is another way of looking at this passage, and this applies to any tragedy that strikes. At any given period of time, there are at least three to four generations of people living in a particular family. Sin will affect all the members of the family who are alive!

If some tragedy strikes a member of the family, all the members- three or four generations-suffer together! But the natural tendencies to evil we pass on to the succeeding three or four generations downward, from “fathers upon the children”! (Exodus 20:5).