Ezekiel 18:20 Meaning of The Soul That Sinneth, it Shall Die

Ezekiel 18:20 “The soul that sinneth, it shall die …” seems to be saying simply that the penalty for sin is death, period. However, it also lays out an important principle that transferring guilt or punishment for sin from one person to another is not possible.

Note: This is a supporting page for the Glossary definition of the term “surely die.” It helps to show that shall surely die is not an irrevocable sentence. Earlier in Ezekiel, before verse 20, verse 13 says:

“Hath given forth upon usury, and hath taken increase: shall he then live? he shall not live: he hath done all these abominations; he shall surely die; his blood shall be upon him.” (Eze 18:13)

This is using the same Hebrew phrase “surely die” as the study on the meaning of that term. Ezekiel makes it clear that the sentence “to surely die” can be reversed.

Consider the verses that follow:

 “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 (chayah, chayah, H2421 H2421) (Eze 18:19)

Here we have another word repeated for emphasis. The next verse is an important one:

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.” (Eze 18:20)

It is saying that it is the one who has sinned that will die and another shall not die for him. Guilt and punishment for sin is not transferable.

Verse 20 says the sinner will die, and we were told in other places that the sinner would surely, definitely die. Now read the next verse:

“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 (H2421) live (H2421), he shall not die (H4191).” (Eze 18:21)

How sure is “the sinner shall surely die” when just by turning from his sins, he does not die? This seems to be not stating a 100% certainly but, rather, stating a principle that the unrepentant sinner is headed towards a certain death unless he changes course. Eternal death can be avoided with repentance and a turning to God.

It is similar to Jesus saying:

“Then said Jesus unto him, Put up again thy sword into his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.” (Matt 26:52)

It is not that every person who takes the sword (like pick up a sword or arm themselves with a sword even if they don’t use it) will die from a sword wound. It is more like if you live a violent life and inflict violence on others, there is a high probability that you will die a violent death yourself, by whatever weapon. It is another way of stating the principle that you reap what you sow.

Continuing on in Ezekiel 18:

“All his transgressions that he hath committed, they shall not be mentioned unto him: in his righteousness that he hath done he shall live (H2421).” (Eze 18:22)

Is Ezekiel contradicting the law of verse 20: “The soul that sinneth, it shall die? No. He is explaining that tendencies can be reversed:

Ezekiel 18:20

Have I any pleasure at all that the wicked should die (H4191)? saith the Lord GOD: and not that he should return from his ways, and live (H2421)? (Eze 18:23)

The concluding verses of the chapter confirm that the sentence “the soul that sinneth, it shall die” is not final:

“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.” (Eze 18:30-32)

Thank God that He is ever-merciful.

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