“Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me;” (Exo 20:5)
It sounds like God, in such cases, would be exacting extreme revenge – not just punishing the offender but also their children and their grandchildren and their great grandchildren etc.
Does God do that? If you had something bad happen to you this week was it God punishing you for something your great grandfather did? No. Scripture tells us clearly that God does not actively punish the children for the sins of the parents.
“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.” (Deut 24:6)
“But the children of the murderers he slew not: according unto that which is written in the book of the law of Moses, wherein the LORD commanded, saying, The fathers shall not be put to death for the children, nor the children be put to death for the fathers; but every man shall be put to death for his own sin.” (2 Kings 14:6)
So what is going on here? The warning in the second commandment sounds like God will impose a degree of punishment on children for the sins of their fathers but this is in direct contradiction to the verses above as well the same principle that is laid out in detail in Ezekiel chapter 18.
The key to understanding this is that “the visiting the iniquity” is describing a natural consequence, which God allows to occur or does not intervene to prevent rather than an active punishment from God. There is now considerable scientific evidence of this. For example, there are natural and devastating consequences for multiple generations of the children of an alcoholic who comes home and beats his children every night.
There is a good explanation of this in a commentary:
“Visiting the iniquity. This seeming threat has disturbed the minds of some who see in it the manifestation of a vengeful spirit. A distinction should be made however, between the natural results of a sinful course of action, and punishment inflicted because of it … God does not penalize one individual for the wrong deeds of another (Eze. 18:2-24). Each man stands before God, responsible only for his own acts. At the same time God does not interfere with the laws of heredity in such a way as to protect one generation from the misdeeds of its fathers, as that would be inconsistent with His character and His principles of dealing with men. It is only through the laws of heredity, which were of course ordained by the Creator in the beginning (See Gen. 1:21, 24, 25), that divine justice visits the ‘iniquity’ of one generation upon the next.” (SDA BC vol. 1, p603, comment on Exodus 20:5)
God does “punish” to the fourth generation only in the sense that He allows natural consequences to occur. This is consistent with the intended meaning in other cases where God is said to punish when, in fact, He is merely allowing the consequences of sin to run their natural course.
This is another example of God saying that He did or will do something when He is merely allowing it to happen.
See more examples of “God taking the blame.“