You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.   You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, 10 but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.

Idols Then and Now

We get the first part.  Don’t make an idol.  The land they were entering was overrun with idols and statues and wooden objects that were worshiped.   This still exists throughout the world.  And is you ask someone, they will say that they are not worshiping the idol but rather the god it represents, but also that the idol itself is sacred as well.

God says, don’t do this.  Not then.  Not now.

Throughout the world such things are still being practiced.  But it is subtly practiced even in many places in the Western world.  If I’m honest, statues of Mary and statues of Jesus still make me uncomfortable.  People who have these kinds of statues in their homes guard them diligently and forget just who they represent.

A Jealous God?

God is not jealous in the way we understand jealousy.  Our jealousy looks like possessiveness and control which are evil.  This is the free-will and voluntary faithfulness we see in the Scripture.

But God is jealous.  Just like a husband expects faithfulness from his wife and a wife, faithfulness from her husband, so God expects faithfulness from His children.

And furthermore, he doesn’t want the next generation to follow the sins of the parents into idolatry, adultery of God.  Why?  Because it destroys and harms the next generation because of the emptiness of it all.

No one stops to think, no one has the knowledge or understanding to say, “Half of it I used for fuel; I even baked bread over its coals, I roasted meat and I ate. Shall I make a detestable thing from what is left? Shall I bow down to a block of wood?”
This is what the Lord says: “What fault did your ancestors find in me, that they strayed so far from me? They followed worthless idols and became worthless themselves.

.Jonah 2:8 |
Those who cling to worthless idols turn away from God’s love for them.”

God wants to bless the following generations.  But idolatry is adultery and the flow of blessing stops when idolatry is introduced.

Punishing/Blessing the Children for the Actions of the Parents?

For some people this is an apparent contradiction.  Doesn’t the Bible also say that

Ezek 18:20 The one who sins is the one who will die. The child will not share the guilt of the parent, nor will the parent share the guilt of the child. The righteousness of the righteous will be credited to them, and the wickedness of the wicked will be charged against them.

Deut 24:16 Parents are not to be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their parents; each will die for their own sin.

Then what does this explanation of the commandment mean?  That the children will pay for the sins of the parents to the 3rd and 4th generation?

It isn’t the issue of salvation and sin, it is an issue of sins of the fathers passing to the children.  For example, let’s take an alcoholic.  A raging alcoholic will tend to raise children who are angry, and who also comfort themselves with alcohol.  They pass that behavior to the next generation.  And the next.  It takes a few generations to get out.

Or how about the issue of physical abuse.  As much as the abused hate it, they tend to marry abusers who abuse, or also abuse their children themselves.  And this passes to the 3rd and 4th generation.

It tends to lessen with each generation, but children learn their parents sins and oftentimes pass them on to their children.  It’s a well-known tendency.

But a thousand generations of blessing?  That’s a staggering promise.

I remember the story of Ravi Zacharias, a well-known defender of the faith from India.  He was one who eventually came to the Lord even though his family line had drifted somewhat.  But when he did research in his family tree, he saw that there was a predecessor who had come to faith several generations before him.  And yet God was still blessing their family line bringing others to himself.

Also there are generations and family systems you can look at.  And for the most part those who have lived righteously have a faith foundation in their children and grandchildren.  Of course there are a few who go their own way, but for the most part a strong family faith system will also bless the next generation and thereafter.  When children and grandchildren are successful and faithful, it sets up a generational flow of blessing.

If we look at the text even more closely, we see that the reason for this punishment and blessing is because God is jealous.  He wants the best for his people.  If idols are introduced, then they will become empty themselves, and pass that on to the following generations.