Behold, all souls are mine; as the soul of the father, so also the soul of the son is mine: the soul that sins, it shall die.
This sentence is really the climax of an argument. It is the conclusion, for the sake of which this chapter was written. The prophet's aim is to emphasise individual in the stead of collective responsibility for sin. It will not be the nation, it must not be some other soul or souls, for "every man must bear his own burden." "The soul that sinneth, that shall die." Yet this sentence can easily be misunderstood, and, in fact, often has been misunderstood. Someone will say: "Does the Bible mean that 'to die' in this sentence is to perish utterly and forever, or does it mean that the sinner must be punished for his sin and suffer forever?" Now we will ask Ezekiel. Suppose we had this old Israelitish prophet with us, and that we interrogated him concerning the meaning of his own words. I can assure you that he would be most astonished to hear the questions which I have just repeated. He would say: "I was not speaking of mortality or immortality; I was speaking of the quality of life, and I was thinking for the moment of the immediate future of my beloved Israel." Let us follow him through the experiences that made him say this, and you will see very soon what he means. This prophet is a prisoner. He is in the hands of Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon. He is one of the Israelitish remnant that have been torn from their home, and by whom the plaintive song is sung, "By the rivers of Babylon there we sat down and wept, we wept when we remembered Zion." But these captives were not all that there was of Israel. There was still an Israel at home, and a very bad Israel it was. And this Ezekiel, who was a contemporary of the Jeremiah who wrote the Lamentations over that wicked Israel, was looking from his land of captivity far away to the Jerusalem from which he had been torn, and was speaking to his fellow captives thus: "Beloved fellow prisoners, our day of deliverance is coming, but it can only come after yonder evil Jerusalem is razed to the ground. Ours it shall be to rebuild the temple, ours it shall be to worship God in a purified sanctuary in the homeland once more. Yonder Israel is preparing her own destruction. As u nation she must perish for her sins." Beware, you selfish, unpatriotic, slave-hearted men, who are living contentedly in the abominations of the Babylonians. We shall go to the homeland, but the soul that sinneth here, unworthy of the high calling, shall die to Israel, shall be outside the covenant. By soul he simply meant man. By die he meant remain a slave, or bear the penalty of exclusion from the glorious return. Since Ezekiel wrote we have learned a great deal more as to what is meant by the word "soul." The principle upon which he laid emphasis here is this, that the man who is doing wrong to his God does wrong to himself. He is not worthy to rebuild the Temple. He is not worthy to return to the Holy Land. And no nation will suffer for him. God's purposes cannot be foiled. The soul that sinneth, and that alone, must perish. Now what are we to say "the soul" means? In the earliest portions of this marvellous Book of Books the word "soul" means little more than the animating principle of all organisms. "The soul" means the breath or the life that distinguishes the things which are organic from the things which are not. Trees and flowers in that sense have and are souls. "Let everything that hath breath — let everything that hath soul — praise the soul." Then it came to mean, as we see, by a narrowing but by an intensification of its meaning, the animating principle of human consciousness. And so the word, delimitated, gradually expanded its meaning at the same time that it narrowed it, until in the New Testament and in the later prophecies of the Old Testament the word soul simply means the man. The soul is man's consciousness of himself, as apart from all the rest of all the world, and even from God. What are we to do with it, this soul of ours, this that marks me as me apart from all mankind? Why, to fill it with God. "This is life eternal, that they may know Thee, the only true God." Death is the absence of that fellowship with God. Now we begin to understand what Christ meant — that it were possible for a man to gain the whole world and lose his own soul. In other words, he is destroying the Godlike within himself, he is failing in that for which he was created, he is perishing even where he seems to succeed. This, again, is what Paul means when he says he dies to himself that he may live to God. "Ye died, and your life is hid with Christ in God." Nor is this false to what the prophet says: "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." The question of questions for any of us is this, "What kind of soul are we building? Is our attitude lifeward or deathward? Are we destroying that beautiful thing that God has given into our keeping?" We will now speak about the same truth in relation to ordinary, average human experience or acquaintance with life. Do any of you know, as I too well know, what it is to have a childhood's companion or a youth's friend of whom much was expected, bug the promise has never been fulfilled? Do you remember that lad who sat beside you in the day school years ago of whom the masters and proud parents said thug one day the world would ring with his name? The boy was endowed with almost every gift that could be thought of for making his way in life. Well, what has come to him? We have lost sight of him for a few years maybe, and yesterday we met him. What was it that gave us a shock and a thrill, a sudden sinking of the heart, as we looked into his countenance? Why, this — something was missing that ought to have been there, and something was there we never thought to see. The thing that was missing was life, and the thing that was present was death. That man has lived to the flesh, and of the flesh has reaped corruption. In doing it he has limited, imprisoned, destroyed his own better nature, until now, all involuntarily as it were, as you look on the beast, that gazes out of his eyes, you shudderingly say: "He is utterly without soul." "The soul that sinneth, it shall die." Amongst my circle of friends there is one whose name you may probably have heard, a man well advanced in years, and better known to an earlier generation than to yours and mine, I mean George Jacob Holyoake. This man is not a Christian, but those who have any acquaintance with his record know that he has done a good many Christian things. I have been reading lately a book in which he has put some recollections of his past. He calls it "Bygones Worth Remembering," and in it he tells the story of some of his moral activities, and of the men with whom he shared enthusiasms in earlier days. Amongst those who called him friend were General Garibaldi and the patriot Mazzini. In this book he tells of an occasion on which Mazzini, who was a God-intoxicated man, and whose motto was "God and the People," reasoned with him and with Garibaldi on their materialism, and gave utterance to a sentence of this kind: "No man without a sense of God can possess a sense of duty." Garibaldi instantly retorted impetuously: "But I am not a believer in God. Have I no sense of duty?" "Ah," said Mazzini, with a smile, "you drew in your sense of duty with your mother's milk." I could not read an incident like that without a feeling akin to reverence for these great souls with a great ideal, Holyoake served his generation well, so did Garibaldi, so did Mazzini. They were men of soul. Would you deny that they possessed moral and spiritual life? These men were all ALIVE. Mazzini's theology gave way in the presence of the splendid fact. It is the quality of the life into which we have to examine. There is no question but the life was there. I quoted this morning from the story of the life of John G. Paton, as told by himself, the veteran missionary. Will you let me read to you this man's account of the daily habits of his father, and the influence it had on his life? "That father was a stocking weaver, a poor man in one of the poor districts of Scotland." "But," says J.G. Paton, "he was a man of prayer." There was one little room in between the "but" and the "ben" of that house, as the Scots call it, into which he retired daily, and often many times a day. The experience of this old Scottish weaver, which cast such a spell on the life of his son, is as much a fact of the universe as the rain that is falling outside, and it needs to be accounted for and given its due place. It is the most precious thing in the whole range of possible human experience that a man might walk with God, that the light eternal might shine in his heart, that the soul might live. Truly this is life, to know God and Jesus Christ whom He hath sent. Contrast again in your mind for a moment this experience with that of the man you will meet tomorrow, of whom you will say, such a one is dead to right feeling, such another is dead to truth and honour, and, saddest of all, perhaps, you may say of some cynical, selfish being, he is dead to love. But what are YOU doing? You are either marching towards the ideal of Paton's father or you are marching away from it. To be as full of moral passion as a Holyoake or a Garibaldi is better than to live for self or the world alone. But how few there are who know what true life is. God knew where it was to be. In my greenhouse sometimes I see a plant, from which I expected something, marring its promise. One tiny speck of rust on a white petal, and I know my plant is doomed. That speck is death; there will be another tomorrow, and yet another to follow. Presently the soul, so to speak, of my little plant will be destroyed. Every time you commit a sinful act you destroy something beautiful which God made to bloom within your nature, you have a speck of death upon your soul. And every time you lift heart and mind and will heavenward, and every time your being aspires to God and truth, and every time the noble and the heroic and the beautiful have dominion over you (for these are God) then you are entering into life.
(R. J. Campbell, M. A.)
Parallel VersesKJV: Behold, all souls are mine; as the soul of the father, so also the soul of the son is mine: the soul that sinneth, it shall die.