The word of the LORD came to me again, saying,
It seems, then, that there is nothing new under the sun, and that in the days of Ezekiel men had anticipated, in some respects at least, Darwin and Ibsen and the problem novel; they were dealing with some, at least, of the difficulties which perplex us, upon whom the ends of the world have come. Science has made plain the part played by the law of heredity, the transmission of tendencies and characteristics from parents to offspring, in the development of life upon the globe. Criminologists have carried the idea over into the moral and judicial sphere, producing specimens of "pedigree criminals," families in which the criminal taint has descended from parents to children for generation after generation, Novelists and dramatists have found in the subject a fertile source of plots and tragedies. Social reformers find heredity a fact to be reckoned with. And now, as in Ezekiel's day, sinning souls are often inclined to lay the blame of their own failures on those whose blood runs in their veins. The first step to be taken in approaching this theme from the Christian standpoint is to notice how frequently it is dealt with in the Bible, the book which by some gracious miracle anticipates all other books and reveals to us the antiquity of our most modern problems. Our Lord Himself said, "Can men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?" There is such a thing in the moral world as pedigree, propagation of species, lines along which certain qualities and tendencies are transmitted, and you do not expect out of one stock that which, by its moral qualities, is properly the fruit of another. Paul's close observation of the organism of human society, as reflected specially in the Epistle to the Romans, is also a contribution to the subject; he sees that the human race is one in sin, that the taint is transmitted from generation to generation, that human history in one aspect of it gathers itself round a kind of pedigree of degeneration, so that by the disobedience of one many are made sinners. But though there is something in the knew Testament on the theme, there is more in the Old. In the New Testament it is specially the individual who comes to his rights; in the Old Testament more attention is given to the family, the nation, the generations which succeed each other and yet are part of each other — at once inheritors and transmitters of the blessing or the curse. It works for good: "the mercy of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting upon them that fear Him, and His righteousness unto children's children." It works also for evil — "visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation." And both in Jeremiah and in Ezekiel we meet this idea, which had evidently become proverbial in Israel — "The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge." The people were making too much of that; the prophets were eager to show them that there was another side to the truth. But that their proverb has some truth in it, who can deny?
I. And first, THE FACT. Here it is as a theologian (Dr. Denney, Studies in Theology) states it: "We are born with a history in us." Here it is as a novelist (Oliver Wendell Holmes, Elsie Venner) states it: "Each one of us is only the footing up of a double column of figures that goes back to the first pair. Every unit tells, and some of them are plus and some minus We are mainly nothing but the answer to a long sum in addition and subtraction." If you prefer scientific witnesses, their name is legion; this doctrine is one of the cornerstones of scientific thought. One of the quaintest and most delightful studies of the subject it is hardly profound enough to be called a study, and yet it is exceedingly suggestive — is in Robert Louis Stevenson's Memories and Portraits. You may remember the passage in which he describes his grim old minister-grandfather, and wonders what he has inherited from him: "Try as I please, I cannot join myself on with the reverend doctor; and all the while, no doubt he moves in my blood and whispers words to me, and sits efficient in the very knot and centre of my being." And not he alone, but a broadening line of ancestors, stretching back into the cloudy past, the toilers and fighters and adventurers of earlier generations, "Picts who rallied round Macbeth,"... "star-gazers on Chaldean plateaus."..."And furthest of all, what sleeper in green tree tops, what muncher of nuts, concludes my pedigree? Probably arboreal in his habits." It all amounts to this, that each human being is a thousand rolled into one; the roots of our lives go deep down into history, drawing from many different strata some of the elements that make us what we are. It is the darker side of this fact that is reflected in the text. "The fathers have eaten sour grapes," — in other words, they have sinned, perhaps they have suffered for their sins, the grapes have been sour even in the act of eating; but their children after them have suffered also, perhaps in nothing more than in this, that in them the ancestral tendencies to evil have been perpetuated and reproduced. It means this, that if a man has had ancestors who have been, say, drunkards or loose livers or men of ungovernable temper, very likely something of their besetting tendency is transmitted into his very blood, and the battle is all the harder for him because of their sin. And if he in his turn yields himself a servant to sins like these, very likely his children and his children's children will be enslaved by the same bondage. This is a reality so tremendous that it has made some men curse the day they were born. Here is a relationship which is not in the smallest degree in a man's own control; he was not consulted as to the family into which he should be born. Yet that relationship affects not only his physical but his moral and spiritual life; it follows him into the race of life and into the fight of faith; it may prove a continual burden and snare. Thank God if those who have gone before us have been His servants, living sweet, strong, clean lives. We do not know how much easier that has made the battle for us. It is a personal matter, a care and conscience so to live that no one in whose veins your blood may run may have reason to hate your memory for what you have been or have handed on to them. And it is a social matter, the mightiest of arguments for every form of moral and religious effort that can be brought to bear on the life of today. Today is the parent of tomorrow. And anything of health and purity and love and God that is sown like seed in the soil of the present generation does not end its fruitfulness there; it is a gift and a blessing to the future — "and the people which shall be created shall praise the Lord."
II. I notice that, though heredity is a fact, and sometimes a terrible influence, IT IS AN INFLUENCE WHICH HAS ITS LIMITS. This needs to be emphasised, because when men's hearts are in revolt against this tyranny of the dead past, they are apt to forget that the evil transmitted is not unlimited or unmixed. Even taking the bright and dark sides of hereditary influence together, it does not cover all the facts of life. Professor Drummond is right when he says that for half of life, at least, we have no "inherited storage" of habit or tendency. And if we take the darker side alone, still more is that a limited influence. It is limited in duration: those words "unto the third and fourth generation" have a meaning. So far and no further extends what Jeremy Taylor calls "the entail of curses"; there is a beneficent law which limits the time through which any evil habit in a given family can continue its self-propagating power; if it had not been for that, the world would be an infinitely worse place today. And it is limited in extent also in the individual life; it is limited by the very fact that a brighter side of hereditary influence exists; nobler instincts and finer tendencies can also be transmitted; there is a kind of entail in the blessing as surely as in the curse, and the entail of the blessing lasts the longer. These limitations imply that individuality has its own rights and possibilities. They imply that free will is not destroyed, even though hereditary influence gives a strong bias towards evil. They imply that each life may be a fresh starting point for the nobler possibilities of humanity. They imply that though a man's ancestors may be among his most subtle and powerful tempters, not all their power can forge upon him the fetters of an absolute fate. The truth seems to be this, that there is enough reality in this fact of heredity to constitute an important element in each man's trial and conflict, in some lives perhaps quite the most important element. But there is not enough in it to abolish the trial and the conflict, to make it an inevitable certainty that any man will fail in the trial or go under in the conflict. Over against the fact of corporate unity Ezekiel sets the equally real facts of personal responsibility; if men die, it is for their own sins, not for the sins of their fathers. They could turn; heavily weighted and sadly biassed though it is, human nature still swings upon its pivot, and all things are possible. Grant that they cannot rid themselves of sin, they have still a mighty defence against fate in this, that they can turn from sin towards God — the God who waits to be a refuge and a deliverer.
III. That brings me to the last thought, THE COUNTERACTIVE. For it is too mild a statement of the case to say that the influence of heredity is limited: it is attacked, it is opposed, its overthrow is planned and dared from the strongholds of eternity. Mr. Rendel Harris (Union with God, the chapter on "Grace and Heredity") speaks the truth when he says: "If we have not a Gospel against heredity it is very doubtful whether we have any Gospel at all." At any rate, many souls are painfully conscious that if there is no Gospel against heredity, there is no Gospel at all for them. But there is an older heredity than that which is commonly meant by the word, older, deeper, more essentially related to our true selves, reaching back even to the great deep from which we came. Listen to a fragment of a human genealogy. "Which was the son of Enos, which was the son of Seth, which was the son of Adam, which was the son of God." The Evangelist is very daring. David the adulterer is in that genealogical tree, and Jacob the supplanter, and many others, all more or less diseased, dwarfed, defiled with sin. Can this, indeed, be allowed to stand as the ultimate origin of their being, the oldest source from which they drew their life, "which was the son of God"? That honourable lineage is allowed even to them, and indeed the genealogical tree of every one of us ends there, "which was the son of God." Has not this God created us? Are not all our souls His, and is not His image stamped upon us all? Older than any link which binds us to the past generations, deeper than any resemblance to human ancestors which may appear in our faces or actions or characters, — so old and so deep is the relationship which connects us with the living God. Nay, it is a direct and immediate relationship; that is the chief burden of the prophet's message here, in answer to the morbid melancholy of the people's mood. "As I live, saith the Lord God, all souls are Mine." Each soul has still its own link with God, its own responsibility to Him, and its own inheritance in Him. We may have done our best to break this connection, to blot out this likeness. But He does not disown the relationship. Now, this more wonderful heredity, so central and essential in man's true nature, has been sadly overlaid and overborne by other influences, such as those I have spoken of today. And God has taken special means to restore it to its true place and influence, to create the family that should realise the Divine intention, and bring the race of man to its true and glorious destiny. Think of the wonder of that interposition! The man Christ Jesus, bone of our bone, flesh of our flesh, descendant on His human side of a stock that was no more exempt than we are from the universal disease. Yet He was without sin, without one stain or taint of sin. The law of human heredity was laid aside for once in Him, that the older, deeper, diviner heredity might fully express itself, the answer to the world's despair! And this second Adam became the head and founder of a new family, reproducing Himself in those who believed on Him, filling them with His grace, training and enabling them to follow in His steps, "that He might be the first-born among many brethren." Can men gather grapes of thorns or figs of thistles? Of course not; but many a sorry branch of the human tree, barren and almost ready for the burning, has begun to bear wondrous fruit when it has been grafted into the true Vine. Jesus gives power to become the sons of God; He starts them on the life in which the true end of their being is to be fulfilled. Let us believe in this. Let us pray to have it realised in us and ours. So we have a Gospel against heredity, and surely it is a Gospel indeed.
(J. M. E. Ross, M. A.)
Parallel VersesKJV: The word of the LORD came unto me again, saying,