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I am struggling to understand the translation of this text.

Ezekiel 33:12-19 (ESV)

12 "And you, son of man, say to your people, The righteousness of the righteous shall not deliver him when he transgresses, and as for the wickedness of the wicked, he shall not fall by it when he turns from his wickedness, and the righteous shall not be able to live by his righteousness when he sins. 13 Though I say to the righteous that he shall surely live, yet if he trusts in his righteousness and does injustice, none of his righteous deeds shall be remembered, but in his injustice that he has done he shall die. 14 Again, though I say to the wicked, ‘You shall surely die,’ yet if he turns from his sin and does what is just and right, 15 if the wicked restores the pledge, gives back what he has taken by robbery, and walks in the statutes of life, not doing injustice, he shall surely live; he shall not die. 16 None of the sins that he has committed shall be remembered against him. He has done what is just and right; he shall surely live.

17 "Yet your people say, ‘The way of the Lord is not just,’ when it is their own way that is not just. 18 When the righteous turns from his righteousness and does injustice, he shall die for it. 19 And when the wicked turns from his wickedness and does what is just and right, he shall live by this.

1.) If the righteous will not be saved by his righteousness, yet the wicked will be saved when he turns from his wickedness (making him righteous), what sense are we supposed to make of this passage?

2.) Could this perhaps be talking about two kinds of people: The falsely righteous and the wicked, yet not the truly righteous?

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  • I am reminded by this passage of the idea that sometimes we will justify bad behavior because of our good behavior - the idea that "I earned this." An analogy might be eating a whole pizza because I ran a 5k this morning. I balance my bad behavior because I made up for it. The prophet might be warning his listeners that good deeds do not out weigh bad deeds. At least this is my immediate feeling of it. Sep 21 '16 at 18:28
  • @AlexDurbin I agree with you and I am coming to see that. And I believe that understanding would work into my new thought which I added as a comment on D. Barry's answer.
    – Lin Wang
    Sep 21 '16 at 19:31
  • This passage should be compared with the similar argument in Romans 2:1-11 about impartial justice with Jews and Gentiles.
    – Michael16
    Sep 25 '16 at 8:26
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The key to understanding this is that the righteous will not be saved by his righteousness when he transgresses.

...The righteousness of the righteous shall not deliver him when he transgresses... -Ezekiel 33:12 (ESV)

Basically this passage refuting the thought that you can do 'good' for a time, then start doing wickedly and think that your many past good deeds will make up for the wicked deeds you are now doing. No matter how righteous you were or how long you were righteous, if you turn and do wickedly then you will die.

But God also gives hope to anyone who has done wickedly, by saying

14 Again, though I say to the wicked, ‘You shall surely die,’ yet if he turns from his sin and does what is just and right, 15 [...] he shall surely live; he shall not die. 16 None of the sins that he has committed shall be remembered against him.... -Ezekiel 33:14-16 (ESV)

Even if someone has done wickedly the majority of his life, he can still turn from his sinful ways and do right, with the assurance that God will no longer remember the his past wickedness.

This echoes what God says through Isaiah as well, that He will pardon the wicked if they will forsake their ways:

6 “Seek the Lord while he may be found;
call upon him while he is near;
7 let the wicked forsake his way,
and the unrighteous man his thoughts;
let him return to the Lord, that he may have compassion on him,
and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. -Isaiah 55:6-7 (ESV)

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The prophet is making a statement to his people who are left in Judea. They have realized their transgressions against the commands of God and the subsequent captivity of many people, they are very discouraged as seen by verse 10 of chapter 33 and need to hear some encouraging news. The Lord responds with grace in verse 11. It is not his desire that any should die, but he makes it clear the choice is not his to make.

The conditions are laid out in verses 12-16 of chapter 33. Those conditions are given for the present time the people were living in, not the past.

So often a man will look at all the good he has done over the years of his life and feel like it should count for something. Such was the case with these captives as seen in verse 20.

We stand justified before God based on faithfulness and not merit. When a man turns from his evil ways and is again faithful to the Lord he finds favor. But if the man who has a lifetime of righteousness turn from it and do evil he will be condemned.

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    Thank you for your answer. Isn't faithfulness the same thing as merit? "I am righteous because I have repented and turned away from sin to be faithful to the Lord." So it shouldn't be God's faithfulness to the sinner and not his own? I think I'm understanding this passage more. Man wants to be recognized for his merit and righteousness when really, he has transgressed God along his life time of righteousness. This makes him wicked. Since the man is wicked, he must therefore turn and repent to the Lord for mercy. So it seems more like a progression of man's understanding then types of men.
    – Lin Wang
    Sep 21 '16 at 15:55
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What God is pointing out here is an example of how He thinks, versus how we think. God is saying, if you're living righteously, you're doing well. Keep it up, and you'll win the race. But if you stop living righteously and turn from God, at any point, you drop out of the race and lose, and all your past righteousness won't help you, if you drop out. On the other hand, if you're the most wicked sinner imaginable, have done horrible things that no human being would ever forgive you for, but you at some point turn from your evil ways, repent, and start living righteously, and stay on that path till you cross the finish line, God will reward you for your Godly living and your past will not be held against you, no matter how horrible people may have thought you were. It's all about winning the race, versus dropping out and falling by the wayside.

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Ezekiel 33:12-19 (my translation)

Say this, O son of man, to the sons of your people: The righteousness of the righteous man shall not rescue him on the day when he transgresses, and the wickedness of the wicked man shall not not be occasion for stumbling on the day when he repents of his wickedness: neither is the righteousness of the righteousness man able to keep him alive on the day when he sins.

But when I say to the righteous man that he shall surely live, and he trusts in his being righteous, and commits iniquity, all of his righteous deeds shall be forgotten, and he shall die on account of the iniquity which he has committed.

And when I say to the wicked man, You shall surely die, but he repents of his sin, and does judgement and righteousness, and that man restores the damage, and gives compensation for what was plundered, and lives according to the statutes of life, and so walks as not to commit iniquity any more, he shall surely live; he shall not die: all his sins which he has committed shall not be remembered or held against him: for he does judgement and righteousness, and therefore he shall live.

Yet the sons of your people say, The way of the Lord is unjust; but it is they whose way is unjust.

When the righteous man turns from his righteousness, and does iniquity, he shall die therein. And when the wicked man repents of his wickedness, and does judgement and righteousness, he shall live on that account.

There is no contradiction. The righteous shall live, and the wicked shall die. However, being righteous up to the point when you sin will not help you when you sin. "The soul that sins: that soul shall die" (18:20). One can sum this up as: "all of his righteous deeds shall be forgotten, and he shall die on account of the iniquity which he has committed" (33:13). That is, God is not going to judge someone just on account of a former person, but on the present person, which represents his current and real relationship with God.

However, He gives the remedy of His mercy for those who have fallen away from the path of righteousness: repenting opens one up to God's, grace, His mercy: if "he repents of his sin, and does judgement and righteousness, and that man restores the damage, and repays what was plundered, and lives according to the statutes of life, and so walks as not to commit iniquity any more, he shall surely live" (v. 14-16).

Trusting in one's righteousness is not at fault here, but trusting in it despite one's having fallen into sin, and thus currently being in sin: "trusts in his being righteous, and then commits iniquity." He is shown to be a very foolish person, lacking the prudence of handling the "talents" (grace) of God wisely. It will be of no use that you were righteous, "all of his righteous deeds shall be forgotten, and he shall die on account of the iniquity which he has committed." Of course if one is righteous, one has that to rely on (or trust in) that on the day of judgement, in the sense that one is only righteous or wicked on the last day: destined for heaven or hell.

Nowhere in the context is any hint that there is any "falsely wicked" or "falsely righteous," but a change of states from righteous to wicked and vice versa, via the mode of choosing sin, or choosing to repent, respectively.

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