As part of the Ten Commandments, God declares that he visits “the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me” (Exod 20:5). And in his self-revelation to Moses, he again says that he will visit “the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation” (Exod 34:7).
An implication is that God punishes grandchildren on behalf of their grandparents. Yet elsewhere Scripture states, “The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son” (Ezek 18:20). And Christians likewise emphasize personal culpability for our sins.
So how should we understand God’s words in Exodus? My answer is that, rather than statements about generational punishment, his words instead emphasize a law of nature and the super-abundance of grace despite human sin.
The Hatred of Fathers Has a Time Limit
In the fuller context of Exodus 20:5, God explains that he only visits the iniquity of the third and fourth generation ”of those who hate me.” This qualification is key. God does not visit the iniquity of the third and fourth generation of those who love him.
The reformer Peter Vermigli (1499–1562) explains: “Just how God visits the iniquity of the parents to the children unto the third and fourth generation, the Law itself declares well enough from the added statement, ‘those hating me.’ From this it is apparent that only the children who are like their parents will bear their sins. If they depart from their wickedness, they will not bear their sins” (§36, On Original Sin).
He is correct. But then the question follows as to why only the third and fourth generation? (Likely three or four generations here symbolizes a small number rather than being a precise count). If the point of the visitation is to execute justice against those who hate God, then why not the fifth or even the fiftieth generation?
There are two answers. The first answer is that hatred for God begets itself in a limited way. Hate has a limited scope and power. A father may hate God and train up his children to hate God as well. That hatred could reach three of four generations. Yet it is a sort of law of nature that hatred in comparison to love is weak and feeble.
Even a wicked father can only pass on his evil habits and actions for a few generations. God’s love and grace in contrast never end. It transforms thousands. That leads to the second answer.
In the next verse (Exod 20:6), God contrasts the three or four generations of evil with his “steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments” (Exod 20:6 ESV). In Exodus 34:6–7, God also says: “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.”
The word thousands in both contexts contrasts with the third and fourth generation (see Exod 34:7). The word thousands here is not meant to be a literal number but to demonstrate the ubiquity and massiveness of God’s grace to sinners—to those whom he forgives.
This leads to the intriguing possibly suggested by the ESV translators’ footnote that thousands means “thousandth generation” in Exodus 20:6. In fact, the NET Bible translates the Hebrew word as “a thousand generations” largely, it seems, because of the contrast with the third and fourth generation in Exodus 20:5.
A number of ancient translations (Ethiopic, Armenian, Bohairic) as well as three pentateuchal targumim (ancient Aramaic paraphrases) all add the word generation to thousands. In short, seeing the explicit contrast between the third and fourth generation with a thousand generations has ancient support. And I think it is the correct interpretation due to the contrast between the third and fourth generation and the thousands (of generations).
Even if it is not, grace still is shown here to superabound. Whereas sin increases over three or four generations, grace overflows upon thousands (of generations). Rather than being a text about generational sin or vicarious punishment of children for the sins of their grandparents, the maximal graciousness of God here is highlighted.
These two answers explain God’s self-revelation in these two passages. First, sin has limited power, although it can often seep its way up to a few short generations. And second, God’s grace superabounds to thousands despite sin’s crawl. The passage is not about generational guilt and punishment. It is about God’s superabounding grace that pulverizes sin’s evil.