God’s Justice through Ezekiel: Why It Pays to Play by the Rules


The Lord’s way is not fair!” Chapter 18, verse 25 of Ezekiel begins with a lamentation that—let’s face it—may not be altogether unfamiliar to us, especially during times in our lives when we believe that injustices have been inflicted upon us for someone else’s gain. Why do we have to play fair all the time, when so many people don’t? What happened to justice?

Some will answer that God works in ways beyond our comprehension. But when the basis for our beliefs stands in jeopardy, it would be an injustice to ourselves and to our faith if we took to such easy answers as this. If these conceptions of existence are to serve as the blueprints for our goals and for the courses of our lives, they had better be well-founded and we had better have full confidence in them—confidence which only comes with knowledge. God and His methods need not be wholly unfathomable—if incomprehensibility were really the intent, what would be the point of parables, and psalms, and the Bible itself? Rather, the Scriptures exist in order to demystify these misconceptions of God and His way. And what’s more, we need not wait for final judgment for the morals of Scripture to apply. In this article, I will offer an interpretation of Ezekiel’s chapter 18 which illustrates how playing by the rules can be beneficial when applied to everyday life. I will also show how this scriptural message does not only ring true from a religious point of view—I will further illustrate how this lesson posed by Ezekiel is a general fact of life backed by secular sources as well, for example the works of sociologist Emile Durkheim.

Taken at first glance, the following lines of Ezekiel offer a paradoxical view of justice. “When the just turn away from justice to do evil and die,” the scripture reads, “on account of the evil they did they must die.”¹ However, when “the wicked turn from the wickedness they did and do what is right and just, they save their lives.”² Surely, this sort of logic does not apply to the real world! Criminals who sincerely repent after confessing to their sins still suffer prosecution—and often death—while philanthropists with superficially noble intentions indulge in gross transgressions with impunity, tucked safely away from the public radar by their facades and their fame. In these cases, just the opposite is true: those who seem unjust but act justly fail to escape prosecution and death, while those who seem just but act unjustly escape death. This real-world version of justice, then, stands in stark contradiction to God’s justice as put forth in Ezekiel’s chapter 18.

Fortunately, however, there does exist a solution to this paradox. There are, indeed, benefits to playing by the rules and to being just as opposed to merely seeming just. After all, rules weren’t all made with our misery in mind! In board games, playing by the rules tends to pay positive dividends, such as the continued respect of peers and a greater sense of satisfaction should one actually win. The same applies to playing by the rules in life. Evil, i.e. refusing to play by the rules, rarely passes unaccounted for. On account of the evil a person commits by disobeying the rules, that person must suffer some kind of death. That death may not be (and in most cases will probably not be) as serious as the literal loss of one’s life. That death may not necessarily be public and others besides the person who committed the transgression may never be aware of it. However, the death does result each time, all the same. A person’s cheating and lying will result in the death of one’s ability for open confidence in others, and also perhaps the death of the trust that others harbor toward a person. Rude and selfish behavior of a person towards others creates enemies, resulting in the death of possible friendships, or even simply the death of others’ good opinion and amiability. What do these scenarios have in common? Both these scenarios serve to isolate those who refuse to play by the rules, thus limiting their life experiences by limiting the experiences they share with others. Of course, we must all pay, somehow, for the actions we choose not to commit. But if we choose to play by the rules, we avoid having to pay with our lives.

In his work Suicide, Durkheim treats the same issue of choosing community over isolation, and the life-preserving effects thereof. In Suicide, Durkheim explains the inverse relationship between the amount of suicides in a community and the degree to which individuals are integrated into their communities. Egoistic people who refuse to play by the rules—people who put their own goals above the needs of their communities and whom Ezekiel would label as unjust—depend less upon their community and much more upon themselves. Without a community to which they must contribute, Durkheim argues, egoistic individuals become “the admitted masters of their destinies [and] it is their privilege to end their lives.”³ Thus, we are presented with the egoist, who by refusal to adhere to a set of moral rules becomes isolated and self-dependent, and the altruist, who by choosing to adhere to a set of moral rules gains membership and gains support from a nourishing community. Egoists, despite having solely their own interests in mind, fall victim to isolation as they voluntarily sever the bonds that tie them to their communities and community obligations. When alone without a societal raison d’être—and a community to contribute to and be appreciated by—Durkheim warns that egoists run the risk of “feeling personal troubles [too] deeply” and feeling that their “efforts will finally end in nothingness, since [they] themselves disappear”⁴ and are finite as singular beings. His data, furthermore, suggest that societies in which members are generally more detached from their communities also feature greater rates of suicide. Durkheim’s theories and data thus coincide with Ezekiel’s advice to play fair to preserve life, and therefore support the Scripture message albeit from a secular viewpoint.

That Durkheim’s secular work supports the advice about justice posed in Ezekiel’s Chapter 18 implies the possibility that the importance of playing by the rules is a general fact of life, not just a lesson gleaned from Scripture. In order to save our lives, we must not be like the just ones who ultimately turn away from justice to do evil. Rather, we should be like the once-wicked, who ultimately learn the value of justice and learn to play by the rules to integrate themselves into their community.

¹Ezekiel 18:26 (USCCB).
²Ezekiel 18:27 (USCCB).
³Émile Durkheim, Suicide, 209.
⁴Émile Durkheim, Suicide, 209.


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