Someone asked us a great question recently. They wanted to know why God would be so mean as to threaten the children with punishment for the wrongdoing of the father. They used this example:
Exodus 20:5 You may not go down on your faces before them or give them worship: for I, the Lord your God, am a God who will not give his honour to another; and I will send punishment on the children for the wrongdoing of their fathers, to the third and fourth generation of my haters;
Excellent question, and to properly understand that passage, one needs to read the whole passage in context; not just a couple of verses.
Exodus 20:1 Then God said all these words: t 2 "I am ADONAI your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the abode of slavery. 3 "You are to have no other gods before me. 4 You are not to make for yourselves a carved image or any kind of representation of anything in heaven above, on the earth beneath or in the water below the shoreline.
5 You are not to bow down to them or serve them; for I, ADONAI your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sins of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, 6 but displaying grace to the thousandth generation of those who love me and obey my mitzvot. 7 "You are not to use lightly the name of ADONAI your God, because ADONAI will not leave unpunished someone who uses his name lightly. (CJB)
YHWH handed down rules for mankind to follow so that we could live holy lives unto Him, and thus be separated from the world. If we ignore Him, or take him "lightly" He is going to get angry, because HE and ONLY He is THE Creator who gave us some Divine Rules to follow. He WANTS us to obey, for our own good - and that is why He WARNS us to obey, or else! (The consequences of endless rebellion is eternal separation from YHWH (Deuteronomy 28:1-68; also see Deut. Chapters 11, 28 and 30; Leviticus 26; 2 Thessalonians 1:9; Matthew 25:41; Revelation 20:11-15, to mention just a few!).
Here is a simple illustration: A parent warns his/her child to not "touch that hot stove, or you'll get burned!" If the child ignores the warning, he/she will get burned. It pains, disappoints and angers the parent to see their child hurt - especially after the child was WARNED it would get hurt.
Most parents would probably take the child aside by the arm and give them a stern follow-up reminder: "I TOLD you not to do that! Why did you ignore me? Don't do it again, or you will end up REALLY hurt one day!"
Unfortunately, not every human parent will do that. Instead, they "baby" the child and tell him/her that everything will be okay. In those cases, the children might misconstrue this as permission to disobey. "Yes, I just got hurt, but Mom/Dad don't always know what they're talking about, and I want to experience things on my own, to see how they work."
And so they continue to disobey, simply because they don't fear the parent enough to bother obeying. Disobedience leads to more willful disobedience and outright rebellion, and even disrespect for the parents.
Human beings tend to be like that, because that is simply how we are! We don't necessarily like authority. The thing is, some people have NO boundaries and will eventually end up in prison because they never learned to behave themselves....
So if the parents don't give their children stern warning about some dire consequences (i.e., a spanking if they disobey again) if they don't start learning to OBEY, then their children will most likely ignore everything they're told, and eventually end up totally out of control - and when those children grow up, they will end up raising unruly children as well, because they, themselves grew up in a lax household where there were no real consequences.
What I'm trying to illustrate is that YHWH gave stern warnings in hopes of instilling enough fear into His people to make them want to obey His Divine Guidance … to make them LEARN that His rules are for their own good. If, after that, they still refuse, then they are on their own, because - through their willful disobedience - they have CHOSEN to become eternally separated from Him. There will be NO unruly trouble-makers in Eternity....
You either learn to follow His Rules while here on earth ... or not. Your choice.
An important message to remember here is that SIN is the culprit. Unless it is repented of somewhere along the way, "sin" (including all our habits, both good and bad) is passed along to our children, from generation to generation. In other words, “sins of the fathers” and all our good and bad habits BECOME the sins of the children! (See Exodus 34:6-7 and 20:5; Deuteronomy 5:8-10; Numbers 14:18, etc.) But, because of ADONAI’s grace, the children can confess their sins and the sins of their fathers and be forgiven and accepted by God (Leviticus 26:40-42).