In Exodus 20:5-6, the text says “I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.” Many people mistakenly presume that these verses state that God punishes children for the sins of their parents, even if the children are innocent of those sins themselves. Is this right?
No, it clearly is not the right interpretation, as we are reminded in Deut 24:16 that “Fathers shall not be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their fathers; each is to die for his own sin.” So what does it mean?
According to biblical scholar Douglas Stuart in his Exodus: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture (New American Commentary),
this oft-repeated theme speaks of God’s determination to punish successive generations for committing the same sins they learned from their parents. In other words, God will not say, ‘I won’t punish this generation for what they are doing to break my covenant because, after all, they merely learned it from their parents who did it too.’ Instead, God will indeed punish generation after generation (‘to the third and fourth generation’) if they keep doing the same sorts of sins that prior generations did. If the children continue to do the sins their parents did, they will receive the same punishments as their parents.
In fact, if we finish reading verse 6, we see that God’s real desire is for his people to love Him and keep his commands so that He can show His love to a thousand generations.