Exodus 20:5 – Punishing the Children for the Sins of the Fathers
Do children get punished for the sins of their father?
The NIV translates Exodus 20:5 as "punished the children for the sin of the parents," while the RSV says "visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children."
What is the difference? I think it should be visiting but I may be wrong. I think that if the parent wasted all the income so that the children go hungry then that is not a punishment, for the children didn't do anything wrong, but it is the result of the sin of the parent or the visiting of the sin of the parent. Ezekiel (18:4) and Jeremiah (31:29) are quoting a saying that was popular in their days, which seems to draw the conclusion from the sanction of the 2nd commandment that the children are punished for the sins of the parents, but these prophets have to correct it by saying: "Everyone will die for their own sin."
Beginning with the matter of translation, it is clear that the Hebrew word used here can be translated differently depending on the context. The connotation of "visiting" denotes that the LORD knows the situation, paying close attention (Ex 3:16; 4:31).
He examines the ways of the fathers and sees the effect on the children, so that he becomes involved in it (positively). He does so in his love! This same love, however, shows in his jealousy when he observes a manner of worship which does not give him the first and foremost place in the life and worship of his people (as expressed in the first commandment), but rather do their own thing. Then he sees the wrong, the iniquity of the fathers, quite often also in their children, even in their grandchildren and great-grandchildren; namely in that their offspring doesn't love him anymore either but "hate" him (i.e. they're also putting themselves first, designing their own ways, setting their own standards in service and worship, instead of showing their love in a life of obedience to the LORD). Then the LORD visits them too (negatively), coming against them, chastising them (i.e. in the way of punishing them, but for their own sinful and self-designed ways which they saw in their fathers and followed without discerning the wrong of such ways). So either way, in his love the LORD is intimately involved in the life of his people (first commandment) and in the manner of worship and service of his people (second commandment), and he responds to it in a covenantal way with blessing (to those who love him and keep his commandments) or curse (i.e. punishment, chastisement; thus he requites the sins of the fathers in the generations)!
Indeed, sometimes there is the reaction, "It's not fair that the LORD punishes the children for the sins of the parents." However, that's not what it means. You can see that in Ezekiel 18, for instance, as the questioner correctly notes. No, what it means is this: "The LORD follows up on the self-willed rebellion in the children, in the grandchildren, and in the great-grandchildren, if they hate me" (i.e. if they also are unfaithful to me). The LORD does not punish the innocent, but if the children continue in the sins of the fathers the LORD will punish them too. He doesn't do so automatically (as also the blessing of the covenant isn't an automatism), but only if and when the children do not turn away from the sin of their father but consciously and/or intentionally persist in it. The children, then, remain personally responsible for their way and manner of worship and service to the LORD! At the same time, the fathers in the families should be fully aware of the significance for him and his descendants of them turning their back on the LORD to practice idolatry and self-willed religion.
When parents don't take their covenantal faithfulness, service, and worship in love to the LORD seriously anymore, taking it easy, developing their own ways and standards, it should not surprise us that it affects the relationship of the children with the LORD and their personal service to him. Of course, then the children may not blame their parents for their own unfaithfulness, yet their upbringing has a decisive influence on their life which the LORD characterizes as iniquitous. If parents are self-indulgent and permissive, so will be the children. If parents tend to be sloppy in the LORD'S service so will be the children. When the parents decide that you don't have to go to church twice, the parents' attendance ends up being sporadic and the children won't go anymore, while the grandchildren won't know a thing about the LORD and his service any longer! When the parents consider the living preaching of the gospel too heavy, too long, and too serious, asking too much of the flesh, a real miracle has to happen to make the children hunger and thirst for the bread and water of life. Then we must observe among the members, the families, too, that those who have will receive more, but those who do not have the right attitude, the right submission and love for the LORD, even what they have will be taken from them.