Today we have a first – this will be the first devotional that covers an entire chapter in the book of Jeremiah. But this isn’t the first time the LORD has shown one of His prophets a basket of fruit (cf. Amos 8:1-3). As an aside, if you keep your eyes peeled for all the figs references found in Scripture (cf. Nah. 3:12; Mt. 21:18-20; 24:32; Jas. 3:12; etc.), it may change the way you look at a trip to grocery store. Maybe not. But let’s first see what Jeremiah saw; namely, “two baskets of figs set before the temple of the LORD” (vs.1b).
Okay, nothing jaw-dropping at this point. Fig baskets were a fairly common sight. But given the fact that the LORD showed Jeremiah these baskets (vs.1a), we know there’s more to these figs than at first met Jeremiah’s eye. After all, this wasn’t Jeremiah’s own contemplation; it was the LORD’s revelation. The position of the figs also appears significant – these figs were set before the temple of the LORD, perhaps as an offering (cf. Deut. 28:6-11). Not to mention, the temple had become an emblem of the people’s false security. That, combined with the hypocrisy that surrounded the people’s liturgy, sadly made the temple a fitting reminder of why judgment was so imminent.
But understanding the historical context in which Jeremiah saw these baskets is also a needed component in coming to a proper interpretation of what he saw. This happened “after Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon had carried away captive Jeconiah the son of Jehoiakim, king of Judah, and the princes of Judah with the craftsmen and smiths, from Jerusalem, and had brought them to Babylon” (vs.1). Now that’s interesting. Jeconiah, the wicked king we read about in chapter twenty-two, who only reigned for three months (2 Ki. 24:8), was taken in the 597 B.C. deportation along many, many others (2 Ki. 24:14). This revelation, then, was given after this deportation had happened, and while Zedekiah was reigning in Jerusalem. You could imagine the people who stood behind in Jerusalem thinking, ‘Phew, that was a close one. I guess we escaped captivity. And maybe with this guy, Zedekiah, we’ll be able to do pretty good for ourselves going forward.’ We’ll come back to them shortly, but first back to the baskets.
There was a distinction between these two baskets of figs. Pretty simple. Pretty straightforward. “One basket had very good figs, like the figs that are first ripe; and the other basket had very bad figs which could not be eaten, they were so bad” (vs.2). God then asked Jeremiah what he saw (vs.3a) and Jeremiah responded with the right assessment – “Figs, the good figs, very good; and the bad, very bad, which cannot be eaten, they are so bad” (vs.3b). That was by no means the end of Jeremiah’s lesson. The LORD did not say, ‘Great, let’s call it a day.’ The word of the LORD came to Jeremiah again (vs.4), this time to explain what he saw – the explanation of which might, at first, take you by surprise. Given the fact that a deportation just happened (don’t forget verse 1) and the princes of Judah, craftsmen and smiths, along with Jeconiah, were taken away, you would think that they were the bad figs. But no! They were actually the good figs! The LORD, the God of Israel said, “Like these good figs, so will I acknowledge those who are carried away captive from Judah, whom I have sent out of this place for their own good, into the land of the Chaldeans” (vs.5). To which you’re probably thinking something like, ‘Wait, the people who were carried away were sent away by God for their good?’ That’s right. It’s a good reminder of an important lesson: God’s ways are not our ways, and His interpretation of circumstances is undoubtedly often different than our interpretations.
God’s promise to them for good continued in verses 6 and 7:
6 For I will set My eyes on them for good, and I will bring them back to this land; I will build them and not pull them down, and I will plant them and not pluck them up. 7 Then I will give them a heart to know Me, that I am the LORD; and they shall be My people, and I will be their God, for they shall return to Me with their whole heart.
So those who were deported, at least a remnant of them, would be among the first to come back to the land in 538 B.C. (vs.6). But, exceeding the grandeur of that promise was the commitment that God made to lavish sovereign grace on those figs. Notice that the ones who “return to [God] with their whole heart” are the ones that God gave “a heart to know [Him].” This is paradigmatic of how sovereign grace works. The people would turn from their idolatry (vs.7b), having been chastened by adversity, but at the end of the day it wasn’t the adversity that provided the spiritual heart transplant they needed; after all, those depicted in the latter portion of Revelation 9, those who survived the previously described plagues, did not repent of their idolatry, immorality, and rebellion (Rev. 9:18-21). Unless God provides a new heart, there will not be any knowing or returning (Jer. 24:7). But when He does, that new heart will undoubtedly beat for Him.
But the bad figs, to use KJV language – the “very naughty figs” (vs.2 KJV), which represented, “Zedekiah the king of Judah, his princes, the residue of Jerusalem who remain in this land, and those who dwell in the land of Egypt” (vs.8b), they would receive the reward of their impenitent rebellion. Even though they likely saw themselves favored by God because their outward circumstances were better than their deported brethren, they would soon find that their interpretation of providence should have been corrected by the prophetic word spoken by Jeremiah. They would be delivered “to trouble…for their harm” (vs.9a), they would become the objects of ridicule and contempt wherever they were scattered (vs.9b), and, as an act of righteous judgment, God would “send the sword, the famine, and the pestilence among them, till they [were] consumed from the land that [He] gave to them and their fathers” (vs.10).
There’s a sad irony on display with these bad figs. Even though the LORD had commanded them to do so (Jer. 21:9), they refused to surrender to Nebuchadnezzar because, at least in part, they didn’t want to suffer; yet, in rebelling against the command of God, they only ensured worse suffering. They didn’t want to be subservient to Nebuchadnezzar; but nor did they want to be subservient to Yahweh. And perhaps part of their own self-deception was the lie that their outward circumstances (i.e. not being taken in the previous deportation) meant that they were good figs when they were really bad figs.
In many ways the Scripture reminds us that outward circumstances are not a good barometer of God’s favor. One could have many goods stored up for many years but be spiritually bankrupt. One could be afflicted on all sides like Job or Paul, yet be the objects of God’s eternal love. The way to know if you are in God’s favor is, to use language from verse seven, (a) you have turned to God and away from sin, (b) you continue to turn to God and away from sin, and (c) you have a heart to know God as fundamentally evidenced by continuous trust in the person and work of Christ alone for the forgiveness of sins. That path may not be an easy path. In fact, the Scripture assures such ones that there will be difficulty. But although taking up one’s cross will involve suffering, it is also commiserate with the assurance that God has set His eyes on you for good (cf. Jer. 24:6) – to cause everything to work together for your eternal good (Rom. 8:28).