After Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon had taken into exile from Jerusalem Jeconiah the son of Jehoiakim, king of Judah, together with the officials of Judah, the craftsmen, and the metal workers, and had brought them to Babylon, the Lord showed me this vision: behold, two baskets of figs placed before the temple of the Lord. One basket had very good figs, like first-ripe figs, but the other basket had very bad figs, so bad that they could not be eaten. And the Lord said to me, “What do you see, Jeremiah?” I said, “Figs, the good figs very good, and the bad figs very bad, so bad that they cannot be eaten.”
Then the word of the Lord came to me: “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Like these good figs, so I will regard as good the exiles from Judah, whom I have sent away from this place to the land of the Chaldeans. I will set my eyes on them for good, and I will bring them back to this land. I will build them up, and not tear them down; I will plant them, and not pluck them up. I will give them a heart to know 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.
“But thus says the Lord: Like the bad figs that are so bad they cannot be eaten, so will I treat Zedekiah the king of Judah, his officials, the remnant of Jerusalem who remain in this land, and those who dwell in the land of Egypt. I will make them a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth, to be a reproach, a byword, a taunt, and a curse in all the places where I shall drive them. And I will send sword, famine, and pestilence upon them, until they shall be utterly destroyed from the land that I gave to them and their fathers.” – Jeremiah 24 ESV
This chapter fast-forwards to events surrounding Nebuchadnessar’s capture of Jerusalem. In 595 B.C., after a lengthy siege, King Jehoachin surrendered the city and the Babylonians marched in unopposed. The book of 2 Kings chronicles the details of that day.
At that time the generals of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon marched to Jerusalem and besieged the city. King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon came to the city while his generals were besieging it. King Jehoiachin of Judah, along with his mother, his servants, his officials, and his eunuchs surrendered to the king of Babylon. The king of Babylon, in the eighth year of his reign, took Jehoiachin prisoner. Nebuchadnezzar took from there all the riches in the treasuries of the Lord’s temple and of the royal palace. He removed all the gold items which King Solomon of Israel had made for the Lord’s temple, just as the Lord had warned. He deported all the residents of Jerusalem, including all the officials and all the soldiers (10,000 people in all). This included all the craftsmen and those who worked with metal. No one was left except for the poorest among the people of the land. He deported Jehoiachin from Jerusalem to Babylon, along with the king’s mother and wives, his eunuchs, and the high-ranking officials of the land. The king of Babylon deported to Babylon all the soldiers (there were 7,000), as well as 1,000 craftsmen and metal workers. This included all the best warriors. The king of Babylon made Mattaniah, Jehoiachin’s uncle, king in Jehoiachin’s place. He renamed him Zedekiah. – 2 Kings 24:10-17 NLT
The best of the best were taken captive. They were transported to Babylon and forced into the service of the king. Some would end up serving in his government, much like Daniel did when he was taken captive (Daniel 1:1-6). The same was true of Nehemiah, who would end up serving as the cup-bearer to the king (Nehemiah 1:11). Others would use their skills and craftsmanship in the many construction projects of King Nebuchadnezzar. In taking all these individuals captive, King Nebuchadnezzar left Jerusalem and Judah virtually void of leadership. But it’s interesting to note that there is no mention of the priests and false prophets being transported to Babylon. It seems that they were left behind and their presence would continue to have a negative influence on the people of Judah.
Nebuchadnezzar replaced King Jehoachin with his uncle, Mattaniah, and renamed him Zedekiah. He would become a puppet-king or vassal, serving at the whim of King Nebuchadnezzar. And this was God’s will for him. In fact, just a few chapters later in the book of Jeremiah, God has His prophet deliver the following message to Zedekiah:
“Now I have given all these lands into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, my servant, and I have given him also the beasts of the field to serve him. 7 All the nations shall serve him and his son and his grandson, until the time of his own land comes. Then many nations and great kings shall make him their slave.
“But if any nation or kingdom will not serve this Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, and put its neck under the yoke of the king of Babylon, I will punish that nation with the sword, with famine, and with pestilence, declares the Lord, until I have consumed it by his hand. So do not listen to your prophets, your diviners, your dreamers, your fortune-tellers, or your sorcerers, who are saying to you, ‘You shall not serve the king of Babylon.’ For it is a lie that they are prophesying to you, with the result that you will be removed far from your land, and I will drive you out, and you will perish. But any nation that will bring its neck under the yoke of the king of Babylon and serve him, I will leave on its own land, to work it and dwell there, declares the Lord.” – Jeremiah 27:8-11 NLT
Zedekiah would find himself receiving very bad advice from the false prophets, fortune-tellers and sorcerers who served him. Obviously, he had not taken the fall of Jerusalem seriously and cleaned up his spiritual act. In spite of all that had happened, he continued to live in rebellion against God, and his rebellious spirit would lead him to stand against Nebuchadnezzar.
But God predicted that all this would happen. That was His message to Jeremiah. Utilizing the imagery of good figs and bad figs, God declares the fate of the people of Judah. Those that ended up in captivity would be spared and one day returned to the land of Judah. Those who remained in Judah would be discarded like rotten fruit. Jeremiah’s vision of the two baskets of figs revealed them in the court of the temple. They most likely represented the first-fruits offerings that people would bring to the temple. These were to be the first gleanings of the annual harvest and were dedicated to God. But it would appear that one basket, filled with bad fruit, was a sign of someone bringing less than the best. They were giving God the dregs, the rotten fruit, rather than the best.
While all of Judah was guilty of unfaithfulness to God, He would choose to show His mercy on a remnant of the people. They all deserved His wrath and judgment, but in His divine sovereignty, He would elect to spare and bless some. Even when God eventually allowed the people held in captivity to return to the land of Judah, He did not bring them all back. The book of Ezra, which describes the return of the people under King Cyrus, records that only 42,360 Jews were part of that initial group to make their way back to Judah. Most would remain in Babylon. God would spare a remnant. He would begin anew with just a relative handful. And even these would not be deserving of His grace and mercy. They had done nothing to earn His favor while living in exile in Babylon. They were not better than the rest. But God, in His sovereign will, chose who He would return to the land. This sounds so unfair to us. It comes across as arbitrary and inequitable on the part of God. But Paul, in his letter to the Romans, reminds us that God is free to show mercy on whomever He chooses. None deserve it. In fact, all deserve His wrath and judgment, because all have sinned. But He mercifully bestows His grace on some.
This son was our ancestor Isaac. When he married Rebekah, she gave birth to twins. But before they were born, before they had done anything good or bad, she received a message from God. (This message shows that God chooses people according to his own purposes; he calls people, but not according to their good or bad works.) She was told, “Your older son will serve your younger son.” In the words of the Scriptures, “I loved Jacob, but I rejected Esau.”
Are we saying, then, that God was unfair? Of course not! For God said to Moses,
“I will show mercy to anyone I choose, and I will show compassion to anyone I choose.”
So it is God who decides to show mercy. We can neither choose it nor work for it. – Romans 9:10-16 NLT
God’s mercy. We can neither choose it nor work for it. It is a gift. And the Scriptures remind us that salvation is a gift provided by God, not doled out based on merit or good works on our part.
God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. – Ephesians 2:8-9 NLT
For God saved us and called us to live a holy life. He did this, not because we deserved it, but because that was his plan from before the beginning of time–to show us his grace through Christ Jesus. – 2 Timothy 1:8 NLT
But—“When God our Savior revealed his kindness and love, he saved us, not because of the righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He washed away our sins, giving us a new birth and new life through the Holy Spirit.” – Titus 3:4-5 NLT
God chose things despised by the world, things counted as nothing at all, and used them to bring to nothing what the world considers important. As a result, no one can ever boast in the presence of God. – 1 Corinthians 1:28-29 NLT
The good figs in Jeremiah’s vision were good only because God deemed them to be. They were no better than the bad figs. But God had chosen to show His mercy on them. It is interesting to note that those who were taken captive into Babylon probably saw themselves as getting the short end of the stick. They most likely saw their fate as being the worst. Those who remained in Judah most likely saw themselves as blessed. They were spared captivity. But they would end up suffering in ways they could never have imagined. God told them:
“I will make them an object of horror and a symbol of evil to every nation on earth. They will be disgraced and mocked, taunted and cursed, wherever I scatter them. And I will send war, famine, and disease until they have vanished from the land of Israel, which I gave to them and their ancestors.” – Jeremiah 24:9-10 NLT
Good figs. Bad figs. The truth is, we are all bad figs, rotten to the core and deserving to be discarded by God. But, in His mercy, He chooses to redeem some and restore them to usefulness and true fruitfulness. All according to His incomparable mercy and grace.
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.