In order to get his message across, Jeremiah presented several ‘object lessons’ to the people of Judah; there was the linen belt in chapter 13, the potter’s house in chapter 18, the smashed pot in chapter 18 and now we have two baskets of figs!
I’m struck by way the kings of Israel and Judah have been described in the history books of the nation. Their reigns are summarised in just two ways; they either did what was right in the eyes of the Lord or they did what was evil in the eyes of the Lord. The kings were not identical – some started better and got worse and some started badly and got better, but nevertheless the final analysis was ‘good or evil.’ Jesus himself spoke in a similar way: ‘Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters (Matthew 12:30)’ Just two camps. What is the deciding factor in which camp we are in?
Atheism and naturalism come ever closer to the view that morality is a social construct – there is no absolute moral standard (how could there be moral laws in the absence of a law giver?). The actions of all people (they say) are governed by the chemistry and biochemistry that we were born with and the influence of the environment on our biology. Thus, we are a product of nature and nurture – we have no free will, we just do what our biology demands. Dale DeBakcsy writing in the New Humanist magazine puts it all too clearly: The mechanisms of decision making, the chemistry of empathy, the physics of neural plasticity, each gnaws away every day at the few remaining supports of a free will model of individuality. We are forced to either redefine free will to something existent but meaningless, or chuck the idea altogether and make peace with finding the subtle joys of our exquisite programmability.
The bible is just as clear – we are made in the image of God and have the capacity for moral choice. The choice is a binary one, we can either believe or not believe. We can choose to be either good figs or bad figs!
1. The context
Through a succession of evil kings, judgement was falling on Jerusalem and Judah. The judgment was not some unforeseen event but was what was promised Israel if they repeatedly failed to do what was right. Deuteronomy 28 describes what has been dubbed the ‘Deuteronomic covenant.’ This covenant sets out the terms under which Israel entered the promised land. It spoke of promises of blessing for obedience and curses for disobedience: it spoke of a scattering of the people from the promised land and a final regathering and peace. Judah was about to experience the curses for repeated disobedience. It was Jeremiah who had the unenviable task of warning the people of the judgment. In our discussion of Brexit people talk about ‘project fear’ – for the Remainers this is what they believe will be the consequences of the UK’s exit from the EU, but for the Brexiteers project fear is overstated concerns: time will tell which is correct! Jeremiah’s project fear was no idle speculation, he spoke on behalf of the God of the universe! Judgment was coming and was at the door of Jerusalem in the form the Babylonian army: the super power of the day.
In these events we learn much of the character of God. We see his power to arrange history and we see his terrible judgment. We also see his remarkable patience, mercy and grace. The rebellion and disobedience had been going on for generations and yet it seemed that God wanted to give the people every chance to do the right thing: they were invited to choose. They choose to follow idols and refused to do what was right. Even when judgment became inevitable, the people were presented with a choice. The choice was to stay in the city and fight or to surrender! Jeremiah’s message was: ‘Whoever stays in this city will die by the sword, famine or plague, but whoever goes over to the Babylonians will live (Jeremiah 38: 2).’ It was a choice between life and death: ‘This is what the Lord says: See, I am setting before you the way of life and the way of death. 9 Whoever stays in this city will die by the sword, famine or plague. But whoever goes out and surrenders to the Babylonians who are besieging you will live; they will escape with their lives. (Jeremiah 21:8)’ Would the people trust in the walls of Jerusalem or the word of God? It was a clear choice.
2. The object lesson
Chapter 24 opens by helpfully setting the timing of the lesson: it was ‘After Jehoiachin son of Jehoiakim king of Judah and the officials, the skilled workers and the craftsmen of Judah were carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon (verse 1).’ Jehoiachin was yet another evil king of Judah. His grandfather was the good king Josiah and his father was the evil king Jehoiakim.
Jehoiachin had reigned for just three months when Nebuchadnezzar advanced on Jerusalem and besieged the city. Jehoiachin had a choice: he could follow the advice of Jeremiah and surrender to Nebuchadnezzar or he could retreat behind the walls of Jerusalem and try to defeat the Babylonian army. This was a choice that had been presented to him by God through Jeremiah. It was an act of mercy on God’s part – a wholly undeserved one, but a real chance to mitigate the coming judgment. The choice that faced Jehoiachin was about whether he believed in God’s word or whether he rejected it. Nebuchadnezzar was not besieging Jerusalem for fun – he was a ruthless general: there was apparently a real risk in surrender to this brutal Babylonian army. Would Jehoiachin trust God’s word? 2 Kings 24: ‘12 Jehoiachin king of Judah, his mother, his attendants, his nobles and his officials all surrendered to him.’ He chose well! Interestingly Jehoiachin’s future turned out to be ultimately comfortable. He did spend 37 years in a Babylonian prison but after that the king of Babylon ‘…spoke kindly to him and gave him a seat of honour higher than those of the other kings who were with him in Babylon. 29 So Jehoiachin put aside his prison clothes and for the rest of his life ate regularly at the king’s table. 30 Day by day the king gave Jehoiachin a regular allowance as long as he lived. (2 Kings 25:28).’ God was faithful to his word. There’s a lesson for us in this!
So Jehoiachin has been carried off into exile and his uncle Zedekiah is now king. Sadly, Zedekiah was another king who ‘did evil in the eyes of the Lord.’ It was at this point that the object lesson took place. It involved two baskets of figs placed in front of the Temple of the Lord. It was a prominent place: the statement was for all living in Jerusalem. One of the baskets contained ‘very good figs, like those that ripen early; the other basket had very bad figs, so bad that they could not be eaten.’ When Jeremiah was asked to say what he saw he said: ‘‘Figs,’ I answered. ‘The good ones are very good, but the bad ones are so bad that they cannot be eaten. (verse 3).’’
3. The meaning of the figs
Having raised the interest of the people, Jeremiah proceeded to explain the meaning of the object lesson. First the good figs: ‘5 ‘This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: “Like these good figs, I regard as good the exiles from Judah, whom I sent away from this place to the land of the Babylonians (verse 5)’. So the exiles who had surrendered were ‘good.’ Having trusted in God’s word to surrender, the Lord then (through Jeremiah) made six positive statements about this group of people (verses 6-7): 1).My eyes will watch over them for their good. 2). I will bring them back to this land. 3). I will build them up and not tear them down 4). I will plant them and not uproot them. 5). I will give them a heart to know me, that I am the Lord. 6). They will be my people, and I will be their God, for they will return to me with all their heart. This is a quite remarkable statement of intent – in fact there is more on this theme in a letter Jeremiah sent to the exiles once they were in Babylon (see Jeremiah chapter 29). We should note that these people (the people who surrendered, the good figs) were in a totally helpless situation. There was nothing they could do to deal with the Babylonians and the impending judgment. All they could do was trust God’s assurance that they would live if they surrendered. We should be somewhat cautious in directly applying the specifics of this particular situation to the generalities of how we are saved from sin today, but it seems there are some significant lessons we can learn. Firstly the people were helpless in the face of the surrounding army: they faced certain death. The offer of life (for that’s how it was described) required a response on their part, it was a response that was within their capability and it was a response that indicated their trust in what God said. Having surrendered they were reliant on God acting and completing the rescue. The promises that God made were remarkable (as we have seen above). We should note also in passing that the no one was forced to become either a good fig or a bad fig – there was a choice to be made. The similarities with our present relationship to God are clear for all who wish to see.
What about the bad figs? How did they become bad? If we take a look at the letter Jeremiah sent to the exiles (in chapter 29) we see that those who remained in Jerusalem were to be made like bad figs that cannot be eaten. Why? ‘19 For they have not listened to my words.’ The answer is crystal clear – they had not listened! The had the capability to hear but they refused to listen. The contrast with the good figs is clear – if you listen and act on God’s word you will be made a good fig if you don’t you will be made a bad fig. One of the big story lines in the bible is the responsibility of moral choice. There is no room for determinism as the atheists and others would have – there is no room to blame someone else, we are not robots pre-programmed to follow a pre-written code.
The impact for those who refused to listen would be far-reaching. They would forfeit the promises that God had made to their ancestors and indeed to them: ‘9 I will make them abhorrent and an offence to all the kingdoms of the earth, a reproach and a byword, a curseand an object of ridicule, wherever I banish them. 10 I will send the sword, famine and plague against them until they are destroyed from the land I gave to them and their ancestors.’
I believe that every human being hears God speak: it may be through creation, it may be through conscience, it may be more directly through God’s word or it may be through the witness of other believers. We all hear in some measure, but who will listen?