After one of the Babylonian attacks on Jerusalem, God gave the prophet Jeremiah an interesting vision: “The Lord showed me two baskets of figs placed in front of the temple of the Lord. One basket had very good figs, like those that ripen early; the other basket had very bad figs, so bad they could not be eaten” (Jeremiah 24:1–2). Each basket of figs represented something, as the Lord makes plain to Jeremiah in the subsequent verses.
Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, invaded Judah three times: in 605, 597, and 586 BC. In the final of those conquests, Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem and the temple, exiling all who remained. During the second invasion, Nebuchadnezzar carried away King Jehoiachin (Jeconiah) of Judah and craftsmen and smiths. That’s when Jeremiah had his vision of two baskets of figs in front of the temple (Jeremiah 24:1).
The figs in the two baskets were of different quality. The first basket was good for eating, while the second was rotten (Jeremiah 24:2–3). God explained to Jeremiah that He would regard those who had gone into captivity to Babylon as the good figs (Jeremiah 24:5). He would set His eyes on them for good and would one day bring that remnant back into the land (Jeremiah 24:6). He would give them a heart to know Him, and they would return to Him with their whole heart (Jeremiah 24:7).
In contrast to the good figs, the basket of bad figs illustrated the nature of those who remained in Jerusalem and those who had fled to Egypt (Jeremiah 24:7–8). This group included the wicked King Zedekiah, whom Nebuchadnezzar had placed on the throne in Jehoiachin’s stead. God had commanded everyone to go into exile to protect them from the judgment that was coming on the land (Jeremiah 21:8–10). Despite God’s merciful warning, Zedekiah, his officials, and many other Jews refused to obey God and remained in the land. Consequently, God announced that He would completely destroy them from the land by sword, famine, and pestilence (Jeremiah 24:9–10). They were the bad figs. The Promised Land had been given to their forefathers, but God determined that this particular generation would no longer enjoy their home. They would be removed, and the blessing of the land would be given to another generation.
After establishing the symbolism of the baskets of figs in Jeremiah 24, contrasting the obedient and the rebellious, God returns to the theme in Jeremiah 29. Parts of the prophet’s message, written from Jerusalem to the exiles in Babylon, were dire: “This is what the Lord says about the king who sits on David’s throne and all the people who remain in this city, your fellow citizens who did not go with you into exile—yes, this is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘I will send the sword, famine and plague against them and I will make them like figs that are so bad they cannot be eaten’” (Jeremiah 29:16–17). God’s curse was upon them, and He spells out the reason: “‘For they have not listened to my words,’ declares the Lord, ‘words that I sent to them again and again by my servants the prophets’” (verse 19).
Even in judgment, there is mercy. The people of Judah were exiled in Babylon for their past disobedience to God, yet God would mercifully protect all those who obeyed His direction to go willingly into exile. They were the good figs. In fact, in the midst of this judgment, God gives His people a beautiful promise: “This is what the Lord says: ‘When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my good promise to bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future’” (Jeremiah 29:10–11).
Jeremiah 29 is a vivid reminder of how longsuffering God is. Even though the people of Judah did not deserve to be given another chance, God extended His mercy. Similarly, none of us deserve His goodness. All of us were dead in our trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:1), and we were even by nature children of God’s wrath (Ephesians 2:3). But God is rich in mercy and loved us greatly (Ephesians 2:4). He allowed us to have life in Jesus Christ (Ephesians 2:5). Because of His mercy and love, we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ (Ephesians 2:8–9).
Some casual readers of Scripture may think that the God of the Old Testament is a God of wrath, while the God of the New Testament is a God of grace. However, if we simply read what He has said, we see that He is the same in both eras. He is holy and gracious throughout all of history. The two baskets of figs in Jeremiah 24 show us two important and constant principles about God. First, He is merciful and gracious to the utmost. He always provides a way for people to receive mercy. Second, God will not compromise His holiness. If the path of mercy is ignored, then there are severe and unavoidable consequences. The baskets of figs in Jeremiah 24 remind us that mercy is available—a mercy that we know today comes by grace through faith in Jesus Christ.