‘’Jeremiah received the vision described in this chapter shortly after King Jehoiachin and other leading citizens of Jerusalem (including the prophet Ezekiel) had been carried into exile in Babylon (2 Kings 24:10-14); the year was 597 B.C., eleven years before the final destruction of Jerusalem. The purpose of this vision of the good and the bad figs was to show that those who were carried into exile (the good figs) were far better off than those who stayed in Jerusalem (the bad figs): the exiles would survive, prosper, and eventually return to Judah; those who stayed in Jerusalem would be destroyed along with the city.’’ Tom Hale: ‘The Applied Old Testament Commentary, p.1110.
It’s important to understand that both groups – those taken into exile, and those left behind were ‘bad’, in the sense that both had violated God’s Covenant, and both were being punished. It was by the grace of God alone that the exiles were chosen to survive and become a remnant, from which, in due time, the Messiah would come. The irony is that those who remained in Jerusalem thought they were the lucky ones. They were soon to find out otherwise.
God’s purpose in sending the exiles away was to purify them; to cleanse, and cure them of idolatry (6, 7). The ultimate fulfilment of the seventh verse would come in the inauguration of the ‘’new covenant’’ (Jeremiah 31:31-34), when the Holy Spirit came to live in believers following Christ’s death on the cross. He is the One who makes it possible to joyfully obey God’s law.
So it is not the case that the exiles were inherently good, and that those who remained in Jerusalem were intrinsically bad. The point at issue concerns the treatment they were going to receive, and this comes out in The Message: ‘’The exiles from here that I’ve sent off to the land of the Babylonians are like the good figs, and I’ll make sure they get good treatment…But like rotten figs, so rotten they can’t be eaten, is Zedekiah king of Judah. Rotten figs – that’s how I’ll treat him and his leaders, along with the survivors here and those down in Egypt.’’ Good figs have a useful purpose and are treated accordingly; whereas bad figs are useless, and get the treatment they deserve.
This passage reminds me that there is coming a day of judgment, which will be a day of division. People will experience different eternal destinies according to their acceptance or rejection of Christ. C.S. Lewis put it well. He said that in the final analysis there will only be two types of people in the world: those who say to God, ‘Your will be done’, and those to whom God says, ‘Your will be done.’
Prayer: In the light of the final judgment, help me to live seriously. Strengthen me to hold out Jesus to everyone I can. He is the only Saviour of the world.