Theology in 3D

Figs in Babylon: A Divine Mercy

Layton Talbert | December 3, 2020
Old Testament, Theology

The book of Jeremiah always surprises, and often delights. He relates the most “dead end,” “it’s over,” “don’t even bother to pray for this people” divine pronouncements of imminent chastisement; indeed, it’s already begun even as Jeremiah writes. And yet, interspersed are some of the most gracious and heartening promises. One peers into the black tunnel of impending destruction only to see the faint glimmer of incomplete destruction: “I will not make a complete end of you” (Jer 4:27; 5:10, 18; 30:11; 46:28). That may not sound overly encouraging until you recall that this ultimate discipline has been on hold for eight centuries. Couple that with God’s determined refrain, “I will be their God and they shall be my people” (Jer 7:23; 11:4; 24:7; 30:22; 31:1, 33; 32:38).

What caught my attention recently was an assurance slipped into the middle of the news of the Babylonian exile underway. Immediately after Nebuchadnezzar’s second deportation of Jews from Judah (597 B.C., Jer 24:1), God showed Jeremiah two baskets — one brimming with beautifully ripe (“good,” tob) figs, the other filled with rotted, disgusting, inedible (“bad,” ra’) figs. Both kinds of figs represent the casualties and consequences of war and captivity — those who would be carted off to the strange new pagan world of Babylon, and those who would be left behind in Judah.

But which are which?

It’s not the bad figs that are shipped off to Babylon! Those compelled to leave their comfortable, familiar homeland are represented by the “good [tob] figs . . . whom I have sent out of this place for their own good [tob]” (Jer 24:5), to be spared, preserved, perpetuated, blessed, and eventually brought back (Jer 24:6-7). The rotten figs represent those left behind in Judah “for their bad [ra’]” (Jer 24:9), abandoned by God “until they are consumed from the land that I gave to them and their fathers” (Jer 24:10; see also Jer 29:16-19).

There is something counterintuitive in this. We view the Babylonian captivity as an ultimate act of divine discipline, and so it is. But the captivity itself is not the worst of the judgment — it’s actually the kindest, a sign of divine mercy. The worse judgment is being left alone amid the comfortable and familiar, abandoned to what they refused to give up (despite repeated warnings) and fought against God to hang on to.

How often is something that looks “for the worst” actually crafted in mercy “for our good”? Not just providentially after the fact because God can always turn evil to good, but because God actually planned it “for our good” from the beginning — even though in the beginning it looks exceedingly dark? Kidner’s mind, I discovered, ran along the same lines though he has his own inimitable way of expressing it:

There is always this dimension for those who are ‘called according to his purpose’ (Rom 8:28) — transcending but not preventing the ‘tribulation … distress … persecution …’ and the rest of Paul’s list in Romans 8:35-39. The relation between the two dimensions [or perceptions], human and divine, has never been better put than by Joseph to his brothers in Genesis 50:20 . . . .

Babylon is a strange, new, scary place — unless you know it’s God’s doing, and that he’s done it (as he always does) for your good. The key is submitting to his providences, doing whatever he gives you to do in Babylon (cf. Jer 29:1-14), and believing that it’s temporary (Jer 29:10), always temporary, because this life itself is only temporary.

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