We live in a world of continuous struggle and tragedy.
45 Million people in 43 nations around our world are living on the cusp of famine. 82 million people are living in displacement camps and there are currently more active conflicts at any time since W.W. II.[i]
There are countries that have been in crisis for decades: Afghanistan, Syria, South Sudan, Somalia to name a few, and as individuals we may feel powerless to do much. Often we live in unawareness of the suffering that is around us. When suffering touches our lives it has a profound impact upon us. Illness, divorce, death, financial losses and restrictions that are imposed upon us due to age, sickness or loss of revenue. Our response is shaped by our perspective. What lens are we seeing our current reality through? How can we move from despair to hope? We need to see how God can take our losses and bring about some very interesting gains in our lives.
It is usually in the ordinary things of life that God uses to reveal profound truths to us. Jeremiah, in a moment of deep reflection after Jehoiachin and many of the officials and skilled workers were exiled to Babylon, sees God reveal what was really happening in the nation. It was a time of national despair and brokenness especially for those who had been taken into exile, but for the remnant that had remained, they learned nothing from the experience. What was even worse is that they may have even felt that they were blessed by God, while thinking that the others may have warranted what had happened to them. Robert Davidson gives us insight into the background of our text.
In the year 597 B. C., after a brief siege, King Jehoiachin surrendered the city of Jerusalem to the Babylonians [remember he had only been in his position for three months]. The royal family, the cream of Jerusalemite society, and many of the skilled and able-bodied citizens, were deported to Babylon. A Babylonian puppet regime was established in Jerusalem, headed by Jehoiachin’s uncle Zedekiah. Those who remained in Jerusalem seem to have regarded the deportees with mingled pity and scorn. After all, to be still in Jerusalem was to be in the city of God, to have access to the means of grace in the Temple and to be assured of God’s continuing protection and favour. They had lost nothing essential to their faith; the exiles had lost everything. This passage presents us with a different verdict.[ii]
Jeremiah is at the temple where two baskets of figs have been placed. In that seemingly mundane moment God speaks a profound word of both hope for some and warning to others.
After Jehoiachin son of Jehoiakim king of Judah and the officials, the skilled workers and the artisans of Judah were carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, the LORD showed me two baskets of figs placed in front of the temple of the LORD.[iii]
In this act of judgement, God used Nebuchadnezzar to discipline the nation. He weakened their military strength as well as their ability to rebuild and reinforce the city of Jerusalem against future sieges. The artisans were redeployed to help build Babylon and we know from history that it became one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. The absence of both military and artisans actually weakened the nation’s future ability to resist military conflict. We read of this action in 2 Kings 24:16. “The king of Babylon also deported to Babylon the entire force of seven thousand fighting men, strong and fit for war, and a thousand skilled workers and artisans.”
It is in that hour that God reveals to Jeremiah His action, what is about to transpire. God’s assessment of what is happening is often very different from how we perceive things.
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.
Then the LORD asked me, ‘What do you see, Jeremiah? ‘Figs,’ I answered. ‘The good ones are very good, but the bad ones are so bad they cannot be eaten.’
Then the word of the LORD came to me:[iv]
How do we see tragedy in our lives? How do we move forward when our world comes crashing down around us? As we are about to discover, God does have a plan for good even in our times of trouble and despair. Robert Davison relates this powerful insight about the things we may consider sacred but have lost the true meaning of what faith is all about.
Sometimes the things we regard as essential to our faith, and fight desperately to retain -patterns of worship and congregational life – may, and indeed sometimes must, be taken from us if we are to rediscover the meaning of discipleship.[v]
People who are never challenged in their faith often grow weak, indifferent and susceptible to life’s difficulties. Challenges have a way of causing us to reconsider our lives and see things in a different light. In Jeremiah 24 we find two distinctly different groups of people God is evaluating. The one group is going through great loss and difficulty, while the other remains relatively untouched by what has transpired. How do we interpret our lives in light of what we are going through? Here in our text we may be shocked at God’s evaluation.
THE FIRST GROUP OF PEOPLE TRYING TO MAKE SENSE OF LIFE ARE THOSE WHO ARE STRUGGLING
These are the people asking, why me? Why is this happening to me or to us? We generally consider those whose lives are not marred by pain and difficulties as the fortunate ones. Yet, here in our text, we are surprised that it is the people in exile that God considered good, or blessed. These are the ones who had lost everything considered important by earthly standards and were interpreted by some to be under God’s judgment, but that was not God’s assessment.
Jesus reinforces this concept when He spoke of the poor, the afflicted, and those who were mourning in the sermon found in Luke’s gospel, known as the ‘Sermon on the plain.’ Think about how radical Jesus’ message was and still is. He is saying that the really blessed or happy people are those who are struggling in this life.
Looking at his disciples, he said: Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man.
Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven.[vi]
Jesus is saying that we are living in an upside-down world, where what seems to be good can ultimately be bad; and what seems to be difficult and challenging will ultimately turn out for our good. Often when we go through pain, loss, rejection by people, and in great challenge feel that God has abandoned us, but that may not be the case at all.
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.[vii]
God’s assessment is that the exiles were considered the good figs. What was momentarily bad, was going to work out for their ultimate good.
The good figs were actually the ‘newly ripened or the early ripening, and hence the suggestion of firstfruits.[viii]
The firstfruits in life is that which ‘belonged to God.’ God was saying that these were now His and He would do a great work in their lives bringing ultimate restoration to them. This message of restoration was also a part of the prophetic message that God had called Jeremiah to deliver. Jeremiah was not just to speak of the uprooting and tearing down that God was about to do, but God was also about to restore and build up. After exile and discipline would come healing, restoration, and a time of returning back to the land or promise. Let’s look back at Jeremiah’s call in Jeremiah 1:10. “See, today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.” It was to the exiles that God was about to build and plant, to restore and recall back to the land.
My eyes will watch over them for their 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 uproot them.[ix]
Though both groups had been in rebellion to God, the ones that were now experiencing discipline were not to be pitied, but to understand that discipline can lead to blessing and restoration.
The contrast between Jehoiachin and those exiled with him, and Zedekiah and those exiled with him is not easily understood. After all, the first group wasn’t exiled because they were better than those who remained and we nowhere hear the massive repentance of those who went first to Babylon. The logic of the oracle may be that the first exiles are the good figs because they are already in the process of the refining fires of exile. On the other hand, the survivors who are still in the land continue to sin. Their judgment is still in the future.[x]
A. God’s discipline is designed to refine our lives.
By sending some of the people into exile to suffer, they ultimately learn obedience and come to know God. We need to remind ourselves that ‘obedience to God’ often comes via suffering. We see this modeled for us in the life of Jesus. Even the sinless Son of God suffered and learned to fulfill God’s will through that experience.
During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.
Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect [achieved his end; fulfilled His purpose], he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him[xi]
We are told that all of God’s children will receive His discipline which is an expression of His love for us. We see that explained in the book of Hebrews.
And have you completely forgotten this word of encouragement that addresses you as a father addresses his son? It says, My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son.
Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father?
If you are not disciplined – and everyone undergoes discipline – then you are not legitimate, not true sons and daughters at all.
No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.[xii]
B. God’s work in transforming our hearts.
God uses discipline to train us and bring about transformation in our lives. God is ultimately going to make us into what we were created to be: like Him.
I will give them a heart to know me, that I am the LORD. They will be my people, and I will be their God, for they will return to me with all their heart.[xiii]
Walter Brueggemann relates the gift of grace that God gives to us though we were in a rebellious state.
The text thus bears witness to the conviction that this God can and will create a new community from among those rejected. These exiles now are presented as the object and recipient of God’s gracious intervention. …the poet had hoped for a change in Israel’s heart. Now, however, the solution is more radical. Yahweh will give Israel a new heart (24:7). …Newness out of exile is wrought by God’s powerful graciousness. The purpose of the new heart for Israel is for the sake of a restored covenant with Yahweh.[xiv]
Notice the expression, ‘I will give them a heart to know me…’ It is the working of God’s Spirit in the human heart, bringing about a desire for God. Here we see the grace of God at work. God doesn’t choose us because we are worthy, wise, or good; rather He chooses us based on His love and mercy. God chooses the least, the rejected, the weak, and the foolish of this world to confound human pride and arrogance. Brueggemann expresses it so beautifully.
The exiles devalued by the world are here identified as the bearer of God’s future. This revaluation of the world’s rejects is the surprise of the gospel, echoed in so many places. This revolution is evident in God’s decision to choose ‘rabble’ to form Israel (Exod. 12:38; Num. 11:4), in Jesus’ decision to be friends with sinners (Luke 7:34), in the choice of the lowly, not the wise and the powerful (1 Cor. 1:26-27), in the choice of the stone that the builders rejected (Mark 12:10-11). This God seems indeed to make the future with those whom the world judges to be without a future.[xv]
THE SECOND GROUP OF PEOPLE WHO ARE TRYING TO MAKE SENSE OF LIFE ARE THOSE WHO APPEAR TO HAVE EVERYTHING GOING FOR THEM
These are the people who often don’t reflect upon what is happening around them because their lives are going well. This second group of people were those who remained in the land and their lives appeared to be untouched by the calamity. They interpreted this as a sign of God’s favor upon them. Did they not remain in the promised land? Did they not continue to worship at the temple? However, their outward circumstance was not what was being evaluated, but the condition of their lives.
One of the great concerns is to interpret our relationship with God based on how well we are doing. Are we prosperous? If we are solely basing our judgment of our standing with God based on our outward condition, we could easily be living in self-deception. Think of the parable that Jesus told of the rich man and Lazarus. He thought of himself as a son of Abraham. He saw himself as part of the chosen race and interpreted his life to be blessed by God because of his earthly prosperity. Yet, we read of his indifference to the needs of the poor and afflicted. He did not reflect the heart of God. Upon his death, we find him asking Abraham to send Lazarus, the beggar he had neglected, to return and warn his family of the dangers, as he was in great torment and separated from the place of the departed righteous. Listen to Abraham’s response.
He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.[xvi]
If they don’t listen to the Law and the prophetic ministry calling people to obedience to God’s word, miracles won’t change them. God’s word is continually challenging us to care for the poor, the needy and afflicted in our world. Religious rituals won’t save us. God’s work of grace in the human heart is what brings about real transformation and causes us to care for that which God cares about: people who need us.
The group that remained in the land were still rebellious and unrepentant. It is a terrible thing to know the truth and the light but choose to walk in falsehood and darkness. We now read God’s assessment of what was about to transpire and how God saw their condition.
But like the bad figs, which are so bad they cannot be eaten,’ says the LORD, ‘so will I deal with Zedekiah king of Judah, his officials and their survivors from Jerusalem, whether they remain this land or live in Egypt.[xvii]
We discover that the figs were so bad that they had no value and needed to be thrown away. Not only would they be rejected by God, but also they would be rejected by people. The great tragedy of the Jewish people in what is called the Diaspora, was that they were often shunned and persecuted. Here we find the terms of punishment for their rejection of the covenant. The curses of the law are ascribed to them: sword, famine, plague and exile.
I will make them abhorrent and an offense to all the kingdoms of the earth, a reproach and a byword, a curse and an object of ridicule, wherever I banish them.
I will send the sword, famine and plague against them until they are destroyed from the land I gave to them and their ancestors.[xviii]
For the past few weeks, I’ve been listening to lectures by a Jewish professor of Modern Jewish History dealing with ‘Jewish Intellectual History from the 16th to the 20th Century. One of the great challenges is speaking to the issue of the Holocaust. In lecture 22, Professor David Ruderman, from the University of Pennsylvania is addressing the ‘Theological Responses to the Nazi Holocaust.’ As he points out:
The Nazi Holocaust has raised new and painful questions about Jewish belief.
1. The Holocaust raises questions about God’s presence (or absence) in a time of mass Jewish slaughter. Can one still believe in an omnipotent and be beneficent God after Auschwitz?
2. The Holocaust raises questions about the future human interaction and dialogue. Can humanity be trusted after the Holocaust?[xix]
Let us remember that Germany, at that time, was one of the most educated and civilized countries but embraced an evil ideology which transformed that nation. He shares a number of responses by various Jewish writers, one of which is the response by Abraham Heschel, who held to a more traditional view in perceiving evil as an excessive faith in men over God. When we turn our backs on God we can anticipate that God will allow the evil we embrace to overwhelm us, regardless of our backgrounds and past.
What can we learn from tragedy, difficulty, and hardship? We can dismiss the idea of God as some do, as the question how a good God can allow evil. However, as Jeremiah points out, our sorrows and struggles can be a means in which we learn a renewed obedience to God, His word and will, and experience a renewal in our soul and life. The danger of thinking that we are spiritually healthy because all is well, is a form of self-deception. The Jewish prophet, Obadiah warned the nation of Edom, “The pride of your heart has deceived you…”[xx]
On the other hand, struggle and difficulty may be the very means that God is using to draw us to Himself. The apostle Paul reminds us of that amazing truth.
But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’[xxi]
[ii] Robert Davidson, Jeremiah, Vol. 2, The Daily Study Bible Series, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1985), 37-38.
[iii] Jeremiah 24:1, The New International Version of the Bible, Zondervan, 2011.
[iv] Jeremiah 24:1b-4.
[v] Robert Davidson, Jeremiah, Vol. 2, 39.
[vi] Luke 6:20-23.
[vii] Jeremiah 24:5.
[viii] John Thompson, The Book of Jeremiah, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1980), 508.
[ix] Jeremiah 24:6.
[x] Tremper Longman III, Jeremiah, Lamentations, New International Biblical Commentary (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2008), 168.
[xi] Hebrews 5:7-9.
[xii] Hebrews 12:5-8, 11.
[xiii] Jeremiah 24:7.
[xiv] Walter Brueggemann, A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998), 218.
[xv] Ibid, 220.
[xvi] Luke 16:31.
[xvii] Jeremiah 24:8.
[xviii] Jeremiah 24:9-10.
[xix] David Ruderman, Jewish Intellectual History from the 16th to the 20th Century, (Chantilly, VA: The Teaching Company, 2002), 94.
[xx] Obadiah 3.
[xxi] 2 Corinthians 12:9.