Updated: Jan 2, 2020
The Good & Bad Figs
The last installment in our feature series on the signs and symbols of Jeremiah is the good and bad figs as presented in chapter 24:
After Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon had taken into exile from Jerusalem Jeconiah the son of Jehoiakim, king of Judah, together with the officials of Judah, the craftsmen, and the metal workers, and had brought them to Babylon, the Lord showed me this vision: behold, two baskets of figs placed before the temple of the Lord. One basket had very good figs, like first-ripe figs, but the other basket had very bad figs, so bad that they could not be eaten. And the Lord said to me, “What do you see, Jeremiah?” I said, “Figs, the good figs very good, and the bad figs very bad, so bad that they cannot be eaten” (vss. 1-3 ESV).
The Fig Tree
Native to the Middle East and western Asia, fig trees have been cultivated since ancient times and are now widely grown throughout the world. The fruit of the fig tree is nutritious and is harvested in the spring and early fall (the spring “first-ripe” figs being the best). The fig tree is one of the more frequently referenced trees in the Bible, mentioned from Genesis to Revelation. The first occurrence is the very familiar one in Genesis 3:7 when Adam and Eve made their first clothing from fig leaves to cover their nakedness, And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons. The last mention of fig trees is in Revelation 6:13 where the effects of the sixth seal on the nations are likened to the figs that came late, did not ripen, and fell to the ground, And the stars of heaven fell unto the earth, even as a fig tree casteth her untimely figs, when she is shaken of a mighty wind.
In addition to the fig tree being an important source of nourishment, it also served as a prophetic symbol through which God’s judgments were revealed. In particular, the fig tree was identified with the nation of Israel in the Old Testament, as we find in Hosea 9:10, I found Israel like grapes in the wilderness; I saw your fathers as the first-ripe in the fig tree at her first time: but they went to Baal-peor, and separated themselves unto that shame; and their abominations were according as they loved.
In the New Testament, Jesus utilized the fig tree on multiple occasions as a representation of Israel through parable and example, A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came and sought fruit thereon, and found none. Then said he unto the dresser of his vineyard, Behold, these three years I come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and find none: cut it down; why cumbereth the ground? And he answering said unto him, Lord, let it alone this year also, till I shall dig about it, and dung it. And if it bear fruit, well: and if not, then after that thou shalt cut it down (Luke 13:6-9). Paul later explained to the Romans how the natural creation can be used as prophetic types of things to come, Because that which may be known of God is manifest… for God hath shewed it unto them. For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things which are made (Romans 1:19-20).
Therefore, we understand Jesus was indicating through the parable of the barren fig tree that judgments would fall upon the unfruitful nation unless a dramatic change should take place within the people and their leaders. Another example is Jesus’ condemnation of the barren fig tree outside Bethany, Let no fruit grow on thee henceforward forever. And presently the fig tree withered away (Matthew 21:19). Wishing to get fruit from its branches, Jesus found none. In short, the wayside fig tree was a fitting example of the nation of Israel, in that it was unfruitful. The digging and the dunging to motivate God’s people to produce the fruit of the spirit had been of none effect.
The Good & Bad Figs
Returning to Jeremiah 24, when the prophet was given the vision of two baskets of figs set before the temple of the LORD, Yahweh explains the vision’s meaning of the good and bad figs:
Again the word of the LORD came unto me, saying, Thus saith the LORD, the God of Israel; Like these good figs, so will I acknowledge them that are carried away captive of Judah, whom I have sent out of this place into the land of the Chaldeans for their good. For I will set mine eyes upon them for good, and I will bring them again to this land: and I will build them, and not pull them down; and I will plant them, and not pluck them up. And I will give them a heart to know me, that I am the LORD: and they shall be my people, and I will be their God: for they shall return unto me with their whole heart. And as the evil figs, which cannot be eaten, they are so evil; surely thus saith the LORD, So will I give Zedekiah the king of Judah, and his princes, and the residue of Jerusalem that remain in this land, and them that dwell in the land of Egypt: and I will deliver them to be removed into all the kingdoms of the earth for their hurt, to be a reproach and a proverb, a taunt and a curse, in all places whither I shall drive them. And I will send the sword, the famine, and the pestilence among them, till they be consumed from off the land that I gave unto them and to their fathers (vss. 4-10 KJV).
In the above passage, we are given to understand that the Babylonian captivity would act on some of the people of Judah for good, and on some for evil. Of the good, we have the examples of men like Daniel and Ezekiel that were taken captive. They were representative of the “good figs.” But on the other hand, we have the example of Zedekiah with whom Jeremiah pleaded to obey the word of the LORD (38:17-18). Resisting Jeremiah’s counsel, Zedekiah, his sons, and his nobles were captured and brought to Nebuchadnezzar in Riblah, where Zedekiah’s sons and nobles were slain and Zedekiah’s eyes were put out. Zedekiah was then taken to Babylon, while Jerusalem was burned and its walls broken down (39:4-8). This was the judgment determined upon the “bad figs.”
We, brethren, cannot always distinguish between the “judgment of the wicked” (Jeremiah 1:16) and the “chastening of the righteous” (Hebrews 12:11), but to God the difference is clear. When the king of Babylon carried away captive certain Jews and let others remain in Jerusalem, one might have thought that God was more pleased with those who were spared captivity. Yet, as God revealed to Jeremiah, just the opposite was the case.
The Fig Tree’s Role in Latter-Day Prophecy
It is evident that the judgments and chastening addressed to the people of Judah through this prophecy were not wholly fulfilled in the events of the 70 years of captivity in Babylon, for they continued to reflect upon Judah and Israel over the centuries in the course of their history. Indeed, the dispersion and movement of the Jewish people to and fro has continued to this day and will not end until Christ’s Kingdom brings about a full national restoration, which is the ultimate fulfillment of the vision of the good and bad figs.
Throughout the Old Testament, fig trees are also mentioned in relation to Israel in the context of blessing and peace as a symbol of the nation. The Promised Land was described as a land not only of milk and honey, but also a land of vines and fig trees (Deuteronomy 8:8). When God chose Israel, we’re told He delighted in them, as one who finds the first-ripe in the fig tree at her first time, as mentioned in Hosea 9:10. And Solomon’s peaceful kingdom was a land where Israel dwelt safety, every man under his vine and under his fig tree (1 Kings 4:25). The coming time of peace in the Kingdom is likewise described as every man under his vine and under his fig tree (Micah 4:4), establishing the fruitful fig tree as a symbol of God’s promise of peace and prosperity.
Perhaps the most significant prophecy for us concerning the “fig nation” is that delivered by Christ in Matthew 24:32-34, Now learn a parable of the fig tree; when his branch is yet tender, and putteth forth leaves, ye know that summer is nigh: So likewise ye, when ye shall see all these things, know that it is near, even at the doors. Verily I say unto you. this generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled. It appears that this parable was spoken on the same day that the curse on the barren fig tree was observed. Surely it was not just coincidence that Christ told them to watch for signs to take place on that very same kind of fruit tree. Matthew 24:32-34 is a prophecy regarding the restoration of Israel at the time of the coming Kingdom on earth. The prophecy makes no mention of fruit, but the sign of the “tender branch” indicates that summer is nigh; the fruit will come later. This is the sign is the nation of Israel today. The blessing and expectation for us is in verse 33, So likewise ye, when ye shall see all these things, know that it is near, even at the doors.
Jim Washeck, St. Peters, MO
Note: The author consulted The Christadelphian Advocate CD Archive (1885-2017) in researching past publications on this subject, incorporating ideas and borrowing wording from several past issues including July 1923, January 1966, December 1983, and February 2011.