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The United Kingdom of Israel during the reign of Saul, David, and Solomon was divided after Solomon died. The two resulting nations were called Israel and Judah. The northern tribes retained the name Israel, because they included Ephraim and Manasseh, the sons of Joseph, to whom Jacob had given this name, along with the birthright (Gen. 48:16).
Because Judah did not have the right to this name, except when united with the birthright holding tribes, they had to settle for the name Judah. From that time in history, the prophets speak of Israel and Judah as distinct nations having distinct prophetic destinies.
But the prophet Jeremiah later received a revelation where God made a distinction between people within the nation of Judah itself. This was necessary, because Judah was about to go into divine judgment to Babylon, yet not all the people had rebellious hearts. All of them had to suffer the consequences of national sin, but the righteous were to suffer less than the wicked.
In Jeremiah 23 we hear the prophet saying, "Woe to the shepherds," the religious and political leaders of Judah, for leading the people astray (vs. 1, 13). These leaders were teaching the people that God was on their side, and "calamity will not come upon you" (vs. 17). They were, after all, God's chosen. The temple of God was there, and surely God would not allow Babylonian idolators to destroy His house.
Thus, the people were given a religious motive to defend themselves against God's judgments upon Jerusalem and the temple that had been pronounced earlier in Jer. 7:1-16. In refusing to submit to those judgments, they violated the law in Deut. 17:9-12. It was contempt of Court to refuse to submit to the decision of the judges. This was the death penalty.
But God did not want to impose the death penalty upon those citizens who believed Jeremiah and who had decided to submit to Babylon. Thus, He divided Judah into two sections, pictured as two fig trees. This is seen in Jer. 24,
" 1 . . . behold, two baskets of figs set before the temple of the Lord! 2 One basket had very good figs, like the first-ripe figs; and the other basket had very bad figs, which could not be eaten, due to rottenness."
These were figs brought to the temple to fulfill the law in Deut. 26: 1, 2, which says,
" 1 Then it shall be, when you enter the land which the Lord your God gives you as an inheritance, and you possess it and live in it, 2 that you shall take some of the fruit of all the produce of the ground which you shall bring in from your land that the Lord your God gives you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place where the Lord your God chooses to establish His name."
The people were then to ask for God's blessing on the basis of their obedience to God. This is what had happened when Jeremiah went to the temple that day. Two different people had each brought a basket of figs as a first-fruits offering to God. One basket had excellent figs, the other rotten figs. Each reflected the condition of the giver's heart. About the good figs, God said in Jer. 24:5 and 7,
" 5 Thus says the Lord God of Israel, Like these good figs, so I will regard as good the captives of Judah whom I have sent out of this place into the land of the Chaldeans. . . 7 And I will give them a heart to know Me, for I am the Lord; and they will be My people, and I will be their God, for they will return to Me with their whole heart.
About the evil figs, God said,
" 8 But like the bad figs which cannot be eaten due to rottenness. . . so I will abandon Zedekiah king of Judah and his officials, and the remnant of Jerusalem who remain in this land, and the ones who dwell in the land of Egypt, 9 and I will make them a terror and an evil for all the kingdoms of the earth, as a reproach and a proverb, a taunt and a curse in all places where I shall scatter them. 10 And I will send the sword, the famine, and the pestilence upon them until they are destroyed from the land which I gave to them and their forefathers."
Such is the difference between the good figs and the evil figs. God had told Jeremiah in 7:11 that the primary reason He was bringing judgment upon them was this:
"Has this house, which is called by My name, become a den of robbers in your sight?"
The answer is YES. A "den of robbers" is a thieves' hideout, where they had taken refuge from the law. The priests were making God's temple a place where the people could take refuge from having to be obedient to the law (vs. 9, 10).
This is why God raised up "Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, My servant" (Jer. 27:6) to execute judgment upon Jerusalem and the temple of Solomon. Six hundred years later, God did the same with Jerusalem and the second temple, this time using the Romans to execute judgment. For the same reason, when Jesus cast out the money-changers (bankers) from the temple, He said in Matt. 21:13,
"It is written, My house shall be called a house of prayer; but you are making it a robbers' den."
In Jesus' day the good figs were those who believed in Him. They did not try to fight the Romans, but left town before the final siege began and went to Pella across the Jordan River. In fact, shortly after the crucifixion, most of the Christians were sent into the Roman world because of religious persecution (Acts 8:1). This was God's way of sending them into the Roman Empire, even as God had sent the good figs into the Babylonian Empire 600 years earlier.
Thus, the same Scripture in Jeremiah 24:7 applies to the Christian believers,
"And I will give them a heart to know Me, for I am the Lord; and they will be My people, and I will be their God, for they will return to Me with their whole heart."
These good figs of Judah in Judea, Benjamin in Galilee, along with "a great many of the priests" (Acts 6:7) formed the basis of the early Church. They were the basket of good figs. They were God's people, and God was their God.
It was not so with the rest of the people of the land who not only rejected Jesus (as Jeremiah had been rejected earlier), but also who later fought against Rome. They could not believe that God would allow His temple and His city to be destroyed. Some people never learn, because they do not believe what is written in Scripture.
To the good figs of Judah were added many proselytes among the nations who accepted Christ as Messiah and King. They came to be known as Christians, and soon it was forgotten that the Church was actually the true tribe of Judah, the basket of good figs.
Later, it was thought that the Church had replaced Judah, and so "Replacement Theology" was born. Yet we know that the good figs did not replace the evil figs, for all of them were figs (Judah). God simply recognized the good figs as being His people, while He made the evil figs a curse to all nations, as He had told Jeremiah.
And so in the latter days we find the same situation emerging for a third time. The evil figs of Judah again have made themselves a curse to all nations. The shepherds once again have prophesied to them that "calamity will not come upon you" (Jer. 23:17). God would never allow Jerusalem or His (expected) temple to be destroyed.
" 18 But who has stood in the council of the Lord, that he should see and hear His word?"