The sovereignty of God and the free will of man is one of those things that has been a long-standing debate in the Christian world. We see this tension in this passage, so we’ll discuss it a bit here, but I won’t claim to have any new answers on the subject.
At this point in history, Jehoiakim was deposed by the king of Babylon after Jehoiakim rebelled. Jehoiachin his son took over, but his reign lasted only three months before Nebuchadnezzar came again and took him prisoner too, along with a bunch of other people, the king’s mother, his wives, his officials and leading men, the entire army, as well as a thousand craftsmen and artisans. In Jehoiachin’s stead, Nebuchadnezzar made his uncle Zedekiah king.
It was during this time that God gave Jeremiah a vision of two baskets of figs, one of very good figs, and one of very bad figs. God told Jeremiah that he considered the people that were taken into exile the good figs, and the people that remained in Jerusalem the bad figs. And that while he would ultimately destroy those remaining in Jerusalem, he would restore the exiles to their land and bless them.
The question is why would God spare one group and destroy the other? God said, of the exiles,
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. 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 (6-7).
Certainly some of the people taken into exile were innocents, so to speak. Daniel and Ezekiel were two examples of this. But there were many others who were not so innocent. Why would God spare them? I don’t know, other than to say it was due to God’s mercy.
Some people would say, “Well, it’s because of God’s foreknowledge. He knew they would return to him eventually, and so that’s why he spared them.”
But that ignores the passage where God says that the reason they would return to him is that he would give them a heart to know him. He was the one that would change their hearts. Why didn’t he do the same for Zedekiah and the people remaining in Jerusalem?
I don’t know.
What can I say for sure?
First, people are condemned directly by their own choices. Had Zedekiah and the other people chosen to follow God, he would have blessed them. But they chose not to.
Second, nobody would come to God unless he started to work in their lives and gave them a heart to know him. This is true of the exiles. It is true of us. As someone once put it, “He fixed our broken antenna so that we might hear him.”
Third, God is never arbitrary in his choices. God always has his reasons. The problem we have is that he never gives us those reasons in his word. We have a lack of data because God has chosen not to reveal it to us. And so there we have to stop.
The question we ultimately have to ask ourselves is this: What will we choose? Nobody can ever come to God and say, “It’s not my fault I didn’t follow you.” We are responsible for our own choices. And so God will hold us responsible for the choices that we make.
We can choose to follow him or choose not to. What will you choose?