Broken Cisterns

Jeremiah 2:13 - For My people have committed two evils: they have forsaken Me, the fountain of living waters, to hew for themselves cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water.

In Bible lands, a cistern was an artificial reservoir which was dug in the earth or hewn in the rock for the collection and storage of water. Cisterns were very important in the land of Israel because of the long dry season and the relatively few natural springs. But a broken cistern was practically worthless. Cracked rock or crumbling masonry could hold only a small quantity of dirty water, or no water at all. Collecting and storing water in a broken cistern was about as smart as carrying a sieve for a canteen!

Jeremiah used the illustration of broken cisterns to point up the extreme foolishness of God's people, Israel. This illustration was not just thought up by Jeremiah as "sermon filler." The Lord Himself originated and used this illustration in the message that He communicated to His people through His prophet, Jeremiah (vs 1-2 and 4-5). The message was spoken as a rebuke to people who were no longer totally committed to their God. Certainly the broken cistern sermon has an application for God's people today.

To appreciate the full impact of the broken cistern message, let's look a little more closely at the historical context of Jeremiah 2:13. Jeremiah preached and lived in a day when the people of Judah, the southern portion of the nation of Israel, had turned away from the Living God to do their own thing. No longer were they devoted to the Lord or depending on Him to meet their spiritual needs. Read all of Jeremiah 2 to see how they had turned away from the Fountain of living waters and were looking everywhere else for something to quench their spiritual thirst. They had dug cisterns of idolatry and immorality for themselves in the hopes that the fleshly pleasures of those sins would satisfy their needs.

But the people of Judah found that the cisterns of their own making were broken cisterns that could hold no refreshing water--not even a little bit! Notice that the cisterns did not become broken after some time of holding water. No, they were broken from the day they were built. They never held any water. This is always true of cisterns of our own making. Self-made attempts and schemes designed to find spiritual fulfillment apart from the Lord will inevitably result in failure--they are doomed from the start. Only God Himself can quench our spiritual thirst. (See Isaiah 55:1-2, John 4:10-14, John 6:35 and John 7:37-38.)

When the foolish people of Judah turned away from the Lord who had done so much for them, they were guilty of two evils. Trying to construct an artificial reservoir for collecting spiritual water was bad enough, but to turn away and reject the water from the life-giving Spring was tragic! How could anyone in his right mind do such a thing? Imagine yourself as a very thirsty person in a parched land, turning away from a bubbling spring of cool water to hack out a cistern in the dirt, under the parched sun, in the hopes of collecting some rain water! If no natural spring existed nearby, digging a cistern would be the best thing you could do.

If a spring was nearby and you didn't know it, you would be in a pathetic situation, but at least you could be pitied for your diligent efforts to try to collect some water. But if you did know that there was a good spring of running water readily available, and you deliberately turned your back on this life-giving source to construct a cistern, you would be incredibly foolish. There would be no sympathy or pity for you when your digging efforts resulted in an empty, broken cistern!

This is precisely the illustration that God painted in words to show His people how utterly foolish and guilty they were when they turned away from Him. The surrounding heathen nations could at least be pitied when they ignorantly followed lifeless gods which could not meet their spiritual thirst. Futhermore, unlike Judah, these pagan nations were loyal to their gods (v10-11)! The people of Judah knowingly forsook their Source of Living Water to attempt to drink from self-made broken cisterns. No wonder the heavens are called on to be appalled and "shudder with great horror" at such foolishness, such stupidity and such evil (v12).

Is it possible that some of God's people today are guilty of the same two evils that the people of Judah committed in Jeremiah's day? Is it possible that we've become so accustomed to the Living Water that we've wandered away from the Fountain to see if there's some water available elsewhere? Have we foolishly gotten involved in constructing our own cisterns?

What about our pursuits of a successful career? Of course it's necessary to have a job, but if Christians look for complete fulfillment in their vocations (and are "Sunday-Morning-Only" Christians), this could be a form of cistern-making.

What about our priorities in what we read? Some Christians spend enormous amounts of time reading magazines, newspapers, or surfing the internet, but they spend little (if any) time reading Scripture. Why? Perhaps this is a form of cistern-building. While it's not wrong to read magazines or news on the internet, have these types of literature become more interesting and exciting than God's Word? If we're turning away from the living Word and spending inordinate amounts of time seeking to satisfy our thirst in some other way, we may be guilty of the same sins as the people of Judah.

The same thing goes for recreation and entertainment. Work, reading, recreation--all of these things are not wrong in themselves, and are good and helpful when kept in proper balance. But when we find that we are looking to these things for satisfaction and fulfillment in life, a subtle form of cistern construction is probably going on. We need to return to the Fountain of living waters before we discover--too late in life--that our self-made reservoirs were broken cisterns.

Let's apply God's broken cistern message to our own nation. This country was founded on the premise that we were a "nation under God." Although the principle of separation between church and state was declared from the beginning, the idea of separation between God and state was never envisioned. God was recognized as sovereign over the state as well as the church, and as the One "from whom all blessings flow." But the age of secularism has come and it has infiltrated and changed the mind-set of this nation. God has been banned from the sphere of the state and relegated to the sphere of the church only. Not only is His sovereignty over the state denied, but His very existence is questioned and doubted by many. Our nation has turned from the Fountain of living waters to the cisterns of secular humanism. These self-made cisterns of human "freedom" from God in every area from science to sex are defiant slaps in the face of the Lord. Our nation has condoned the construction of cisterns which deny God and the teaching of the Bible.

But the cisterns of secular humanism are broken cisterns. Regardless of how much so-called freedom is offered from any one of these self-made cisterns, complete fulfillment and satisfaction can never be obtained apart from the Fountain of living waters. Lapping the stagnant, muddy waters of these cisterns not only fails to quench spiritual thirst, it ultimately leads to the poison of dehumanization. Look, for example, at the murky waters in the man-made cistern of evolution compared to the biblical teaching of the noble beginnings of mankind, created in the image of God! Look, too, at the disillusionment, the disease and the heartbreak of shattered marriages and families that have resulted from drinking at the humanistic cistern of sexual freedom.

God gave the nation of Judah chance after chance to return to the Lord, but they turned farther and farther away. In terms of the illustration, verse 18 indicates that instead of turning back from the broken cisterns to the Fountain of living waters, they turned to the river waters of the Nile and the Euphrates. In other words, rather than turning to the faithful God of Israel, they looked to the gods and government of Egypt and Assyria for protection and provision. As a result the Lord declared that His people would reap what they had sown (v19). And so Judah was conquered and taken away into slavery in Babylon (on the Euphrates River) where they drank the bitter waters they had chosen. In Jeremiah 42-44 we learn that the survivors who were left in the land of Israel ran away to Egypt against the explicit counsel of Jeremiah, and there they died by the waters of the Nile.

How foolish it is to get involved in the evil of hewing out cisterns! The consequences of such rebellion are just as serious and sure today as they were 2500 years ago for the people of Judah. Whether it be a nation which turns away from God to drink from the empty cisterns of secular humanism, or a Christian who looks for satisfaction and fulfillment apart from the Lord Himself, the Bible decrees that the sower will reap what he sows (Galatians 6:7). Why not avoid all the trouble and thirst, and drink forever at the Fountain of living waters!
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