Broken Cisterns Can Hold No Water

Sometimes word pictures in the Bible weren’t written for people like me.  In my life I haven’t thought much of cisterns, but the Old Testament prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah refer to them a few times in their prophecies, and Jeremiah ends up thrown into one.  To Jeremiah’s original audience, and others living now, the meaning behind these pictures might be obvious.  But for me, it took a little research.

A cistern-centered comparison in Jeremiah 3:12-13 particularly drew my attention, where broken cisterns are used as a picture of false religion and idolatry:

Be appalled, O heavens, at this;
            be shocked, be utterly desolate,
            declares the LORD,
for my people have committed two evils:
they have forsaken me,
            the fountain of living waters,
and hewed out cisterns for themselves,
            broken cisterns that can hold no water.”

God is the “fountain of living waters,” but how is false religion like “broken cisterns”?

Looking up “cistern” in the American Heritage Dictionary I find it is: “A receptacle for holding water or other liquid, especially a tank for catching and storing rainwater.”  So, a cistern is not a fountain, a source of water, but instead is dependent on another source (usually rain) for its water.  So, Jeremiah’s accusation is that false religion can’t create its own water, which brings us to the second point…

The false religions of Judah in Jeremiah’s day weren’t even good cisterns – they were broken.  While a cistern is a vessel for storing water in reserve when there is no rain, when broken it’s not even that.  Even with another source of water, putting it into a broken cistern was no better than pouring it out into the sand.  Jeremiah’s second accusation is that false religion can’t even store good things from other sources.  The picture here is that if they took parts of true worship and mixed them with other religions, not only were the other religions wasted, but whatever they would have gained from God is also wasted.

Without God, many things are like broken cisterns.  Things that make us happy in this world are temporary and require our Creator God to provide us with more.  A food you like might satisfy you for a while, but eventually you need to find more food.  Rain may satisfy your garden plants, but eventually they will need more water.  Money may seem alluring for its own sake, but it only buys things that are temporary like everything else.

In Jeremiah 2:18, he tells the people not to look anywhere other than the true God of Israel for the source of living water and eternal satisfaction:

And now what do you gain by going to Egypt
            to drink the waters of the Nile?
Or what do you gain by going to Assyria
            to drink the waters of the Euphrates?”

Like a cistern, even the Nile and Euphrates only get their water from some other source.  They can’t make their own, and God can even determine if the rivers are empty or full.  Later, in Jeremiah 14:2-3, he says that because Judah had forsaken God, He had caused a drought, and therefore:

Judah mourns,
            and her gates languish;
her people lament on the ground,
            and the cry of Jerusalem goes up.
Her nobles send their servants for water;
            they come to the cisterns;
they find no water;
            they return with their vessels empty;
they are ashamed and confounded
            and cover their heads.”

The people mourned their earthly problem but did not care about their spiritual problem which is infinitely more important.  No provision – any science, philosophy, or religion – can defend against a drought caused by forsaking God, because false gods – anything we put in His place – cannot deliver rain.  They are but broken cisterns.

Consider that if there is no Creator behind the workings of nature, or if that Creator doesn’t care about us, why should we expect the world to act in ways that predictably bless us, instead of just being completely unpredictable and random?  Why do things seem to work most of the time?  Rain, friction, food, gravity, math, and on and on.  Fortunately, our God “sends rain on the just and on the unjust,”[1] and to His own He gives “a spring of water welling up to eternal life”[2]

He calls all people to know Him as “the fountain of living waters.”  No cistern needed.

Soli Deo Gloria

[1] Matthew 5:45
[2] John 4:14

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