Forsaking the Spring for Broken Cisterns

Cistern Stock photos by Vecteezy

For my people have done two evil things:
They have forsaken me, a spring of living water
In order to dig out for themselves cisterns,
Shattered cisterns that cannot hold water.

Jeremiah 2:13

This is such a rich image and so relevant to the present moment! This verse, which is located in a part of the book of Jeremiah that is still establishing the themes for the whole book, concisely and starkly captures the spiritual significance of faithlessness of the Israelites in Jeremiah’s time.

Springs and Cisterns

The contrast here is between a spring of living water and a cistern that cannot hold water. A spring continually produces water. The one who drinks from the spring does not have to work to produce or gather this water. There is no need to store this water, because it is ever new. Also, because it is ever new, it is fresh and clean water – it is living water. In a time before advanced water treatment systems, the challenge was not simply finding sources of water, but sources of clean and drinkable water. One can catch deadly diseases from drinking unclean water. Thus, water that continually flows is valuable because that flow guarantees a degree of cleanliness.

On the other hand, a cistern has to be continually maintained and refilled. In contrast with living water, stagnant water can become home to many different kinds of harmful microbes. It can be polluted if it is not carefully guarded. It is also not a source of water, but a place to store water sourced elsewhere. Unless it is continually refelled from another source, it will eventually run dry. The value of a cistern is like the value of a savings account – it provides stability in the event that the water source is disrupted. However, it has no advantage over a spring other than it can be dug out anywhere, whereas a spring simply is where it is. You have to arrange your life around the spring. The cistern can be arranged around you.

But the (metaphorical) cisterns that Israel were digging out for themselves did not even have the normal advantages of a cistern, because they were broken. They leaked water. A cistern has one job: hold water. These cisterns could not even do that. Not only had Israel exchanged a safe and reliable water source (again, metaphorically speaking) for comparatively unsafe water storage facilities (without a source), the storage facilities did not even store water effectively!

A Metaphor for Religious Infidelity

We know from the surrounding verses that the image of Jeremiah 2:13 is a metaphor for Israel’s religious infidelity. The Israelites are not worshiping Yahweh – at least not exclusively, but that distinction is lost on Jeremiah. Jeremiah collapses pluralism and apostasy. If the Israelites did not worship and follow Yahweh alone, it is the same as if they were not worshiping Yahweh at all. The fact that the Israelites have forsaken Yahweh is incomprehensible to Jeremiah:

Go over to the islands of Kittim and see; send envoys to Qedar and observe carefully and see: do they do this? Does any nation exchange its gods (and these are not even gods!)? But my people have exchanged their glory for what is of no value.

Jeremiah 2:10-11

It is utterly bizarre for a nation to forsake its gods, Jeremiah says. Indeed, Jeremiah is right. Historically, even when nations are conquered militarily, they do not usually change their religion, except, perhaps, to add more gods to their pantheon. The religion of an invading people may over time supplant the indigenous religion of the region, but even then what we tend to see is a good deal of cultic assimilation and mythological harmonization. But for a people simply to exchange its gods for other gods is unprecedented. Jeremiah says that even those whose gods are not real gods do not do this. But Israel, who have as their god the one true and living God, have exchanged him for things that are not gods. Therefore, the apostasy of Israel is absolutely inexcusable.

Jeremiah uses the image of a spring and broken cisterns in 2:13 to argue that even from Israel’s perspective, the exchange is foolish and self-defeating. In Yahweh they had a reliable and ever new source of life. They did not have to work for it. Yahweh simply provided life for them. By contrast, gods who were not truly gods did not give anything to Israel. They only took. The worshipers of false gods had to work to invest their non-gods with whatever life and truth they might be perceived as representing. But even what was invested in them dissipated over time. They were not even reliable to store what the Israelites were working hard to invest in them.

Now, this is all rather abstract. What could it mean to store “water” in false gods? We can approach this question by asking what is the living water that Yahweh provides reliably and freely? It appears to me to mean a variety of interconnected abstract and semi-concrete ideas, such as protection from threats, provision for needs and (beyond that) prosperity, greatness in the world, wisdom (knowledge of how to live life well). Connected with these ideas could be the emotional states of those who enjoy these benefits, specifically joy and peace. Perhaps all of this can be summarized in a single word: faith. But this word contains within it a double meaning. On God’s side, it means faithfulness – faithfulness specifically to uphold his side of his covenant with Israel. On Israel’s side, it means to rest in the belief that God is faithful – to trust God. Faith, in other words, is the living water which nourishes Israel and which flows freely and unfailingly from God himself.

So if we now apply this understanding to the second half of the verse, what is going on with the false gods, the broken cisterns? All of those benefits that Israel received from God Israel was now trying to source and secure for themselves: national security, economic prosperity, greatness in the world, and peace in their hearts. The false gods are like broken containers for these benefits. A new source for these benefits is not mentioned here, because there is no other source. Israel were foolishly treating cisterns as sources rather than as storage facilities. They were working to produce for themselves all of these things (perhaps through diplomatic alliances, among other things), and then investing their faith in these false gods (storing the water in the cisterns) in the hopes of securing the benefits. Alternatively, we could say that there were certain residual blessings that Israel enjoyed from its historic relationship with Yahweh, and those blessings were what they were trying to invest the false gods. But either way, the false gods in no way could secure even what protection and prosperity Israel enjoyed from Yahweh or could produce through their own efforts. Rather, the more Israel invested their faith in these false gods, the more the benefits dissipated, leaking out through the cracks in the broken cisterns into the ground below – less and less prosperity, less and less security, less and less peace and faith.

Why would they do this? What could possibly convince a people to forsake the source of all their blessing for something else that not only cannot provide that blessing but actually helps speed up the loss of that blessing? In short, control. As I mentioned before, the only “disadvantage” of a spring versus a cistern is that a spring cannot be moved. It simply is where it is. If you are going to rely on its water, you have to build your life around it. Cisterns can be built anywhere (although it would be to store water rather than provide a source of water). Spiritually, the Israelites wanted control. They wanted God’s blessings but on their own terms. They wanted to have certain specific (political and economic) outcomes, but God and a faithful form of their traditional Mosaic religion wouldn’t guarantee those outcomes. So they turned to other gods or perhaps more often (and certainly more perniciously) to versions of Yahwism that more closely resembled the religions of those other gods. But these alternate gods and alternate Yahwisms proved not only not to be springs of life and blessing but to be cisterns incapable of holding and sustaining what life and blessing was brought into them from Yahwism or Israel’s hard work.

Reading more widely in Jeremiah and the prophets, we can see that religious infidelity and political infidelity are closely connected: the latter is indicative of the former, the former inevitably produces the latter. It is not possible to be politically faithful if one is religiously unfaithful. On the other hand, the appearance of political faithfulness does not necessarily indicate religious faithfulness. As can seen in the rest of the book of Jeremiah, religious infidelity can produce a subtle but nevertheless destructive kind of political infidelity. Jeremiah argues that Israel should focus first on religious faithfulness and let God work out the political and economic health of their community. We would do well to echo his message to the Church in America today.

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