Sand Pools and Broken Cisterns
Words & Image by Dianne Jago
A few years ago we spent a weekend at the shore. Like every trip before and since, my son Kaiden attempted to carve out his own little pool of water. Digging a hole in the sand and filling it with water seems to be the universal goal of kids at the beach, and the result is almost always the same. Either a wave takes it out altogether, or the little bit of water that does pool up eventually seeps back into the ground. However, that Friday he successfully dug deep and wide enough for the water to hold a while. Despite the giant ocean at their disposal, my kids preferred playing around in that little pool of stagnant water. We grabbed dinner that night and then decided to check on the pool. It hadn’t been two hours, and the water was gone.
The Israelites found in the Old Testament were a people whose idolatrous lifestyle was a lot like these tiny pools in the sand. Despite God’s miraculous methods of rescuing them from their bondage in Egypt and his continued provision in their desert wandering, they forsook God and turned to other gods. Jeremiah 2:13 says, “…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.”
This picture of hewing out cisterns describes the great lengths required to carve rock or carve into the earth. The idea was to carry water to the reservoir or allow it to collect rain for storage. But, like my son’s sand pool at the beach, a broken cistern could not permanently hold water. The broken cisterns either dried up completely or turned to muck and mire. The water was not worthy of drinking, their labor was in vain, and their efforts probably only made their thirst grow. It is entirely foolish to attempt to fill a broken cistern, and yet, this is the visual God gives us of His people at this time.
The emptiness of the broken cistern reflected the emptiness of the one trying to drink from it.
God is the fountain of living waters ready to give in abundance, and yet their ingratitude toward his kindness and deliberate rejection of worshipping him alone resulted in an unquenchable thirst.
Through the prophet Jeremiah, God warns and pleads with the people of Israel to turn back to him, because apart from him is not only emptiness but wrath and destruction. The gods the Israelites created for themselves would not save them. Likewise, our attempts at loving anything more than God will also lead to our own destruction. As old as the Bible is and as foreign as some of the customs of their day may seem, we face similar temptations. A 2019 cistern for a young woman may look less like worshipping a rain god and more like building her life upon an Instagram following. Perhaps she spends her days consumed with crafting the right feed and obsessing over her number of followers, likes, and comments. Or maybe her worth is found in her career, achievements, friendships, appearances, or zip code. Even good things can become distorted. The bottom line is: if God isn’t our first love, then something or someone else is.
As a child, I struggled to understand Israel's consistent rejection of God and His law, but the older I get, the more I realize I make the same foolish mistakes. I am commanded to love the Lord God with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength (Matt. 22:37), and yet I find myself loving other things or people more than him. My efforts at carving a small kingdom for myself are broken and lead to emptiness. The freedom promised from finding worth, hope, and satisfaction in everything but God leads to enslavement and a life devoid of true joy. Apart from God, even the good things are empty and meaningless. I do not want to be stubborn and callused, ignoring the conviction of the Holy Spirit as I attempt to live life in a way pleasing, convenient, comfortable, and honoring to me.
The difference between us and Israel is that we can reflect on history and learn from their errors. Israel's continued hard-heartedness led to their return to exile. Though they had a clear warning, their dirty water led to their own destruction. We know, however, that this does not have to be the end of our story. Doesn’t this give us a fuller picture of our Savior Jesus Christ? In God’s great love and mercy, he rescued us while we were dead in our trespasses (Eph. 2). He didn’t leave us in our enslavement to sin, but set us free so that we could be slaves to righteousness (Rom. 6:17). Not only do we have a Savior who died for our sins, but we are sealed with the Holy Spirit (Eph. 1:13)! Praise God we are secure despite our ongoing battle with the flesh which tries to steer us away from the True Fountain. We have every opportunity to turn away from our broken cisterns and turn to God.
Beloved, we don’t have to settle for puddles when we have the Ocean before us. Learn from this lesson in Jeremiah. God is our fountain of living waters. May we drink and be satisfied.