“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.” (Jeremiah 2:13 ESV)
We are modern people who just walk up to the faucet, turn it on and a seemingly endless flow of water comes out. But, in the ancient near east water was not as easy to come by. It signified life and prosperity – life was not possible without access to it. Three types of water sources were common in ancient bible times. The bible regularly uses these sources as images of our relationship with God. The first source was the best and most desirable, it was called living water. Living water came from streams or springs that flowed and were teaming with life; they required no effort of your own to get it if you were close to a source. Close proximity to the source is all that was required. The second source was a well that was dug. This water was good also, but was not viewed to be as favorable as living water and it required significant effort to get. The last was the least desirable; it came from cisterns that were hewn out of stone that was coated with plaster in order to keep them from leaking. Cisterns collected runoff water as well as silt that washed into them. They were deep with a small opening at the top and were spread out at the bottom. Jeremiah (Jeremiah 38:6) was thrown into one as punishment because they were virtually impossible to escape from. They often had mud in the bottom from the silt that had collected over time and some prisoners that were thrown into them would sink into the mud and die. You can only imagine the amount of work that was involved in digging cisterns out of hard limestone.
Jeremiah is telling the people of Israel that they had made the most absurd exchange possible. No one in their right mind would exchange a cool stream or spring for the stagnant, dirty water that a cistern collected. And yet, that is exactly what they had done. They exchanged a life giving relationship with God Himself for their own hand hewn cisterns that wouldn’t even hold water. God offered them living water at no cost to themselves. This theme of free grace is the centerpiece of the bible’s redemptive story: ““Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price” (Isaiah 55:1 ESV). All you need is need and the ability to accept the free gift of grace that the Creator of the cosmos offers you. We all are in need, but being willing to accept this and throw oneself entirely on the mercy of God requires a special work of grace. The natural proclivity of the human heart is to reject free grace and to get to work digging our own cisterns in the hard limestone – cisterns that leak and will not satisfy the thirst of the soul (Ecclesiastes 3:11). Leaky cisterns are no substitute for living water.
Our hearts, fueled by our unbelief, naturally curve toward our own hand hewn cisterns. This is true of the non-believer for sure as they seek to establish their identity, value and worth in created things or accomplishments. But, this is also true for the Christian who forgets who he is and the seemingly impossible (and here) promises God has made to us. It is real work to identify the cisterns that our hearts naturally gravitate towards. What substitutes do you run to instead of God? What cisterns do you frequent to satisfy your soul’s thirst? Some are easier to identify; things like alcohol, drugs, pornography or excessive overeating. Others are seemingly benign; these are the silent killers. Things like achievement, self-improvement, relationships, self righteous judgmentalism, hobbies or religious activities & good works. Anything that we have parked our ultimate hope upon other than God will wreak havoc on our soul. These things can never satisfy our thirst, but we still tend to run to them anyway. What cisterns have you hewn for yourself? Identify these, repent of these and ask God to enlighten the eyes of your heart to see Him as the refreshing living water that He truly is. Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us, sinners.