Jeremiah 2 — The fountain and the cistern

Reading: Jeremiah 2

I love the metaphor that Jeremiah uses when describing what was going on, that they left the fountain, and dug leaky cisterns. This is wonderful, because it clearly shows the relationship that was going on with God. The God that they left was a fountain — and they tried to replace God with something that not only had nothing to offer — but, no matter how much they put in it, they would still be left with nothing. A cistern is only as good as the water you put into it — and if the cistern leaks, it is worse than useless.

It does not take any special knowledge to realize that Jeremiah was talking about leaving God’s fountain, and putting trust in something else. If I were to go for the obvious, I’d say that the way that modern people believe mostly in themselves fits the metaphor very well. God might be the fountain — but we choose to believe in ourselves, only give lip service to God, and in the end, we have nothing to offer except what came out of ourselves. Even more — for all the advances of modernity, we humans do leak a bit. It often seems that no matter how much we prepare for future needs — it not only isn’t enough, but it seems that what we put aside leaked out long ago.

I guess, right now I can say — God is our source. We, of ourselves, are nothing but dry holes in the ground. We need to go to God, and drink our fill. We don’t stay full long, so we never stop needing the fountain. Here we have a great application: I need Jesus, I never stop needing Jesus, because Jesus gives me something that I need that I don’t have of myself, therefore, I should not think that I can replace Jesus. Ok, we have an application, it makes sense, not a bad way to end a sermon.

Of course, I’m not going to stop here — instead, I’m going to talk a little bit about wider context. When we read Jeremiah, there is a fairly large body of wider context: Jeremiah is closely related to I and II kings and Lamentations. Traditionally, either Jeremiah, or his secretary Baruch wrote all of these books. Modern scholars associate these books withe Deuteronomy, and reforms of Josiah. Kings and Jeremiah really do paint a picture of a monarchy that never really followed God — and it endorses Josiah’s reforms. (Of Josiah, II Kings says: “Before him, there was no king like him, who turned to God with all his heart, with all his soul, with all his might, according to the law of Moses; nor did any arise after him.”)
What we see from this progression is that the metaphor of trying to replace a fountain with a leaky cistern is quite apt. Jeremiah talks about worshiping idols in this chapter, and the writer of I and II kings points out that there is a long history of going to gods who are not gods at all. Jeremiah later says of these gods that they have no power, neither to do good nor evil. If false gods are the cisterns, than these had been used for centuries.

There is something else that is going on as well, however. Jeremiah and those like him were all about the reform that cleaned up the temple, and reintroduced the monarchy to the Torah. They love the restoration of a religious Judah. Here is how closely connected the reformation is: In II Kings 22, we read of the temple being cleaned out. The priest Hilkiah is the one who found the Torah, and the when King Josiah read the Torah, he ripped his clothes and wept. Jeremiah was the son of Hilkiah the priest. He gave this prophecy near the end of Josiah’s reign — about 15 years after the reform was initiated. Josiah was prophesying to a reformed monarchy. The time of idol worship was largely passed — yet, Jeremiah spoke a rather harsh prophecy at the end of Josiah’s reign. Of all the kings of Judah — Josiah was likely the best, if by best we mean faithful to God.

As you might know, Israel is either in between everything, or it is on the extreme edge. Israel in far west Asia, where Asia and Africa meet. While it is solidly in Asia, it is in an area that sometimes belongs to a European empire, and sometimes an Asian power. Throughout their entire existence, they have been in the proximity of empires — Egypt to their west, and any number of empires to the East and North.

At the time that this was written, Necho II, king of Egypt was looking to expand the Egyptian empire to the East, into Asia. The Assyrian and Babylonian Empires were trying to push west. (The Assyrian empire would completely fall to the Babylonian Empire about the same time that king Josiah of Judah died.) Judah was stuck between world powers. Being stuck between world powers with great conquering armies was a pretty big deal!

Judah did what you might expect — they made treaties with Egypt and Assyria. The result of these treaties is also what you can imagine — the last decades of the monarchy was made up of puppet kings. When the Northern Kingdom’s puppet king offended Assyria, poof, no more Israel. When Assyria falls, which comes soon — there is a new Empire looking west, the Babylonian empire.

Necho apparently controlled the roads in Judah, took tribute, and had Egyptian soldiers there. The Lord might have brought the people out of Egypt, but out of fear of conquest, they invited Egypt into Judah. If we continued reading in Jeremiah we would have read the following:

Is Israel a slave? Is he a homeborn servant?
Why then has he become plunder?
15 The lions have roared against him,
they have roared loudly.
They have made his land a waste;
his cities are in ruins, without inhabitant.
16 Moreover, the people of Memphis and Tahpanhes
have broken the crown of your head.
17 Have you not brought this upon yourself
by forsaking the Lord your God,
while he led you in the way?
18 What then 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? (NRSV)

Jeremiah does talk about literally worshiping Idols, but that is not the real problem that he is addressing: The real problem that he is addressing is that people are putting their faith in kings and armies when they should be putting their faith in God. The kings and armies where they put their faith are not people who have any real interest in YHWH. Judah simply hopes that their neighbors will protect them if they give their neighbors what they want.

One obvious problem with this is that no matter how strong an empire is, they fall. Alexander the Great’s empire was one of the biggest in history, after he conquered the Egyptian and Persian Empires. Alexander’s empire didn’t survive Alexander — it collapsed.

This prophecy is dated “30th year of Josiah’s reign”. The Assyrian empire fell in the 31st year of Josiah’s reign, and Josiah also fell in battle that same year, and Judah became a tributary state of Egypt. Most likely, this continued, at least in effect, until the Babylonian captivity. The result of making deals with their neighbors was that eventually their neighbors took them over anyways. Whether they went to the Nile, or to the Euphrates for their water — the cistern still leaked, and there would be much humiliation.

The living water that we seek is found in the Luther Hymn: “A mighty Fortress is our God”. Those who came before Luther would find the idea in Psalm 46: “God is our refuge and strength… the nations are in uproar, the kingdoms totter, God utters his voice and the Earth melts.” (NRSV)

Even Josiah didn’t realize that God’s people were in God’s hands — and, God could protect them from Egypt. Josiah looked to the outside for strength to maintain the monarchy, he looked for ways of doing this with human strength alone, and he ended up inviting what destroyed the monarchy right inside of it. Judah put its faith in a failing empire, and their best king died in battle because this faith was misplaced.

I could have ended the sermon right as I started it, telling you the obvious, but we would have missed something important: Jeremiah is speaking to a uniquely righteous king. This is not a prophecy that we can make about somebody else, because it is a prophecy directed to somebody who is the good person that others should have been like. The “not bad” ending of a sermon could leave us thinking that we go to the spring all the time — God gives us what we need, we could leave thinking the message was for somebody else.

We might not worship other gods. We might even be very careful to be active in worshiping God, and trying to live a life obedient to God’s law. We might be everything Josiah was, and yet there is still danger of needing this prophecy. This prophecy is for all of us who are doing our best, yet look to our own means for salvation. It is for those of us who are faithful in our religion, but pragmatic in our life. It is for those of us who compromise, because we cannot see a better way.

The best we have to offer is a leaky cistern without water to fill it. When it comes to making compromises, too often our best guesses lead to disaster. Life is messy, and he is talking about us — but, when we read forward in Jeremiah (as in, we’ll cover this passage in about 3 weeks), we realize that God is planning good for us anyways. Even when our best plans fail, and things seem to be at their worst, God still has good plans for us; but when we put our faith in something other than God — we must learn to return to the one true spring when we find disappointment.

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