Broken Cisterns

By Pamela Lewis

A Reading from Jeremiah 2:1-13

1 The word of the Lord came to me, saying: 2Go and proclaim in the hearing of Jerusalem, Thus says the Lord:
I remember the devotion of your youth,
   your love as a bride,
how you followed me in the wilderness,
   in a land not sown.
3 Israel was holy to the Lord,
   the first fruits of his harvest.
All who ate of it were held guilty;
   disaster came upon them,
 says the Lord.
4 Hear the word of the Lord, O house of Jacob, and all the families of the house of Israel. 5Thus says the Lord:
What wrong did your ancestors find in me
   that they went far from me,
and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves?
6 They did not say, “Where is the Lord
   who brought us up from the land of Egypt,
who led us in the wilderness,
   in a land of deserts and pits,
in a land of drought and deep darkness,
   in a land that no one passes through,
   where no one lives?”
7 I brought you into a plentiful land
   to eat its fruits and its good things.
But when you entered you defiled my land,
   and made my heritage an abomination.
8 The priests did not say, “Where is the Lord?”
   Those who handle the law did not know me;
the rulers transgressed against me;
   the prophets prophesied by Baal,
   and went after things that do not profit.
9 Therefore once more I accuse you,
says the Lord,
   and I accuse your children’s children.
10 Cross to the coasts of Cyprus and look,
   send to Kedar and examine with care;
   see if there has ever been such a thing.
11 Has a nation changed its gods,
   even though they are no gods?
But my people have changed their glory
   for something that does not profit.
12 Be appalled, O heavens, at this,
   be shocked, be utterly desolate,
 says the Lord,

13 for my people have committed two evils:
   they have forsaken me,
the fountain of living water,
   and dug out cisterns for themselves,
cracked cisterns
   that can hold no water.


By the world’s definition of success, Jeremiah was a failure. For 40 years he served as God’s spokesman to Judah; but when he spoke, his words were ignored. Despite poverty, imprisonment, and rejection even by his own family, Jeremiah remained faithful to God and to announcing the new covenant. He lived to witness many of his prophecies come true, notably the fall of Jerusalem, which earned him the title the “weeping prophet” for his deep sorrow over the city’s defeat.

Jeremiah’s marriage analogy that begins these passages sharply contrasts with Judah’s faithlessness. The prophet condemns Judah for its attraction to the worthless shiny objects that are not eternal and that will ultimately fail. As we appreciate a friend who is faithful and are disappointed when she renegs on a promise, God was pleased when Judah was like a devoted bride and was like the firstfruits of the harvest, and disappointed when she turned away. God had done much for Judah, but instead he was met with ingratitude and rebellion in the form of idolatry (worship of Baal). Even pagan nations remained faithful to their gods, yet Israel had overthrown the one true God. They traded living water for a broken cistern.

God brings charges not only against Judah’s children but to the generation that will succeed them. These are warnings to us in our time, where we also constantly trade living water for broken cisterns. When will we choose the sparkling spring and discard the rainwater that collected in the broken cistern? When will we learn to know the difference?

Pamela A. Lewis taught French for thirty years before retirement. A lifelong resident of Queens, N.Y., she attends Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue, and serves on various lay ministries. She writes for The Episcopal New YorkerEpiscopal Journal, and The Living Church.

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