Broken Cisterns

About 6 years ago when my son Connor was about 3 years old, we visited Southern California and spent some time vacationing at the beach.

The moment we arrived at the beach, Connor was very excited to build a sand castle with the toy buckets and shovels we had brought for him to play with in the sand.

He was so ready and fully equipped to begin building!

Connor began this endeavor by walking to the water’s edge to collect some water in his bucket and then he proceeded by walking back to a spot he had chosen to build his sand castle.

He would dump the water to moisten the sand…mold the sand with his little hands…and then return back to the water’s edge to collect some more water.

After some time had passed…I noticed that he was collecting a full bucket of water but by the time he got to the sand castle, the bucket was practically empty!

So I observed him more closely and noticed that the water was leaking out as he walked. The bucket had developed a huge crack in the bottom. No wonder!

Connor was working so hard to build this sand castle and he had no clue how much time and effort he was wasting trying to fill a broken bucket with water!

Filling this broken bucket with water was utterly useless and was never going to satisfy his need for collecting enough water to finish his sand castle.

Oh how this simple story reminds me of a very profound declaration from God in Jeremiah 2:13…

“Indeed, my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and they have dug cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.” ISV

God used this illustration of broken cisterns in the message that He communicated to His people through His prophet Jeremiah.

Jeremiah was a major prophet in the Bible who has also been referred to as the “weeping prophet” because he was so deeply sorrowful for the fallen condition of God’s people in Judah.

In order to better understand the depth of this illustration of broken cisterns and its relevance for us today…an understanding of what a cistern actually is is necessary.

What exactly is a cistern?

In the earliest times of the Bible, cisterns were used to store water. They were usually pear shaped and about 15 to 20 feet deep. The actual opening was only 2 to 3 feet wide and there was usually a stone cover. Cisterns were either large or small…large enough to store water for the community…or small and privately owned.

In ancient Israel, the summer months were extremely dry and so during this time people dug and carved out for themselves cisterns out of the solid rock. These cisterns were like man-made reservoirs attempting to contain large amounts of water from the rain falls.

Ancient workers developed sticky lime plaster which they would use to cover the surface of the bed rock to keep the water from seeping out.

But oftentimes…unfortunately…a cistern would develop a crack and all the water would seep out. Cracked rock could hold only a small quantity of dirty water…or no water at all.

And so just as Connor’s broken bucket was useless in holding water…we can see…so too was a broken cistern!

SIDE NOTE: Empty cisterns were sometimes used as prisons and places of confinement. If you remember the story of Joseph being cast into a “pit,” it was actually an empty cistern ( Genesis 37:22) as it was when Jeremiah was lowered into an empty cistern (Jeremiah 38:6).

So…what do broken cisterns symbolize and what relevance does this illustration have for us today?

Well we can see from our key verse in Jeremiah 2:13 that God’s people had turned away from God… “the fountain of living water” …and they had “dug cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that cannot hold water”.

They were no longer devoted to the Lord or depended on Him to meet their spiritual needs. They had dug their own cisterns of idolatry in the hopes that the fleshly pleasures of those idols would satisfy their needs.

You might be thinking… “Well I am a Christian. I don’t worship any idols!”

Even though we don’t necessarily bow down to physical images of false gods like God’s people in Judah…

Idolatry is worship of anything other than God. Idolatry is anything that takes the place of God in our lives.

Whatever you love most, serve most, seek out most, give to the most, worship the most, and care about the most is your god. Your “god” can be your career, your bank account, the way you look, a particular position or degree, influence, power, or physical pleasure. It can even be something that is considered intrinsically good, yet you allow it to dominate your life more than God. Your “god” is whatever you allow to control you, to be the ultimate guide to decision making, the place of your supreme loyalty, and the source of your self-worth. James Emory White (pastor/author)

…the source of your self-worth? Wow…That’s a good one.

So what exactly can be an idol…or considered idolatry…in our lives?

An idol can be such things as pride…money…popularity…body image…even hobbies.

An idol can be our home…our vehicle…our job…material possessions…a relationship…even our family.

An idol can be our iPhones…what we look at on our iPads…even social media.

An idol can be power…influence…tradition… religion… status…position… control…even success.

An idol can be our own goals…own ideas…own purposes…own accomplishments …even self.

An idol can be alcohol…drugs…sex…or any sin.

An idol can even be all the work you do for the Lord that consumes all your time and energy.

Some of these things may in themselves not be bad. We need money in order to live (Matthew 6:31-33) …caring for our bodies is appropriate (1Corinthians 6:19-20) …God is a giver of good gifts and so we can take delight in the hobbies He has given us (James 1:17; Psalm 37:4).

However, …when we begin to value something above God… … when we turn to other people and things over God…when we expect that person or thing to fulfill us and provide us with ultimate satisfaction instead of God…we have begun making it into an idol…we have dug for ourselves cisterns.

But the people of Judah found that the cisterns they were digging up for themselves were broken cisterns! They were broken cisterns that could hold no refreshing water–not even a little bit!

Ok don’t miss this point!!!

Cisterns did not become broken after some time of holding water. They were actually broken from the day they were built! They never held any water!

This is also true of cisterns of our own making. Self-made attempts designed to find spiritual fulfillment in people and things apart from the Lord will inevitably result in failure and disappointment.

NOTHING will ever fully satisfy us…NOTHING will ever fulfill us…NOTHING will ever completely meet our needs…NOTHING will ever quench our spiritual thirst…But only God Himself …the Fountain of Living Water! (Isaiah 55:1-2, John 4:10-14, John 6:35, John 7:37-38)

God alone is sufficient for ALL our needs! (Philippians 4:19)

So how about you? Are you digging for yourself any broken cisterns?

Have you been turning to people or things…instead of God…to satisfy you?

A broken bucket…a broken cistern…will never hold the water necessary to meet our needs or fully satisfy us.

Let’s not waste our time and efforts digging for ourselves broken cisterns like God’s people in Judah…broken cisterns that were never meant to satisfy our thirst…that were never meant to hold water.

Let’s turn to the only true source of water…the only God…the fountain of living water!

Reflection Points:

  1. What exactly is a cistern and what do broken cisterns symbolize? What did God mean when He said that His people had forsaken him and were digging up broken cisterns for themselves?
  2. What relevance does this illustration of broken cisterns have for us today?
  3. What is idolatry?
  4. Have you been digging for yourself any broken cisterns?

Action Points:

  1. If you feel that you have been digging for yourself any broken cisterns, ask God to forgive you and turn to Him to fill any voids or emptiness you feel inside. People and things will only satisfy you temporarily…God will satisfy you fully and always! He will never leave you or forsake you!
  2. Pray that God’s living water will quench your thirst and give you the strength to resist the temptation of turning to people and things to satisfy your needs. God will meet your every need! Trust Him!