4 Listen to the LORD’s word, people of Judah, all you families of the Israelite household. 5 This is what the LORD says: What wrong did your ancestors find in me that made them wander so far? They pursued what was worthless and became worthless. 6 They didn’t ask, “Where’s the LORD who brought us up from the land of Egypt, who led us through the wilderness, in a land of deserts and ravines, in a land of drought and darkness, in a land of no return, where no one survives?” 7 I brought you into a land of plenty, to enjoy its gifts and goodness, but you ruined my land; you disgraced my heritage. 8 The priests didn’t ask, “Where’s the LORD?” Those responsible for the Instruction didn’t know me; the leaders rebelled against me; the prophets spoke in the name of Baal, going after what has no value. 9 That is why I will take you to court and charge even your descendants, declares the LORD. 10 Look to the west as far as the shores of Cyprus and to the east as far as the land of Kedar. Ask anyone there: Has anything this odd ever taken place? 11 Has a nation switched gods, though they aren’t really gods at all? Yet my people have exchanged their glory for what has no value. 12 Be stunned at such a thing, you heavens; shudder and quake, declares the LORD. 13 My people have committed two crimes: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water. And they have dug wells, broken wells that can’t hold water. (CEB)
In this text, Jeremiah raises his voice in order to call the people back to God; to draw them away from the false gods of the nations and their values. There is some striking imagery at play here, especially in the Hebrew text. These two terms for God’s people “House of Jacob” and “House of Israel” remind them of their being chosen by God. “House of Israel” is the term that was used to designate the tribes of Israel during the time of the judges and also during the kingships of Saul and David.
The families of the House of Israel have been summoned to court, and now they stand accused by God before the bar of justice. What we have here in this text is basically the opening statement of the plaintiff against the defendant for these court proceedings, and the accuser is The Lord.
Jeremiah begins the case by asking a rhetorical question: “What wrong did your ancestors find in me that they went far from me, and went after nothingness, and shared in nothingness?” Behind this question, there are two expressions. The first is the Hebrew basis for divorce from Deuteronomy 24:1, “because he has found in her some indecency.” (NRSV). But, of course, in Israelite society a wife could not divorce her husband in the way a husband was able to divorce his wife (Patriarchal culture isn’t exactly a beacon of equality): so in Jeremiah’s metaphor it is a truly shocking thing that the wife, Israel, should consider divorcing her husband, the Lord!
The second expression behind this question is the affirmation of the Song of Moses in Deuteronomy 32:4, which, to excerpt a few phrases, addresses God as “The Rock, his work is sound…for all his ways are justice…a God of faithfulness and without wrong…just, and right is he.” (NRSV). There is, of course, no blemish in the Lord. There is no fault. There is no wrong on God’s part. God is absolutely and perfectly faithful.
But for some reason, Israel has chosen the Baals rather than the Lord. They have gone far from the Lord. One interesting part about that accusation on God’s part is that there are five instances in the Psalms where the worshipper begs the Lord not to distance God’s self from the worshipper. So what the worshipper asks the Lord not to do to them, Israel, as a whole, has done to the Lord. The people of Israel, who were given a special and unique relationship with the God of creation, have rejected both the relationship and the One who extended this gift to them in the first place.
God laments that the people did not call upon him. They didn’t call upon the One True God who rescued their ancestors from slavery in Egypt by bringing them through a wilderness land of deserts and pits where no person has ever lived. God carried them through a place where history and civilization have never touched, a land on the edge of existence because no one has ever lived there, a land hostile to life itself. It always has been and always will be absolutely desolate.
In the movie Laurence of Arabia there is a scene where Laurence leads a small army across the scorching desert and captures the impregnable fortress of Aqaba in a surprise attack from the rear. After the victory, Laurence decides the fastest way to get word to the British forces in Egypt is to cross the Sinai Peninsula. The Arabs who are with him tell him he’s nuts, that no one can cross the Sinai. Laurence says, “Moses did it.” His Arab friend replies, “Moses was a prophet!” But Laurence will not be dissuaded, and he sets off to cross the Sinai from Aqaba to Egypt. It’s an absolutely horrid journey, and one of his servant boys is killed by being sucked into a sand pit.
In the forty-year wilderness sojourn, the impossible happened! The God of history took Israel’s ancestors through realms untouched before. Where no one crosses, God led them across! The fact that God led a people through this inhospitable nightmare land, caring for their needs along the way, and bringing them out safely on the other side to a fruitful land full of good things, shows God’s tender and loving care for them. This period of time in the wilderness is still viewed by Jews as one of the most intimate of times between God and Israel.
But just as God’s love of Israel has an ancient history, so too has the people’s rejection of God. When the people entered the Promised Land, God accused them of defiling it and making God’s heritage an abomination. You see, when Israel entered the land, God didn’t give the land to Israel. In Jeremiah, God calls it “my land,” and this is consistent with Leviticus 25:23 which states, “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants.” (NRSV).
The Promised Land belongs to God. Yet, because of Israel’s unfaithfulness, the land became defiled. It is a term that is used in reference to various sins as well as pagan idolatry: basically everything offensive to the Lord. These sinful things defile the very ground upon which they are done. Thus, Israel has defiled God’s land and made it loathsome; an abomination. Even the priests and scribes of the Law failed to call upon God to the point that they no longer knew the Lord. The rulers transgressed against The Lord. The prophets prophesied in the name of Baal, who was not a god at all. The people went after things that do not profit, which can also be translated as “nothingness.”
This act is unheard of! So God is filing a lawsuit against the House of Israel. Witnesses are then summoned and are urged to search the lands west to east: from Cyprus in the Mediterranean Sea to Kedar far to the east for precedents of this nature. Nations simply do not change their gods! Yet, this is exactly what Israel has done. They have exchanged their glory for something that has no profit or benefit. At this, God says, “Be appalled, O heavens, at this, be shocked, be utterly desolate!” (NRSV).
Then comes the indictment. God says the people have committed two crimes against him: First, they have forsaken God who is the fountain of living water; Second, the people have dug out wells – or cisterns – for themselves which are cracked and can hold no water. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a cistern, but the ones I’ve seen in Israel get stagnant and nasty very quickly. You have to continually line them with plaster to keep them from leaking. No one in their right mind would choose to drink from a cistern when a spring of running water is readily available. But that is the comparison God makes for what Israel has done.
They’ve chosen to drink from the foul, stinky, stagnant, nasty, make-you-gag, gross water down in the dregs of a leaky cistern rather than drink from the life-giving, thirst-quenching, soul-quickening water from the cool, bubbling, refreshingly running spring. A spring produces water in and of itself, while a cistern does not, and has to be filled and refilled. The people have rejected God—the fountain of living water—and tried to make it on their own by digging a cistern that doesn’t even work.
Who does that? Who makes that kind of choice? Well, sometimes we do. We all have our own cracked cisterns that we’ve dug for ourselves when we’re too busy chasing after our own selfish desires instead of following God’s will and keeping absolute faith with the God of creation. It’s easy to make this kind of trade in America where our culture so values rugged individualism and the American Dream of wealth and power. But sometimes chasing the American Dream means trading in the spring of living water for our own self-dug, cracked cistern. After all, Paul writes, “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.” (1 Timothy 6:10, NRSV). So where have you dug your cracked cisterns?
In Revelation, the church is spoken of as the Bride of Christ. We are espoused to God. Husbands and wives both expect absolute loyalty and faithfulness from their spouses. And that is what God expects from his own people. There is no room for unfaithfulness on Israel’s part, nor is there room for such a thing in the Church. God demands loyalty and faithfulness just as Joy demands mine as her husband, and I demand hers as my wife.
But really, demand isn’t the best way of putting it. While we might say that God demands our loyalty, the reality of what happens in betrothal and marriage is a lot gentler than the somewhat forceful word “demand” allows. When I do premarital counseling I often ask the couple why they want to get married in the church. To date, I have never had a couple list out their demands and say they wanted to get married because they demand love, and faithfulness, and devotion from this person, “and they’ll just have to get used to it ’cause those are my demands and we’re getting married.”
What I often hear is how much this woman loves this man, and how much this man loves this woman, and they tell me how much they want to give themselves to this other person, this object of their love, for the rest of their lives. When two people are espoused, they give not only their loyalty and faithfulness to each other, but they give their whole selves to each other willingly.
God has given us—each of us—a pledge of loyalty and faithfulness in the sacrificial blood of his Son, Jesus Christ. God has offered to us God’s own self and withheld nothing. God loves us in a way and to a depth that we cannot even imagine. Ours is only to respond to God’s love and offer ourselves to God, not because God demands it, but because we willingly accept God’s love for us, and we desire to be loved by this God who created the heavens and the earth.
If any of us have managed to dig a cracked cistern for ourselves, it’s time to stop trying to patch it. It’s time to turn back to the spring of living water that refreshes, fills, and satisfies us to the deepest part of our being. God is calling us back. Are you going to return to the spring of living water, or are you going to keep trying to patch that cracked hole in the ground? God loves us enough to give us a choice in the matter.
For me, the words of Joshua come to mind after he led the people into the Promised Land and settled the people in their place, “Now if you are unwilling to serve the LORD, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD” (Joshua 24:15, NRSV).
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!