Reflections on Jeremiah 2: Broken Cisterns

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Reflections on Jeremiah 2: Broken Cisterns

I have a scrapbook full of all the ticket stubs, program notes, pressed flowers, and museum brochures that I collected while my husband and I were dating. Each slip of paper or withered petal reminds me of a particular moment, a place and time etched in my memory, tinged with all the happiness and excitement of romance. Sometimes I look over all these bits and pieces and read my corresponding journal entries; they remind me of the reasons why I fell in love with my husband. It’s not that I need constant reminding, but the shared memories, built up over the years, help bind us together.


“I remember the devotion of your youth . . .” So begins God’s proclamation to Jerusalem through Jeremiah (vs. 2:2, ESV). I remember, God says, “your love as a bride, how you followed (halak in Hebrew) me in the wilderness, in a land not sown.” The basic plot of most love stories suggests to us that God is remembering in one of two ways: either He is remembering Jerusalem’s devotion as a happily married couple remembers when they were young and in love, or He is remembering as a husband or wife might remember right before a separation or divorce—thinking of happier times, wondering what could have gone wrong.


In Jeremiah 2:4, God begins His account of the unfaithfulness of Israel, and clarifies what kind of “remembering” He is engaged in. His question, “What wrong did your fathers find in me…” is heart-rending. God is a spouse abandoned without cause. The “following” (halak) of Israel the bride that we saw in 2:2 has been reversed. Now Israel has gone up (`alah) from God and follows after (halak) worthlessness.


It is more than Israel’s unfaithfulness that distresses God. It is their forgetfulness. It is as if He, the God of the universe and their deliverer, does not exist. In verse 6, He says “They did not say, ‘Where is the Lord who brought us up (`alah) from the land of Egypt, who led (halak) us in the wilderness…” Notice the repeated words that Jeremiah uses to connect the concepts of following/leading (halak) and going up/being brought up (`alah).


God wanted to journey together with the Israelites. He brought them up from Egypt, He accompanied them through the wilderness. But Israel struck out on a solitary journey, leaving God and following instead after worthlessness, vanity, emptiness.


In Jeremiah 2, God is the rejected lover and the prosecutor in what reads almost like a divorce proceedings.[i] He lays out His case against Israel, describing their infidelity from multiple angles.


I was particularly struck by God’s accusation against Israel in verse 13: “They have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water.” This is painfully reiterated in verses 17-18: “Have you not brought this upon yourself by forsaking the Lord your God, when he led you in the way? And now what 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?” Israel is too easily satisfied. It is not just that Israel has given up God. Israel has turned to gods that are so far beneath divinity that it is a joke. Israel does not feel the need for a fountain of living waters, because the dirty waters of the Nile satisfy their perceived needs just fine, thank you.


In Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken, she describes the thirst of men lost at sea. The trouble with being thirsty at sea is that you are surrounded by water you can’t drink. Saltwater only makes you thirstier. In order for the human body to process saltwater, it has to pull water from the body, causing further dehydration, which can be fatal.[ii]


It strikes me that this is the trouble with sin. It does not actual satisfy the thirst; it worsens it. You can’t just sin once and be satisfied. Sin drives you back again and again to satisfy an ever-growing need for more. This is the story that seems to be playing out in Jeremiah 2. Not satisfied with God, Israel leaves Him to go on a rampage, which is likened to that of a wild donkey in heat (verse 24). They are not merely following after worthlessness, they are practically chasing it (verse 23)! All the metaphorical actions referred to in the poem—whether drinking water from foreign rivers, acting like a donkey in the wilderness, or playing the unfaithful bride—are intended to astonish the listener/reader with Israel’s unfaithfulness.


As I have been reading this chapter over the last few weeks, I have sympathized with Jeremiah and with God. How could Israel forget what God had done? How could they allow themselves to self-destruct, having abandoned their identity and the collective memory of God’s salvific actions on their behalf?


Today, I sympathize with Israel. Not that I would ever want to forget God or intentionally look for water elsewhere, but sometimes I do. I drink deeply from the muddy waters of media, the internet, and other distractions, but often struggle to sit still long enough to dig into the word of God. I am easily satisfied by a Youtube video or an upbeat song, turning to sources of entertainment for consolation rather than to prayer. I know, it sounds trite. But I think that’s how it all starts. Israel didn’t suddenly decide to reject God. It was a gradual process, an ambling away.


C.S. Lewis, in his sermon “The Weight of Glory,” notes that “It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”[iii]


I find that, like Israel and the mud-pie-making child, I am too often content with that which is right in front of me. I am so hopelessly tactile and visual. And impatient. The land of milk and honey is not somewhere you simply arrive. There is a wilderness to get through, and we humans are prone to wander. Like the woman at the well, I need to be reminded of the Source of living water. My cistern may be broken and dry, but I know where I can find water to quench my thirst.



[i] Walter Brueggemann, A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Return (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 34.

[ii] Lauren Hillenbrand, ‪Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption (New York: Random House, 2010), 134.

[iii] C.S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory,” accessed October 7, 2016,

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About the author

Sarah Burton

Sarah Burton holds an MA in Religion from Andrews University. She currently works as a freelance writer and editor in Ooltewah, Tennessee where she lives with her husband Kevin, toddler, and dog. (Photo taken by Jennifer Shrestha)