Presented at Trinity Fellowhip on 6/18/00
Just like Isaiah, I am afraid Jeremiah would have had to make very few adjustments if he were plopped down to minister in 21st cent. America. Here too he would find a people who had known God (at least superficially) but turned away. Jeremiah prophecied just before the captivity of the Southern Kingdom in BC 587.
Judah was a vassal state to Nebuchadnezzar. Against Jeremiah's warning they had allied themselves to Pharaoh Neco of Egypt in a rebellion. When Nebuchadnezzar crushed this rebellion, they were carried into captivity in Babylon.
Now, there was a standard letter which a rebel vassal would receive from his emperor in those days. Its proper legal form included an appeal to the sky as witness, accusations of disloyalty implied in rhetorical questions, a list of past benefits which made the present rebellion inexcusable, and a reference to the futility of any expected outside aid. When you got one of these letters, an army was not far behind. In this light, the second chapter of Jeremiah becomes very interesting. There is the appeal to the sky in v. 12; the acusations in rhetorical questions in vv. 5, 11a; the list of past benefits in vv. 6-7; and the reference to futility in vv. 8e, 5d, 11c-d, and 13. But this letter is coming, not from Nebuchadnezzar, but from God (though the army will be Nebuchadnezzar's). The point of using this form is to emphasize Judah's disloyalty. They did not think of themselves as having forsaken Jehovah. But when we worship God in the high places contrary to his instructions (2 Chron. 33:17), worship him outwardly but not with the heart (Jer. 7:9-10), or worship him superficially (Jer. 6:14), then in his eyes we have committed treason (or, to vary the metaphor, spiritual adultery, Jer. 3:8) and will be treated as such.
The irony is that Judah had forsaken the true God and got nothing in return. They had forsaken the fountain of living water for cisterns that could hold no water (Jer. 2:13). In a desert economy, water for irrigation is very important. If you were lucky, you had a spring running on your property (living water). If not, you would have to carve a cistern out of the rocks to catch rain water. But because of the heating in the days and cooling at nights, the plastered rocks were always expanding and contracting, so these cisterns were continually developing leaks. They were a pain in the neck. So imagine the stupidity of a man out working like a dog on his cistern when right beside him there is a spring that never runs dry, bubbling merrily away.
What are some of the cisterns our generation turns to instead of the living Water? There is Materialism. But in spite of everyone's admiration for and envy of the wealthy, "Richard Cory one calm summer night / Went home and put a bullet through his head." There is Hedonism. But, as Housman remarks about the pursuit of pleasure (through alcohol), "Faith, 'tis pleasant 'til 'tis past; / The mischief is, it will not last." After lying down in "lovely muck," happy and carefree, Terence eventually has to wake again.
Then I saw the morning sky.
Heigh-ho, the tale was all a lie.
The world, it was the old world yet,
I was I, my things were wet,
And nothing now remained to do
But to begin the game anew.
For the more high-minded, what about humanism? But Solomon saw that the end of all secular modes of thinking is "vanity of vanities, all is vanity." They are all leaky cisterns. They do not hold water.
Therefore, let us return to the Fountain of Life. Jesus promised us rivers of living water. Isn't it amazing how hard some of us have to work for just a trickle? Why? One more poem, by Robert Frost, has the answer.
I'm going out to clean the pasture spring.The Spring is clogged with the leaves of unconfessed sin, neglect, misplaced priorities. Why? Because we've been working so hard on our cisterns. But I'm going out to clean the pasture spring. I won't be gone long. You come, too.
I'll only stop to clear the leaves away
And wait to watch the water clear, I may.
I shan't be gone long; you come too.
Here endeth the lesson.