Fickle Priests & Broken Cisterns

July 30th, 2009 by

cistern“I brought you into the fruitful land to eat its fruit and its good things. But you came and defiled My land, and My inheritance you made an abomination. The priests did not say, ‘Where is the Lord?’ And those who handle the law did not know Me…” -Jer. 2.7-8a

The situation with Judah in Jeremiah’s day was desperately grim. The once holy functions of the temple had been tainted with hypocrisy and idolatry, and the leaders of the nation, along with the nation itself, had been lulled to sleep by the spell of sinful pleasures. Jeremiah was one of a remnant of souls who still valued the word of the Lord, but even though the Spirit of God was resting profoundly upon him, and even though he had been praying and prophesying with clear statements from heaven, his words were not being heeded by the priests, the prophets, or the rulers of Judah. The nation’s response to his life and ministry is here summed up by Dr. Michael Brown:

…. despite forty years of incessant prophetic ministry by Jeremiah and clear indications that his words would be fulfilled- his people remained deaf to his warnings, suffering crushing defeat and exile.

(From his forthcoming commentary on the book of Jeremiah; Zondervan Publishing)

Verses 7 and 8 of Jeremiah 2 are a picture of the dramatic contrast between the fickleness of Judah’s leaders, and the unwavering faithfulness of the Lord. We see here a remarkable view of His kind intentions toward His people, and His plan to bring them “into the fruitful land to eat its fruit and its good things.” It becomes obvious that His desire is to bless them with a revelation of Himself, to crown them with lovingkindness and mercy, and to set them apart as His own Beloved people, a “light unto the nations.”

Tragically, as is elsewhere found in her history, Israel fell totally short of the Lord’s glorious intentions, and the downward spiritual spiral was so steep that the land, its leadership, and the nation itself was shot through with idolatry, presumption, indifference, and deception.

The priests had become so numb and accustomed to apostasy that they weren’t keen-hearted enough to ask, “Where is the Lord?” The glory of God had departed from the temple, but they were no longer jealous for His honor, no longer hungry to know Him in a vital way, no longer eager to come into that which He had desired for their lives or for their nation.

Instead, they had found a dubious niche in a self-serving paradigm, and the Lord of Creation, as He had revealed Himself, was excluded from their loyalties. Yahweh was grieved beyond measure, and so was His prophet Jeremiah. Hear Walter Brueggeman regarding the condition of Judah in that day:

No healing is possible. The sickness is too deep. The idolatry is too pervasive. Judah refuses the medicine that is available. The poet (and God) are pressed by this awareness to a new wave of grief.

…. The hurt in the face of Judah’s death requires and evokes more grief, more crying, and more tears than his [Jeremiah’s] body is capable of transmitting.

(A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile & Homecoming, Walter Brueggeman; Eerdmans Publishing, 1998; p. 94)

“Oh that my head were waters and my eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night for the slain of the daughter of my people!” (9.1)

The prophet Jeremiah, and Yahweh all the more, had been shattered with sorrow over the condition of Judah. The Lord had lavishly offered the blessing of Himself, and His people- unwilling to rightly value His ways- had fallen headlong into sin, and made His inheritance into an “abomination.”

How is it that an inheritance, something which God Himself has initiated and given, could be distorted to the extent that it becomes an abomination? How can land that He has made holy and given so freely become a defiled land, if He Himself is the Author of that covenantal gift? True to His word, He will keep His promises with Israel, and all that He has intended for them will be fulfilled once and for all when He has His way in the hearts of His people. But the tragic reality is that in Jeremiah’s day, the vast majority of those who had heard His name and been touched by His promises had allowed the power of sin to snuff out the presence and word of the One who had given Himself to them so unselfishly.

“Yahwism,” as the OT scholars call the faith of Israel’s patriarchs and prophets, required an ultimate consecration of the heart and life to Yahweh. He had revealed Himself to Israel as the One true God, and He required an allegiance of the utmost kind. Any measure of affection given to other gods was an abomination in His eyes. “Yahwism” became too much for a people who desired to cling to their sin, and the events leading up to Judah’s judgment and exile are filled with backslidings, the hardening of hearts, and a turning away from the reality of worship. O.T. scholar Adam C. Welch had these remarkable thoughts to add to the picture, suggesting that “Israel trades gods because this One is too demanding”:

…. Israel forsook Yahweh, because the relation to Him was full of ethical content…. Yahwism had this iron core in it. The iron core was that Israel could only have Yahweh on His own terms…. Yahwism was no colorless faith which was simply the expression of the people’s pride in itself and its destiny. It laid a curb on men, it had a yoke and bonds. The bonds were those of love, but love’s bonds are the most enduring and the most exacting.

(Jeremiah: His Time and His Word; Adam C. Welch, Oxford: Blackwell, 1951; p. 183, as quoted in Brueggeman’s Jeremiah)

The history of Israel is marked with awesome demonstrations of the nature and power of God, but in Jeremiah’s day, they had set aside the revelation of the Lord to follow after gods of wood and stone. The prophet was a lonely, weeping figure, calling them back to Yahweh, back to holy ethics, and back to the primacy of whole-hearted worship. Catastrophically, the majority of the nation rejected Jeremiah and his message, and by doing that, rejected God Himself.

This is the horrific result of what becomes of a people who are being led by priests and rulers that handle the law, but do not know the Lord. To know the Lord is to be overcome with His kindness and mercy. To know the Lord is to bask in His ways and to relish in the place of prayer. To know the Lord is to tremble delightfully at His word, and to despise that which grieves His heart. To know the Lord is to desire the setting forth of His Son in the darkest places of the world. To know the Lord is to long for justice to “roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Am. 5.24)

I am afraid we are facing the same grave conditions in the Church of modern America that Judah was facing in Jeremiah’s day. We have swept aside the Gospel of Jesus and the apostles and replaced it with a message that is less requiring, less demanding, and altogether inglorious. Our congregations are often made up of souls who are not willing to “have Yahweh on His own terms.” We want to have a packaged religion, one that we can control, that will never surprise us, and that is devoid of the element of inward consecration. The glory of God has departed from the temple, and scarce few are discerning or truthful enough to ask, “Where is the Lord?” We have grown content with something so far beneath the glory of His intentions that we hardly know how to hunger after Him.

So many of our pastors have lost a value for the Scriptures, and are relying on all kinds of methods and novel ideas to enlarge their congregations. The “iron core” of “Yahwism,” which is whole-hearted worship and obedience, and the clarion call to righteousness and selfless love can be seen on precious few occasions. Idolatry is mingled throughout the Body, with saints gawking at American Idol, chasing after greater and more pricy possessions in entertainment and fashion, and our bellies are our gods. Fasting is a rare phenomenon in most places, and buffets are hit the hardest on Sunday afternoons. We know very little about self-control, and it raises a question as to how deeply we have really been immersed in the Holy Spirit. The nation is perishing under the weight of sin and rebellion, and we are often paying its way, having bought in to the consumeristic lie.

The word of Jeremiah is the same to the American Church as it was to Judah:

“Be appalled, O heavens, at this, and shudder, be very desolate,” declares the Lord. “For My people have committed two evils: They have forsaken Me, the fountain of living waters, to hew for themselves cisterns, broken cisterns that can hold no water.” (2.12-13)

I am convinced that we have hewn up broken cisterns for ourselves. We have settled for a few hours of religion a week, while the abiding life of Christ is neglected in the realm of real life. We get an emotional lift in a church meeting and think we are doing God a service, but we have shirked off the true call of the cross, which Jesus said His disciples would take up daily. Our compartmentalized Christianity- this pathetically broken cistern- does not hold Living Water, and the lives of the saints show it. We need to break loose from the bonds of this age, shut down the distracting forces and all that robs our affections from Him. We need to return with all of our hearts to the Lord, the Fountain of Life.

We need desperately to enjoin our hearts with the prophet’s cry before it is too late for our nation. If the Church doesn’t come into the reality of faith, truth, and consecration, our witness and testimony will become a mere religious opinion; a harmless spiritual option among many; a diluted, powerless consideration, rather than an apostolic Gospel which, when proclaimed, will cause men to turn “from idols to serve a living and true God, and to wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath to come.” (1 Thess. 1.9-10)

Can we break off the mingling of our hearts with the lies of this age, and plunge headlong into the Fountain of Living waters? Can we shatter the broken cisterns of compromise and timidity, and allow the Lord to make us into vessels of the abiding Life? Can we cease religious performance and twice-a-week emotionally based Christianity, and take up our crosses daily, following the Lamb wheresoever He goes? O, for a total consecration of our hearts to Him! O, for love that springs always from the Fountain of Life! O, for holiness that burns brightly in this crooked and perverse generation. O, for God to be glorified in His Church, and an apostolic witness to “turn the world upside down” again!


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