Broken Cisterns


“For My people have committed two evils: They have forsaken Me, the fountain of living waters, And hewn themselves cisterns—broken cisterns that can hold no water.” (Jeremiah 2:13)

Nearly 27 centuries ago, the prophet Jeremiah delivered God’s message of pending judgment to the nation of Judah. Some 150 years prior to Jeremiah’s ministry, Judah’s northern neighbor, the nation of Israel, had been taken captive by Assyria. Both nations had capitulated broadly to idolatry. Although Judah had experienced earlier periods of revival, with the death of faithful King Josiah it became a pagan nation, falling into gross immorality, open political corruption, and a deplorable form of cultic Baal idolatry.

God’s Comparison

It is a bit difficult for us to understand the significance of the holy anger expressed by the Lord through Jeremiah toward the nation of Judah. Part of that difficultly lies in our unfamiliarity with the use of “cisterns”— particularly as God identifies Himself as a “fountain of living waters” and condemns the pathetic attempt of the nation to build “broken cisterns” to replace the “living waters” supplied by Jehovah.

Most of us will remember the Lord Jesus’ interchange with the Samaritan woman recorded in chapter four of John’s gospel. She had come to draw water out of a public well—Jacob’s well in this case—that was very similar in construction to the cisterns of antiquity, which were pits dug around a ground spring (living water) or an underground water table, then enlarged and plastered to hold a significant quantity of water. Most villages and nearly all cities had such a cistern that was maintained by the responsible government of the area and made available to the local citizens.

Some private homeowners built private cisterns, usually on the top of their houses, that were used to catch rainwater or to conveniently store enough for household needs. These private cisterns were rarely used for drinking water since they could easily be contaminated. But the “government cisterns” were constantly cleaned and routinely purged to provide fresh “living water” for the population.

The Samaritan woman came to the well to draw the water she needed to live. Jesus told her that He could give her “living water”—an internal spring of water—that would provide eternal life (John 4:11-14; compare John 7:38). That is the sense in which the Lord told Jeremiah that the people of Judah had forsaken the “fountain of living waters” and were attempting to construct “cisterns” that would not, and indeed, could not, hold any of the eternal water that came only from God. Any cistern we create for ourselves will be a broken cistern.

Rabshakeh’s Taunt

Earlier, during the reign of Hezekiah, Sennacherib of Assyria sent his army under General Rabshakeh to threaten the nation of Judah. Hezekiah—a rare faithful king like Josiah—had recently completed the construction of an underground water tunnel to carry a large stream of “living water” into Jerusalem. He “stopped the water outlet of Upper Gihon, and brought the water by tunnel to the west side of the City of David” (2 Chronicles 32:30) and “made a reservoir between the two walls for the water of the old pool” (Isaiah 22:11).

Thus, the city of Jerusalem was given a secure and sanitary source of fresh water for the needs of its population, and was prepared for an Assyrian siege should it come. And come it did as the huge army under Rabshakeh arrived on the outskirts of Jerusalem. The city quickly buttoned up to prepare for war, and Hezekiah sent out an envoy of his key counselors to meet with Rabshakeh and attempt to stave off a debilitating siege and a likely carnage.

Rabshakeh would have no parley. Brazenly, he strode to within shouting distance of the wall of Jerusalem (which was lined with the citizenry) and taunted them to forget the provisions of Hezekiah and Hezekiah’s God. That speech promised the population of Jerusalem that if they would give up control to Assyria, pay tribute to Sennacherib, and worship the much more powerful gods of Assyria, they (the citizens of Jerusalem) would enjoy the benefits of a peaceful relationship with the greatest nation on Earth.

“Do not listen to Hezekiah; for thus says the king of Assyria: ‘Make peace with me by a present and come out to me; and every one of you eat from his own vine and every one from his own fig tree, and every one of you drink the waters of his own cistern.’” (2 Kings 18:31)

Revival Came with Judah’s Refusal

Fortunately, King Hezekiah and the nation of Judah listened to God’s prophet Isaiah and refused the bluster and false promises of Rabshakeh. They trusted in the direction and counsel of God and His personal promise of protection given through Isaiah. And God delivered.

“Therefore thus says the LORD concerning the king of Assyria: ‘He shall not come into this city, Nor shoot an arrow there, Nor come before it with shield, Nor build a siege mound against it. By the way that he came, By the same shall he return; And he shall not come into this city,’ Says the LORD. ‘For I will defend this city, to save it For My own sake and for My servant David’s sake.’” And it came to pass on a certain night that the angel of the LORD went out, and killed in the camp of the Assyrians one hundred and eighty-five thousand; and when people arose early in the morning, there were the corpses—all dead. (2 Kings 19:32-35)

Broken Cisterns

Some things are fairly obvious. Anything that we do that forsakes the living waters provided by the God of creation will fail. He is “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). “Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). All “other gospels,” no matter where or how they come, are to be totally rejected (Galatians 1:8-9). Most evangelicals enthusiastically embrace an exclusive gospel that is only provided by the grace of God given through the substitutionary death of the Lord Jesus on the cross of Calvary and gloriously demonstrated as effective by the physical resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth—the risen Christ is living proof of His victory!

But not all do so. There are “broken cisterns” being built in seminaries and departments of religion in universities across our land. These man-made cisterns appear to hold water but they leak because their foundations are not built on the Word of God. Some teach a universal salvation—the belief that ultimately all will be saved because God is good and would not eternally punish His creation with an eternal hell. Others promote a cooperative relationship whereby we maintain our salvation by good works and a careful adherence to certain systems and sacraments. Still others propose that salvation is ushered in as mankind becomes more “godlike”—that humanity will ultimately embrace the best of all religions and philosophies, becoming “one” with that which offends no one. These various kinds of theology have one thing in common: They each turn their back on the authority of God’s Word and the efficacy of His gospel. May God rebuke those who teach them.

Slow-Leaking Cisterns

There are, however, more subtle breaks than these in the cisterns that men construct to store the “living water” of our great God. As we mature in our relationship with the Lord, much of our faith is dependent on our trust in the accuracy and authority of His revealed Word. The very first sin was brought about through the manipulation of Eve by the Adversary, who deceived her into doubting what God had said. This then led her to entertain the thought that God either could not or would not do as He said He would, and finally to suspect the very character and nature of God, and even ascribe malicious and self-serving deception to the Creator in His instructions for His creation.

Many times in the New Testament we are warned not to fall into the same trap of the “broken cisterns” of man-made philosophy.

Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ. (Colossians 2:8)

O Timothy! Guard what was committed to your trust, avoiding the profane and idle babblings and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge—by professing it some have strayed concerning the faith. (1 Timothy 6:20-21)

You therefore, beloved, since you know this beforehand, beware lest you also fall from your own steadfastness, being led away with the error of the wicked. (2 Peter 3:17)

At the foundation of all false doctrine is the rejection of who God is. The classic overview that our Lord gave to the apostle Paul recorded in Romans 1:18-25 should be sufficient to focus our minds and hearts on the ultimate problem with “broken cisterns.” This passage makes clear that who and what God has done is observable to everyone by “the things that are made.” When anyone rejects that knowledge, there is no longer any excuse. Once the “living water” is rejected—whether by a nation, an organization, or by an individual—any man-made cistern is insufficient to hold the great truths of the Creator because that cistern exchanges “the truth of God for the lie” and sets up a man-made device that worships “the creature rather than the Creator.” The Scriptures are clear! “Living water” comes from God alone. Any cistern that we manufacture from our own knowledge or capabilities will always be broken.

* Dr. Morris is Chief Executive Officer of the Institute for Creation Research.

Cite this article: Henry Morris III, D.Min. 2014. Broken Cisterns. Acts & Facts. 43 (5).