Broken Cisterns
Jeremiah 2:13
For my people have committed two evils; they have forsaken me the fountain of living waters, and hewed them out cisterns…

I. The first cistern which attracts our attention is one of SENSUALISM. The youth who is working at it with mallet and chisel, and with hot and fevered face, dreams that the highest enjoyment of life is that which comes through the senses. He will inform you that he regards man as an animal more than anything else, and that it behoves him to listen to the cry of his passions and to satisfy it. He will demand of you why his passions were lodged in his heart, if they were not to govern him. But the sensualist reasons as if he forgets two most important points. He forgets that the passions are no longer what once they were. He reasons as if the soul were still as it was when it came bright and sinless from its Creator's hands; as if its original harmony and balance were undisturbed; as if there had been no obscuration of the moral sense and no inflammation of the passions. And he forgets, too, that while the soul has passions they have their due place assigned them in the economy of our constitution, and that that place is not the throne but the footstool. They can never sit in the throne but by revolt, rebellion, and usurpation. Their position is one of service, a service, too, assigned them by a pure conscience and an enlightened judgment. I said the sensualist forgets these two important points rebut does he not forget another? He strives to hew out a cistern of satisfaction by gratifying his passions; but has he not yet learned from observation, if his own experience has not taught him, that from their very nature the passions can never yield a constant happiness? The more they are indulged, the less they can be gratified. The pampered appetite becomes the jaded appetite, and at length becomes the diseased and ruined appetite. And the man who is hewing out for himself a cistern of sensual pleasure is like the dram drinker, who derives less stimulus and delight from the same quantity every day, who has accordingly to increase the dose to supply the same excitement; who at length gets beyond the range of gratification, but finds that the passion holds him fast in its serpent coils even when all its joys are forever fled.

II. We find another earnest worker who is hewing out a cistern of WEALTH. No sooner do we reach him than he begins to pour out his contempt of the man we have just left. He wonders how it is possible for any one with an atom of sense to spend his life and strength at such a cistern as that — a cistern which, even if it could be made to hold water, proclaims the mean and degraded character of the man who could drink it. Then turning to his own cistern he points with evident pride at this monument of his superior wisdom; expatiates on the various powers of wealth; tells us how "money answereth all things," how it has ministered to the growth of nations, to the development of civilisation, to the creation and sustentation of commerce, to the advancement of the arts and sciences, to the physical and moral improvement of mankind, and even to the extension of the Gospel itself. Now what shall we say to this man? It will not serve any good purpose to call him hard names. You cannot scold a man out of any sin, still less out of the sin of covetousness. Nor must we bluntly deny all that he has said in praise of wealth. It is when we find men mistaking its functions and properties, and labouring to hew out of it a cistern of satisfaction, that we are constrained to remind them that such a cistern will hold no water. Christ speaks of the deceitfulness of riches. I wonder where the man is who can raise an intelligent and experienced protest against the epithet. Wealth is the feeder of avarice, not its satisfaction. It inflames the thirst, it does not quench it. But, would you learn the weakness of wealth as well as its power, look at the narrow limits within which after all its efficacy is bounded. If there are times when one feels that money answereth all things, there are times when one feels still more keenly that it answereth nothing. When the brain becomes bewildered, or its substance begins to yield and soften, what can a man's wealth do for him then? If you travel on the sea, and a destructive storm falls upon your vessel, will the waves that engulph the poor retire in bashful respect for a wealthy man? The digger of this well has said something about the power of wealth: is it not well that he should learn, too, its powerlessness in regard to many of the great needs and sorrows of life? It cannot give you health; it cannot give you talent; it cannot give you the real and abiding respect of your fellow men; it cannot give you peace of mind; it cannot save your wife or children; it cannot avert death and its preliminary horrors and pains from yourself.

III. But we must leave this worker, and make our way to another who is hewing out the cistern of INTELLECTUALISM. He is clearly a higher type of man. There is a refinement about his appearance which shows that his communion has been with the thoughts of poets and philosophers He expatiates on the intrinsic greatness of man; on his immortality; on his reason, that "vision and faculty divine"; on the unapproachable supereminence of man over all the universe around him. Knowledge, he says, is the thing for man. For this we were made. It is the element in which we are to live, and without this there is no life worthy of man. And yet, somehow, there seems a shade of sadness upon that face now that his glowing excitement has passed away. Aye, it is even so. He tells us that he is not yet satisfied; that he is hoping to be; that with all his knowledge he feels more ignorant than wise; that if he gets fresh light he seems only to realise more fully the fact that he is standing on the border of a vaster territory of darkness; that if he solves one mystery it serves but to show a thousand more; and that he has been striving, too, for many years at some difficulties which have hitherto beaten him back in hopeless confusion. We assure him that this need not distress him, for with his limited capacities he cannot expect to understand all things at once, and that while it is true that death will for a moment interrupt his speculations and researches, there is eternity before him with its illimitable scope and opportunities. He is paler now than ever, and seizes convulsively his mallet and chisel, and works away with averted face at his cistern, muttering between every stroke, Death, death; ah! it is death which troubles one. What is death? — what will it be to me? Why should I die? and if I must die, why should I fear to die?

IV. While thus he muses and mutters, let us visit the cistern of MORALITY. Its owner accosts us at once as follows: "And so you have been visiting my learned neighbour yonder. He is incurable, and I would fain believe, insane, He has the fancy, that man is nothing but intellect, and that our whole mission in this world is to acquire knowledge. I have told him once and again, that if this were the chief end of man he need not to have had either affections or conscience, and that we are moral creatures as well as intellectual ones. Now, the cistern which I have been working at for years is the cistern of morality and good living, for it is clear that we ought to love God with all our hearts, and minds, and strength and our neighbours as ourselves; and that, in fact, our happiness lies in this, and in nothing else. And it is delightful to have something which one's own hands have made, to have a righteousness we ourselves have wrought out, and for which we are indebted to no one." Thus speaks the man, and while he speaks we have been looking at the cistern, which is not without its beauty, and which shows traces and proofs of long and careful working; and we have seen, or think we have seen, chinks great and small which do not promise well for the serviceableness of the cistern, if it be meant, as it is meant, to hold water. Has it been made exactly according to the pattern which you have specified, namely, that you love God with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your strength, and your neighbour as yourself? Will it hold any water? And the man, chagrined to have the perfectness of his work called in question, replies: "I know that as yet it will hold no water, but it is not finished. I am striving to fill up the defects and openings with mortar — with the mortar of sorrow for the past, and endeavours to do better for the future." But what, we ask, if the mortar be as porous as the stone? What if it will not hold water any more than the cistern? What if future obedience cannot repair the mischief of the past? What if repentance without Christ itself needs to be repented of? What if even an awakened conscience itself refuses to accept the part for the whole? And what if God say, "By the deeds of the law shall no flesh living be justified"? And what if there be a special condemnation for those who, "going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves to the righteousness of God"?

V. As we retrace our steps and visit the other cisterns, lo! we find that THE WORKERS WORK NO MORE. The end has come to all. And on the cistern of the scholar we find the inscription, as if traced by a mystic hand, "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; but fools despise wisdom and instruction." And on the cistern of the worldling we find, "So is every man that layeth up treasure for himself, and is not rich towards God." And on the cistern of the sensualist we find, "To be carnally minded is death." And as we look within we find that all is parched and dry as summer dust, and that the description is awfully exact and literal: "Cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water."

(E. Mellor, D. D.)

Parallel Verses
KJV: For my people have committed two evils; they have forsaken me the fountain of living waters, and hewed them out cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water.

WEB: "For my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the spring of living waters, and cut them out cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water.

Broken Cisterns
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