We are Broken Cisterns

Jeremiah 2:13 (NIV) 13 “My people have committed two sins:
They have forsaken me,
the spring of living water,
and have dug their own cisterns,
broken cisterns that cannot hold water.

(NIV) 23 “How can you say, ‘I am not defiled;
I have not run after the Baals’?
See how you behaved in the valley;
consider what you have done…”

God confronts his people through Jeremiah the prophet in this passage and accuses them of two evils. They have replaced God and in so doing have created for themselves profitless idols. This is the nature of the problem, to go away from the God of the covenant is to plunge into self-destructive sin that leads to horrendous evils as alluded to in Jer 2:23 (the valley refers to the Valley of Hinnom where the Israelites practiced harrowing evils including child sacrifices).

There is no end to the amount of reflections that exist on this passage. Yet, it seems that Israel’s sin is the recurring sin of God’s people in every era and continues to take on new forms, in that they replace God with other gods that fail. Of the gods that have become contenders to Yahweh in the modern stage, the autonomous self has risen up the ranks in subtle ways. Different words have been used to describe this trajectory in history from anthropocentrism to humanism. While some of this history has lent itself to the remarkable ethical progress in circumventing social hierarchies, majority violence, and oppression, it has also created other predicaments. Namely, the deification of the self and the destructive repercussions of its unsustainability.

We are not self-determining, self-creating, utterly autonomous, monads, despite the popular rhetoric of our day. We are dependant creatures, regularly at the will of others and at the benevolence of those we may not know. The road we walk on is made by someone else, the food we eat is planted and harvested by someone we may not know, the good gifts we enjoy are often by the generosity of people who have no clue we exist and the list goes on. It is not possible for anyone to repay for absolutely everything they own, they have received, or used. All is gift.

I guess this reality is far less visible in the west than in other parts of the world. In a recent conversation with a friend who is an engineer in the UK, he stated that the ultimate goal of all his tireless work is to reach financial freedom. That is, “to not be dependant on anybody,” so that he can then freely do what he wishes, which is of course do that which is beneficial for humanity. As much as I appreciate his sentiment, I am too much of a cynic to trust that most people seek financial freedom (or any other freedom for that matter) for the common good. At the root of it is this fundamental urge to break away and break free from any accountability, responsibility, or dependability, to God or neighbour.

This brings us to the muddy waters that we find ourselves in today. What about freedom from institutions and groups that have perpetrated or contributed to horrendous evils like racism, classism, authorial abuse, human right violations and so on? Shouldn’t individuals and communities who have received the short end of the stick for centuries seek freedoms that requires them to break away from such conditions? Yes, absolutely. However, movements like the civil rights movement and the abolitionist movement were not centered on the highly individualistic ideals of the 21st century. Martin Luther King, Jr., in Memphis, Tennessee, on 3 April 1968, where the city’s sanitation workers were striking, summed up his rallying cry when he said “Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness.”

There is a noticeable contrast between “dangerous unselfishness” and “dangerous selfishness” although they can both be garbed in the language of liberty and freedom. Both are dangerous in their own right, however, only one can achieve liberty from oppression for liberty to worship in community. One suspects authority, accountability, and institutions in and of themselves (and maybe rightly so), while the other goes further, it seeks to reform them. For without the latter the least amongst us are left vulnerable.

For some, to return to God is analogous to returning to the outdated traditions of yesteryear that are the true culprits behind the centuries of war and turmoil. Why must I worship an unseen God in the age of Science, where everything can be explained in naturalistic terms? Why am I not enough? Why can’t I believe in myself, my intuitions, my sentiments, my feelings, my notions of right and wrong, my aspirations for the common good? Well, much can be said in response, but the short answer is because we are “broken cisterns.”



I spend my time reading up on hot topics in theology and culture. I enjoy a cold drink and a good book.

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Nathanael Somanathan

I spend my time reading up on hot topics in theology and culture. I enjoy a cold drink and a good book.