Jeremiah 2:4-13

Jeremiah: The Indictment

Dr. Randy L. Hyde

My guess is that the one profession represented most in our congregation is the legal community. Just a quick and very rudimentary count found me immediately coming up with seven lawyers in our church. And if I were to go through the church rolls and study them carefully I’m sure I would find some more of our church members who represent the bar.

Don’t be surprised. It’s true of my Rotary club as well. Lawyers are not, shall we say, in short supply these days.

That was probably true in Jeremiah’s time as well. Which is why, though it is not so obvious in the English translation, this passage from the prophet’ s ministry is filled with legal language. The imagery is that of a lawsuit, and it’s God who is doing the suing! Israel is the defendant and is on the witness stand. Jeremiah, serving as prosecuting attorney, is grilling the witness on behalf of his plaintiff, who just happens to be God.

What wrong did your fathers find in me
that they went far from me,
and went after worthlessness,
and became worthless themselves?

Next question…

Has a nation changed its gods,
even though they are no gods?

And then the indictment…

My people have changed their glory
for something that does not profit…
For my people have committed two evils:
they have forsaken me,
the fountain of living water,
and dug out cisterns for themselves,
cracked cisterns that can hold no water.

Let’s go back to the first question put to Israel the witness, the one about worthlessness. The Hebrew word hahabel conveys the image of a brief wind or breath. It speaks of nothingness.

What Jeremiah is saying to his people is not that they have failed to be religious. Why, church attendance is at an all-time high. No, what he is saying is much worse. All their religious activity means nothing. It’s like a constant diet of junk food… all calories but no substance. They can go to church all they want, but God looks not only on the places where your legs take you. God also sees where your heart is. And if your heart is not tuned to God’s kingdom, you can break every attendance record there is. It will do you no good if you’re not in church for the right reason.

And Israel goes to church for all the wrong reasons. Jeremiah is telling them that covenant between God and his people has been broken, and they are the guilty party. They have become hahabel, a worthless breath of shallow air. The chosen children of God have exchanged their one, true, living God for worthlessness, for a vapor quickly seen and just as quickly gone.

But it’s not just Jeremiah’s generation that is guilty. They come by their attitude naturally. Their parents and grandparents did the same…

What wrong did your ancestors find in me
that they went far from me,
and went after worthless things,
and became worthless themselves?

You know me well enough by now to be aware that I am not one to preach much on judgment. But I do believe that the sins of fathers and mothers are visited upon their children when it comes to their having to live with the consequences of the behavior. When I talk with young couples about to be married, and ask their plans in regard to family and bringing children into the world, I caution them about something. I believe they will be held accountable for the manner in which they instruct their children in the faith. If they do not do all they can to bring up their children, as the Bible says, “in the admonition of the Lord,” judgment will be visited upon them. At the same time we are responsible for ourselves, we are also responsible for those who come after us and those who come after them.

That makes what Paul and Sandy Thomas are doing that much more remarkable. (Note: earlier in the worship service, a dedication was held for the Thomas’ who are adopting Brandee and Carmen, sisters ages 10 and 13.) Not only are they creating family, they are asking their church family to be at the center of what they are doing. God, I believe, is taking note. We are responsible not only for ourselves but also for those who come after us.

Perhaps my perspective has been shaped by the fact that I am a baby boomer. My contemporaries were the drop-out generation, influenced by such cultural cataclysms as Vietnam and Watergate. We learned to distrust institutions. And the established church, to us, was an institution. So, we did not take our children to church, and now we are paying for it. Look at our own congregation. The one generation that is not here, for the most part, is my age group and our children. We rejected the church, and in its place we took unto ourselves the gods of materialism, secularism, and a lot of other isms. And if you think this distrust has not had an effect on younger generations, then why are so many children today – the grandchildren of baby boomers – being home schooled? Why do so few people vote? Because of this lingering distrust of institutions.

Our children are now raising children of their own. Recognizing that they want to do better for their offspring than we did for them, they are searching for something they feel we did not offer them. And for that reason, among others, the church is undergoing more change right now than ever before. Our children are coming back to church somewhat, but are unwilling for church to be as we have left it to them. Old traditions no longer get the job done, and the churches that do not find new and creative ways of sharing the gospel are dying on the vine.

A SERMONWRITER SUBSCRIBER SAYS:  “I used to spend about 15 to 20 hours on exegesis, reading several commentaries, which I had to get from the local library. Now I still do my own exegesis, but you usually explain the ‘sticky’ areas that always took so much time for me to figure out, and that cuts down on my preparation time significantly. You have a better library and have probably solved these same issues during your years of ministry, and now it is really helping preachers ‑‑ especially part‑timers, like me.”

Let’s go back to court. Israel has been faithless, turning its back on God, and is about to pay for it. It is a pattern of rejection that has moved from one generation to the next and to the next. And God is tired of it, but also seems to be “at something of a loss to understand it.”1

The lawyer/prophet Jeremiah then draws on an imagery his people could easily understand. It is the one about cisterns and water…

My people have changed their glory
for something that does not profit…
For my people have committed two evils:
they have forsaken me,
the fountain of living water,
and dug out cisterns for themselves,
cracked cisterns that can hold no water.

The geography of Israel helps us grasp the significance of God’s deep sadness over the sinfulness of his people. It is an arid land and water is a prized possession. Do you remember the trouble Abraham had over rights to wells he dug? Just as the well started producing good, clear, clean water, his neighbors came along and laid claim to it for themselves. He had dug the well on their property, they said. Instead of arguing about it, Abraham would move on and find another place to dig a well. He knew he was a sojourner, pitching his tent on other peoples’ lands, so rather than make a fuss he would simply move on. Father Abraham dug a lot of wells until he found one he could call his own! The people in that part of the world were possessive when it came to water.

Thirst – real thirst – was a constant and common reality. Water collected in cisterns from the infrequent rains had to be carried in jars from distant places. It could easily become stagnant, and possibly polluted, if not retrieved at the right time and right place. Doing so was an important function of day-to-day life.

That’s why God can’t understand why Israel, his chosen children, would go after other gods that were no gods. That was something not even other nations would do. Do they seriously think that Assyria will replace its gods? Will Babylon suddenly give devotion to other deities? Of course not. Even the pagans are trustworthy when it comes to worship!

But not Israel. They are too easily influenced by their neighbors. Yet their God has promised them everlasting life, a fountain of living water. They can come to God and receive living water from a flowing fountain that never runs dry. But instead, they go away from God and hew out shallow cisterns in the sun-baked ground. Because they are so shallow, they soon become dry and broken and lie wasted. The people of God have turned their backs on a living, never-ceasing fountain of rich, cool water to drink stagnant water from the bottom of shallow, broken cisterns.

That was the picture lawyer Jeremiah draws for them of their spiritual condition. Their souls are like broken cisterns filled with stagnant, decaying water. They are empty like their gods that are no gods.

Perhaps it is because they have forgotten who they are. It’s easy to do, you know. I haven’t told this story in awhile. Some of you might remember it, but I think it bears repeating. An old fable, it is the story of a motherless tiger cub who is adopted by goats. The cub is brought up to speak the language of goats, to emulate their ways and eat their food. In short, he is raised to think he is a goat.

Then one day a king tiger comes along. When all the goats scatter in fear before the presence of this ferocious animal, the young tiger is suddenly left alone. He stands before the massive beast, afraid yet somehow not afraid. The king tiger asks him what he means by this unseemly masquerade, but all the young tiger can do in response is to bleat nervously and continue nibbling at the grass.

The tiger carries the cub to a pool of water where he is forced to look at their reflections side-by-side. Perhaps he will draw the obvious conclusion as to his identity. However, this idea fails. The young tiger still thinks he is a goat.

Finally, the king tiger offers the cub a piece of raw meat. At first, the young tiger recoils from the unfamiliar taste of it. But then, as he eats more of it and begins to feel it warming his blood, the truth gradually becomes clear to him. Lashing his tail and digging his claws into the ground, the young tiger raises his head high, and the jungle trembles at the sound of his exultant roar.

He is not a goat. He is a tiger. He has been eating grass when he could have had meat!

Jeremiah is telling Israel that they are not living out their heritage. They drink fetid water from shallow, broken cisterns when they could find fulfillment in a never-ending, gushing fountain of life! They are selling out too short, following after gods that are no gods. They have forgotten who they are.

One of my pastoral colleagues here in Arkansas recently made national news when he told his congregation to “vote God.” I’m not exactly sure what he meant by that. I’m pretty sure, but I’m not going to talk about it here. I do know this… you won’t find God in a political party. You might find some satisfaction for your particular political perspective, but you won’t find ultimate solutions to the eternal needs of your heart. To look for God in the political system is to drink from shallow cisterns. It is to forget who we are.

Sometimes I wonder what God really thinks of us. We scurry around looking for answers in all the wrong places, expending our energies and emotions looking for this and looking for that. And all the while, the most important considerations of life are right before us… seeking justice and equity for all people; looking after the needs of those who cannot look out for themselves; waging peace and working for the common welfare of everyone, even and especially for people who are not like us; and doing all this in the name of Jesus. We nibble at grass when we could have meat, and like Israel of old, we drink from broken cisterns when we could have our fill from a never-ending fountain of eternal life.

So let’s admit it. We’re guilty. We’re the ones on trial and we are guilty. We do not live up to the purposes of God. We do not become what we have been created to be. We are too often like Jeremiah’s people, broken cisterns, dried from the scorching heat of the noonday sun. That is the indictment against us.

What it boils down to is this: we are generally willing to fulfill our religious obligations, but life as it is – as we’ve made it, created it, shaped and formed it – is pretty good. So, we’re content to leave things just as they are, thank you very much. But soon our spiritual water supply dries up and our shallow cisterns break apart from the heat of judgment.

It is true. We are guilty.

But there is good news. We have Someone who stands beside us, pleading our case before our eternal Judge, and asking that mercy and grace be the final word. We have an Advocate who is ready to take upon himself the judgment that comes to us all. We have One who calls us each day to drink deeply from his well of living water so we might then offer something to drink to all those who need him.

So let’s not wait until it’s too late to ask Jesus to put in a good word for us, shall we? After all, court is in session.

Father, do not hold us guilty, but come to us in grace and show us a better way than we have ever known before. Then find us faithful in following you and the One you have sent to redeem. In his name, Jesus, we pray, Amen.


1Charles B. Cousar, et. al., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV – Year C (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994), p. 488.

— Copyright 2004, Randy L. Hyde. Used by permission.