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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
Preached At:Providence Canadian Reformed Church
 Hamilton, Ontario
Title:All your idols are utterly empty and foolish
Text:Jeremiah 2:12-13 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Living in a sinful world

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Note:  all songs from the 2010 Book of Praise

Psalm 133

Psalm 130

Psalm 36

Hymn 73

Hymn 70

Scripture readings:  Jeremiah 2:1-19, John 4:1-15

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved brothers and sisters in our Lord Jesus,

What do you do when things are taking a turn for the worse?  You’ve had a hard day and you need a release, you need some comfort, where you do go, what do you do?  Of course, the pious answer we want to give in church is that we go to the Lord in prayer.  Obviously, we all lay our troubles before him and cast our daily burdens on him.  That’s the answer we’re supposed to give.  The reality is sometimes different, isn’t it?  Perhaps it’s even often different.  Let’s be honest.    

For some people, the real answer has to do with substances.  For some people, they run to food for comfort.  Some people get comfort from eating, especially certain types of food.  And then not eating that food in moderation, but eating excessively.  For others, it’s alcohol.  Some people will run to the bottle after a hard day or a stressful situation.  Again, not taking just one drink and leaving it at that, but overdoing it every single time.  The alcohol is what’s giving them solace.  Still for other people, it’s tobacco, cigarettes.  Smoking is what eases their stress every day.  These are all common substances that people turn to for help in relieving stress.  More could be added.

For others, the real answer has to do with exercise.  For some people, they literally run for comfort, or pursue other forms of exercise to excess.  Some derive their comfort from seeing the numbers drop on the scale every single time.  If the numbers don’t drop, they’re just not happy.  The scale dictates whether they’ll be content that day.  There’s no comfort or joy unless their weight is under their control.

Still for others, the real answer has to do with the pursuit of material things.  Maybe you’ve heard of “retail therapy.”  Some people get their therapy through shopping and buying more and more stuff.  I’ve had a hard day, so I need to go shopping and buy some more clothes.

Then what about that elephant in the room?  You knew I was going to mention this one too.  If I don’t mention it, there could very well be a bunch of people breathing a sigh of relief:  “Oh, I don’t do any of those things, I don’t drink excessively, don’t smoke, don’t eat like a glutton, I’m not an exercise fanatic, I’m not a shopaholic.  Phew, this isn’t about me!”  Well, let’s talk about what happens on your computer when no-one’s around.  Or let’s talk about what’s going on with your smart-phone.  There is a very common form of stress-release taking place online.  Many people flee to pornography for comfort, both men and women. 

You might be thinking, “But we’re Christians, we would never do any of that stuff!  We’re in the church and we know better.”  Loved ones, that would be a very naïve way of responding.  People who confess the name of Christ can and do flee to all these different comforts.  The Bible has a special name for this.  It’s called “idolatry.”  An idol is anything in your life that is meant to replace what the true God will and can do.  Anything you’re turning to for comfort, strength and stress-relief instead of God is an idol.  It could be one of those things I mentioned, but there are lots of others too.  Sometimes our idols are a little more refined and respectable, and therefore a little harder to detect and let go of.  There are so many different types of idols and we can take anything in God’s good creation and turn it into an idol.  John Calvin once said that we are idol factories and Calvin was exactly right.

Our text this morning addresses this common human problem.  It doesn’t speak about the idolatry of the nations.  It’s not addressed to the Babylonians or the Assyrians and their worship of all kinds of false gods.  Instead, this text is speaking directly to the church, to the people of God in the days of Jeremiah.  It was the church where these idols were being pursued, not the world.  So a text like this also speaks to us in the church today some millennia later.  While our idolatries might be different in some ways, the root problems are still the same and the solution is still the same.  The solution is to see clearly what our idols really are and what they really offer us.  In his grace, our God gives us the true picture of what idols are all about here in Jeremiah.  So, I preach to you God’s Word.  God’s Word teaches you here that all your idols are utterly empty and foolish. 

We’ll see how God exposes the two-fold evil of:

  1. Forsaking the fountain of living water
  2. Building your own cistern

Let’s first briefly situate ourselves in the world of our text.  The prophet Jeremiah carried out his ministry about 600 years before Christ.  After King David came his son King Solomon.  After Solomon, there was Rehoboam.  Under Rehoboam, the kingdom of Israel split into two, a northern kingdom (Israel) and a southern kingdom (Judah).  Almost the whole history from that point forward was dark.  Wicked king after wicked king took the throne in both kingdoms.   There were a few exceptions – we think of Hezekiah and Josiah.  But this period from about 900 to 600 BC was generally characterized by unbelief and apostasy, turning away from God.  The Word of God was completely forgotten.  It happened at every level of Israelite society.  Not only were the regular people worshipping idols, but also the prophets, the priests, and the kings.  This rampant idol worship amongst the Israelite leadership is also evident in our reading from Jeremiah 2.

The idolatry took different forms.  Obviously, God’s people worshipped the gods of the nations.  There were a few that they were especially attracted to.  Baal was the Canaanite sky-god, a god of fertility.  Baal was very useful.  By worshipping Baal, you could hope for good crops and prosperity.  Ashtoreth or Asherah was another local deity.  She was also associated with fertility and was sometimes worshipped with Baal, a male and female god-team.  These types of idol worship were not only useful, but also fun because they involved sexual immorality.  They would have pagan temples for these gods and these would include temple prostitutes.  One way of really getting the attention of the gods was by sleeping with the temple prostitutes.  If the gods saw you being fertile with the prostitutes, the gods would be more inclined to bestow fertility on your farm.  That’s the way the thinking went.   It’s not coincidental that this idol worship tied into the natural human inclination towards sexual immorality.  Sexual immorality just naturally befits paganism. 

And the idol worship in the days of Jeremiah was not restricted to Baal and Ashtoreth.  The people had replaced the true God with all kinds of things.  One thing you come across in the prophets of this era repeatedly is the tendency of the people to place their trust in political allegiances rather than in the LORD.  Another thing you come across is their enormous pride.  Pride is also a form of idolatry, the idolatry of the self:  “I am to be worshipped and adored.”  Yes, the people of God had countless idols – they were idol factories.  Jeremiah 2:28 says, “…for as many as your cities are your gods, O Judah.” 

Now it’s true that In Jeremiah 2, you do find Baal mentioned specifically a couple of times.  In verse 8, the prophets prophesied by Baal.  In verse 23 though, God speaks to the people who say, “I have not gone after the Baals.”  Baal is sometimes used as a representative of all idols.  Baal stands in for all of them, for everything that God’s people were turning to instead of him.                      

Now remember that Baal was the sky-god.  He was the one supposed to be in control of the sky, the heavens.  That makes it rather ironic that God calls upon the skies or heavens to witness against his people in verse 12 of our text.  If we go and look back at verse 9, we hear the language of a lawsuit between God and his people.  When God says that he is contending with his people, that’s legal talk in the Old Testament.  He’s pressing a covenant lawsuit against his people.  And the witness he calls is the heavens in verse 12.  There’s irony in that, the irony being that the heavens are supposed to be in Baal’s control.  There’s also history behind that.  In Deuteronomy 4, God covenanted with Israel as they were about to enter the Promised Land.  He warned them about unbelief and idolatry.  If they were to turn away from him, they would face consequences.  He called witnesses.  Deuteronomy 4:26 says, “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that you will soon utterly perish from the land that you are going over the Jordan to possess.”  All the idolatry of the people of God has been done under God’s blue sky and now he calls it to the witness stand. 

The LORD (Yahweh) says, “Look you blue sky, look at what these people have done!  You should be horrified, stupefied, let your hair stand up on end at what’s happening with these people.  This is insane.  There is reason for shock and horror at what Israel is doing!”  Then he says that his people have committed two astounding evils.  Before looking at those two evils, take note of the exact words at the beginning of verse 13.  This is key.  He says, “my people have committed two evils.”  The covenant connection between God and his people is acknowledged here.  These are not generic human beings out there in the world.  These are the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  These are the people that God covenanted with in the days of Moses.  He has a relationship with them.  He is their God and they are his people.  He faithfully recognizes that, but they don’t.  They are denying the reality of their covenant relationship to him.  But he will not.  He goes after his people and holds them to account.  In this we see his love and grace. Even though the words are abrasive, harsh and difficult to hear, it’s a God who loves his people who goes after them to confront them with their evil. 

It’s a two-fold evil.  The first evil is that they have forsaken God, the fountain of living waters.  Let’s first look at the picture used here.  Water is valuable everywhere, but especially in a semi-arid climate like that of Israel.  We turn on the tap and we have a ready supply of water.  No one thinks much about it here.  But if you lived in a place where water is hard to come by, you’d probably think differently about it.  Water could even be a daily concern.  In ancient times, there were several different places where one could hope for water.  But the best and most reliable source of water would be a spring.  If you were a farmer and you had a spring on your property, you were set.  The spring would provide you and your animals with the best possible water.  Flowing from that spring or fountain would be a pure stream of the best tasting water. 

When I was a missionary in Fort Babine (in British Columbia), I once took our son Josiah for a hike to a nearby mountain.  To get to the top of the mountain, we had to do some bush-whacking from a logging road.  It was a bit of a slog on a warm summer day, but we made it.  On the way down from the mountain, we came across a spring.  Out of the ground in the forest was coming a stream of beautiful, crystal clear water.  On that summer day, that pure water was the best I’ve ever tasted.  It was ice cold and tasted great.  Because it was coming directly out of the ground in the wilderness, we knew it was safe to drink too.  We had no worry of getting sick from that water. 

That’s the image that God uses for himself here in our text.  He says that he is the fountain of living waters for his people.  It’s a beautiful image and it is used elsewhere in Scripture.  “Living waters” is simply an ancient way of saying “flowing water.”  It’s not standing water, like water from a pond, but it’s flowing, living from a spring or fountain.  This type of water is the best for sustaining life.  It’s also the most pleasant water you can find.  Moreover, it’s reliable.  It doesn’t stop.  It provides an abundance of water year round.    

The true God is the fountain of living water.  For his people who look to him, he promises to be the true source of life, not only in the physical and material sense, but also in the spiritual sense.  In every way, God promises to supply life.  What comes from him is altogether good, in fact, the best.  What comes from him is safe.  What God gives is not for your harm, but for your good.  Moreover, there is true pleasure and joy available from the true God.  When believers look to God in faith, he will be a fountain of living waters to them.  That is who he is.  He has always been that for his people who trust him.

When we read these words, we also can’t fail to make the connection to John 4.  Our Saviour has that encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well.  Deep down at the bottom somewhere, the well had some “living water.”  The well was fed by a spring, as it had been for thousands of years before this.  But it was pretty much impossible to get direct access to that living water.  The well was not exactly a source of living water.  Jesus told the woman that he could give her living water.  She was confused because she thought of the well in front of her.  But our Lord Jesus worked with the language of Jeremiah and said that he is the one who fulfills those words.  He is the divine fountain of living water that anyone can access.  If you look to Christ in faith, you have life.  If you look to Christ in faith, you have safety for eternity.  If you look to Christ in faith, you have joy.  Everything that living water can supply in a limited sense for the physical human body, Jesus can supply in the fullest sense for the entire person forever. 

The Israelites in the time of Jeremiah knew these things in a shadowy way.  They knew that God was the eternal source of life, security, and joy.  They’d heard the promises of a future Redeemer.  The full revelation of how all this fit together would have to wait.  Yet they had enough to know that they should be committed to Yahweh in faith.  They had many reasons to do so.  One of the greatest reasons was how he had led them out of Egypt into the Promised Land.  In the wilderness, he had given their fathers everything they needed for life, including water.  Repeatedly the true God had proven himself to be “the fountain of living water.” 

But they forgot all of that.  They forsook him.  That language speaks of covenant breaking.  It speaks of unbelief and apostasy.  Even though Yahweh had loved them so dearly and had taken such care of them through the centuries, they slapped him in the face and turned their backs on him.  They turned their backs on the one who was the “fountain of living water.” 

Why would anyone ever do that, especially a covenant child who knows better?  Why would you forsake a God who can give you abundant life?  Why would you turn away from the one who can keep you safe today and into eternity?  Why would you do that for even one moment?  Why would you abandon Yahweh when living in fellowship with him can bring you such joy?  All these questions highlight for us again the irrationality of sin.  Sin is foolish – all sin, not just idolatry.  All sin is just plain stupid.  When you look at it in the light of God’s Word, sin just doesn’t add up, it makes no sense.  We can look at the Israelites in our text and we can shake our heads at them for their failure to see what they were losing out on by abandoning God for their idols, but are we any less prone to do this?  Have we ever forsaken the fountain of living waters?  I know I have in many ways, and I’m sure you have too.  Let’s be humble and see this as shining a light on all our sins of unbelief and idolatry too.  Our idolatry is even more blameworthy or culpable because we are covenant people who know of Christ and the gospel of living water in him.  If you know Christ as the fountain of living water, why would you turn away from him?  Why?  It’s so senseless. 

Let’s see that right now.  Let’s see it clearly as the foolishness that it is.  Let’s hate it with a holy hatred and be freshly committed to the fountain of living waters, to our God and Saviour Jesus Christ. 

Loved ones, let’s also be encouraged to know that as we see our sin for what it is and learn to hate it and flee from it, we have a Redeemer in Jesus.  We have his perfect obedience for us.  In all his life, he never forsook the fountain of living waters.  He lived in immaculate fellowship with God, looking to him always for strength, for safety, for joy.  That peerless obedience is yours when you believe in him.  There’s forgiveness too in Christ.  There’s God’s grace and forgiveness for every time that you have forsaken the fountain of living waters.  When your Saviour died on the cross, he died to cover all those foolish moments where you’ve strayed from the source of life.  Brothers and sisters, be encouraged to know that all your sins are covered through him.  Only repent of those sins and embrace this Saviour and you can be assured of forgiveness for this evil.  He is the fountain of living waters and he promises to bless you eternally with life, security, and joy.

So the first part of the evil exposed in our text is forsaking the fountain of living waters.  The flip-side of that is the second part, building your own cistern.  Once again, some cultural background is helpful to understand the picture here.  Depending on where you live (urban or rural), you might not be familiar with cisterns.  Basically, a cistern is a giant holding tank for water.  In ancient Israel, these giant holding tanks or cisterns were built in the ground.  When it would rain, water would flow off the roof of the house and be directed into the cistern.  The cistern would have a lid on it to prevent the water from evaporating. 

As I mentioned, there were several ways of attempting to secure access to water in ancient Israel.  The cistern was the least desirable.  Cisterns had numerous problems and these problems meant that the water was unreliable, often unsafe, and typically not pleasant to drink.  Remember, the water would come off the roofs of houses.  The rain would fall on these clay roofs and then come into the cistern, but along the way the water would pick up some of the clay and other dirt and garbage that might be on the roof.  Would you want to drink the rainwater that comes off of your eavestroughs?  The water in a cistern would have the colour of weak soap-suds and it would taste earthy or maybe even like a barn.  It could be full of insect larvae – for instance, mosquitoes are known for finding their way into cisterns to lay their eggs.  If not squirming larvae in your water, you might very well have a cup full of green algae.  Yum.  Sounds good, doesn’t it?  Then there were parasites.  Because of contamination with all kinds of stuff, there would often be parasites in cistern water.  If you’ve ever had beaver fever or giardia, you know that this is nothing to mess with.  Parasites in water can kill you or make you very sick for a long time.      

But we haven’t talked about the biggest problem with cisterns in ancient Israel.  These cisterns were dug in the ground and then plastered on the inside.  But because Israel is an active seismic area, there are often tremors and earthquakes.   They’re not usually big enough to cause extensive destruction, but they will crack and break cisterns.  If your cistern is cracked, one morning you go out and lift the lid, and all your water is gone.  All you’re left with is an empty, muddy hole in the ground.  Sooner or later it would happen to any cistern.

So, ancient cisterns could be sources of death and disease.  To provide water from them, you depended on rainfall.  The path of the rainwater to the cistern would make the water taste horrible.  To make matters worse, these cisterns could easily break and then you’d be without water, again facing death.  No one in their right mind would choose a cistern over a spring of running water.  Why would you choose this disgusting source of water when it will sooner or later fail you or maybe even kill you?

Yet this is exactly what the people of Israel did in the days of Jeremiah.  The second part of their two-fold evil was that “they hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water.”  They had the fountain of living waters, but that wasn’t what they wanted.  They turned away from the fountain, and built cisterns for themselves.  They built their own source of water, or what they thought could provide them with water, which is life.  As it turned out, their cisterns broke.  They might have provided some water for a while, but eventually the cisterns did what cisterns do, they failed.  These cisterns could no longer provide anything to sustain life. 

Even when they did provide some water, the water they provided was disgusting and unsafe.  But the people couldn’t see that, didn’t want to see that.  They would rather have had the disgusting and unsafe cistern water than the pleasant and life-giving water from the fountain. 

Do you see the picture that’s being painted here?  It’s a picture of what idolatry is really like.  It’s tells us several things about idolatry. 

It tells us that idolatry is a human creation.  They built the cisterns for themselves.  People make idols.  They do it with existing things.  What makes an idol is what someone does with it.  For example, food is not an idol in and of itself.  Food is a good gift of God.  But it becomes an idol when you use it to replace God as your source of comfort and strength.  Anything becomes an idol when you begin to use it as a substitute for God.  But it’s the human activity which makes it an idol. 

Next, it tells us that idolatry can provide some semblance of “water” for a while.  Cisterns don’t always break right away.  For a while, our idols can appear to provide some comfort and superficial joy and pleasure at some level.  This is what lures you in.  If there were no payback at all at any time, no one would ever worship idols.  Think about it.  The drinker gets drunk.  Those who use pornography get a release.  On it goes.  There’s always something to pull you in.  Every idol has its draw and if it didn’t, no one would fall for it. 

However, the “water” these cisterns provide cannot be trusted to keep you healthy and safe.  Even though idols give some kind of payback, eventually they demand a cost from you too.  They will infect you with spiritual parasites that will suck the spiritual life right out of you.  Idols will poison you and all your relationships.   And in the end they ultimately kill you.  They demand more and more from you, take more and more, and the payback becomes less and less.  This is the pathology of idolatry, it’s how it works.  It draws you in and then it kills you. 

Ultimately, these cisterns that we create for ourselves fail utterly, destroying you and others in the process.  Any cistern you make for yourself will crack and fail and be empty.  Idols will not be there for you in the long run.  This is so important for us to see, brothers and sisters.  Someday you’ll be on your death bed.  Maybe you’ll be at home, maybe in the hospital or old-age home.  Think about it:  what good will your idols do then?  What can they offer at the end?  You see, when you look at it in that perspective, all your idolatry is totally foolish.  It’s going to do you zero good as you face eternity.  Zero good.  All idols are broken cisterns, they’re empty and they will do nothing for you in the ultimate sense.  As you face eternity, idols have nothing to offer you. 

Moreover, you don’t know when you will be looking eternity in the face.  There are those who say, “I agree, I should give up my idols.  But I’m young and healthy, I’ve got lots of time.  My Opa lived to be 88 and I’ll probably live to be at least that.  I can do it later.”  But listen:  you may not have a later.  You don’t know the hours and minutes of your life.  You don’t know when you’re going to face God.  Loved ones, now is the time to see the utter emptiness and foolishness of idols and give them all up.  You may not have a tomorrow.  God is calling you right now and his call is urgent.  You have to take him seriously.        

So let me ask you:  how much more of your life are you going to waste with idols?  How long before you see that they are broken cisterns?  Doesn’t the Word show you that right now, right at this very moment, don’t you see it with me?  This is the true picture of your idols.

It’s meant to drive us away from the broken cisterns we’ve created for ourselves.  It’s meant to drive us into the open arms of the Saviour God has provided for us.  Jesus holds out living water that can truly save and that can truly satisfy.  Loved ones, the Word is holding out to us the picture of a Saviour who can be everything to you and bring you true joy forever.  He has perfect obedience for you in his life.  He has forgiveness for you in his suffering and death.  He has loving compassion for you as your great high priest.  Idols will ultimately slay you.  It doesn’t matter what the idol is.  I’ve mentioned several in this sermon and I’ve surely missed a few.  Maybe I missed yours.  If you’re honest with yourself, you’ll know what the idols in your life are, where the broken cisterns are.  Whatever it is or wherever it is, see that that broken cistern is simply not going to give you life.  It’s empty and foolish and it will totally destroy you in the end.  The Saviour, on the other hand, has come to give you life and give it to you abundantly.  Brother, sister, turn from this foolish sin, and turn to the fountain of living waters in faith.  Doing that, you can be confident of spending eternity in God’s presence where we will drink from the fountain forever, enjoying that abundant life always. AMEN.   


Heavenly Father,

You truly are the fountain of living waters.  From you there is life in abundance.  With you there is safety and joy.  These things are all the more true in Jesus your Son.  We thank you that he came to give us the living waters.  How we need Jesus!  We need him so desperately because so often we have forsaken you in our lives.  Your Word has made us see it this morning and we humble ourselves before you, acknowledging our sin.  We have been busy idol factories, creating our own cisterns, cisterns that are broken and hold no water.  We are all guilty of it.  Father, we repent of our sin from the heart.  We hate it and we want to flee from it.  We want to drink from your fountain, and not the tepid dirty idol water that will kill us.  We desire your abundance, not the emptiness our idols leave us with.  We long for your wisdom, and not the foolishness of false gods.  Father, please forgive us through your Son and strengthen us with your Spirit. Right now we are convicted, we are committed.  Right now, we want to follow your Word.  We pray that tomorrow we will be the same way.  We pray that for Tuesday and Wednesday, and indeed, for all the days of this week, and all the days of our lives.  Father, even when we come to the time of our leaving this world, we pray that we would have our faith fixed on you and not on stupid and useless idols.  Please deliver us from all evil, set the captives free.  We look forward to the age to come and drinking from your fountain forever.  We ask that you would bring that day quickly.        

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

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