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  • Writer's pictureTim Hemingway

The Great Exchange


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." Jeremiah 2:13

There are 3 reasons I’ve chosen this text to speak on this morning. The first is that Bible Class have just completed a tour of Jeremiah and they should know that every book of the bible is a revelation about God and from God, and is therefore worthy of our attention.

The second is that before Easter we had 3 messages on Worship, the first of which was an exposition of John 4. There Jesus said to the woman at the well, “if you knew the gift of God and who it is who asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water”, and then 2 verses later he said, “Indeed the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life”.

And here in Jeremiah 2:13, “They have forsaken me the spring of living water”. So, there’s an unmistakable link here between John 4 and Jeremiah 2 that has brought this text to my attention again.

And thirdly, there are some texts in the bible that are so central, they are like channels that go down all the way to the bedrock of our existence and purpose, and this, I think, is one of those.

So, for those reasons, I’m excited to press into this text to see what wonders it will yield for all of us.

A Broken Relationship

The focus of the verse is a relationship. There are ‘my people’, and there is God. And what seems to be assumed in this verse is that these two parties should be in relationship, but something has gone wrong. An exchange of sorts has happened. Not an exchange initiated by God (he’s the one speaking), an exchange initiated by his people.

The people have exchanged their God (see v.11) in some way, which we’ll see in a minute. And in exchanging him for something else, they have committed two great sins – it might be better to use the word ‘evils’ which is the word most of the translations go for.

That’s the overview of the verse. And it raises some important questions. Who are these people? What are the two sins? What are the details of the exchange that has taken place? Why does it even matter? Why, as verse 12 says, should the heavens be appalled? Why should they shudder with great horror as they observe this exchange?

I’m going to show you the answers to those questions and the implications they have for all our lives.

‘My People’

Who are these people? Well, in the immediate context there’s no doubt about it, ‘My people’ refers to the people of Israel and specifically Jerusalem (v.1).

When this verse was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, it had only one audience and that audience was the physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

But we are not the physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, by and large, and we are certainly not the generation that Jeremiah was speaking these words to.

So, is there warrant to give them a wider application? Could these words be applicable to all of us this morning? And I think the answer is yes.

Whilst, in all likelihood, none of us are physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and none of us are certainly old enough to be of the generation that Jeremiah was speaking to, nevertheless there is a verse in the New Testament which I think makes it very clear that we can apply the phrase ‘My people’ to ourselves if we are Christians.

The verse is 1 Corinthians 10:6 and the aim of the passage is to say to gentile Christians that the events of Israel’s history occurred for a particular reason. They occurred as examples, the verse says, ‘to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did’.

That is an amazing text. It’s amazing because it’s a text that instantly makes all of Israel's history relevant to us as gentile Christians. And it’s a text that tells us that those things happened to them because of the defective activities of their hearts, and ultimately because of evil.

Here in Jeremiah 2:13, the people have committed two evils. So, 1 Corinthians 10:6 is super relevant to our understanding of Jeremiah 2:13, and super relevant to our understanding of the history of Israel. Such that, those histories become an amber warning light for us on whom the ‘culmination of the ages has come’ (1 Cor 10:11).

So, there’s no doubt in my mind, that Jeremiah 2:13 is a text for believers now, in the day in which we live. And it’s designed to act as a warning, to prevent us from setting our hearts on evil things.

But where does that leave unbelievers in our current age? I think this verse speaks to you also. Another new testament text, Romans 1:18 and following, deals with God’s relationship to all humanity in very similar terms to Jeremiah 2. And significantly it uses the word ‘exchange’. Here’s what it says, ‘They (that means all people) exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshipped and served created things rather than the creator’. That idea is parallel with Jeremiah 2:13 and it applies to all people, in all generations.

So, all of that is to say, applications abound to all of us in the words ‘My people’. For our purposes this morning you are God’s people because he made you and in that sense, everybody belongs to God. Or specifically, you are God’s blood-bought people, purchased by Jesus for him.

And it is surely my deep desire that all of us would be found to be the latter and not the former, not least because the destinies of each are alarmingly different.

Two Evils

What are the ‘two evils’ God is referring to? Well they are the rest of the verse, separated with a comma in the middle.

They are: one, forsaking the spring of living water. And two, the digging broken personal cisterns that can hold no water.

How are those two actions evil? We might even go so far as to say, they are the essence of evil. But how?

Well, obviously, God is not water. We know God is a spirit, you can’t put your mouth to him and drink him. So, it’s obvious that the language here is imagery intended to convey something.

Look at the effect of God in the lives of these people. Verse 6, the Lord their God brought them out of slavery in Egypt. The Lord their God led them through a barren wilderness – a land of deserts and ravines; a land devoid of people.

Then verse 7, the Lord their God brought them into a fertile land. What makes land fertile? Answer: water does. Springs of water cause fruit to grow that can be eaten (v.7) and produce rich things.

God is the difference between the deserts of verse 6 and the fruit of verse 7. He’s the one who translated the Israelites from deserts to fertile land; from droughts to rich produce. Like rains falling on the ground and bringing forth produce, so is God like ‘living water’ in the lives of people.

There was no other cause of their abundance than their God. And yet, the first great sin they committed was to forsake him. To abandon him. See how this forsaking looks.

Verse 5, they found ‘fault’ with me.

Verse 5, they ‘strayed’ far from me.

Verse 6, they didn’t ‘ask’ for me anymore.

Verse 7, they ‘defiled’ my land and made my inheritance detestable to me.

Verse 8, They ‘rebelled’ against me.

Now if these things were written for our warning, then finding fault with God; straying from him; not asking about him anymore; making his inheritance detestable to him, should be red flags to us.

Ask yourself, in my grumbling am I finding fault with the Lord?

Ask yourself, am I walking in prayerful closeness with him day by day?

By taking up the revelation of himself in his word each day, am I asking about him? Or don’t I do that anymore?

By engaging in this or that activity, am I defiling the deposit he has laid down in my life?

Forsaking him, that’s the first great evil. The second is digging cisterns for themselves. A cistern being either a well or a hole in the ground that can hold water.

Now, imagine this. Imagine spending several days in the desert with no water. All you can think about is water. Not another thought intrudes because, without water you’re going to die. Every hour you walk your focus is to find water. Every step you take is designed to find water. Your whole being longs for just one thing – water. And imagine in the distance you see a tranquil oasis – not a mirage, but a real oasis - palm trees, lush plants; green grass. As you get closer you even hear the faint trickle of running water which is coming from a spring bubbling up in the middle of the oasis. You start to run, mustering all the energy you can from your weary legs. Every step brings you a step closer to what your entire being needs and what your heart longs for more than anything else.

But then, just before you get your feet into the luscious grass, you stop running. You stand still. You drop to your knees on the sand, and you start digging. You dig and dig; for hours you dig. Someone sees you digging and comes over. They say, ‘what are you doing?’ And you reply, ‘I’ve been lost in the desert for days with nothing to drink, I’m dying of thirst. I saw this oasis in the distance so I made my way here. I can hear the water bubbling up just over there so I’ve decided to dig a well here in the sand’.

‘Fool!’, that onlooker would say. ‘Go to the spring and drink to your heart’s content’. But you just carry on digging and all you can say is, ‘I prefer wells to springs. I prefer wells to springs’.

That would be a tragic story if it were true. Yet listen, ‘These people have abandoned me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns that can hold no water’.

If the illustration were a real story, that preference for a self-dug well over and against a spring would be a tragic preference, but nobody would say it was an evil preference.

Why then, are these people who have preferred their self-dug cisterns to the spring of living water, described by God as making an evil exchange? Why does he call on the heavens to be appalled and to shudder with horror at this exchange?

The answer is in verse 11. The spring of water in the oasis is not a person, but God – the spring of living water - is a person and not just any person. He is an infinite, eternal, unchangeable person. And therefore, his worth is infinite, eternal and unchangeable. And that worth is supremely seen in his glory.

He has revealed himself to all people as supremely glorious (Romans 1:23). And verse 11 is telling us that the people had exchanged their gloriously-worthy God for worthless idols. That’s the exchange they had made. By exchanging the infinitely worthy for the worthlessness of idols, they committed an infinitely immoral transaction and an infinite evil.

All people, at all times, in all places, have committed this same exchange. The idols may not be made of wood or stone. They may not be the idols of Baal and Asherah, but they are created things rather than the creator himself (Romans 1:25).

The story of the bible is this: God made people to enjoy him as they beheld his worth seen in his glory. And people made an exchange of God. They chose a created fruit from a tree - or you might say they chose the knowledge of good and evil - over and against the creator God.

And here’s where the gospel comes in. Jesus’ work in its totality, is the means God has designed to correct that faulty preference, so that God himself is restored to the place he deserves, as the goal of all of redemptive history.

The Power of Desire

The power behind the exchange, both here in Jeremiah and in every person’s life, is the power of desire. Verse 2, ‘I remember the devotion of your youth, how as a bride you loved me and followed me’.

But, verse 25, “you said, ‘It’s no use! I love foreign gods and I must go after them’”.

As an unbeliever, before God does a supernatural work in our hearts, our every inclination is to prefer anything over him. Our hearts desire the broken cisterns of life with complete intensity. And this is what we say to ourselves, ‘these cisterns aren’t hurting other people and they aren’t especially ugly, so that’s fine, we’re free to love them’.

But we fail to see that everything we ‘love’ – food and films; money and music; success and sex; honour and houses; novels and nature; sport and shopping is a potential exchange.

Our choices dance to the tune of our desires. They obey their whims.

When our hearts say (though we do not discern it), ‘It’s no use! I love it (fill in the blank) and I must go after it’, we are already engaged in digging a well and abandoning the spring of living water. That is the great evil! And it carries the gravest charges (v.9) and it deserves an infinite punishment.

The good news of the gospel is that Jesus frees us from the consequences of the empty, broken preferences we’ve made and gives us power to fight against those destructive preferences going forward.

Since only Jesus can acquit us of this great evil and give us a new power of preference, faith in him is not just a receiving of him as our master, and not just a receiving of him as our saviour, but is also a receiving of him as our most precious prize.

If Jesus is worth more to you than anything else in life; such that you could lose everything to have him, then you have faith. And if not, then you don’t.

That’s what faith is. It’s being ready, if needs be, to cut ties with everything in life, and even life itself, in order to have the spring of living water.

If that is what has happened in your life, everything else is subservient to him. Jesus said this, ‘For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it’ (Luke 9:24).

You’re not a Christian if you haven’t received Jesus in that way – as your number one prize.

If you received Jesus only as saviour from hell, but not as your first delight, you’re not saved.

If you received Jesus only as your master; ready and willing to do what you’re told because it’s your duty, but not as your supreme delight, you’re not saved.

And I think there will be many at the last day who call him ‘Lord’ and ‘Saviour’, and he will say ‘I never knew you’ because they were never willing to sell everything to buy that field with the treasure in it (Matt 13:44).

The Struggle to See

All of this means that the Christian’s daily walk is the ongoing struggle for a vista of God. Every day tantalising cisterns are presenting themselves to us. Cisterns our hearts are very inclined to prefer over and against God. Especially because they appeal to our senses; to sight, to sound, to smell, to taste and to touch – we’re wired to respond to those stimuli.

We need therefore a daily encounter with the living God in all of his beauty and glory and surpassing worth. He is more glorious than everything, but unless we see the glory with the eyes of our hearts we won’t enjoy it or savour it as we must.

That is when we are most exposed to the great exchange.

Here’s an example. The bible says, ‘the heavens are declaring the glory of God’. So, you look up at the stars and you’re supposed to see God’s majesty, in the majesty of the night sky. But it is almost guaranteed that if you have failed to encounter God himself in his word and in prayer in the past week, what you will see is nothing but natural beauty. It’s the same with food and flowers; symphonies and sunshine; mountains and mountain biking. All of these things are meant to translate us into the glory of God. But all of them can become an end in themselves. And when they do, they become empty cisterns that can hold no water.

But the reality is much worse than that. So many of those things we pursue do the opposite of pointing us to the glory of God’s worth. They actually serve to impede our vision of his worth and make it even harder to see his glory. And conversely make it even easier to exchange the spring of living water for hand-dug wells.

From a message I was listening to this week: Don’t ask the minimalist question: what’s wrong with it? Ask the maximalist question: will it help me to see God’s glory?!

But I come back to this, without meditation on the revelation of his glory found in his Word, even those things that are not hindrances, but should be pointers to his glory, will become ends in themselves and sandy cisterns that can hold no water.

So, to conclude, the essence of evil is the exchanging of the glorious God who is a spring of living water to our weary souls, for empty cisterns that can hold no water – that is to say, that have no eternal value for our souls.

That exchange is an infinite offence to him, such that the very heavens are appalled by it and the committing of it carries grave and eternal consequences.

Therefore, our only hope is to flee to Jesus. To receive him as our greatest treasure and Saviour and Lord. And through him, to fight with the sword of the Word for a vision of his glory and excellency every single day.


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