The obstinacy of the adherents of idolatry is in striking contrast with Israel's continual tendency to forsake Jehovah. It reads a scarcely less forcible lesson to many nominal and even to some real Christians.
I. That contrast carries with it a disclosure of the respective origins of the two kinds of Religion.
The strangeness of the contrasted conduct is intensified when we take into account the tremendous contrast between the two Objects of worship. Israel's God was Israel's 'Glory'; the idol-worshipper bowed down before 'that which doth not profit,' and yet no experience of God could bind His fickle worshippers to Him, and no experience of the impotence of the idol could shake its votaries' devotion. They cried and were not heard. They toiled and had no results. They broke their teeth on 'that which is not bread,' and filled their mouths with gritty ashes that mocked them with a semblance of nourishment and left them with empty stomachs and excoriated gums, yet by some strange hallucination they clung to 'vanities,' while Israel was always hankering after opportunity to desert Jehovah. The stage of civilisation partly accounts for the strange fascination of idolatry over the Israelites. But the deeper solution lies in the fact that the one religion rises from the hearts of men, corresponds to their moral condition, and is largely moulded by their lower nature; while the other is from above, corresponds, indeed, with the best and deepest longings and needs of souls, but contravenes many of their most clamant wishes, and necessarily sets before them a standard high and difficult to reach. Men make their gods in their own image, and are conscious of no rebuke nor stimulus to loftier living when they gaze on them. The God of Revelation bids men remake themselves in His image, and that command requires endless effort. The average man has to put a strain on his intellect in order to rise to the apprehension of God, and a still more unwelcome strain on his moral nature to rise to the imitation of God. No wonder, then, if the dwellers on the low levels should cleave to them, and the pilgrims to the heights should often weary of their toil and be distressed with the difficulty of breathing the thin air up there, and should give up climbing and drop down to the flats once more.
II. That contrast carries with it a rebuke.
Many voices echo the prophet's contrast nowadays. Our travelling countrymen, especially those of them who have no great love for earnest religion, are in the habit of drawing disparaging contrasts between Buddhists, Brahmins, Mohammedans, any worshippers of other gods and Christians. One may not uncharitably suspect that a more earnest Christianity would not please these critics much better than does the tepid sort, and that the pictures they draw both of heathenism and of Christianity are coloured by their likes and dislikes. But it is well to learn from an enemy, and caricatures may often be useful in calling attention to features which would escape notice but for exaggeration. So we may profit by even the ill-natured and distorted likenesses of ourselves as contrasted with the adherents of other religions which so many 'liberal-minded' writers of travels delight to supply.
Think, then, of the rebuke which the obstinate adherence of idolaters to their idols gives to the slack hold which so many professing Christians have on their religion.
Think of the way in which these lower religions pervade the whole life of their worshippers, and of how partial is the sway over a little territory of life and conduct which Christianity has in many of its adherents. The absorption in worship shown by Mohammedans, who will spread their prayer carpets anywhere and perform their drill of prayers without embarrassment or distraction in the sight of a crowd, or the rapt 'devotion' of fakirs, are held up as a rebuke to us 'Christians' who are ashamed to be caught praying. One may observe, in mitigation, that the worship which is of the heart is naturally more sensitive to surrounding distractions than that which is a matter of posturing and repetition by rote. But there still remains substance enough in the contrast to point a sharp arrow of rebuke.
And there is no denying that in these 'heathen' religions, religion is intertwined with every act of life in a fashion which may well put to shame many of us. Remember how Paul had to deal at length with the duty of the Corinthians in view of the way in which every meal was a sacrifice to some god, and how the same permeation of life with religion is found in all these 'false faiths.' The octopus has coiled its tentacles round the whole body of its victim. Bad and sad and mad as idolatry is, it reads a rebuke to many of us, who keep life and religion quite apart, and lock up our Christianity in our pews with our prayer-books and hymnaries.
Think of the material sacrifices made by idolaters, in costly offerings, in painful self-tortures, and in many other ways, and the niggardliness and self-indulgence of so many so-called Christians.
III. The contrast suggests the greatness of the power which can overcome even such obstinate adherence to idols.
There is one, and only one, solvent for that rock-like obstinacy -- the Gospel. The other religions have seldom attempted to encroach on each other's territory, and where they have, their instrument of conversion has generally been the sword. The Gospel has met and mastered them all. It, and it only, has had power to draw men to itself out of every faith. The ancient gods who bewitched Israel, the gods of Greece, the gods of our own ancestors, the gods of the islands of the South Seas, lie huddled together, in undistinguished heaps, like corpses on a battlefield, and the deities of India and the East are wounded and slowly bleeding out their lives. 'Bel boweth down, Nebo stoopeth, the idols are upon the beasts,' all packed up, as it were, and ready to be carried off.
The rate of progress in dethroning them varies with the varying national conditions. It is easier to cut a tunnel through chalk than through quartz.
IV. That contrast carries with it a call for Christian effort to spread the conquering Gospel.
FOUNTAIN AND CISTERNS
'They have forsaken Me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed them out cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water' -- JER. ii.13.
The proclivity of the Jews to idolatry is an outstanding fact all through their history. That persistent national tendency surely compels us to recognise a divine inspiration as the source of the prophetic teaching and of the lofty spiritual theology of the Old Testament, which were in sharpest unlikeness and opposition to the whole trend of the people's thoughts.
It is this apostasy which is referred to here. The false gods made by men are the broken cisterns. But the text embodies a general truth.
I. The irksomeness of a godless life.
The contrast is between the springing fountain, there in the desert, with the lush green herbage round about, where a man has only to stoop and drink, and the painful hewing of cisterns.
This emblem of the fountain beautifully suggests the great thought of God's own loving will as the self-originated impulse by which He pours out all good. Apart from all our efforts, the precious gift is provided for us. Our relation is only that of receivers.
We have the contrast with this in the laborious toils to which they condemn themselves who seek for created sources of good. 'Hewn out cisterns' -- think of a man who, with a fountain springing in his courtyard, should leave it and go to dig in the arid desert, or to hew the live rock in hopes to gain water. It was already springing and sparkling before him. The conduct of men, when they leave God and seek for other delights, is like digging a canal alongside a navigable river. They condemn themselves to a laborious and quite superfluous task. The true way to get is to take.
Illustrations in religion. Think of the toil and pains spent in idolatry and in corrupt forms of Christianity.
Illustrations in common life. Your toils -- aye, and even your pleasures -- how much of them is laboriously digging for the water which all the while is flowing at your side.
II. The hopelessness of a godless life.
The contrast further is between living waters and broken cisterns. God is the fountain of living waters; in other words, in fellowship with God there is full satisfaction for all the capacities and desires of the soul; heart -- conscience -- will -- understanding -- hope and fear.
The contrast of the empty cisterns. What a deep thought that with all their work men only make 'cisterns,' i.e. they only provide circumstances which could hold delights, but cannot secure that water should be in them! The men-made cisterns must be God-filled, if filled at all. The true joys from earthly things belong to him who has made God his portion.
Further, they are 'broken cisterns,' and all have in them some flaw or crack out of which the water runs. That is a vivid metaphor for the fragmentary satisfaction which all earthly good gives, leaving a deep yearning unstilled. And it is temporary as well as partial. 'He that drinketh of this water shall thirst again' -- nay, even as with those who indulge in intoxicating drinks, the appetite increases while the power of the draught to satisfy it diminishes. But the crack in the cistern points further to the uncertain tenure of all earthly goods and the certain leaving of them all.
All godless life is a grand mistake.
III. The crime of a godless life.
It is right to seek for happiness. It is sin to go away from God. You are thereby not merely flinging away your chances, but are transgressing against your sacredest obligations. Our text is not only a remonstrance on the grounds of prudence, showing God-neglecting men that they are foolish, but it is an appeal to conscience, convincing them that they are sinful. God loves us and cares for us. We are bound to Him by ties which do not depend on our own volition. And so there is punishment for the sin, and the evils experienced in a godless life are penal as well as natural.
We recall the New Testament modification of this metaphor, 'The water that I shall give him shall be in him a fountain of water.' Arabs in desert round dried -- up springs. Hagar. Shipwrecked sailors on a reef. Christ opens 'rivers in the wilderness and streams in the desert.'