“A Cistern Memory”

September 9, 2014

Cumberland Valley stone farmhouseStone farmhouse along the Cumberland Valley rail to trail route.

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Note: Today’s message has a bit more personal reminiscing and illustrative material than usual. Skip down for exposition of Scripture text.

“A Cistern Memory”

“Then the king commanded Ebed-Melech the Cushite, ‘Take thirty men from here with you and lift Jeremiah the prophet out of the cistern before he dies.’ So Ebed-Melech took the men with him and went to a room under the treasury in the palace. He took some old rags and worn-out clothes from there and let them down with ropes to Jeremiah in the cistern. Ebed-Melech the Cushite said to Jeremiah, ‘Put these old rags and worn-out clothes under your arms to pad the ropes.’ Jeremiah did so, and they pulled him up with the ropes and lifted him out of the cistern” (Jeremiah 38:10-13).

This last weekend I attended a men and boys campout in the mountains of central Pennsylvania which I referred to yesterday. Among our activities were bike rides and I participated in three of them; one on a rails to trails route on the old Cumberland Valley Railroad line, another down a mountain, and a third through an abandoned Pennsylvania turnpike tunnel.

Our route along the rails to trails took us through beautiful farmland in the Cumberland Valley. We passed many old order Mennonite farms; one where I stopped to visit with a farmer who was driving his steel-wheeled tractor* out to cut corn. Another old farmhouse right along the trail especially caught my attention when I spotted a GEM water pump over a cistern alongside their house just like one my grandparents had beside their little house. That brought back childhood memories.

GEM cistern pump

Slamming screen doorWhile I was growing up in Missouri my parents were good about visiting my grandparents regularly. Following each long trip from the Kansas City area where we lived  to Harwood my sister Genelle and I would jump out of the car after we pulled up to my grandparent’s little white frame house. We would then race over to the pump situated right in front of the slamming screen door and vigorously crank the handle several times until water finally gushed out of the spigot. (The old pump in the above photo appears to be missing the crank handle.) Here’s a photo with a handle.

However we were told not to drink the water since it was merely runoff which had gathered in a shallow cistern under the pump. I never did get to see what that cistern looked like down inside, but I sure wouldn’t want to be trapped in it like the Bible character we write about today!

Today let us examine a famous Bible character who was intentionally imprisoned in a cistern. The story is found in Jeremiah 38:1-13. This took place in a period just before the fall of the Kingdom and Babylonian Exile.

King Zedekiah was certainly not favorably disposed to the prophet Jeremiah, viewing him as a pest with his discouraging, negative prophetical pronouncements though Jeremiah was merely proclaiming the truth.  Jeremiah summed up the king’s attitude this way, “If I tell you the truth, you will kill me. And if I give you advice, you won’t listen to me anyway” (Jeremiah 38:15).

At one point Zedekiah had Jeremiah brought to the palace where he asked him privately, “Is there any word from the LORD?” I suppose Zedekiah was expecting a favorable word. “Yes,” Jeremiah replied, “you will be handed over to the king of Babylon” (Jeremiah 37:17). Now that’s a bold, truthful prophet, the kind of preachers we need today!

The officials viewed the prophecies of Jeremiah to be demoralizing to the remaining soldiers who fought in this war. In retribution, and with the king’s consent, wicked men lowered Jeremiah down into an empty cistern to torment him. It wasn’t his first time to be held captive as Jeremiah had been whipped, imprisoned, put in stocks and ridiculed (Jeremiah 20).

In each of these instances he was finally released but here he is once again held in seclusion which would render his prophecies silenced and seemingly powerless. It would also lead to his eventual death as they withheld food from him while he sunk deep into the mud-filled cistern. Talk about claustrophobia! But one thing the evil captors could not do was keep Jeremiah from praying to God for release from his miserable captivity.

Jeremiah being lifted out of cisternGod had not forgotten nor forsaken Jeremiah. He began to nudge Ebed-Melech the Cushite to intercede for Jeremiah. It couldn’t have been easy, probably causing Ebed-Melech to lose some sleep over the matter.  He’s one of those obscure Bible characters whose brief story in Scripture is so easy to pass over as we read the narrative portions of God’s Word. Ebed-Melech means “servant of the king”.  He was a Cushite, which means he came from the region of present-day Ethiopia and was likely a black man.

Risking his life he approached the king and appealed for Jeremiah’s rescue. The two-faced king granted permission and and also sent thirty unnamed men to assist Ebed-Melech in lifting Jeremiah out of the cistern. (I certainly wonder why they needed 30 men!)

A small detail in the rescue itself is the source of today’s encouraging challenge. Note the consideration of Ebed-Melech in taking along old rags and worn-out clothes to pad the rope. Anyone who has ever held onto rope or been lifted with a rope knows how it can burn and cut deep into the skin if not padded. We aren’t told how long Jeremiah remained in the cistern but being deprived of sunshine and food his skin was likely even more sensitive to ropeburn. What an extra measure of consideration at such a time as this! Later after Jerusalem fell captive to the Babylonians Ebed-Melech received a very encouraging word of hope through Jeremiah’s prophecy (39:15-18).

Figuratively speaking, is there someone you know that needs a rope pull; someone sinking at the bottom of a muddy, stinky cistern? Ask God how you can be part of His rescue plan for this discouraged soul. Be sure to take along some “padding” to make the rescue less painful.

Be encouraged today,

Stephen & Brooksyne Weber

Praying manDaily prayer: Father, we are so grateful for the rope holders who’ve helped pull us out of despairing situations. Those who have given us an uplifting message, interceded in prayer on our behalf, given of their time and expertise to help us in our dilemma. We too want to be a rope holder and offer a word of encouragement, be a listening ear, and extend tender compassion and mercy to one in need. Help us to be Your hand extended to those in need we pray.  Amen.


Bible trivia quiz: What other Bible character was thrown into a cistern? Answer here.


Brooksyne’s Note: I also have a memory of outdoor water. My grandparents, who lived in the mountains in Arkansas, had no electricity or running water. When water was needed we were commissioned to go out to the hand dug well and bring in a bucket of freshly drawn water by lowering a bucket on a rope deep into the water. When the bucket hit the water it dipped and filled with water and then we pulled the rope up by hand. There were a few summers when the well went dry and then we had to walk about 1/4 mile to the spring and lug home a bucket of water. Since we were young we probably spilled half of it before we got back. I’m thankful for those memories and experiencing the value of hard work.


Here are some more photos from my camping trip to the mountains this last weekend.

Men and boys campout bikes 9/6/14
A handy trailer hauls our bikes to trailheads, mountaintops and tunnels.

Horse along Cumberland Valley rail trail 9/6/14

This horse was fenced right along the Cumberland Valley rail trail and had just run to the fence to greet another horse leading an Amish buggy.

Cumberland County farm 9/6/14
All along the trail we passed tidy farms.

Cumberland County corn harvest 9/6/14
Older equipment is used to harvest the corn by this old-order Mennonite farmer, unlike the huge equipment I saw across the road from our home last week. This corn chopper only had two heads.

Morning glories on fence post 9/6/14
Pretty morning glories were growing right along the trail.

http://www.dailyencouragement.net/archives/2014-09-10.htm
Men and boys campout 9/6/14 (photo by Mike Book)
Men preparing for the 5 mile ride down the mountain. You need to keep your brakes on practically the whole way down.

Mountain vista
Part way down the mountain where a power line clearing reveals the paved road far below.


Today’s Suggested Music and Supplemental Resources

“You Never Let Go”  Video  Matt Redman  “Oh, no, You never let go through the high and through the low…Oh, no, You never let go of me”. This song has been of particular blessing to us, as WDAC our local Christian radio station plays it often with different artists singing it. The lyrics are so pertinent for whatever in life might be troubling to you, reminding you that God will take you through. “Cast your cares on the Lord and He will sustain you. He will never let the righteous fall” (Psalm 55:2). This is a powerful memory verse I taught children in Sunday School this past Sunday and it is has been speaking to me ever since. (Brooksyne)

Google map of campout and bike rides. I first made this map several years ago and revised it this morning to share the location of the rails to trails bike ride.

GEM pump letteringThe lettering GEM on the pump housing is made by punching holes in the sheet metal to form the letters. Searching the internet I see GEM was a very common pump maker. I wonder if any of our readers know what the initials stood for? For curious readers who, like me, enjoy understanding how things work, here is a page that explains how this type of pump works (scroll down for diagram)

* A particular sect of old-order Mennonites insist on using steel-wheeled tractors! (see here for more information) According to this article, “Use of steel wheels ensures tractors are not used as a substitute for automobiles to run errands or to make more extensive trips than are convenient with horse-drawn carriages. The steel wheel rule prevents large agricultural operations, reinforcing an emphasis on small farms that provide manual labor for all of the family members.”


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