on alexander the great and broken cisterns

The historians tells us that Alexander the Great was driven by great yearnings. He had a yearning to cross into places his people had never gone before; he had a great yearning to know and understand the world around him; he had a great yearning to live up to his ancestor Achilles and always be the best at everything; he had a great yearning to conquer and explore.

Yet these yearnings went beyond mere motivation. They hurt him and those around him. The desire to stand out compelled him to make rash decisions, militarily and personally. And the desire to see the end of the world saw his increasingly disgruntled and bewildered army butcher its way through India, until it mutinied and refused to go further. Alexander was forced to abandon his yearning to see the far reaches of Asia.

Arrian and other historians use the Greek word pothos to describe Alexander’s yearning to go into the unknown. But nothing seemed to satisfy it. Not even the sage words of Indian wisemen, who told him that a man could own only so much earth as he stood upon, and that even he would soon be dead and would own as much earth as would cover him. Yet Alexander’s pothos never left him.

I believe we are all driven by something like pothos (though not in the technical sense of the Greek word). We may not want to explore the unknown but we all have a yearning which can’t be satisfied. We do things and acquire things and try to satisfy it but nothing will do.

When we do things again and again it is worth stopping and thinking why exactly we do them. For those who have a continuous string of romantic relationships – what is it you actually want? For those who shop again and again and never really need what you buy – what is it you actually want? For those addicted to gaming, or drink, or pornography – what is it you actually want? We all want something but we don’t quite know what it is. We try to satisfy the pothos with things that seem good, but it just doesn’t work.

The Indian wisemen mentioned by Arrian hit upon this. We want and want, but acquiring stuff or experiences won’t fix it. God also speaks to the Israelites about a similar problem: “my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water” (Jer 2:13).

For so long God had been with his people, through thick and thin, bringing them out of Egypt, conquering Canaan before them, establishing their kingdom. And the whole time God reminded them of his devotion and commitment to them, and that their proper response was to stick to him and not be like the people around them, to worship him alone and not other people’s gods.

But they were not satisfied with God or being his treasured people. They had to have it all, they had to have what other people had, do what other people did, worship what other people worshiped. It was a broken cistern, it could not satisfy and could not be filled. And as they drifted further and further from what it meant to be God’s people, God acted. All this led to his horrifying judgement.

What to do about the problem? While the wisemen’s solution seems a bit morbid and impractical – be content with what you have, and failing that death will solve everything – I think God’s answer to the problem is something else altogether.

Look at the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4) – if Jeremiah 2 ever needed a poster girl she was it. She had had five husbands and was now living with another man. She had probably gotten a bad reputation in town too, judging from the fact that she went to the well at noon, the hottest time of the day, when no one was around. She was living in disobedience to God’s law, she was trying again and again to fill her broken cistern, and apparently again and again had failed. And everybody seemed to know.

Her answer was Jesus. She had been yearning for something, and tried again and again to satisfy it, but she didn’t even know what she was searching for. When her answer came to her to ask her for a drink she didn’t know who he was. Even as he tried to speak directly to her heart she dodged and brought up politics. But Jesus still called her out on this thing that had wounded her so much, this pothos of hers. He promised her water that would never run out, water that will satisfy forever. She dodged again and brought up matters of religion, but Jesus refused to let go. What matters is not where worship takes place, Jesus said, but how, and what takes place in the heart. The woman now realised that this man who knew what she had done, what her problem was, what her pothos was, and far from getting sidetracked by religious babble refused to let go of her heart – this man might be the real deal, the Messiah. So she and her town believed that this is “indeed the saviour of the world” (John 4:42).

Though it is possible to take this interpretation too far I think on one level this passage of the Bible speaks to our pothos. We dig broken cisterns like the Samaritan woman, we try like her to fill them but nothing ever works. Then Jesus comes with waters of eternal life that will make us never thirsty again. Dare we take him up on this promise?

What is it we actually want when we do the things we do? What kind of patterns emerge behind the scenes? Do we really believe Jesus can satisfy our longings? How would this look like in our lives? These are not easy questions, and working and living out our answers will not be easy either. But we have Jesus’ promise and his power in our lives, and we will get there. And in that sense we are just a bit more fortunate than Alexander the Great.

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