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Chapter 4. A Lament Concerning The Destruction Of Jerusalem .
This lament is noteworthy for its emphasis on the fact that the destruction of Jerusalem was due to the sins of the people. It draws attention to the way in which all classes had suffered. And it ends with the indication of judgment on Edom, who had taken the advantage of the invasion to occupy parts of southern Judah.
The Sad Condition Of The People Of Jerusalem Due To The Anger Of YHWH (Lamentations 4:1-11 ).
(Aleph) How is the gold become dim!
How is the most pure gold changed!
The (precious) stones of the sanctuary are poured out,
At the head of every street.
What is in mind here are not the gold and precious stones of the Temple, but the gold and precious stones as representing the people of Israel (so Lamentations 4:2). Note how in Lamentations 4:2 the sons of Zion are ‘weighed as fine gold’. That is why it can grow dim and be changed. And that is why it can be poured out at the end of every street (compare Lamentations 2:19 where it is said of the children). The precious stones of the sanctuary may represent the priests.
Some do see it as signifying what happened to the Temple, but this lament is not about the Temple and what happened to it, but about the people.
(Beth) The precious sons of Zion,
Weighed out with fine gold,
How they are esteemed as earthen pitchers,
The work of the hands of the potter!
The thought is of the ‘precious sons of Zion’, representing all the people of the city, who are YHWH’s holy nation and kingdom of priests, a treasure wholly for YHWH (Exodus 19:5-6). When these sons of Zion were put in the scales the only thing originally which was suitable for weighing them was fine gold. But now they are simply esteemed as earthenware pitchers, something of little value, worked by the hands of the potter. The reference to the potter is a reminder of Jeremiah 19:0 where the city was to be broken like an earthenware pot.
(Gimel) Even the jackals draw out the breast,
They give suck to their young ones,
The daughter of my people is become cruel,
Like the ostriches in the wilderness.
(Daleth) The tongue of the sucking child,
Cleaves to the roof of his mouth for thirst,
The young children ask bread,
And no man breaks it to them.
The sad condition of the people is brought out by the fact that they are not even on a par with the despised jackals. The jackals breastfeed their young, but, like the ostriches in the wilderness, renowned for their casualness with their young (compare Job 39:16), the women of Jerusalem (the daughter of my people) are unable or unwilling to do so because they are so starved of food. They hold back their milk because they are starving.
In consequence the tongue of the normally breastfed child cleaves to the roof of its mouth because of its dryness, and when the young children ask for bread no one provides it for them, for there is none to give.
(He) They who fed delicately,
Are desolate in the streets,
They who were carried in scarlet,
The rich are affected equally with the poor. Those who were used to rich food are now starving in the streets, those who had once been borne in scarlet cloth (cloth dyed with Tyrian purple or crimson), the cloth of the rich, now clung to dunghills, possibly as their only source of food.
(Waw) For the iniquity of the daughter of my people,
Is greater than the sin of Sodom,
That was overthrown as in a moment,
And no hands were laid on her.
And all this because the sin of Jerusalem was greater than the sin of Sodom, and Sodom had been overthrown in a moment with no one touching her. In other words she was overthrown by a greater than an earthly hand. But she had been fortunate, for her people had perished without suffering, in contrast with the people of Jerusalem. Note the emphasis on the fact that the overthrow of Jerusalem was due to its sins.
(Zayin) Her nobles were purer than snow,
They were whiter than milk,
They were more ruddy in body than rubies,
Their polishing was as of sapphire.
Her aristocrats had once been noble, they had been purer than snow, whiter than milk, ruddier than rubies, more polished than sapphires. The idea was of the red and white complexion which was seen as the ideal (Song of Solomon 5:10).
It is possible that we should translate the word for ‘princes’ as Nazarites. In that case there is the added point that even those sanctified by YHWH suffered with the rest.
(Cheth) Their visage is blacker than a coal,
They are not known in the streets,
Their skin cleaves to their bones,
It is withered, it is become like a stick.
But now their faces were blacker than coal, and they themselves were unrecognisable, as a result of their lack of food and drink. Their skin clove to their bones, and had become withered and thin like a stick. They had reached the last stages of starvation.
(Teth) They who are slain with the sword,
Are better off than they who are slain with hunger,
For these pine away, stricken through,
For want of the fruits of the field.
Their condition was such that those who had been slain with the sword were better off than they. And this was because they were suffering a slow and painful death, pining away and stricken through, as a result of the lack of food.
(Yod) The hands of the pitiful women,
Have boiled their own children,
They were their food,
In the destruction of the daughter of my people.
Worst of all was the fact that pitiful women boiled their own children in order to eat them. This was their food during the period of the destruction of ‘the daughter of my people’.
(Kaph) YHWH has accomplished his wrath,
He has poured out his fierce anger,
And he has kindled a fire in Zion,
Which has devoured its foundations.
And all this was the consequence of YHWH having accomplished His wrath on them and His having poured out His fierce anger. He had kindled a fire in Zion which had devoured its very foundations. Whilst fire certainly had its part to play in the destruction of the city, this description is metaphorical indicating total destruction. It was the fire of His wrath. Compare Deuteronomy 32:22.
Humanly speaking, of course, such conditions as have been described were normal during protracted sieges. Many cities had suffered like this while seeking to ward off invasion. But the point here is that this was happening to the people of God, and to the holy city of Jerusalem. It could only have happened to them because YHWH was wrath with them.
Jerusalem’s Predicament Was Largely Due To The Priests And The Prophets Who Would Suffer Accordingly (Lamentations 4:12-17 ).
The prophet now draws attention to the fact of how much of Jerusalem’s predicament could be laid at the feet of the priests and prophets, the very people who should have been guiding them aright, and he goes on to point out what this would involve for them.
(Lamed) The kings of the earth did not believe,
Nor all the inhabitants of the world,
That the adversary and the enemy,
Would enter into the gates of Jerusalem.
He pictures the whole world as astonished at what had happened to Jerusalem, unable to believe that it could be taken. This statement is probably hyperbole, although having said that it must be admitted that we do not know what the kings and the inhabitants of the world really thought at that time. It may be seen as looking at the view of the kings and the inhabitants of the world from Judah’s point of view. How could they not be astonished?
On the other hand, while it was true that Jerusalem had been take a number of times in the past, that had been before it was so heavily fortified. Even its capture in 597 BC by Nebuchadrezzar had been by surrender and not by its being breached. It may well be therefore that it had gained a powerful reputation so that it was commonly thought that it could not be taken. But what is really behind these words is the fact that they were taken by surprise. They ‘could hardly believe their eyes’.
And they had reason to be surprised. Jerusalem was a powerful fortress city well able to withstand a siege, its elevated location and strong walls making it appear almost impregnable. And when we add to that the tales of how God had delivered it in times of trouble, most noticeably in the time of Hezekiah, it may well have gained a reputation for such impregnability. Jerusalem had after all been one of the few cities to successfully resist Assyria. Given the fact that it was also ‘a holy city’ it would certainly have had a certain reputation, and people in those days had an awe of something that was ‘holy’. They would remember that Assyria had been unable to take it, and that even in 597 BC its walls had not been breached.
(Mem) It is because of the sins of her prophets,
And the iniquities of her priests,
Who have shed in the midst of her,
The blood of the righteous.
But the prophet has an explanation of why it had now been taken. It was because of the sins of her prophets and the iniquities of her priests (see Jeremiah 6:13; Jeremiah 23:11) who had shed innocent blood in the midst of her, especially the blood of the righteous, that is, those who were truly loyal to the covenant and to YHWH. We note immediately that the primary reason has to do with morality, and a gross breach of the covenant. YHWH was very much concerned about the behaviour of His people, and the shedding of blood was seen as especially horrific. One example of such shedding of the blood of the righteous was the prophet Uriah. See Jeremiah 26:20-24 for details. Consider also the death of Zechariah the son of Jehoiada (2 Chronicles 24:21), the innocent blood shed by Manasseh (2 Kings 21:16), and the attempts on Jeremiah’s own life (Jeremiah 26:7).
(Nun) They wander in the streets,
Like those who are blind,
They are polluted with blood,
So that men cannot touch their clothes.
(Samek) ‘Depart you,’ they cried to them,
‘Unclean! depart, depart, touch not!’
When they fled away and wandered, men said among the nations,
They will no more sojourn here.
The consequence for the priests and prophets is now vividly described. The opening description is probably metaphorical, indicating their then spiritual condition. As they wandered around the streets they were like the ‘blind. They were so blind that they had no understanding of what was true and right. All that they could do was proclaim falsehood. Or it may indicate their condition as a result of the lack of food. Even the priests and prophets were blinded by hunger so that they reeled as they walked.
And because they had ignored the covenant their blindness had resulted in them shedding innocent blood. Many a law case which resulted in such a conclusion would have been decided by the priests or the prophets, who would have been called on to pass a verdict, and whose influence was great in such matters. In consequence they were as men covered with blood, they were ‘polluted with blood’, so that to touch them would render someone unclean. Whether it was metaphorical blood or actual we do not know.
They are therefore seen as wandering around like lepers (Leviticus 13:45) crying out, ‘Depart. Unclean, unclean. Depart, depart. Do not touch us.’ Alternately the cries might be seen as coming from the onlookers seeking to avoid contact with them. There is something especially poignant in this in that the touching of a pries or prophet would normally have been seen as unthinkable because they were ‘holy’. But now they were being seen as untouchable for the very opposite reason.
The ‘fleeing away and wandering’ may indicate that these are seen as part of the party that went to Egypt. On the other hand it may well indicate their situation wherever they went. Once in exile they are pictured as pariahs, as those who should be avoided, so that men recoiled from them and cried out, ‘they will no more sojourn here’. They would incur a great deal of religious blame for what had happened to the Temple.
But however we interpret them the real purpose of these verses is in order to bring out the horrific nature of what they had done. The men who should have been ensuring that the covenant was maintained at all costs, had in fact participated in ignoring it.
(Pe) The anger of YHWH (literally ‘the face of YHWH’) has scattered them,
He will no more regard them,
They respected not the persons of the priests,
They did not show favour to the elders.
It was the face of YHWH revealed in anger which had scattered them. He had no regard for them as priests and prophets. Their status meant nothing to Him. And this was also true of ‘they’. This could mean people in general among the nations, or simply the Israelite exiles. They too did not respect the persons of the priests, who would once have been seen as sacrosanct. Nor did they show favour to the elders, those rulers who had brought them to this situation. Those who had been the most respected of men were now despised.
Alternately ‘the elders’ might be translated ‘the old’ indicating that even the old among the priests and prophets, those who would have been especially honoured, received no favour from the people. .
(Ayin) Our eyes do yet fail,
Looking for our help in vain,
In our watching we have watched,
For a nation which could not save.
The prophet’s thoughts now turn to the days of the siege when they had vainly watched from the walls of Jerusalem, looking out eagerly for those who had promised to assist them against the Babylonians, constantly expecting help. After all Egypt had made such great promises, and who could withstand mighty Egypt? This would especially have been so when the news came of the advancing Egyptian army. But they had watched in vain. No help had come. Egypt had turned out to be a nation which could not save.
The Aftermath Of The Taking Of The City (Lamentations 4:18-20 ).
In vivid terms the prophet describes what followed the taking of the city. People cowered in their houses afraid to go out. For those who did found that they were hunted down by the enemy. Those who fled to the mountains, or into the wilderness discovered the same. Everywhere that they went they found the enemy. They found themselves pursued in the mountains, and ambushed in the wilderness. And this was even true of their king, the king who had been their very life, the Anointed of YHWH, in whom they had had such implicit trust. They had not seen him as a vacillating, weak king, but as the son of the house of David who would ensure their standing among the nations. But instead he had fled and had been taken in the snares of the enemy.
(Tsade) They hunt our steps,
So that we cannot go in our streets,
Our end is near, our days are fulfilled,
For our end is come.
Once the city was taken the soldiery would seek out resistance, which in their eyes would lie in any male who could be found. It thus became impossible to go out in the streets even to search for food. All they could do was lie low and cower in their houses waiting for the end to come, recognising that that day was near. All was lost. Resistance had been in vain. Hope was gone. They had reached the end of their days. They had no time left.
(Qoph) Our pursuers were swifter,
Than the eagles of the heavens,
They chased us on the mountains,
They laid wait for us in the wilderness.
Even those who fled to the mountains or the wilderness fared no better. Their pursuers were swifter than the mighty eagles watching for their prey and swooping down on them with incredible speed. They found themselves chased on the mountains and ambushed in the wilderness. There was no escape from the dogged pursuit as the enemy remorselessly hunted them down.
(Resh) The breath of our nostrils, the anointed of YHWH,
Was taken in their pits,
Of whom we said, ‘Under his shadow,
We will live among the nations.’
And this had even been so for the Anointed of YHWH. He who had been their very life, whom they had trusted so utterly, and whom YHWH had anointed over them, had fled from the city only to be caught in the snares of the enemy. They had looked to him as the Davidic king to give them status among the nations so that they could proudly hold up their heads, to be the hero under whose shadow they lived. There is here a hint of Messianic expectation. But instead he had failed them and in the end had ignominiously fled the city, seeking refuge among those nations, and had been trapped like a hunted animal.
Interestingly this phrase ‘the breath of our nostrils’ is found as used in Canaan in the Amarna letters which predated Moses, and on an inscription of Rameses II at Abydos in Egypt indicating how much people in those days depended on their rulers. But for the prophet its chief significance may well have arisen from Genesis 2:7. The king was seen as their God-given life.
Some see ‘under his shadow, we will live among the nations’ as referring to those who had fled with Zedekiah, who had hoped to find refuge with him among the nations, thus drawing out the hopelessness of the escape attempt. Even the royal party had been unable to escape. But it is more likely that it had Messianic implications.
Edom Are To Be Punished For Their Part In Jerusalem’s Downfall And For Taking Possession Of Southern Judah. Whilst There Was Hope In The Future For Zion, There Would Be None For Edom (Lamentations 4:21-22 ).
Added to the trials through which Jerusalem and Judah was going as just described was the fact that their neighbours Edom had taken the opportunity to seize land in southern Judah as a reward from Nebuchadrezzar for supporting him against Judah. Their king had failed them, but even worse their neighbours had proved treacherous. But this enabled the prophet to introduce a message of hope for Zion, while at the same time assuring Edom of the punishment that awaited them.
(Shin) Rejoice and be glad, O daughter of Edom,
Who dwells in the land of Uz,
The cup will pass through to you also,
You will be drunk, and will make yourself naked.
The opening words are sarcastic. Edom was rejoicing at having gained at the cost of their neighbours, for they had supported the Babylonians and had been well rewarded by Nebuchadrezzar, being given land in southern Judah. See in this respect Psalms 137:7 (note their unholy glee at the fate of Jerusalem); Obadiah 1:11-14. Well let them rejoice while they can. For shortly the cup that Jerusalem had drunk would be passed to them. They too would drink of the cup of suffering and of God’s wrath, and they too would become drunk and naked (see Jeremiah 25:15-17).
‘Who dwell in the land of Uz’ an ancient name connected with Edom. For ‘Uz’ see Genesis 10:23; Job 1:1; Jeremiah 25:20.
(Tau) The punishment of your iniquity is accomplished, O daughter of Zion,
He will no more carry you away into captivity,
He will visit your iniquity, O daughter of Edom,
He will uncover your sins.
The lament ends with an unexpected assurance to Zion of YHWH’s continued watch over them, and a warning to Edom of what lay in store for them. Whilst Zion could still expect God finally to show mercy, for Edom there was no hope (Ezekiel 25:12-14; Joel 3:19-21). The contrast is intended to bring out the wonder of God’s goodness towards Zion over against the judgment coming on their enemies.
Having described in detail the ordeal through which Jerusalem has gone, the prophet now assures them that they have reached the bottom of the barrel. They can sink no further. The punishment of their iniquity has been accomplished (compare Isaiah 40:1-2) and YHWH had no plans for further judgments on them. The assumption must be that from now on He intended to smile upon them. Their past sins at least had been dealt with in full measure.
It will be otherwise for Jerusalem’s enemies. Edom would be visited (dealt with in judgment) for their iniquity, and their sins would be uncovered, resulting in the necessary punishment of them. It was the opposite of having their sins ‘covered’. The implication is that it would be different for Jerusalem, who would experience the mercy of God, although no detail is given.
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Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Lamentations 4". "Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://studylight.org/
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