Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
The elegy which is contained in this chapter is alphabetic in its structure, like the two that precede it, but it is of a more complicated character, three consecutive verses beginning with the same letter of the alphabet.
I am the man that hath seen affliction by the rod of his wrath.(1) I am the man.—The lamentation is one of more intense personality. For that very reason it has been the true inheritance of all mourners, however widely different in time, country, circumstance, whose sorrows have approximated to that intensity.
He hath led me, and brought me into darkness, but not into light.(2) Into darkness.—The moral darkness of perplexity as well as misery. The cry of the mourner was like that of Ajax (Hom. Il. xvii. 647), “Slay me if thou wilt, but slay me in the light.”
Surely against me is he turned; he turneth his hand against me all the day.(3) Against me is he turned.—Better, against me He turneth His hand again and again, the first verb being one of frequentative action, and giving that significance to the second.
My flesh and my skin hath he made old; he hath broken my bones.(4) Hath he made old.—Better, He hath wasted, the verb describing the wear and tear of life rather than the effects of age. “Flesh,” “skin,” “bones,” are grouped together as representing the whole being of the mourner.
He hath builded against me, and compassed me with gall and travail.(5) He hath builded.—The attack of sorrow is presented under the figure of a siege. In the next clause the figure is dropped. “Gall” stands, as in Jeremiah 8:14, for bitterest sorrow. “Travel” is the old English form of “travail,” the two forms, originally identical, being now used with different meanings.
He hath set me in dark places, as they that be dead of old.(6) He hath set me in dark places.—A verbal reproduction of Psalm 143:3. The “dark places” are those of hell or Hades. For dead of old read dead eternally or dead for ever, the adverb looking forward rather than back.
He hath hedged me about, that I cannot get out: he hath made my chain heavy.(7) He hath hedged.—From the darkness of Hades we pass to that of the prison-house, in which the mourner is “hedged” or confined, bound with a heavy chain (literally, brass).
Also when I cry and shout, he shutteth out my prayer.(8) He shutteth out my prayer—i.e., stops it so that it does not reach the ear of Jehovah; and it is Jehovah himself who does this.
He hath inclosed my ways with hewn stone, he hath made my paths crooked.(9) He hath inclosed.—Yet another figure of resourceless misery follows. A massive wall of stone runs across the mourner’s way. When he turns aside into by-paths, they are turned and twisted in labyrinthine confusion, and lead nowhither.
He was unto me as a bear lying in wait, and as a lion in secret places.(10) As a bear . . . as a lion.—The figure found in Hosea 13:8; Amos 5:19, is specially characteristic of Jeremiah (Jeremiah 4:7; Jeremiah 5:6; Jeremiah 49:19; Jeremiah 50:44). We are reminded of Dante (Inferno, i. 31-51).
He hath turned aside my ways, and pulled me in pieces: he hath made me desolate.(11) He hath turned aside.—The terror caused by the lion turns the traveller from his path, and there is no other; and then comes the attack by which he is torn in pieces.
He hath made me desolate.—Better, made me astonied, as in Ezra 9:3. The verb (which occurs forty times in Jeremiah’s prophecies and three times in Lam.), paints the stupefaction of terror.
He hath bent his bow, and set me as a mark for the arrow.(12) He hath bent his bow.—(Comp. Job 16:12.) The figure is changed, but there is a natural sequence of thought. The lion suggests the huntsman. but he appears on the scene not to save the victim, but to complete the work of destruction.
He hath caused the arrows of his quiver to enter into my reins.(13) The arrows of his quiver.—Literally, children. The other side of the analogy appears in Psalm 127:5.
I was a derision to all my people; and their song all the day.(14) I was a derision.—The personal experience of the prophet breaks through the succession of imagery. The arrows that pierced to the quick were the taunts of the mockers who derided him (Jeremiah 20:7). “Their song.” (Comp. Job 30:9.)
He hath filled me with bitterness, he hath made me drunken with wormwood.(15) Bitterness.—The Hebrew gives the plural, bitternesses. With these, the sorrows which are as the bitter herbs of life (the same word meets us in Exodus 12:8, and Numbers 9:11), the mourner had been filled even to satiety, even as he had been made drunk with wormwood.
He hath also broken my teeth with gravel stones, he hath covered me with ashes.(16) He hath also broken my teeth.—The metaphor of food is continued. The mourner eats bread that is gritty, as if made of sand instead of flour. (Comp. Proverbs 20:17.) Here, again, we are reminded of Dante (Parad. xvii. 58), when he speaks of the bitterness of the bread which comes as the grudging gift of strangers.
And thou hast removed my soul far off from peace: I forgat prosperity.(17) Thou hast removed my soul far off from peace.—The verb is found in this sense in Psalm 88:14. By some critics it is taken as passive, and in the 3rd person feminine. My soul loathes peace, i.e., has lost even the desire of better things; or, My soul is despised of peace, i.e., is shut out from it. But the Authorised version is preferable.
And I said, My strength and my hope is perished from the LORD:(18) I said, My strength.—The sorrow of the mourner comes to the very verge of despair. There was “no help for him from his God;” even that hope had left him. But, as the sequel shows, this despair was the beginning of a reaction. The very name of Jehovah (no longer Adonai) reminded him of the everlasting mercies.
Remembering mine affliction and my misery, the wormwood and the gall.(19) Remembering.—The verb, which is rendered by the Authorised version as a gerundial infinitive, is better taken as an imperative, Remember mine affliction; the prayer being addressed to Jehovah. The two terms of the first clause are taken from Lamentations 1:7. The mourner begins his prayer, as it were, by a recapitulation of his sufferings. (Comp. Psalm 69:21.)
My soul hath them still in remembrance, and is humbled in me.(20) My soul hath . . .—The verb, as in Lamentations 3:17, may be either in the second person or the third; the former gives, Thou wilt surely remember that my soul is humbled. Psalm 42:4 supports the Authorised version.
This I recall to my mind, therefore have I hope.(21) This I recall to my mind.—Better, This will I recall. The first gleam of hope breaks through the darkness. The sorrow has not been in vain; it has brought humility, and out of humility springs hope.
It is of the LORD'S mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not.(22) It is of the Lord’s mercies.—It is, perhaps, part of the elaborate art of this poem that Lamentations 3:22-42, which form its centre, and that of the whole book, represent the highest point of trust to which the mourner attains, being both preceded and followed by words of lamentation.
They are new every morning: great is thy faithfulness.(23) They are new.—The subject of the sentence is found in the “compassions” of the preceding verse. With the dawn of every day there dawn also the mercies of Jehovah.
The LORD is my portion, saith my soul; therefore will I hope in him.(24) The Lord.—An inversion of the sentence gives a closer and more emphatic rendering: My portion is Jehovah. The phrase is a reminiscence from Psalm 16:5; Psalm 73:26; Psalm 142:5; Psalm 119:57, the thought resting primarily on Numbers 18:20.
The LORD is good unto them that wait for him, to the soul that seeketh him.(25) The Lord is good.—The alliterative form of the Hebrew makes “good” the first word of this and the two following verses, the adjective being predicated, first of the essential character of Jehovah, and then of the conditions in man on which the manifestation of that character depends.
It is good that a man should both hope and quietly wait for the salvation of the LORD.(26) Quietly wait.—Literally, wait in silence: i.e. abstain from murmurs and complaints.
It is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth.(27) Bear the yoke in his youth.—The words have been pressed “with a strange literalism” in favour of the view that the Lamentations were written in the youth of Jeremiah and on the death of Josiah. It may fairly be contended, on the other hand, that the tone of the maxim is that of one who looks back from the experience of age on the passionate complaints of his earlier years (Jeremiah 15:10; Jeremiah 20:7-18).
He sitteth alone and keepeth silence, because he hath borne it upon him.(28) He sitteth alone . . .—Better, Let him sit alone, and keep silence when He (Jehovah) hath laid it (the yoke) upon him; and so in the next verses, Let him put his mouth . . . Let him give his cheek.
He putteth his mouth in the dust; if so be there may be hope.(29) He putteth his mouth in the dust . . .—The outward image is that of the prostration of an Eastern subject before a king: his very face laid in the dust, so that he cannot speak.
He giveth his cheek to him that smiteth him: he is filled full with reproach.(30) He giveth his cheek . . .—The submission enjoined reaches its highest point—a patience like that of Job 16:10; we may add, like that of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:39.) It was harder to accept the Divine chastisement when it came through human agents. Not so had Jeremiah once taught and acted (Jeremiah 20:1-6; Jeremiah 28:15). (Comp. Isaiah 1:6.)
For the Lord will not cast off for ever:(31) For the Lord . . .—The counsels of submission are followed by the grounds of hope. The first, a quotation from Psalm 77:7, had been of old a favourite thought of the writer’s (Jeremiah 3:5; Jeremiah 3:12). The second (Lamentations 3:32) rests on the fact that compassion underlies chastisement (Psalm 30:5; Job 5:18; Isaiah 54:8); the third (Lamentations 3:33) on the truth that the primary eternal will of God is on the side of love, and that punishment is, as it were, against that will.
For he doth not afflict willingly nor grieve the children of men.(33) Not . . . willingly.—Literally, not from the heart, as being the centre of volition as well as emotion
To crush under his feet all the prisoners of the earth,(34-36) To crush . . .—The triplet of verses forms one sentence dependent upon the final clause, “The Lord approveth not,” literally, doth not look on. By some critics the literal meaning is kept in the form of a question: Doth not the Lord look on this? The fact that the righteous judgment of God is against those who, unlike Him, cause wilful and needless suffering is another ground of hope to the sufferer. The three forms of evil specified are (1) the cruel treatment of prisoners of war, such as Jeremiah had witnessed daily at the hands of the Chaldeans; (2) the perversion of justice in a public tribunal acting in the name of God (Exodus 23:6); (3) every form even of private injustice.
Who is he that saith, and it cometh to pass, when the Lord commandeth it not?(37-39) New grounds of patient faith are given: (1) In an echo from Psalm 33:9, affirming the sovereignty of God. The evil which He permits is under the control of this loving purpose; and (2) as far as it is not absolute evil, may be said to come from Him.
Wherefore doth a living man complain, a man for the punishment of his sins?(39) Wherefore doth a living man . . .—Better, Why doth a man who lives? i.e., whose life is spared him (comp. Jeremiah 45:5), with all its possibilities of good, complain of sufferings which, however unjust as far as those who cause them are concerned, are, in relation to the sufferer, the just punishment of his own sins?
Let us search and try our ways, and turn again to the LORD.(40) Let us search . . .—Warnings against murmurs are followed by counsels which point to a more excellent way. Suffering calls a man to self-scrutiny. We should seek to know the sins which it is meant to punish and correct.
To the Lord.—The preposition is an emphatic one: even to the Lord. There is to be no halting half-way in the work of conversion.
Let us lift up our heart with our hands unto God in the heavens.(41) With our hands.—Literally, to our hands. There is, as it were, a psychological analysis of prayer. Men can by an act of will, lift up the heart as the centre of affection: this, in its turn, prompts the outward act of the uplifted hands of supplication; God is the final object to whom the prayer is addressed.
We have transgressed and have rebelled: thou hast not pardoned.(42) We have transgressed . . .—The verses that follow (Lam 3;42-47) give the prayer which answers to the call of Lamentations 3:41. Both pronouns are emphatic: The suppliant has sinned and God has not yet pardoned, in the sense of ceasing to punish.
Thou hast covered with anger, and persecuted us: thou hast slain, thou hast not pitied.(43) Thou hast covered with anger.—Better, as in the next verse, Thou hast covered thyself. Wrath is as the garment in which God wraps Himself to execute His righteous judgments. In Lamentations 3:44 the wrath is represented more definitely as a cloud through which the prayers of the afflicted cannot pass.
Thou hast made us as the offscouring and refuse in the midst of the people.(45) In the midst of the people.—Literally, peoples: i.e., the heathen nations of the world. A like phrase meets us in 1Corinthians 4:13.
Fear and a snare is come upon us, desolation and destruction.(47) Fear and a snare.—A quotation from Jeremiah 48:43, and Isaiah 24:17.
Desolation.—Better, devastation. The Hebrew noun is not found elsewhere, but the cognate verb in Isaiah 37:26 is rendered “to lay waste.”
Mine eye runneth down with rivers of water for the destruction of the daughter of my people.(48) Mine eye . . .—A stronger utterance of the thought of Lamentations 1:16; Lamentations 2:18; Psalm 119:136.
Mine eye trickleth down, and ceaseth not, without any intermission,(49) Trickleth down.—Better, poureth down.
Mine eye affecteth mine heart because of all the daughters of my city.(51) Affecteth.—Better, harmeth, or causeth grief to.
The daughters of my city.—The words have been understood (1) of the maidens of Jerusalem (comp. Lamentations 1:4; Lamentations 1:18; Lamentations 2:20-21); and (2) of the daughter-towns which looked to it as their metropolis. Of these (1) is preferable.
Mine enemies chased me sore, like a bird, without cause.(52) Without cause . . .—The words connect themselves in the Hebrew with “mine enemies” (comp. Psalm 35:7; Psalm 35:19; Psalm 69:4), and it has been inferred from this that Jeremiah speaks not of the Chaldeans as enemies of his nation, but of those who were individually his persecutors. The hypothesis receives some confirmation from the apparent reference in the “dungeon” and the “waters” to the narrative of Jeremiah 38. It has been urged, on the other hand, that those expressions may be figurative here, as they are in Psalm 42:7; Psalm 88:7; Psalm 124:4.
They have cut off my life in the dungeon, and cast a stone upon me.(53) Cast a stone upon me.—The words admit of two meanings: (1) that they cast stones at him; (2) that they placed a stone over the opening of his dungeon so as to prevent escape.
I called upon thy name, O LORD, out of the low dungeon.(55) Out of the low dungeon.—Here, again, we have to choose between a literal reference to Jeremiah’s sufferings or a figurative interpretation. The phrase is the same as that of Psalm 88:6.
Thou hast heard my voice: hide not thine ear at my breathing, at my cry.(56) Thou hast heard . . . hide not thine . . .—There is something eminently suggestive in the sequence of the two clauses. The recollection that prayer was answered in the past, prompts its utterance in the present. Historically, the words may point to the intervention of Ebed-melech in Jeremiah 38:7.
At my breathing—i.e., the “sighs” or “sobs” of the mourner.
O Lord, thou hast pleaded the causes of my soul; thou hast redeemed my life.(58) Thou hast pleaded the causes of my soul—i.e., Jehovah had appeared as the advocate, or next-of-kin protector, of the prophet in the persecutions which were aimed against his life. Another personal reference to the prophet’s sufferings. (Comp. Jeremiah 26:8-17; Jeremiah 37:14; Jeremiah 38:4.)
Thou hast seen all their vengeance and all their imaginations against me.(60) All their imaginations . . .—Same word as the “devices” of Jeremiah 11:19; Jeremiah 18:18, to which the writer obviously refers.
Thou hast heard their reproach, O LORD, and all their imaginations against me;(61) Thou hast heard.—The verb governs the “lips” of the next verse as well as the “reproaches” of this. In the last clause we note the emphasis of iteration, the natural dwelling on what was prominent in the prophet’s thoughts.
The lips of those that rose up against me, and their device against me all the day.(62) The lips . . . The organs of speech are used boldly for the words which they uttered, and so stand parallel with “reproaches” in Lamentations 3:61.
Behold their sitting down, and their rising up; I am their musick.(63) Their sitting down, and their rising up . . .—The two words, as in Deuteronomy 6:7; Deuteronomy 11:19; Psalm 139:2; include the whole daily and hourly conduct of those spoken of.
I am their musick.—The noun, though not identical, is cognate with that of Psalm 69:12, of which the complaint is, as it were, an echo.
Render unto them a recompence, O LORD, according to the work of their hands.(64) Render unto them . . .—The words are noticeable as being taken from Psalm 28:4, and reproduced by St. Paul in 2Timothy 4:14.
Give them sorrow of heart, thy curse unto them.(65) Sorrow of heart—Literally, covering, with a sense like that of the “veil upon the heart” of 2Corinthians 3:15, and so signifying the blindness of obstinacy. The imperatives in both Lamentations 3:65-66 are better rendered as futures—Thou shalt give; Thou shalt persecute.
Persecute and destroy them in anger from under the heavens of the LORD.(66) From under the heavens of the Lord.—The phrase is exceptional, but it is obviously equivalent to the whole world, considered as God’s kingdom.