Remember, O LORD, what is come upon us: consider, and behold our reproach.
Verses 1-18. - INSULT UPON INSULT HAS BEEN HEAPED UPON JERUSALEM.
Our inheritance is turned to strangers, our houses to aliens.
Verse 2. - Our inheritance. The land had been "given" to Abraham (Genesis 13:25; 17:8), and was consequently inherited by Abraham's posterity. Our houses. Not as it the Chaldeans had actually taken up their abode in some of the houses of Jerusalem. The expressions are forcible, but inexact. The land was seized; the houses were destroyed (Jeremiah 52:13).
We are orphans and fatherless, our mothers are as widows.
Verse 3. - We are orphans and fatherless; i.e. "We are like the most desolate of beings," as the Targum already explains it. Hence in the next clause the mothers of Israel ere likened to widows.
We have drunken our water for money; our wood is sold unto us.
Verse 4. - We have drunken our water, etc. The Jews were not yet carried away to Babylonia when this was written, but had to pay a dear price to the new lords of the soil for the commonest necessaries of life.
Our necks are under persecution: we labour, and have no rest.
Verse 5. - Our necks are under persecution. Persecution is here compared to a yoke. But this rendering and explanation hardly suit the phrase, which rather means, "We are pursued close upon our necks." The harassing conduct of the Babylonian conquerors is compared to the pursuit of a foe fast gaining upon a fugitive.
We have given the hand to the Egyptians, and to the Assyrians, to be satisfied with bread.
Verse 6. - We have given the hand, etc. Starvation awaits the Jews unless they submit to one or the other of their hereditary foes. Some escape to Egypt and "give the hand" (i.e. surrender, Jeremiah 1:15) to the lords of the fertile Nile valley; others acquiesce in the fate of the majority, and sue for the alms of the Babylonians.
Our fathers have sinned, and are not; and we have borne their iniquities.
Verse 7. - We have borne their iniquities. The fathers died before the iniquity was fully ripe for punishment, and their descendants have the feeling that the accumulated sins of the nation are visited upon them. This view of national troubles is very clearly endorsed by one important class of passages (Exodus 20:5; Exodus 34:7; Numbers 14:18; Jeremiah 32:18). The objection to it is forcibly expressed by Job (Job 21:19), "God [it is said] layeth up his iniquity for his children: [but] let him requite it to himself, that he may feel it!" Hence Jeremiah (Jeremiah 31:30) and Ezekiel (Ezekiel 18:1, etc.) insist on the truth that every man is punished for his own sins. Of course the two views of punishment are reconcilable. The Jews were not only punished, according to Jeremiah 16:11, 12, for their fathers' sins, but for their own still more flagrant offences.
Servants have ruled over us: there is none that doth deliver us out of their hand.
Verse 8. - Servants have ruled; rather, slaves. The Babylonians in general might be called slaves, by comparison with the "kingdom of priests" (Exodus 19:6), and the "sons" of Jehovah (Isaiah 45:11; Hosea 1:10). Or the expression may mean that even baseborn hangers on of the conquering host assumed the right to command the defenceless captives.
We gat our bread with the peril of our lives because of the sword of the wilderness.
Verse 9. - We gat our bread; rather, we get our bread. The allusion in the following words is perhaps to murderous attacks of Bedawins (as we should call the Ishmaelites) on the Jews who attempted to gather in the scanty harvest.
Our skin was black like an oven because of the terrible famine.
Verse 10. - Was black like an oven. The translation is misleading; there is no real parallel to Lamentations 4:8. Render, gloweth. It is the feverish glow produced by gnawing hunger which is meant. The terrible famine; rather, the burning heat of hunger. Hariri, the humoristic author of the cycle of stories in rhymed Arabic prose and verse, called 'Makamat,' puts into the mouth of his ne'er do well Abu Seid very similar words to describe a famished man -
"Dess Eingeweide brennend nach Erquickung sehrein,
Der nichts gegessen seit zwei Tagen oder drein."
(Ruckert's adaptation, third Makama.)
They ravished the women in Zion, and the maids in the cities of Judah.
Princes are hanged up by their hand: the faces of elders were not honoured.
Verse 12. - Princes are hanged up by their hand; i.e. by the hand of the enemy. Impalement after death was a common punishment with the Assyrians and Babylonians. Thus Sennacherib says that, after capturing rebellious Ekron, he hung the bodies of the chief men on stakes all round the city ('Records of the Past,' 1:38). Benomi gives a picture of such an impalement from one of the plates in Botta's great work ('Nineveh and its Palaces,' p. 192).
They took the young men to grind, and the children fell under the wood.
Verse 13. - They took the young men to grind; rather, the young men have borne the mill. The lower millstone seems to have been specially hard, and therefore heavy (see Job 41:24), and to carry it about must have required a more severe exertion even than the constant turning of the mill handle. Dr. Thomson "cannot recall an instance in which men were grinding at the mill" ('The Land and the Book,' edit. 1881, p. 108), and both Exodus 11:5 and Matthew 24:41 presuppose that it was women's work. The conquered Jewish youths, however, share the fate of Samson -
"Eyeless, in Gaza, at the mill with slaves."
(Samson Agonistes,' 41.) Eyeless, indeed, they may some of them have been, as putting out the eyes was a common Oriental punishment (comp. Jeremiah 39:7). The children. This is, perhaps, too strong. The Hebrew na'ar is applicable, not only to children, but to youths at the age for marriage (Genesis 34:19) or war (1 Kings 20:15). The wood; not the wooden handle of the mill, but the wood required for fuel.
The elders have ceased from the gate, the young men from their musick.
Verse 14. - From the gate. The place where the elders, technically so called, assembled for legal proceedings, and where the citizens in general met together for social concourse (comp. Genesis 19:1; Ruth 4:11; Psalm 69:12; Amos 5:12, 15; Daniel 2:49). From their music (comp. Jeremiah 7:34; Jeremiah 16:9).
The joy of our heart is ceased; our dance is turned into mourning.
The crown is fallen from our head: woe unto us, that we have sinned!
Verse 16. - The crown is fallen, etc.; rather, the crown of our head is fallen. The Jewish people is compared to a rich man at a banquet, crowned with a diadem (comp. Isaiah 28:1). Jeremiah has a similar phrase in his prophecies (Jeremiah 13:18). It evidently expresses figuratively the prosperity and honour formerly enjoyed by the now vanquished people.
For this our heart is faint; for these things our eyes are dim.
Verses 17, 18. - These verses form a transition to the final appeal. The thought of the desolation of Zion overwhelms the spirit of the poet. But he will soon be able to lift himself up again when he recalls the sublime truth of the inviolable security of Israel's God. Foxes; rather, jackals.
Because of the mountain of Zion, which is desolate, the foxes walk upon it.
Thou, O LORD, remainest for ever; thy throne from generation to generation.
Verses 19-22. - FINAL APPEAL TO GOD FOR THE REVERSAL OF THE JUDGMENT. Verse 19. - Remainest; better, art enthroned.
Wherefore dost thou forget us for ever, and forsake us so long time?
Verse 20. - Wherefore dost thou forget us, etc.? The poet does not say," Wherefore hast thou forgotten us?" One of the psalmists, indeed, does go so far (Psalm 74:1); but the poet of this lamentation, with a more tender and trustful reserve, adopts the tense of feeling (the imperfect) in preference to that of fact (the perfect), and asks, "Wherefore dost thou [to my feeling] forget us? Wherefore, if Jehovah's power is still unbroken, does he allow Israel to feel herself forsaken?" The fact is certain, viz. that the land of Israel is desolate, and (the poet seems to imply) desolate for some time already. The interpretation is hypothetical, and, as the last verse will show, the poet cannot bring himself to believe that it can be accurate.
Turn thou us unto thee, O LORD, and we shall be turned; renew our days as of old.
Verse 21. - Turn thou us, etc. Not "bring us back to thee," i.e. to the sacred land (as Thenius), for it is not a speech of the exiles, but of the Jews left behind, at least for the present, in Judea. "Turn thou us" means "Bring us into a state of reconciliation with thee" The next petition, Renew our days as of old, means, "Restore the old happy mode of life, each man with his own vine and his own fig tree, undisturbed by the fear of invasion, and rejoicing in the sense of the favour of Jehovah." The first petition has the priority because only on repentance and recovered purity of heart and life can Jerusalem rise from her ashes. Isaiah had said this long ago (Isaiah 1:26, 27), and the elegiac poet repeats it (comp. Jeremiah 31:18).
But thou hast utterly rejected us; thou art very wroth against us.
Verse 22. - But; rather, unless. The poet wishes to suggest that the idea seems to him inconsistent with the covenant relationship of Jehovah towards Israel. May we not compare a striking passage in Isaiah which should probably be rendered thus: "A wife of one's youth, can she be rejected? saith thy God" (Isaiah 54:6)? Both passages express, in a most delicate way, the incredulity of the writers with regard to the absolute rejection of Israel. And thus this melancholy Book of Lamentations concludes with a hope, "faint, yet pursuing," of the final realization of the promises to Israel. The interpretation adopted admits of no reasonable doubt, in spite of the fact that ancient doctors of the synagogue thought otherwise when they established the custom of repeating ver. 21 after ver. 22 had been read, in order to soften the supposed gloomy impression of ver. 22.
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