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Chapter 5. The Prophet Calls On YHWH To Observe The Sad State Of His People And Pleads With Him As The Eternal One To Show Mercy.
In this final lament the prophet outlines in some detail the sad state of YHWH’s people in the period after the destruction of Jerusalem, ending it with a plea that He might yet show mercy as the Eternal King.
Remember, O YHWH, what is come on us,
Behold, and see our reproach.
The prophet calls on YHWH to remember all that had come on them and to consider the reproach that they were under, something that he will now deal with in detail. The first person plural indicates the prophet’s identification with his people. They were feeling totally humiliated.
Our inheritance is handed over to strangers,
Our houses to aliens.
They had had to stand by and watch while their land had been handed over to foreigners, and aliens had taken possession of their houses. They had lost the inheritance that YHWH had given them. Note that this was the fulfilment of the curse in Deuteronomy 28:30. They had been warned. They had no one to blame but themselves. ‘Handed over.’ The verb is used of the transfer of property. Compare Isaiah 60:5.
We are orphans and fatherless,
Our mothers are as widows.
They were orphans and fatherless, and their mothers were as widows because the menfolk had been carried off to Babylon, or had been drafted in for slave labour. There is an irony here in that they themselves had been guilty of neglecting the widows and orphans, and now it had rebounded on their own heads. They had become like the people that they had ignored.
But because of the stress YHWH places on watching over widows and orphans (Exodus 22:22; Deuteronomy 10:18; Deuteronomy 14:29; Psalms 68:5; Psalms 146:9; Isaiah 1:17; Jeremiah 49:11) the prophet clearly sees this as an important argument to put to YHWH on their behalf. Let him now watch over the newly made ‘widows and orphans’ as He had declared that He would.
We have drunk our water for money,
Our wood is sold to us.
Previously the water from their springs and rivers, and from their own cisterns, had been freely available to them. Now they were being charged tolls for the privilege of using it. Furthermore the trees from which they been able freely to obtain timber were now in the hands of others who charged them for any wood that they obtained, whilst there was presumably a charge for gathering firewood. Everyone was taking advantage of them, and there was nothing that they could do about it.
Our pursuers are on our necks,
We are weary, and have no rest.
The ‘pursuers’ are probably the men set to watch over them as they went about their working day, or as they followed other pursuits. These ‘pursuers’ were seemingly relentless in ensuring that they did not slacken off. Instead of them being ‘on our necks’ we would say that they were ‘on our backs’ (get off my back). And the relentless pressure was proving too much. They were very weary and were finding no opportunity to rest. (see Deuteronomy 28:43).
We have given the hand to the Egyptians,
And to the Assyrians, to be satisfied with bread.
In view of the mention of the Assyrians some see this as looking back to the past when they had had to come to an agreement with either Egypt or Assyria in order to be satisfied with bread, rather than looking wholly to YHWH. But the term ‘Assyria’ is elsewhere used to refer to countries in the north, Assyria being the first port of call when crossing ‘the River’. Babylonians would come via Assyria. For definite examples of this usage see for example Ezra 6:22; Jeremiah 2:18. Thus this could equally apply to the prophet’s time with some being beholden to Egypt and others to Babylon via Assyria. This may indicate that the Babylonians were tightly controlling the food supply. It was an ignominious position to be in.
Our fathers sinned, and are not,
And we have borne their iniquities.
The prophet acknowledged that their fathers had sinned and were no longer alive. They had suffered the penalty of sin. And now their offspring themselves were ‘bearing their iniquities’. The sins of the fathers were being visited on the children. But this was not a matter of excusing themselves. It was an acknowledgement that YHWH had a right to be angry because sin had been continual, and a recognition that sins pass on from father to children as the children copy their father. Thus they had to bear God’s judgment on both their father’s sins and their own. They were not claiming to be innocent as Lamentations 5:16 makes clear. They were rather recognising the reality that sons tend to ape their fathers (see Jeremiah 16:10-11; Jeremiah 32:18), which the principle lying behind punishment to the third and fourth generation (Exodus 20:5). When people fell into gross sin it affected not only themselves but their descendants. However, we must remember that such consequences were always avoidable by coming to God in true repentance. God was always ready to respond to such repentance, as the whole sacrificial system made clear.
Servants rule over us,
There is none to deliver us out of their hand.
It is an open question here whether this means ‘servants’ of the king of Babylon, signifying Babylonian officials (in which case Deuteronomy 28:48 applies), or ex-Israelite servants promoted to positions of authority by the Babylonians. But either way the people clearly felt the ignominy of it. They were not being ruled by their Israelite peers. And because YHWH was no longer on their side there was no one to deliver them from them. Jeremiah had once asked, ‘Is Israel a servant? Is he a homeborn slave?’ (Jeremiah 2:14). And the answer now was ‘yes’.
We get our bread at the peril of our lives,
Because of the sword of the wilderness.
When they left the safety of their cities and went into the countryside, which was now bare and neglected, in order to grow their food, the Israelites were always in danger of Bedouin raiders, or local bandits who were waiting to swoop on them. The population was sparse and there was no organised defence against such raiders. The country was at the mercy of marauders. It made obtaining food a risky, and even fatal, business. ‘At the peril of our lives’ is more literally ‘for the price of our soul’.
Our skin is stirred up (or ‘black’) like an oven,
Because of the burning heat of famine.
The starvation conditions in which they were living had had its effect on their bodies. Their skin glowed like the stirred up ashes of a baker’s oven, caused by the feverish heat of hunger. (For the meaning ‘stirred up’ rather than ‘black’ see Genesis 43:30; 1 Kings 3:26; Hosea 11:8)
They ravished the women in Zion,
The virgins in the cities of Judah.
The Israelite women were now easy prey for the Babylonian soldiers so that many women, including virgins, were ravished in Jerusalem, and many virgins in the cities of Judah. Few were safe from their attentions. Israel were a conquered people, and their women were see as fair prey.
Princes were hanged up by their hand,
The faces of elders were not honoured.
The cruelty of conquerors was well known. The ‘princes’ may well have been dead, for the display of the dead bodies of important people was a regular practise (compare Saul and his princely sons in 1 Samuel 31:10; 1 Samuel 31:12). We know from the ancient records that it was certainly an Assyrian practise. The idea was to shame the leadership and frighten people into submission. But it would not be unknown for men to be hung up alive, as centuries later Jesus Christ would be for our sins.
The elders and the older men in any nation were usually treated with respect. But it was not so in this case. Here they were from a land of rebels. Thus instead of being honoured they were ‘not honoured’, that is, were treated with disrespect.
The young men bore the burden of the mill,
And the children stumbled under the wood.
The use of hand mills with which people in ancient towns regularly ground their grain was commonplace. But it was seen as the work of women or slaves. Now, however, it was the young men of Israel who were being forced to carry the mills to wherever they were needed, and were then required to operate them in order to grind the grain (see Judges 16:21, which was however a larger mill). And the younger children who were being forced into service carrying wood under which they staggered because of the weight. They had become an enslaved people.
The elders have ceased from the gate,
The young men from their music.
The area within and around the gate of the city was where much local activity took place. It was often the only place in the city where there was an open space. Most cities were unplanned and simply a mass of houses huddled together. But the space before the gate was always left open. There the elders of the city would meet to deliberate and make decisions, and try local cases (Job 29:7; Proverbs 31:23). There too they would sit and watch the movement of people through the gates and enjoy amusements and entertainment, whilst the young men would take the opportunity to show off their musical skills. But in woebegone Judah no such activities were occurring. Life was low key.
The joy of our heart is ceased,
Our dance is turned into mourning.
No longer were the inhabitants of Judah joyful at heart. Life under an oppressive regime had removed all the joy out of life. And instead of meeting to dance, the women would gather to mourn.
The crown is fallen from our head,
Woe to us! for we have sinned.
The crown is fallen from our head’ might be a reference to the fact that they no longer had a king ruling over them. But far more likely in mind was the festal garland crown often worn at feasts. Compare Isaiah 28:1 where it had become faded and was being grossly misused). It was a symbol of fruitfulness and joy. But there was no grounds for wearing such a crown in those difficult and oppressive times, for there was nothing to be joyful about. The people who had once gathered in festal joy now had no grounds for festivities. The crown of joy and fruitfulness lay discarded on the ground.
‘Woe to us, for we have sinned.’ And now after the long catalogue of miseries that they were enduring we come to the people’s admission as to why things were like this. It was because they had sinned. That was why these woes had come upon them. This was one of the most important lessons to come from the laments, an admission that their condition was due to their sins.
For this our heart is faint,
For these things our eyes are dim,
It was because of all these things that their heart was faint, and their eyes were dim with weeping. Life had become a burden, full of sorrow and tears.
For the mountain of Zion, which is desolate,
The jackals walk on it.
Capping all that has gone before was the fact that the mountain of Zion, that mountain that had once throbbed with the sound of worshippers walking in and around the Temple, was now desolate. It had become the haunt and walking place of jackals. Outwardly it looked as though YHWH was no longer interested in the land, or in His people.
You, O YHWH, abide for ever,
Your throne is from generation to generation.
But the prophet knew differently. The Temple site may be desolate, the Temple might lie in ruins, but he knew that YHWH sat on His throne for ever. For His throne was an eternal throne, surviving from generation to generation. Here was the climax of the lament, the certainty that, despite all that had happened and all the gloom and misery, YHWH was on His throne. And if that were so nothing else was of comparative importance.
Why do you forget us for ever,
And forsake us for so long a time?
The incongruity of the situations in which God’s people found themselves as described in this chapter, as compared with YHWH’s eternal throne, now raises questions in the prophet’s mind. Why does this powerful almighty King leave them in this parlous state. Why is He taking so long to remedy the situation? So the cry goes up from his heart:
Why do you forget us for ever,
And forsake us for so long a time?
The years had ground past and the time seemed endless. It had been such a long time. Why then did YHWH not DO something? Had He really determined to forget them for ever? Had He forsaken hem permanently?
Of course, by praying this the prophet was not expressing his own conviction, he was seeking to stir up God’s compassion as He looked down on what they were enduring. He was hoping He would act NOW.
Turn you us unto you, O YHWH, and we will be turned,
Renew our days as of old.
Unless (ki ’im) you have utterly rejected us,
You are very angry against us.
But he also realises that they cannot expect YHWH to act if they remain unchanged. There had to be a true turning to God. But he recognises that it will not come just from the people themselves. So he calls on YHWH to right the situation. Let Him turn His people towards Himself, and then they will be turned. He recognises that man’s sinful condition is such that unless he is turned by the Lord he will not turn.
Let Him ‘renew their days as of old’. He recognises that what was needed was a complete renewal resulting from repentance and a true response to God. Compare Psalms 51:12; Jeremiah 31:18.
But then he adds a proviso, although he cannot really believe that it can be so. What if YHWH has utterly rejected them? What if He is still very angry with them? Those are the only reasons that he can think of as to why YHWH should not act.
And so the book ends on the note of a plea for true spiritual revival, subject to YHWH’s will and purposes. He has removed from despair to hope, a hope based on the salvation of God.
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Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Lamentations 5". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 19 / Ordinary 24