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Bible Commentaries
Lamentations 5

The Expositor's Bible CommentaryThe Expositor's Bible Commentary

Verses 1-10


Lamentations 5:1-10

UNLIKE its predecessors, the fifth and last elegy is not an acrostic. There is little to be gained by a discussion of the various conjectures that have been put forth to account for this change of style: as that the crescendo movement which reached its climax in the third elegy was followed by a decrescendo movement, the conclusion of which became more prosaic: that the feelings of the poet having been calmed down during the composition of the main part of his work, he did not require the restraints of an exceptionally artificial method any longer; that such a method was not so becoming in a prayer to God as it had been in the utterance of a lament. In answer to these suggestions, it may be remarked that some of the choicest poetry in the book occurs at the close of this last chapter, that the acrostic was taken before as a sign that the writer had his feelings well under command, and that prayers appear repeatedly in the alphabetical poems. Is it not enough to say that in all probability the elegies were composed on different occasions, and that when they were put together it was natural that one in which the author had not chosen to bind himself down to the peculiarly rigorous method employed in the rest of the book should have been placed at the end? Even here we have a reminiscence of the acrostic: for the poem consists of twenty-two verses-the number of the letters in the Hebrew alphabet.

It is to be observed, further, as regards the form of this elegy, that the author now adopts the parallelism which is the characteristic note of most Hebrew poetry. The Revisers break up, the poem into two-line verses. But more strictly considered, each verse consists of one long line divided into two mutually balancing-parts. Thus, while the third elegy consists of triplets, and the fourth of couplets, the fifth is still more brief, with its single line verses. In fact, while the ideas and sentiments are still elegiac and very like those found in the rest of the book, in structure this is more assimilated to the poetry contained in other parts of the Bible.

From beginning to end the fifth elegy is directly addressed to God. Brief ejaculatory prayers are frequent in the earlier poems, and the third elegy contains two longer appeals to God: but this last poem differs from the others in being entirely a prayer. And yet it does not consist of a string of petitions. It is a meditation in the presence of God, or, more accurately described, an account of the condition of the Jews spread out before God in order to secure His compassion. In the freedom and fulness of his utterance the poet reveals himself as a man who is not unfamiliar with the habit of prayer. It is of course only the delusion of the Pharisees to suppose that a prayer is valuable in proportion to its length. But on the other hand, it is clear that a person who is unaccustomed to prayer halts and stumbles because he does not feel at home in addressing God. It is only with a friend that we can converse in perfect freedom. One who has treated God as a stranger will be necessarily stiff and constrained in the Divine presence. It is not enough to assure such a person that God is his father. A son may feel peculiarly uncomfortable with his own father, if he has lived long in separation and alienation from his home. Freedom in the expression of confidences is a sure measure of the extent to which friendship is carried. Of course some are more reserved than others; but still as in the same person his different degrees of openness or reserve with different people will mark his relative intimacy of friendship with them, so when a man has long accustomed himself to believe in the presence and sympathy of God, and has cultivated the habit of communing with his Father in heaven, his prayers will not be confined to set petitions; he will tell his Father whatever is in his heart. This, we have already seen, was what the elegist had learnt to do. But in the last of his poems he expresses more explicit and continuous confidences. He will have God know everything.

The prayer opens with a striking phrase "Remember, O Lord," etc. The miserable condition of the Jews suggests to the imagination, if not to the reason, that God must have forgotten His people. It cannot be supposed that the elegist conceived of his God as Elijah mockingly described their silent, unresponsive divinity to the frantic priests of Baal, or that he imagined that Jehovah was really indifferent, after the manner of the denizens of the Epicurean Olympus. Nevertheless, neither philosophy nor even theology wholly determines the form of an earnest man’s prayers. In practice it is impossible not to speak according to appearances. The aspect of affairs is sometimes such as to force home the feeling that God must have deserted the sufferer, or how could He have permitted the misery to continue unchecked? A dogmatic statement of the Divine omniscience, although it may not be disputed, will not remove the painful impression, nor will the most absolute demonstration of the goodness of God, of His love and faithfulness; because the overwhelming influence of things visible and tangible so fully occupies the mind that it has not room to receive unseen, spiritual realities. Therefore, though not to the reason still to the feelings, it is as though God had indeed forgotten His children in their deep distress.

Under such circumstances the first requisite is the assurance that God should remember the sufferers whom He appears to be neglecting. He never really neglects any of His creatures, and His attention is the all-sufficient security that deliverance must be at hand. But this is a truth that does not satisfy us in the bare statement of it. It must be absorbed, and permitted to permeate wide regions of consciousness, in order that it may be an actual power in the life. That. however, is only the subjective effect of the thought of the Divine remembrance. The poet is thinking of external actions. Evidently the aim of his prayer is to secure the attention of God as a sure preliminary to a Divine interposition. But even with this end in view the fact that God remembers is enough.

In appealing for God’s attention the elegist first makes mention of the reproach that has come upon Israel. This reference to humiliation rather than to suffering as the primary ground of complaint may be accounted for by the fact that the glory of God is frequently taken as a reason for the blessing of His people. That is done for His "name’s sake." Then the ruin of the Jews is derogatory to the honour of their Divine Protector. The peculiar relation of Israel to God also underlies the complaint of the second verse, in which the land is described as "our inheritance," with an evident allusion to the idea that it was received as a donation from God, not acquired in any ordinary human fashion. A great wrong has been done, apparently in contravention of the ordinance of Heaven. The Divine inheritance has been turned over to strangers. The very homes of the Jews are in the hands of aliens. From their property the poet passes on to the condition of the persons of the sufferers. The Jews are orphans; they have lost their fathers, and their mothers are widows. This seems to indicate that the writer considered himself to belong to the younger generation of the Jews, -that, at all events, he was not an elderly man. But it is not easy to determine how far his words are to be read literally. No doubt the slaughter of the war had carried off many heads of families, and left a number of women and children in the condition here described. But the language of poetry would allow of a more general interpretation. All the Jews felt desolate as orphans and widows. Perhaps there is some thought of the loss of God, the supreme Father of Israel. Whether this was in the mind of the poet or not, the cry to God to remember His people plainly implies that His sheltering presence was not now consciously experienced. Our Lord foresaw that His departure would smite His disciples with orphanage if He did not return to them. {John 14:18} Men who have hardened themselves in a state of separation from God fail to recognise their forlorn condition: but that is no occasion for congratulation, for the family that never misses its father can never have known the joys of true home life. Children of God’s house can have no greater sorrow than to lose their heavenly Father’s presence.

A peculiarly annoying injustice to which the Jews were subjected by their harsh masters consisted in the fact that they were compelled to buy permission to collect firewood from their own land and to draw water from their own wells. {Lamentations 5:4} The elegist deplores this grievance as part of the reproach of his people. The mere pecuniary fine of a series of petty exactions is not the chief part of the evil. It is not the pain of flesh that rouses a man’s indignation on receiving a slap in the face; it is the insult that stings. There was more than insult in this grinding down of the conquered nation; and the indignities to which the Jews were subjected were only too much in accord with the facts of their fallen state. This particular exaction was an unmistakable symptom of the abject servitude into which they had been reduced.

The series of illustrations of the degradation of Israel seems to be arranged somewhat in the order of time and in accordance with the movements of the people. Thus, after describing the state of the Jews in their own land, the poet next follows the fortunes of his people in exile. There is no mercy for them in their flight. The words in which the miseries of this time are referred to are somewhat obscure. The phrase in the Authorised Version, "Our necks are under persecution," {Lamentations 5:5} is rendered by the Revisers, "Our pursuers are upon our necks." It would seem to mean that the hunt is so close that fugitives are on the point of being captured; or perhaps that they are made to bow their heads in defeat as their captors seize them. But a proposed emendation substitutes the word "yoke" for "pursuers." If we may venture to accept this as a conjectural improvement - and later critics indulge themselves in more freedom in the handling of the text than was formerly permitted-the line points to the burden of captivity. The next line favours this idea, since it dwells on the utter weariness of the miserable fugitives. There is no rest for them. Palestine is a difficult country to travel in, and the wilderness south and east of Jerusalem is especially trying. The hills are steep and the roads rocky; for a multitude of famine-stricken men, women, and children, driven out over this homeless waste, a country that taxes the strength of the traveller for pleasure could not but be most exhausting. But the worst weariness is not muscular. Tired souls are more weary than tired bodies. The yoke of shame and servitude is more crushing than any amount of physical labour. On the other hand the yoke of Jesus is easy not because little work is expected of Christians, but for the more satisfactory reason that, being given in exchange for the fearful burden of sin, it is borne willingly and even joyously as a badge of honour.

Finally, in their exile the Jews are not free from molestation. In order to obtain bread they must abase themselves before the people of the land. The fugitives in the south must do homage to the Egyptians; the captives in the east to the Assyrians. {Lamentations 5:6} Here, then, at the very last stage of the series of miseries, shame and humiliation are the principal grievances deplored. At every point there is a reproach, and to this feature of the whole situation God’s attention is especially directed.

Now the elegist turns aside to a reflection on the cause of all this evil. It is attributed to the sins of previous generations. The present sufferers are bearing the iniquities of their fathers. Here several points call for a brief notice. In the first place, the very form of the language is significant. What is meant by the phrase to bear iniquity? Strange mystical meanings are sometimes imported into it, such as an actual transference of sin, or at least a taking over of guilt. This is asserted of the sin-offering in the law, and then of the sin-bearing of Jesus Christ on the cross. It would indicate shallow ways of thinking to say that the simple and obvious meaning of an expression in one place is the only signification it is ever capable of conveying. A common process in the development of language is for words and phrases that originally contained only plain physical meanings to acquire in course of time deeper and more spiritual associations. We can never fathom all that is meant by the statement that Christ "His own self bare our sins in His body upon the tree.". {1 Peter 2:24} Still it is well to observe that there is a plain sense in which the Hebrew phrase was used. It is clear in the case now before us, at all events, that the poet had no mystical ideas in mind. When he said that the children bore the sins of their fathers he simply meant that they reaped the consequences of those sins. The expression can mean nothing else here. It would be well, then, to remember this very simple explanation of it when we are engaged with the discussion of other and more difficult passages in which it occurs.

But if the language is perfectly unambiguous the doctrine it implies is far from being easy to accept. On the face of it, it seems to be glaringly unjust. And yet, whether we can reconcile it with our ideas of what is equitable or not there can be no doubt that it states a terrible truth; we gain nothing by blinking the fact. It was perfectly clear to people of the time of the captivity that they were suffering for the persistent misconduct of their ancestors during a succession of generations. Long before this the Jews had been warned of the danger of continued rebellion against the will of God. Thus the nation had been treasuring up wrath for the day of wrath. The forbearance which permitted the first offenders to die in peace before the day of reckoning would assume another character for the unhappy generation on whose head the long-pent-up flood at length descended. It is not enough to urge in reply that the threat of the second commandment to visit the sins of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generation was for them that hate God; because it is not primarily their own conduct, but the sins of their ancestors, in which the reason for punishing the later generations is found. If these sins were exactly repeated the influence of their parents would make the personal guilt of the later offenders less, not more, than that of the originators of the evil line. Besides, in the case of the Jews there had been some amendment. Josiah’s reformation had been very disappointing; and yet the awful wickedness of the reign of Manasseh had not been repeated. The gross idolatry of the earlier times and the cruelties of Moloch worship had disappeared. At least, it must be admitted, they were no longer common practices of court and people. The publication of so great an inspired work as the Book of Deuteronomy had wrought a marked effect on the religion and morals of the Jews. The age which was called upon to receive the payment for the national sins was not really so wicked as some of the ages that had earned it. The same thing is seen in private life. There is nothing that more distresses the author of these poems than the sufferings of innocent children in the siege of Jerusalem. We are frequently confronted with evidences of the fact that the vices of parents inflict poverty, dishonour, and disease on their families. This is just what the elegist means when he writes of children bearing the iniquities of their fathers. The fact cannot be disputed.

Often as the problem that here starts up afresh has been discussed, no really satisfactory solution of it has ever been forthcoming. We must admit that we are face to face with one of the most profound mysteries of providence. But we may detect some glints of light in the darkness. Thus, as we have seen on the occasion of a previous reference to this question, the fundamental principle in accordance with which these perplexing results are brought about is clearly one which on the whole makes for the highest welfare of mankind. That one generation should hand on the fruit of its activity to another is essential to the very idea of progress. The law of heredity and the various influences that go to make up the evil results in the case before us work powerfully for good under other circumstances; and that the balance is certainly on the side of good is proved by the fact that the world is moving forward, not backward, as would be the case if the balance of hereditary influence was on the side of evil. Therefore it would be disastrous in the extreme for the laws that pass on the punishment of sin to successive generations to be abolished; the abolition of them would stop the chariot of progress. Then we have seen that the solidarity of the race necessitates both mutual influences in the present and the continuance of influence from one age to another. The great unit Man is far more than the sum of the little units men. We must endure the disadvantages of a system which is so essential to the good of man. This, however, is but to fall back on the Leibnitzian theory of the best of all possible worlds. It is not an absolute vindication of the justice of whatever happens-an attainment quite beyond our reach.

But another consideration may shed a ray of light on the problem. The bearing of the sins of others is for the highest advantage of the sufferers. It is difficult to think of any more truly elevating sorrows. They resemble our Lord’s passion; and of Him it was said that He was made perfect through suffering. {Hebrews 2:10} Without doubt Israel benefited immensely from the discipline of the Captivity, and we may be sure that the better "remnant" was most blessed by this experience, although it was primarily designed to be the chastisement of the more guilty. The Jews were regenerated by the baptism of fire. Then they could not ultimately complain of the ordeal that issued in so much good.

It is to be observed, however, that there were two currents of thought with regard to this problem. While most men held to the ancient orthodoxy, some rose in revolt against the dogma expressed in the proverb, "The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge." Just at this time the prophet Ezekiel was inspired to lead the Jews to a more just conception, with the declaration: "As I live, saith the Lord God, ye shall not have occasion any more to use this proverb in Israel. Behold, all souls are mine; as the soul of the father, so also the soul of the son is mine: the soul that sinneth, it shall die." {Ezekiel 18:3-4} This was the new doctrine. But how could it be made to square with the facts? By strong faith in it the disciples of the advanced school might bring themselves to believe that the course of events which had given rise to the old idea would be arrested. But if so they would be disappointed; for the world goes on in its unvarying way. Happily, as Christians, we may look for the final solution in a future life, when all wrongs shall be righted. It is much to know that in the great hereafter each soul will be judged simply according to its own character.

In conclusion, as we follow out the course of the elegy, we find the same views maintained that were presented earlier. The idea of ignominy is still harped upon. The Jews complain that they are under the rule of servants. {Lamentations 5:8} Satraps were really the Great King’s slaves, often simply household favourites promoted to posts of honour. Possibly the Jews were put in the power of inferior servants. The petty tyranny of such persons would be all the more persistently annoying, if, as often happens, servility to superiors had bred insolence in bullying the weak; and there was no appeal from the vexatious tyranny. This complaint would seem to apply to the people left in the land, for it is the method of the elegist to bring together scenes from different places as well as scenes from different times in one picture of concentrated misery. The next point is that food is only procured at the risk of life "because of the sword of the wilderness"; {Lamentations 5:9} which seems to mean that the country is so disorganised that hordes of Bedouins hover about and attack the peasants when they venture abroad to gather in their harvest. The fever of famine is seen on these wretched people; their faces burn as though they had been scorched at an oven. {Lamentations 5:10} Such is the general condition of the Jews, such is the scene on which God is begged to look down!

Verses 11-18


Lamentations 5:11-18

THE keynote of the fifth elegy is struck in its opening verse when the poet calls upon God to remember the reproach that has been cast upon His people. The preceding poems dwelt on the sufferings of the Jews; here the predominant thought is that of the humiliations to which they have been subjected. The shame of Israel and the sin which had brought it on are now set forth with point and force. If, as some think, the literary grace of the earlier compositions is not fully sustained in the last chapter of Lamentations-although in parts of it the feeling and imagination and art all touch the high-water mark-it cannot be disputed that the spiritual tone of this elegy indicates an advance on the four earlier poems. We have sometimes met with wild complaints, fierce recriminations, deep and terrible curses that seem to require some apology if they are to be justified. Nothing of the kind ruffles the course of this faultless meditation. There is not a single jarring note from beginning to end, not one phrase calling for explanation by reference to the limited ideas of Old Testament times or to the passion excited by cruelty, insult, and tyranny, not a line that reads painfully even in the clear light of the teachings of Jesus Christ. The vilest outrages are deplored; and yet, strange to say, no word of vindictiveness towards the perpetrators escapes the lips of the mourning patriot! How is this? The sin of the people has been confessed before as the source of all their misery; but since with it shame is now associated as the principal item in their affliction, we can see in this fresh development a decided advance towards higher views of the whole position.

May we not take this characteristic of the concluding chapter of the Book of Lamentations to be an indication of progress in the spiritual experience of its author? Perhaps it is to be partially explained by the fact that the poem throughout consists of a prayer addressed directly to God. The wildest, darkest passions of the soul cannot live in the atmosphere of prayer. When men say of the persecutor, "Behold he prayeth," it is certain that he cannot any longer be "breathing threatening and slaughter." Even the feelings of the persecuted must be calmed in the presence of God. The serenity of the surroundings of the mercy-seat cannot but communicate itself to the feverish soul of the suppliant. To draw near to God is to escape from the tumults of earth and breathe the still, pure air of heaven. He is Himself so calm and strong, so completely sufficient forevery emergency, that we begin to enter into His rest as soon as we approach His presence. All unawares, perhaps unsought, the peace of God steals into the heart of the man who brings his troubles to his Father in prayer.

Then the reflections that accompany prayer tend in the same direction. In the light of God things begin to assume their true proportions. We discover that our first fierce outcries were unreasonable, that we had been simply maddened by pain so that our judgment had been confused. A psalmist tells us how he understood the course of events which had previously perplexed him by taking his part in the worship of the sanctuary, when referring to his persecutors, the prosperous wicked, he exclaims, "Then understood I their end Psalms 73:13." In drawing near to God we learn that vengeance is God’s prerogative, that He will repay; therefore we can venture to be still and leave the vindication of our cause in His unerring hands. But, further, the very thirst for revenge is extinguished in the presence of God, and that in several ways: we see that the passion is wrong in itself; we begin to make some allowance for the offender; we learn to own kinship with the man while condemning his wickedness; above all, we awake to a keen consciousness of our own guilt.

This, however, is not a sufficient explanation of the remarkable change in tone that we have observed in the fifth elegy. The earlier poems contain prayers, one of which degenerates into a direct imprecation. {Lamentations 3:65} If the poet had wholly given himself to prayer in that case as he has done here, very possibly his tone would have been mollified. Still, we must look to other factors for a complete explanation. The writer is himself one of the suffering people. In describing their wrongs he is narrating his own, for he is "the man who has seen affliction." Thus he has long been a pupil in the school of adversity. There is no school at which a docile pupil learns so much. This man has graduated in sorrow. It is not surprising that he is not just what he was-when he matriculated. We must not press the analogy too far, because, as we have seen, there is good reason to believe that none of the elegies were written until some time after the occurrence of the calamities to which they refer, that therefore they all represent the fruit of long brooding over their theme. And yet we may allow an interval to have elapsed between the composition of the earlier ones and that of the poem with which the book closes. This period of longer continued reflection may have been utilised in the process of clearing and refining the ideas of the poet. It is not merely that the lessons of adversity impart fresh knowledge or a truer way of looking at life and its fortunes. They do the higher work of education-they develop culture. This, indeed, is the greatest advantage to be gained by the stern discipline of sorrow. The soul that has the grace to use it aright is purged and pruned, chastened and softened, lifted to higher views, and at the same time brought down from self-esteem to deep humiliation. Here we have a partial explanation of the mystery of suffering. This poem throws light on the terrible problem by its very existence, by the spirit and character which it exhibits. The calmness and self-restraint of the elegy, while they deepen the pathos of the whole scene, help us to see as no direct statement would do, that the chastisement of Israel has not been inflicted in vain. There must be good even in the awful miseries here described in such patient language.

The connection of shame with sin in this poem is indirect and along a line which is the reverse of the normal course of experience. The poet does not pass from sin to shame; he proceeds from the thought of shame to that of sin. It is the humiliating condition in which the Jews are found that awakens the idea of the shocking guilt of which this is the consequence. We often have occasion to acknowledge the fatal hindrance of pride to the right working of conscience. A lofty conception of one’s own dignity is absolutely inconsistent with a due feeling of guilt. A man cannot be both elated and cast down at the same moment. If his elation is sufficiently sustained from within it will effectually bar the door to the entrance of those humbling thoughts which cannot but accompany an admission of sin. Therefore when this barrier is first removed, and the man is thoroughly humbled, he is open to receive the accusations of conscience. All his fortifications have been flung down. There is nothing to prevent the invading army of accusing thoughts from marching straight in and taking possession of the citadel of his heart.

The elegy takes a turn at the eleventh verse. Up to this point it describes the state of the people generally in their sufferings from the siege and its consequences. But now the poet directs attention to separate classes of people and the different forms of cruelty to which they are severally subjected in a series of intensely vivid pictures. We see the awful fate of matrons and maidens, princes and elders, young men and children. Women are subjected to the vilest abuse, neither reverence for motherhood nor pity for innocence affording the least protection. Men of royal blood and noble birth are killed and their corpses hung up in ignominy-perhaps impaled or crucified in accordance with the vile Babylonian custom. There is no respect for age or office. Neither is there any mercy for youth. In the East grinding is women’s work; but, like Samson among the Philistines, the young men of the Jews are put in charge of the mills. The poet seems to indicate that they have to carry the heavy millstones in the march of the returning army with the spoils of the sacked city. The children are set to the slave task of Gibeonites. The Hebrew word here translated children might stand for young people who had reached adult years. {Lamentations 5:13} But in the present case the condition is that of immature strength, for the burden of wood they are required to bear is too heavy for them and they stumble under it. This is the scene-outrage for the girls and women, slaughter for the leading men, harsh slavery for the children.

Next, passing from these exact details, the poet again describes the condition of the people more generally, and this time under the image of an interrupted feast, which is introduced by one more reference to the changes that have come upon certain classes. The elders are no longer to be seen at the gate administering the primitive forms of law entrusted to them. The young men are no longer to be heard performing on their musical instruments. {Lamentations 5:14} Still speaking for the people, the poet declares that the joy of their heart has ceased. Then the aspect of all life must be changed to them. Instead of the gay pictures of dancers in their revelry we have the waiting of mourners. The guest at a feast would be crowned with a garland of flowers. Such was once the appearance of Jerusalem in her merry festivities. But now the garland has fallen from her head. {Lamentations 5:15-16}

This imagery is a relief after the terrible realism of the immediately preceding pictures. We cannot bear to look continuously at scenes of agony, nor is it well that we should attempt to do so, because if we could succeed it would only be by becoming callous. Then the final result would be not to excite deeper sympathy, but the very reverse, and at the same time a distinctly lowering and coarsening effect would be produced in us. And yet we may not smother up abuses in order to spare our own feelings. There are evils that must be dragged out to the light in order that they may be execrated, punished, and destroyed. "Uncle Tom’s Cabin" broke the back of American slavery before President Lincoln attacked it. Where, then, shall we find the middle position between repulsive realism and guilty negligence? We have the model for this in the Biblical treatment of painful subjects. Scripture never gloats over the details of crimes and vices; yet Scripture never flinches from describing such things in the plainest possible terms. If these subjects are ever to become the theme of art-and art claims the whole of life for her domain-imagination must carry us away to the secondary effects rather than vivify the hideous occurrences themselves. The passage before us affords an excellent illustration of this method. With a few keen, clear strokes the poet sketches in the exact situation. But he shows no disposition to linger on ghastly details. Though he does not shrink from setting them before us in unmistakable truth of form and colour, he hastens to a more ideal treatment of the subject, and relieves us with the imaginary picture of the spoiled banquet. Even Spenser sometimes excites a feeling of positive nausea when he enlarges on some most loathsome picture. It would be unendurable except that the great Elizabethan poet has woven the witchery of his dainty fancy into the fabric of his verse. Thus things can be said in poetry which would be unbearable in prose, because poetry refines with the aid of imagination the tale that it does not shrink from telling quite truly and most forcibly.

The change in the poet’s style prepares for another effect. While we are contemplating the exact details of the sufferings of the different classes of outraged citizens, the insult and cruelty and utter abomination of these scenes rouse our indignation against the perpetrators of the foulest crimes, and leave nothing but pity for the victims. It is not in the presence of such events that the sins of Israel can be brought home to the people or even called to mind. The attempt to introduce the thought of them there would seem to be a piece of heartless officiousness. And yet it is most important to perceive the connection between all this misery and the previous misconduct of the Jews which was its real cause. Accordingly intermediate reflections, while they let the scenes of blood and terror recede, touch on the general character of the whole in a way that permits of more heart-searching self-examination. Thus out of the brooding melancholy of this secondary grief we are led to a distinct confession of sin on the part of the people. {Lamentations 5:16}

This is the main result aimed at throughout the whole course of chastisement. Until it has been reached little good can be effected. When it is attained the discipline has already wrought its greatest work. As we saw at the outset, it is the shame of the situation that awakens a consciousness of guilt. Humbled and penitent, the chastened people are just in the position at which God can meet them in gracious pardon. Strictly speaking, perhaps we should say that this is the position to which the elegist desires to lead them by thus appearing as their spokesman. And yet we should not make too sharp a distinction between the poet and his people. The elegy is not a didactic work; the flavour of its gentle lines would be lost directly they lent themselves to pedagogic ends. It is only just to take the words before us quite directly, as they are written in the first person plural, for a description of the thoughts of at least the group of Jews with whom their author associated.

The confession of sin implies in the first place a recognition of its existence. This is more than a bare, undeniable recollection that the deed was done. It is possible by a kind of intellectual jugglery even to come to a virtual denial of this fact in one’s own consciousness. But to admit the deed is not to admit the sin. The casuistry of self-defence before the court of self-judgment is more subtle than sound, as every one who has found out his own heart must be aware. In this matter, "the heart is deceitful above all things." {Jeremiah 17:9} Now it is not difficult to take part in a decorous service where all the congregation are expected to denominate themselves miserable offenders, but it is an entirely different thing to retreat into the silent chamber of our own thought, and there calmly and deliberately, with full consciousness of what the words mean, confess to ourselves, "We have sinned." The sinking of heart, the stinging humiliation, the sense of self-loathing which such an admission produces, are the most miserable experiences in life. The wretchedness of it all is that there is no possibility of escaping the accuser when he is self. We can do nothing but let the shame of the deed burn in the conscience without any mollifying salve-until the healing of Divine forgiveness is received.

But, in the second place, confession of sin goes beyond the secret admission of it by the conscience, as in a case heard in camera. Chiefly it is a frank avowal of guilt before God. This is treated by St. John as an essential condition of forgiveness by God, when He says, "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness." {1 John 1:9} How far confession should also be made to our fellow men is a difficult question. In bidding us confess our "faults one to another," {James 5:16} St. James may be simply requiring that when we have done anybody a wrong we should own it to the injured person. The harsh discipline of the white sheet is not found in apostolic times, the brotherly spirit of which is seen in the charity which "covereth a multitude of sins." {1 Peter 4:8} And yet, on the other hand, the true penitent will always shrink from sailing under false colours. Certainly public offences call for public acknowledgment, and all sin should be so far owned that whether the details are known or not there is no actual deception, no hypocritical pretence at a virtue that is not possessed, no willingness to accept honours that are quite unmerited. Let a man never pretend to be sinless, nay, let him distinctly own himself a sinner, and, in particular, let him not deny or excuse any specific wickedness with which he is justly accused; and then for the rest, "to his own Lord he standeth or falleth.". {Romans 14:4}

When the elegist follows his confession of sin with the words, "For this our heart is faint," etc., {Lamentations 5:17} it is plain that he attributes the sense of failure and impotence to the guilt that has led to the chastisement. This faintness of heart and the dimness of sight that accompanies it, like the condition of a swooning person, suggests a very different situation from that of the hero struggling against a mountain of difficulties, or that of the martyr triumphing over torture and death. The humiliation is now accounted for, and the explanation of it tears to shreds the last rag of pride with which the fallen people might have attempted to hide it. The abject wretchedness of the Jews is admitted to be the effect of their own sins. No thought can be more depressing. The desolation of Mount Zion, where jackals prowl undisturbed as though it were the wilderness, is a standing testimony to the sin of Israel. Such is the degradation to which the people whom the elegist here represents are reduced. It is a condition of utter helplessness; and yet in it will rise the dawn of hope; for when man is most empty of self he is most ready to receive God. Thus it is that from the deepest pit of humiliation there springs the prayer of trust and hope with which the Book of Lamentations closes.

Verses 19-22


Lamentations 5:19-22

WE have lingered long in the valley of humiliation. At the eleventh hour we are directed to look up from this scene of weary gloom to heavenly heights, radiant with sunlight. It is not by accident that the new attitude is suggested only at the very end of the last elegy. The course of the thought and the course of experience that underlies it have been preparing for the change. On entering the valley the traveller must look well to his feet; it is not till he has been a denizen of it for some time that he is able to lift up his eyes to other and brighter realms.

Thus at last our attention is turned from earth to heaven, from man to God. In this change of vision the mood which gave rise to the Lamentations disappears. Since earthly things lose their value in view of the treasures in heaven, the ruin of them also becomes of less account. Thus we read in the "Imitatio":

"The life of man is always looking on the things of time,

Pleased with the pelf of earth,

Gloomy at loss,

Pricked by the least injurious word;

Life touched by God looks on the eternal, -

With it no cleaving unto time,

No frown when property is lost,

No sneer when words are harsh, -

Because it puts its treasure and its joy in heaven,

Where nothing fades."

The explanation of this sudden turn is to be found in the fact that for the moment the poet forgets himself and his surroundings in a rapt contemplation of God. This is the glory of adoration, the very highest form of prayer, that prayer in which a man comes nearest to the condition ascribed to angels and the spirits of the blessed who surround the throne and gaze on the eternal light. It is not to be thought of as an idle dreaming like the dreary abstraction of the Indian fanatic who has drilled himself to forget the outside world by reducing, his mind to a state of vacancy while he repeats the meaningless syllable Om, or the senseless ecstasy of the monk of Mount Athos, who has attained the highest object of his ambition when he thinks he has beheld the sacred light within his own body. It is self-forgetful, not self-centred; and it is occupied with the contemplation of those great truths of the being of God, absorption in which is an inspiration. Here the worshipper is at the river of the water of life, from which if he drinks he will go away refreshed for the battle like the Red-cross knight restored at the healing fountain. It is the misfortune of our own age that it is impractical in the excess of its practicalness when it has not patience for those quiet, calm experiences of pure worship which are the very food of the soul.

The continuance of the throne of God is the idea that now lays hold of the elegist as he turns his thoughts from the miserable scenes of the ruined city to the glory above. This is brought home to his consciousness by the fleeting nature of all things earthly. He has experienced what the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews describes as "the removing of those things that are shaken, as of things that have been made, that those things which are not shaken may remain." {Hebrews 12:27} The throne of David has been swept away; but above the earthly wreck the throne of God stands firm, all the more clearly visible now that the distracting influence of the lower object has vanished, all the more valuable now that no other refuge can be found. Men fall like leaves in autumn; one generation follows another in the swift march to death; dynasties which outlive many generations have their day, to be succeeded by others of an equally temporary character; kingdoms reach their zenith, decline, and fall. God only remains, eternal, unchangeable. His is the only throne that stands secure above every revolution.

The unwavering faith of our poet is apparent at this point after it has been tried by the most severe tests. Jerusalem has been destroyed, her king has fallen into the hands of the enemy, her people have been scattered; and yet the elegist has not the faintest doubt that her God remains and that His throne is steadfast, immovable, everlasting. This faith reveals a conviction far in advance of that of the surrounding heathen. The common idea was that the defeat of a people was also the defeat of their gods. If the national divinities were not exterminated they were flung down from their thrones, and reduced to the condition of fins-demons who avenged themselves on their conquerors by annoying them whenever an opportunity for doing so arose, but with greatly crippled resources. No such notion is ever entertained by the author of these poems nor by any of the Hebrew prophets. The fall of Israel in no way affects the throne of God; it is even brought about by His will; it could not have occurred if He had been pleased to hinder it.

Thus the poet was led to find his hope and refuge in the throne of God, the circumstances of his time concurring to turn his thoughts in this direction, since the disappearance of the national throne, the chaos of the sacked city, and the establishment of a new government under the galling yoke of slaves from Babylon, invited the man of faith to look above the shifting powers of earth to the everlasting supremacy of heaven.

This idea of the elegist is in line with a familiar stream of Hebrew thought, and his very words have many an echo in the language of prophet and psalmist, as, for example, in the forty-fifth psalm, where we read, "Thy throne, O God, is forever and ever."

The grand Messianic hope is founded on the conviction that the ultimate establishment of God’s reign throughout the world will be the best blessing imaginable for all mankind. Sometimes this is associated with the advent of a Divinely anointed earthly monarch of the line of David. At other times God’s direct sovereignty is expected to be manifested in the "Day of the Lord." The failure of the feeble Zedekiah seems to have discredited the national hopes centred in the royal family. For two generations they slumbered, to be awakened in connection with another disappointing descendant of David, Zerubbabel, the leader of the return. No king was ever equal to the satisfaction of these hopes until the Promised One appeared in the fulness of the times, until Jesus was born into the world to come forth as the Lord’s Christ. Meanwhile, since the royal house is under a cloud, the essential Messianic hope turns to God alone. He can deliver His people, and He only. Even apart from personal hopes of rescue, the very idea of the eternal, just reign of God above the transitory thrones of men is a calming, reassuring thought.

It is strange that this idea should ever have lost its fascination among Christian people, who have so much more gracious a revelation of God than was given to the Jews under the old covenant; and yet our Lord’s teachings concerning the Fatherhood of God have been set forth as the direct antithesis of the Divine sovereignty, while the latter has been treated as a stern and dreadful function from which it was natural to shrink with fear and trembling. But the truth is the two attributes are mutually illustrative; for he is a very imperfect father who does not rule his own house, and he is a very inadequate sovereign who does not seek to exercise parental functions towards his people. Accordingly, the gospel of Christ is the gospel of the kingdom. Thus the good news declared by the first evangelists was due to the effect that the kingdom of God was at hand, and our Lord taught us to pray, "Thy kingdom come." For Christians, at least as much as for Jews, the eternal sovereignty of God should be a source of profound confidence, inspiring hope and joy.

Now the elegist ventures to expostulate with God on the ground of the eternity of His throne. God had not abdicated, though the earthly monarch had been driven from his kingdom. The overthrow of Zedekiah had left the throne of God untouched. Then it was not owing to inability to come to the aid of the suffering people that the eternal King did not intervene to put an end to their miseries. A long time had passed since the siege, and still the Jews were in distress. It was as though God had forgotten them or voluntarily forsaken them. This is a dilemma to which we are often driven. If God is almighty can He be also all-merciful? If what we knew furnished all the possible data of the problem this would be indeed a serious position. But our ignorance silences us.

Some hint of an explanation is given in the next phrase of the poet’s prayer. God is besought to turn the people to Himself. Then they had been moving away from Him. It is like the old popular ideas of sunset. People thought the sun had forsaken the earth, when, in fact, their part of the earth had forsaken the sun. But if the wrong is on man’s side, on man’s side must be the amendment. Under these circumstances it is needless and unjust to speculate as to the cause of God’s supposed neglect or forgetfulness.

There can be no reasonable doubt that the language of the elegy here points to a personal and spiritual change. We cannot water it down to the expression of a desire to be restored to Palestine. Nor is it enough to take it as a prayer to be restored to God’s favour. The double expression,

"Turn Thou us unto Thee, O Lord, and we shall be turned."

points to a deeper longing, a longing for real conversion, the turning round of the heart and life to God, the return of the prodigal to his Father. We think of the education of the race, the development of mankind, the culture of the soul; and in so thinking we direct our attention to important truths which were not so well within the reach of our forefathers. On the other hand, are we not in danger of overlooking another series of reflections on which they dwelt more persistently? It is not the fact that the world is marching straight on to perfection in an unbroken line of evolution. There are breaks in the progress and long halts, deviations from the course and retrogade movements. We err and go astray, and then continuance in an evil way does not bring us out to any position of advance; it only plunges us down deeper falls of ruin. Under such circumstances, a more radical change than anything progress or education can produce is called for if ever we are even to recover our lost ground, not to speak of advancing to higher attainments. In the case of Israel it was clear that there could be no hope until the nation made a complete moral and religious evolution. The same necessity lies before every soul that has drifted into the wrong way. This subject has been discredited by being treated too much in the abstract, with too little regard for the actual condition of men and women. The first question is, What is the tendency of the life? If that is away from God, it is needless to discuss theories of conversion: the fact is plain that in the present instance some conversion is needed: There is no reason to retain a technical term, and perhaps it would be as well to abandon it if it were found to be degenerating into a mere cant phrase. This is not a question of words. The urgent necessity is concerned with the actual turning round of the leading pursuits of life.

In the next place, it is to be observed that the turning here contemplated is positive in its aims, not merely a flight from the wrong way. It is not enough to cast out the evil spirit, and leave the house swept and garnished, but without a tenant to take care of it. Evil can only be overcome by good. To turn from sin to blank vacancy and nothingness is an impossibility. The great motive power must be the attraction of a better course rather than revulsion from the old life. This is the reason why the preaching of the gospel of Christ succeeds where pure appeals to conscience fail.

By his "Serious Call to the Unconverted" William Law started a few earnest men thinking; but he could not anticipate the Methodist revival, although he prepared the way for it. The reason seems to be that appeals to conscience are depressing, necessarily and rightly so; but some cheering encouragement is called for if energy is to be found for the tremendous effort of turning the whole life upon its axle. Therefore it is not the threat of wrath but the gospel of mercy that leads to what may be truly called conversion.

Then we may notice, further, that the particular aim of the change here indicated is to turn back to God. As sin is forsaking God, so the commencement of a better life must consist in a return to Him. But this is not to be regarded as a means towards some other end. We must not have the home-coming made use of as a mere convenience. It must be an end in itself, and the chief end of the prayer and effort of the soul, or it can be nothing at all. It appears as such in the passage now under consideration. The elegist writes as though he and the people whom he represents had arrived at the conviction that their supreme need was to be brought back into near and happy relations with God. The hunger for God breathes through these words. This is the truest, deepest, most Divine longing of the soul. When once it is awakened we may be sure that it will be satisfied. The hopelessness of the condition of so many people is not only that they are estranged from God, but that they have no desire to be reconciled to Him. Then the kindling of this desire is itself a great step towards the reconciliation.

And yet the good wish is not enough by itself to attain its object. The prayer is for God to turn the people back to Himself. We see here the mutual relations of the human and the Divine in the process of the recovery of souls. So long as there is no willingness to return to God nothing can be done to force that action on the wanderer. The first necessity, therefore, is to awaken the prayer which seeks restoration. But this prayer must be for the action of God. The poet knows that it is useless simply to resolve to turn. Such a resolution may be repeated a thousand times without any result following, because the fatal poison of sin is like a snake bite that paralyses its victims. Thus we read in the "Theologia Germanica," "And in this bringing back and healing, I can, or may, or shall do nothing of myself, but simply yield to God, so that He alone may do all things in me and work, and I may suffer Him and all His work and His Divine will." The real difficulty is not to change our own hearts and lives; that is impossible. And it is not expected of us. The real difficulty is rather to reach a consciousness of our own disability. It takes the form of unwillingness to trust ourselves entirely to God for Him to do for us and in us just whatever He will.

The poet is perfectly confident that when God takes His people in hand to lead them round to Himself He will surely do so. If He turns them they will be turned. The words suggest that previous efforts had been made from other quarters, and had failed. The prophets, speaking from God, had urged repentance, but their words had been ineffectual. It is only when God undertakes the work that there is any chance of success. But then success is certain. This truth was illustrated in the preaching of the cross by St. Paul at Corinth, where it was found to be the power of God. It is seen repeatedly in the fact that the worst, the oldest, the most hardened are brought round to a new life by the miracle of redeeming power. Herein we have the root principle of Calvinism, the secret of the marvellous vigour of a system which, at the first blush of it, would seem to be depressing rather than encouraging. Calvinism directed the thoughts of its disciples away from self, and man, and the world, for the inspiration of all life and energy. It bade them confess their own impotence and God’s almightiness. All who could trust themselves to such a faith would find the secret of victory.

Next, we see that the return is to be a renewal of a previous condition. The poet prays, "Renew our days as of old"-a phrase which suggests the recovery of apostates. Possibly here we have some reference to more external conditions. There is a hope that the prosperity of the former times may be brought back. And yet the previous line, which is concerned with the spiritual return to God, should lead us to take this one also in a spiritual sense. We think of Cowper’s melancholy regret-

"Where is the blessedness I knew

When first I saw the Lord?"

The memory of a lost blessing makes the prayer for restoration the more intense. It is of God’s exceeding lovingkindness that His compassions fail not, so that He does not refuse another opportunity to those who have proved faithless in the past. In some respects restoration is more difficult than a new beginning. The past will not come back. The innocence of childhood, when once it is lost, can never be restored. That first, fresh bloom of youth is irrecoverable. On the other hand, what the restoration lacks in one respect may be more than made up in other directions. Though the old paradise will not be regained, though it has withered long since, and the site of it has become a desert, God will create new heavens and a new earth which shall be better than the lost past. And this new state will be a real redemption, a genuine recovery of what was essential to the old condition. The vision of God had been enjoyed in the old, simple days, and though to weary watchers sobered by a sad experience, the vision of God will be restored in the more blessed future.

In our English Bible the last verse of the chapter reads like a final outburst of the language of despair. It seems to say that the prayer is all in vain, for God has utterly forsaken His people. So it was understood by the Jewish critics who arranged to repeat the previous verse at the end of the chapter to save the omen, that the Book should not conclude with so gloomy a thought. But another rendering is now generally accepted, though our Revisers have only placed it in the margin. According to this we read, "Unless Thou hast utterly rejected us," etc. There is still a melancholy tone in the sentence, as there is throughout the Book that it concludes; but this is softened, and now it by no means breathes the spirit of despair. Turn it round, and the phrase will even contain an encouragement. If God has not utterly rejected His people, assuredly He will attend to their prayer to be restored to Him. But it cannot be that He has quite cast them off. Then it must be that He will respond and turn them back to Himself. If our hope is only conditioned by the question whether God has utterly forsaken us it is perfectly safe, because the one imaginable cause of shipwreck can never arise. There is but one thing that might make our trust in God vain and fruitless; and that one thing is impossible, nay, inconceivable. So wide and deep is our Father’s love, so firm is the adamantine strength of His eternal fidelity, we may he absolutely confident that, though the mountains be removed and cast into the sea, and though the solid earth melt away beneath our feet, He will still abide as the Eternal Refuge of His children, and therefore that He will never fail to welcome all who seek His grace to help them return to Him in true penitence and filial trust. Thus we are led even by this most melancholy book in the Bible to see, as with eyes purged by tears, that the love of God is greater than the sorrow of man, and His redeeming power more mighty than the sin which lies at the root of the worst of that sorrow; the eternity of His throne, in spite of the present havoc of evil in the universe, assuring us that the end of all will be not a mournful elegy, but a paean of victory.

Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Lamentations 5". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/teb/lamentations-5.html.
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