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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary
Lamentations 1



Verses 1-7


Lamentations 1:1-7

THE first elegy is devoted to moving pictures of the desolation of Jerusalem and the sufferings of her people. It dwells upon these disasters themselves, with fewer references to the causes of them or the hope of any remedy than are to be found in the subsequent poems, simply to express the misery of the whole story. Thus it is in the truest sense of the word a "Lamentation." It naturally divides itself into two parts-one with the poet speaking in his own person, [Lamentations 1:1-11] the other representing the deserted city herself appealing to passing strangers and neighbouring nations, and lastly to God, to take note of her woes. [Lamentations 1:12-22]

The poem opens with a very beautiful passage in which we have a comparison of Jerusalem to a widow bereft of her children, sitting solitary in the night, weeping sorely. It would not be just to read into the image of widowhood ideas collected from utterances of the prophets about the wedded union of Israel and her Lord; we have no hint of anything of the sort here. Apparently the image is selected in order to express the more vividly the utter lonesomeness of the city. It is clear that the attribute "solitary" has no bearing on the external relations of Jerusalem-her isolation among the Syrian hills, or the desertion of her allies, mentioned a little later; [Lamentations 1:2] it points to a more ghostly solitude, streets without traffic, tenantless houses. The widow is solitary because she has been robbed of her children. And in this, her desolation, she sits. The attitude, so simple and natural and easy under ordinary circumstances, here suggests a settled continuance of wretchedness; it is helpless and hopeless. The first wild agony of the severance of the closest natural ties has passed, and with it the stimulus of conflict; now there has supervened the dull monotony of despair. This is the lowest depth of misery, because it allows leisure when leisure is least welcome, because it gives the reins to the imagination to roam over regions of heart-rending memory or sombre apprehension, above all because there is nothing to be done, so that the whole range of consciousness is abandoned to pain. Many a sufferer has been saved by the healing ministry of active duties, sometimes resented as an intrusion. It is a fearful thing simply to sit in sorrow.

The mourner sits in the night, while the world around lies in the peace of sleep. The darkness has fallen, yet she does not stir, for day and night are alike to her-both dark. She is statuesque in sorrow, petrified by pain, and yet unhappily not dead; benumbed, but alive in every sensitive fibre of her being and terribly awake. In this dread night of misery her one occupation is weeping. The mourner knows how the hidden fountains of tears which have been sealed to the world for the day will break out in the silent solitude of night; then the bravest will "wet his couch with his tears." The forlorn woman "weepeth sore"; to use the expressive Hebraism, "weeping she weepeth." "Her tears are on her cheeks"; they are continually flowing; she has no thought of drying them; there is no one else to wipe them away. This is not the frantic torrent of youthful tears, soon to be forgotten in sudden sunshine, like a spring shower; it is the dreary winter rain, falling more silently, but from leaden clouds that never break. The Hebrew poet’s picture is illustrated with singular aptness by a Roman coin, struck off in commemoration of the destruction of Jerusalem by the army of Titus, which represents a woman seated under a palm tree with the legend Judaea capta. Is it too much to imagine that some Greek artist attached to the court of Vespasian may have borrowed the idea for the coin from the Septuagint version of this very passage?

The woe of Jerusalem is intensified by reason of its contrast with the previous splendour of the proud city. She had not always appeared as a lonely widow. Formerly she had held a high place among the neighbouring nations-for did she not cherish memories of the great days of her shepherd king and Solomon the magnificent? Then she ruled provinces; now she is herself tributary. She had lovers in the old times-a fact which points to faults of character not further pursued at present. How opposite is the utterly deserted state into which she is now sunk! This thought of a tremendous fall gives the greatest force to the portrait. It is Rembrandtesque; the black shadows on the foreground are the deeper because they stand sharply out against the brilliant radiance that streams in from the sunset of the past. The pitiableness of the comfortless present lies in this, that there had been lovers whose consolations would now have been a solace; the bitterness of the enmity now experienced is its having been distilled from the dregs of poisoned friendship. Against the protests of her faithful prophets Jerusalem had courted alliance with her heathen neighbours only to be cruelly deserted in her hour of need. It is the old story of friendship with the world, keenly accentuated in the life of Israel, because this favoured people had already seen glimpses of a rich, rare privilege, the friendship of Heaven. This is the irony of the situation: it is the tragic irony of all Hebrew history. Why were these people so blindly infatuated that they would be perpetually forsaking the living waters, and hewing out to themselves broken cisterns that could hold no water? The question is only surpassed by that of the similar folly on the part of those of us who follow their example in spite of the warning their fate affords, failing to see that true friendship is too exacting for ties spun from mere convenience or superficial pleasantness to bear the strain of its more serious claims.

Passing on from the poetic image to a more direct view of the drear facts of the case, the author describes the hardships of the fugitives-people who had fled to Egypt, the retreat of Jeremiah and his companions. This must be the bearing of the passage which our translators render-

"Judah is gone into captivity because of affliction, and because of great servitude."

For if the topic were the captivity at Babylon it would be difficult to see how "affliction" and "great servitude" could be treated as the causes of that disaster; were they not rather its effects? Two solutions of this difficulty have been proposed. It has been suggested that the captivity is here presented as a consequence of the misconduct of the Jews in oppressing peoples subject to them. But the abstract words will not readily bear any such meaning; we should have expected some more explicit charge. Then it has been proposed to read the words "out of affliction," etc., in place of the phrase "because of affliction," etc., as though in escaping from trouble at home the Jews had only passed into a new misfortune abroad. This is not so simple an explanation of the poet’s language as that at which we arrive by the perfectly legitimate substitution of the word "exile" for "captivity." It may seem strange that the statement should be affirmed of "Judah," as though the whole nation had escaped to Egypt; but it would be equally inexact to say that "Judah" was carried captive to Babylon, seeing that only a selection from the upper classes was deported, while the majority of the people was probably left in the land. But so many of the Jews, especially those best known to the poet, were in voluntary exile, that it was quite natural for him to regard them as virtually the nation. Now upon these refugees three troubles fall. First, the asylum is a heathen country, abominable to pious Israelites. Second, even here the fugitives have no rest; they are not allowed to settle down; they are perpetually molested. Third, on the way thither they are harassed by the enemy. They are overtaken by pursuers "within the straits," a statement which may be read literally; bands of Chaldaeans would hover about the mountains, ready to pounce upon the disorganised groups of fugitives as they made their way through the narrow defiles that led out of the hill country to the southern plains. But the phrase is a familiar Hebraism for difficulties generally. No doubt it was true of the Jews in this larger sense that their opponents took advantage of their straitened circumstances to vex them in every possible way. This is just in accordance with the common experience of mankind all the world over. But while the fact of the experience is obvious, the inference to which it points like an arrow is obstinately eluded. Thus a commercial man in financial straits loses his credit at the very moment when he most needs it. We cannot say that this is a proof of spite, or even a sign of cynical indifference; because the needy person is really most untrustworthy, though his moral integrity may be unshaken, seeing that his circumstances make it probable that he will be unable to fulfil his obligations. But now it is the deeper significance of this fact that is so persistently ignored. There is perceptible at times in nature a law of compensation by the operation of which misfortune is mitigated; but that merciful law is frequently thwarted by the overbearing influence of the terrible law of the "survival of the fittest," the gospel of the fortunate, but the death-knell for all failures. If this is so in nature, much more does it obtain in human society so long as selfish greed is unchecked by higher principles. Then the world, the Godless world, can be no asylum for the miserable and unfortunate, because it will be hard upon them in exact proportion to the extremity of their necessities. Moreover, the perception that this bitter truth is not a fruit of temporary passions which may be restrained by education, but the outcome of certain persistent principles which cannot be set aside while society retains its present constitution, gives to it the adamantine strength of destiny.

Coming nearer to the city in his mental vision, the poet next bewails deserted roads; "those ways of Zion" up which the holiday folks used to troop, clad in gay garments, with songs of rejoicing, are left so lonely that it seems as though they themselves must be mourning. It is in keeping with the imagery of these poems which personify the city, to endow the very roads with fancied consciousness. This is a natural result of intense emotion, and therefore a witness to its very intensity. It seems as though the very earth must share in the feelings of the man whose heart is stirred to its depths; as though all things must be filled with the passion the waves of which flow out to the horizon of his consciousness, till the very stones cry out.

As he approaches the city, the poet is struck with a strange, sad sight. There are no people about the gates; yet here, if anywhere, we should expect to meet not only travellers passing through, but also groups of men, merchants at their traffic, arbitrators settling disputes, friends exchanging confidences, idlers lounging about and chewing the cud of the latest gossip, beggars whining for alms; for by the gates are markets, al fresco tribunals, open spaces for public meetings. Formerly the life of the city was here concentrated; now no trace of life is to be seen even at these social ganglia. The desertion and silence of the gateways gives a shock of distress to the visitor on entering the ruined city. More disappointments await him within the walls. Still keeping in mind the idea of the national festivals, and accompanying the course of them in imagination, the poet goes up to the temple. No services are proceeding; any priests who may be found still haunting the precincts of the charred ruins can only sigh over their enforced idleness; the girl-choristers whose voices would ring through the porticoes in the old times, are silent and desolate, for their mother, Jerusalem, is herself "in bitterness."

In this part of the elegy our attention is directed to the cessation of the happy national assemblies with their accompaniment of public worship in songs of praise for harvest and vintage and in the awful symbolism of the altar. The name "Zion" was associated with two things, festivity and worship. It was a happy privilege for Israel to have had the inspired insight as well as the courage of faith to realise the conjunction. Even with the fuller light and larger liberty of Christianity it is rarely acknowledged among us. Our services have too much of the funeral dirge about them. The devout Israelite reserved his dirge for the death of his worship. It does not seem to have occurred to the poet that anybody could come to regard worship as an irksome duty from which he would gladly be liberated. Are we, then, to suppose that the Israelites who practised the crude cult that was prevalent before the Exile, even among the true servants of Jehovah, were indeed more devout than Christians who enjoy the privileges of their richer revelation? Scarcely so; for it must be remembered that we are called to a more spiritual and therefore a more difficult worship. Inward sincerity is here of supreme importance; if this is missing there is no worship, and without it the miserable unreality becomes inexpressibly wearisome. No doubt it is the failure to reach the rare altitude of its lofty ideal that makes Christian worship to appear in the eyes of many to be a melancholy performance. But this explanation should not be permitted to obscure the fact that true, living, spiritual worship must be a very delightful exercise of the soul. Perhaps one reason why this truth is not sufficiently appreciated may be found in the very facility with which the outward means of worship are presented to us. People who are seldom out of the sound of church bells are inclined to grow deaf to their significance. The Roman Christian hunted in the catacombs, the Waldensian hiding in his mountain cave, the Covenanter meeting his fellow members of the kirk in a remote highland glen, the backwoodsman walking fifty miles to attend Divine service once in six months, are led by difficulty and deprivation to perceive the value of public worship in a degree which is surprising to people among whom it is merely an incident of everyday life. When Zion was in ashes the memory of her festivals was encircled with a halo of regret.

In accordance with the principle of construction which he follows throughout-the heightening of the effect of the picture by presenting a succession of contrasts-the poet next sets the prosperity of the enemies of Jerusalem in close juxtaposition to the misery of those of her people in whom it is most pitiable and startling, the children and the princes. Men with any heart in them would wish above all things that the innocent young members of their families should be spared; yet the captives carried off to Babylon consisted principally of boys and girls torn from their homes, conveyed hundreds of miles across the desert, many of them dragged down to hideous degradation by the vices that luxuriated in the corrupt empire of the Euphrates. The other class of victims specially commented on is that of the princes. Not only is the present humiliation of the nobility in sharp contrast to their former elevation of rank, and therefore their sufferings the more acute, but it is also to be observed that their old position of leadership has been completely reversed. The reference must be to Zedekiah and his courtiers. [Jeremiah 39:4-5] These proud princes who formerly exercised command over the multitude have become a shameful flock of fugitives. In the expressive image of the poet, they are compared to "harts that find no pasture"; they are like fleet wild deer, so cowed by hunger that they meekly permit themselves to be driven by their enemies just as if they were a herd of tame cattle.

In the middle of this comparison between the success of the conquerors and the fate of their victims the poet inserts a pregnant sentence which suddenly carries us off to regions of far more profound reflection, touching upon the two sources of the ruin of Jerusalem that lie behind the visible hand of Nebuchadnezzar and his hosts, her own sin and the consequent wrath of her God. It flashes out as a momentary thought, and then retires with equal suddenness, permitting the previous current of reflections to be resumed as though unaffected by the startling interruption. This thought will reappear, however, with increasing fulness, shewing that it is always present to the mind of the poet and ready to come to the surface at any moment, even when it would seem to be inappropriate, although it can never be really inappropriate, because it is the key to the mystery of the whole tragedy.

Lastly, while the sense of a strong contrast is excited objectively by a comparison of the placid security of the invaders with the degradation of the fugitives, subjectively it is most vividly realised by the sufferers themselves when they call to mind their former happiness. Jerusalem is supposed to fall into a reverie in which she follows the recollection of the whole series of her pleasant experiences from far-off bygone times through all the succeeding ages down to the present era of calamities. This is to indulge in the pains of memory-pains which are decidedly more acute than the corresponding pleasures celebrated by Samuel Rogers. These pains are doubly intense owing to the inevitable fact that the contrast is unnaturally strained. Viewed in the softened lights of memory, the past is strangely simplified, its mixed character is forgotten, and many of its unpleasant features are smoothed out, so that an idyllic charm hovers over the dream, and lends it an unearthly beauty. This is why so many people foolishly damp the hopes of children, who, if they are healthily constituted, ought to be anticipating the future with eagerness, by solemnly exhorting them to make hay while the sun shines, with the gloomy warning that the sunny season must soon pass. Their application of the motto carpe diem is not only pagan in spirit; it is founded on an illusion. Happily there is some unreality about most of our yearning regrets for the days that have gone. That sweet, fair past was not so radiant as its effigy in the dreamland of memory now appears to be; nor is the hard present so free from mitigating circumstances as we suppose. And yet, when all is said, we cannot find the consolation we hunger after in hours of darkness among bare conclusions of common-sense. The grave is not an illusion, at least when only viewed in the light of the past-though even this chill, earthly reality begins to melt into a shadow immediately the light of the eternal future falls upon it. The melancholy that laments the lost past can only be perfectly mastered by that Christian grace, the hope which presses forward to a better future.

Verses 8-11


Lamentations 1:8-11

THE doctrinaire rigour of Judaism in its uncompromising association of moral and physical evils has led to an unreasonable disregard for the solid truth which lies behind this mistake. It can scarcely be said that men are now perplexed by the problem that inspired the Book of Job. The fall of the tower of Siloam or the blindness of a man from his birth would not start among us the vexatious questions which were raised in the days of our Lord. We have not accepted the Jewish theory that the punishment of sin always overtakes the sinner in this life, much less have we assented to the by no means necessary corollary that all calamities are the direct penalties of the misconduct of the sufferers, and therefore sure signs of guilt. The modern tendency is in the opposite direction; it goes to ignore the existence of any connection whatever between the course of the universe and human conduct. No interference with the uniformity of the laws of nature for retributive or disciplinary purposes can be admitted. The machinery runs on in its grooves never deflected by any regard for our good or bad deserts. If we dash ourselves against its wheels they will tear us to pieces, grind us to powder; and we may reasonably consider this treatment to be the natural punishment of our folly. But here we are not beyond physical causation, and the drift of thought is towards holding the belief in anything more to be a simple survival from primitive anthropomorphic ideas of nature, a pure superstition. Is it a pure superstition? It is time we turned to another side of the question.

Every strong conviction that has obtained wide recognition, however erroneous and mischievous it may be, can be traced back to the abuse of some solid truth. It is not the case that the universe is constructed without any regard for moral laws. Even the natural punishment of the violation of natural laws contains a certain ethical element. Other considerations apart, clearly it is wrong to injure one’s health or endanger one’s life by rushing headlong against the constituted order of the universe; therefore the consequences of such conduct may be taken as signs of its condemnation. In the case of the sufferings of the Jews lamented by our poet the calamities were not primarily of a physical origin; they grew out of human acts-the accompaniments of the Chaldaean invasion. When we come to the evolution of history we are introduced to a whole world of moral forces that are not at work in the material universe.

Nebuchadnezzar did not know that he was the instrument of a Higher Power for the chastisement of Israel; but the corruptions of the Jews, so ruthlessly exposed by their prophets, had undermined the national vigour which is the chief safeguard of a state, as surely as at a later time the corruptions of Rome opened her gates to devastating hosts of Goths and Huns. May we not go further, and, passing beyond the region of common observation, discover richer indications of the ethical meanings of events in the application to them of a real faith in God? It was his profound theism that lay at the base of the Jew’s conception of temporal retribution, crude, hard, and narrow as this was. If we believe that God is supreme over nature and history as well as over individual lives, we must conclude that He will use every province of His vast dominion so as to further His righteous purposes. If the same Spirit reigns throughout there must be a certain harmony between all parts of His government. The mistake of the Jew was his claim to interpret the details of this Divine administration with a sole regard for the minute fraction of the universe that came under his own eyes, with blank indifference to the vast realm of facts and principles of which he could know nothing. His idea of Providence was too shortsighted, too parochial, in every respect too small; yet it was true in so far as it registered the conviction that there must be an ethical character in the government of the world by a righteous God, that the divinely ordered course of events cannot be out of all relation to conduct.

It does not fall in with the plan of the Lamentations for this subject to be treated so fully in these poems as it is in the stirring exhortations of the great prophets. Yet it comes to the surface repeatedly. In the fifth verse of the first elegy the poet attributes the affliction of Zion to "the multitude of her transgressions"; and he introduces the eighth verse with the clear declaration-

"Jerusalem hath grievously sinned; therefore she has become an unclean thing."

The powerful Hebrew idiom according to which the cognate substantive follows the verb is here employed. Rendered literally, the opening phrase is, "sinned sin." The experience of the chastisement leads to a keen perception of the guilt that precedes it. This is more than a consequence of the application of the accepted doctrine of the connection of sin with suffering to a particular case. No intellectual theory is strong enough by itself to awaken a slumbering conscience. The logic may be faultless; and yet even though the point of the syllogism is not evaded it will be coolly ignored. Trouble arouses a torpid conscience in a much more direct and effectual way. In the first place, it shatters the pride which is the chief hindrance to the confession of sin. Then it compels reflection; it calls a halt, and makes us look back over the path we may have been following too heedlessly. Sometimes it seems to exercise a distinctly illuminating influence. It is as though scales had fallen from the sufferer’s eyes; he sees all things in a new light, and some ugly facts which had been lying at his side for years disregarded suddenly glare upon him as horrible discoveries. Thus the "Prodigal Son" perceives that he has sinned both against Heaven and against his father when he is in the lowest depths of misery, not so much because he recognises a penal character in his troubles, but more on account of the fact that he has come to himself. This subjective, psychological connection between suffering and sin is independent of any dogma of retribution; for the ends of practical discipline it is the most important connection. We may waive all discussion of the ancient Jewish problem, and still be thankful to recognise the Elijah-like ministry of adversity. The immediate effect of this vision of sin is that a new colour is given to the picture of the desolation of Jerusalem. The image of a miserable woman is preserved, but the dignity of the earlier scene is missing here. Pathos and poetry gather round the picture of the forlorn widow weeping for the loss of her children. Neglected and humbled as she is in worldly estate, the tragic vastness of her sorrow has exalted her to an altitude of moral sublimity. Such suffering breaks through those barriers of conventional experience which make many lives look mean and trivial. It is so awful that we cannot but regard it with reverence. But all this is altered in the aspect of Jerusalem which follows the confession of her great sin. In the freedom of ancient language the poet ventures on an illustration that would be regarded as too gross for modern literature. The limits of our art exclude subjects which excite a sensation of disgust; but this is just the sensation the author of the elegy deliberately aims at producing. He paints a picture which is simply intended to sicken his readers. The utter humiliation of Jerusalem is exhibited in the unavoidable exposure of a condition which natural modesty would conceal at any cost. Another contrast between the reserve of our modern style and the rude bluntness of antiquity is here apparent. It is not only that we have grown more refined in language-a very superficial change which might be no better than the whitewashing of sepulchres; over and above this civilising of mere manners, the effect of Teutonic habits, strengthened by Christian sentiments, has been to develop a respect for woman undreamed of in the old Eastern world. It may be added that the scientific temper of recent times has taught us that there is nothing really dishonouring in purely natural processes. The ancient world could not distinguish between delicacy and shame. We should regard a poor suffering woman whose modesty had been grievously wounded with simple commiseration; the ancient Jews treated such a person with disgust as an unclean creature, quite unable to see that their conduct was simply brutal.

The new aspect of the misery of Jerusalem is thus set forth as one of degradation and ignominy. The vision of sin is immediately followed by a scene of shame. Commentators have been divided over the question whether this picture of the humiliated woman is intended to apply to the sin of the city or only to her misfortunes. In favour of the former view, it may be remarked that uncleanness is distinctly associated with moral corruption: the connection is the more appropriate here inasmuch as a confession of sin immediately precedes. On the other hand, the attendant circumstances point to the second interpretation. It is the humiliation of the condition of the sufferer, rather than that condition itself, which is dwelt upon. Jerusalem is despised, "she sigheth," "is come down wonderfully," "hath no comforter," and is generally afflicted and oppressed by her enemies. But while we are led to regard the pitiable picture as a representation of the woful plight into which the proud city has fallen, we cannot conclude it to be an accident that this particular phase of her misery succeeds the mention of her great guilt. After all, it is only the underlying guilt that can justify a verdict which carries disgrace as well as suffering for its penalty. Even when the judgments of men are too confused to recognise this truth with regard to other people, it should be apparent to the conscience of the humiliated person himself. The humiliation which follows nothing worse than a fall into external misfortunes is but a superficial trouble, and the consciousness of innocence can enable one to submit to it without any sense of inward shame. The sting of contempt lies in the miserable consciousness that it is deserved.

Thus we see the punishment of sin consisting in exposure. The exposure which simply hurts natural modesty is acutely painful to a refined, sensitive spirit; and yet the very dignity which it outrages is a shield against the point of the insult. But where the exposure follows sin this shield is absent. In that case the degradation of it is without any mitigation. Nothing more may be necessary to constitute a very severe punishment. When the secrets of all hearts are revealed the very revelation will be a penal process. To lay bare the quivering nerves of memory to the searching sunlight must be to torture the guilty soul with inconceivable horrors. Nevertheless it is a matter for profound thankfulness that there is no question of a surprising revelation of the sinner’s guilt being made to God at some future time, some shocking discovery which might turn His lovingkindness into wrath or contempt. We cannot have a firmer ground of joy and hope than the fact that God knows everything about us, and yet loves us at our worst, patiently waiting for repentance with His offer of unlimited forgiveness. Exposure before God is like a surgical examination; the hope of a cure, if it does not dispel the sense of humiliation and that is impossible in the case of guilt, the disgrace of which to a healthy conscience is more intense before the holiness of God than before the eyes of fellow-sinners still encourages confidence.

The recognition of a moral lapse at the root of the shame of Jerusalem, though not perhaps in the shame itself, is confirmed by a phrase which reflects on the culpable heedlessness of the Jews. The elegy deplores how the city has "come down wonderfully" on account of the fact that "she remembered not her latter end." It is quite confusing and incorrect to render this expression in the present tense as it stands in the Authorised English Version. The poet cannot mean that the Jews in exile and captivity have already forgotten the recent horrors of the siege of Jerusalem. This would be flatly contrary to the motive of the elegy, which is to give tongue to the sufferings of the Jews flowing out of that disaster. It would be impossible to say that the calamity that inspired the elegy was no longer even remembered by its victims. What an anti-climax this would be! Clearly the poet is bewailing the culpable folly of the people in not giving a thought to the certain consequences of such a course as they were following; a course that had been denounced by the faithful prophets of Jehovah, who, alas! had been but voices crying in the wilderness, unnoted, or even scouted and suppressed, like the stormy petrels hated by sailors as birds of ill-omen. In her ease and prosperity, her self-indulgence and sin, the doomed city had failed to recollect what must be the end of such things. The idea of remembrance is peculiarly apt and forcible in this connection, although it has a relation to the future, because the Jews had been through experiences which should have served as warnings if they had duly reflected on them. This was not a matter for wild guesses or vague apprehensions. Not only were there the distinct utterances of Jeremiah and his predecessors to rouse the thoughtless; events had been speaking louder than words. Jerusalem was already a city with a history, and that history had even by this time accumulated some tragic lessons. These were subjects for memory. Thus memory can become prophecy, because the laws which are revealed in the past will govern the future. We are none of us so wholly inexperienced but that in the knowledge of what we have already been through we may gain wisdom to anticipate the consequences of our present actions. The heedless person is one who forgets, or at all events one who will not attend to his own memories. Such recklessness is its own condemnation; it cannot plead the excuse of ignorance.

But now it may be objected that this reference to the mere thought of consequences suggests considerations that are too low to furnish the reasons for the ruin of Jerusalem. Would the city have been spared if only her inhabitants had been a little more foreseeing? It should be observed that though mere prudence is never a very lofty virtue, imprudence is sometimes a very serious fault. It cannot be right to be simply reckless, to ignore all lessons of the past and fling oneself blindly into the future. The hero who is sure that he is inspired by a lofty motive may walk straight into the very jaws of death, and be all the stronger for his noble indifference to his fate; but he who is no hero, he who is not influenced by any great or unselfish ideas, has no excuse for neglecting the warnings of common prudence. All wise actions must be more or less guided with a view to their issues in the future, although in the case of the best of them the aims will be pure and unselfish. It is our prerogative, to "look before and after"; and just in proportion as we take long views do our deeds acquire gravity and depth. Our Lord characterised the two ways by their ends. While the example of the careless Jews is followed on all sides - and who of us can deny that he has ever fallen into the negligence? - is it not a little superfluous to discuss abstract, unpractical problems about a remote altruism?

Intermingled with his painful picture of the humiliation and shame of the fallen city, the poet supplies indications of the effect of all this on the suffering citizens. Despised by all who had formerly honoured her, Jerusalem sighs and longs to retire into obscurity, away from the rude gaze of her oppressors.

In particular, two further signs of her distress are here given.

The first is spoliation. Her enemies have laid hands on "all her pleasant things." It may strike us that, after the miseries just narrated, this is but a minor trouble. Job’s calamities began with the loss of his property, and rose from this by degrees to the climax of agony. If his first trouble had been the sudden death of all his children, stunned by that awful blow, he would have cared little about the fate of his flocks and herds. It is not according to the method of the Lamentations, however, to move on to any climax. The thoughts are set forth as they well up in the mind of the poet, now passionate and intense, then again of a milder cast, yet altogether combining to colour one picture of intolerable woe. But there is an aspect of this idea of the robbery of the "pleasant things" which heightens the sense of misery. It is another instance of the force of contrast so often manifested in these elegies. Jerusalem had been a home of wealth and luxury in the merry old days. But hoarded money, precious jewellery, family heirlooms, products of art and skill, accumulated during generations of prosperity and treated as necessaries of life-all had been swept away in the sack of the city, and scattered among strangers who could not prize them as they had been prized by their owners: and now these victims of spoliation, stripped of everything, were in want of daily bread. Even what little could be saved from the wreck they had to give up in exchange for common food, bought dearly in the market of necessity.

The second sign of the great distress here noted is desecration. Gentiles invade the sacred precincts of the temple. Considering that the sanctuary had been already much more effectually desecrated by the blood-stained hands and lustful hearts of impious worshippers, such as those "rulers of Sodom" denounced by Isaiah for "trampling" the courts of Jehovah with their "vain oblations," [Isaiah 1:10-17] we do not find it easy to sympathise with this horror of a supposed defilement from the mere presence of heathen persons. Yet it would be unjust to accuse the shocked Israelites of hypocrisy. They ought to have been more conscious of the one real corruption of sin; but we cannot add that therefore their notions of external uncleanness were altogether foolish and wrong. To judge the Jews of the age of the Captivity by a standard of spirituality which few Christians have yet attained to would be a cruel anachronism. The Syrian invasion of the temple in the time of the Maccabees was called by a very late prophet an "abomination of desolation," [Daniel 11:31] and a similar insult to be offered to the sacred place by the Romans is described by our Lord in the same terms. [Mark 13:14] All of us must be conscious at times of the sacredness of associations. To botanise on his mother’s grave may be a proof of a man’s freedom from superstition, but it cannot be taken as an indication of the fineness of his feelings. The Israelite exclusiveness which shunned the intrusion of foreigners simply because they were foreigners was combined both with a patriotic anxiety to preserve the integrity of the nation, and in some cases with a religious dread of idolatry. It is true the nominal contamination of the mere presence of Gentiles was generally more dreaded than the real contagion of their corrupt examples. Still the very idea of desecration, even when it is superficial, together with a sense of pain at its presence, is higher than the materialism which despises it not because this materialism has the grace to sanctify everything, but for the opposite reason, because it counts nothing holy, because to it all things are common and unclean.

Before we pass from this portion of the elegy there is one curious characteristic of it which calls for notice. The poet suddenly drops the construction in the third person and writes in the first person. This he does twice-at the end of the ninth verse, and again at the end of the eleventh. He might be speaking in his own person, but the language points to the personified city. Yet in each case the outburst is quite abrupt, sprung upon us without any introductory formula. Possibly the explanation of this anomaly must be sought in the liturgical use for which the poem was designed. If it was to be sung antiphonally we may conjecture that at these places a second chorus would break in. The result would be a startling dramatic effect-as though the city had sat listening to the lament over her woes until the piteous tale bad compelled her to break her silence and cry aloud, in each case the cry is directed to heaven. It is an appeal to God; and it simply prays for His attention-"Behold, O Lord," "See, O Lord, and behold." In the first case the Divine attention is called to the insolence of the enemy, in the second to the degradation of Jerusalem. Still it is only an appeal for notice. Will God but look upon all this misery? That is sufficient.

Verses 12-22


Lamentations 1:12-22

IN the latter part of the second elegy Jerusalem appears as the speaker, appealing for sympathy, first to stray, passing travellers, then to the larger circle of the surrounding nations, and lastly to her God. Already the suffering city has spoken once or twice in brief interruptions of the poet’s descriptions of her miseries, and now she seems to be too impatient to permit herself to be represented any longer even by this friendly advocate; she must come forward in person and present her case in her own words.

There is much difference of opinion among commentators about the rendering of the phrase with which the appeal begins. The Revisers have followed the Authorised Version in taking it as a question-"Is it nothing to you, all ye that pass by?" [Lamentations 1:12] But it may be treated as a direct negative-"It is nothing," etc., or, by a slightly different reading of the Hebrew text, as a simple call for attention-"O all ye that pass by," etc., as in the Vulgate "O vos," etc. The usual rendering is the finest in literary feeling, and it is in accordance with a common usage. Although the sign of an interrogation, which would set this meaning beyond dispute, is absent, there does not seem to be sufficient reason for rejecting it in favour of one of the proposed alternatives. But in any case the whole passage evidently expresses a deep yearning for sympathy. Mere strangers, roving Bedouin, any people who may chance to be passing by Jerusalem, are implored to behold her incomparable woes. The wounded animal creeps into a corner to suffer and die in secret, perhaps on account of the habit of herds, in tormenting a suffering mate. But among mankind the instinct of a sufferer is to crave sympathy, from a friend, if possible; hut if such be not available, then even from a stranger. Now although where it is possible to give effectual aid, merely to cast a pitying look and pass by on the other side, like the priest and the Levite in the parable, is a mockery and a cruelty, although unpretentious indifference is better than that hypocrisy, it would be a great mistake to suppose that in those cases for which no direct relief can be given sympathy is of no value. This sympathy, if it is real, would help if it could; and under all circumstances it is the reality of the sympathy that is most prized, not its issues.

It should be remembered, further, that the first condition of active aid is a genuine sense of compassion, which can only be awakened by means of knowledge and the impressions which a contemplation of suffering produces. Evil is wrought not only from want of thought, but also from lack of knowledge; and good-doing is withheld for the same reason. Therefore the first requisite is to arrest attention. A royal commission is the reasonable precursor of a state remedy for some public wrong. Misery is permitted to flourish in the dark because people are too indolent to search it out. No doubt the knowledge of sufferings which we might remedy implies a grave responsibility; but we cannot escape our obligations by simply closing our eyes to what we do not wish to see. We are responsible for our ignorance and its consequences wherever the opportunity of knowledge is within our reach.

The appeal to all who pass by is most familiar to us in its later association with our Lord’s sufferings on the cross. But this is not in any sense a Messianic passage; it is confined in its purpose to the miseries of Jerusalem. Of course there can be no objection to illustrating the grief and pain of the Man of Sorrows by using the classic language of an ancient lament if we note that this is only an illustration. There is a kinship in all suffering, and it is right to consider that He who was tried in all points as we are tried passed through sorrows which absorbed all the bitterness even of such a cup of woe as that which was drunk by Jerusalem in the extremity of her misfortunes. If never before there had been sorrow like unto her sorrow, at length that was matched, nay, surpassed at Gethsemane and Golgotha. Still it would be a mistake to confine these words to their secondary application-not only an exegetical mistake, but one of deeper significance. Jesus Christ restrained the wailing of the women who offered Him their compassion on His way to the cross, bidding them weep not for Him, but for themselves and their children. [Luke 23:28] Much more when His passion is long past and He is reigning in glory must it be displeasing to Him for His friends to be wasting idle tears over the sufferings of His earthly life. The morbid sentimentality which broods over the ancient wounds of Christ, the nail prints and the spear thrust, but ignores the present wounds of society-the wounds of the world for which He bled and died, or the wounds of the Church which is His body now, must be wrong in His sight. He would rather we gave a cup of cold water to one of His brethren than an ocean of tears to the memory of Calvary. If then we would make use of the ruined city’s appeal for sympathy by applying it to some later object it would be more in agreement with the mind of Christ to think of the miseries of mankind in our own day, and to consider how a sympathetic regard for them may point to some ministry of alleviation.

In order to impress the magnitude of her miseries on the minds of the strangers whose attention she would arrest, the city, now personified as a suppliant, describes her dreadful condition in a series of brief, pointed metaphors. Thus the imagination is excited; and the imagination is one of the roads to the heart. It is not enough that people know the bald facts of a calamity as these may be scheduled in an inspector’s report. Although this preliminary information is most important, if we go no further the report will be replaced in its pigeonhole, and lie there till it is forgotten. Ii it is to do something better than gather the dust of years it must be used as a foundation for the imagination to work upon. This does not imply any departure from truth, any false colouring or exaggeration; on the contrary, the process only brings out the truth which is not really seen until it is imagined. Let us look at the various images under which the distress of Jerusalem is here presented.

It is like a fire in the bones. [Lamentations 1:13] It burns, consumes, pains with intolerable torment; it is no skin-deep trouble, it penetrates to the very marrow. This fire is overmastering; it is not to be quenched, neither does it die out; it "prevaileth" against the bones. There is no getting such a fire under.

It is like a net. [Lamentations 1:13] The image is changed. We see a wild creature caught in the bush, or perhaps a fugitive arrested in his flight and flung down by hidden snares at his feet. Here is the shock of surprise, the humiliation of deceit, the vexation of being thwarted. The result is a baffled, bewildered, helpless condition.

It is like faintness. [Lamentations 1:13] The desolate sufferer is ill. It is bad enough to have to bear calamities in the strength of health. Jerusalem is made sick and kept faint "all the day"-with a faintness that is not a momentary collapse, but a continuous condition of failure.

It is like a yoke [Lamentations 1:14] which is wreathed upon the neck - fixed on, as with twisted withes. The poet is here more definite. The yoke is made out of the transgressions of Jerusalem. The sense of guilt does not lighten its weight; the band that holds it most closely is the feeling that it is deserved. It is natural that the sinful sufferer should exclaim that God, who has bound this terrible yoke upon her, has made her strength to fail. As there is nothing so invigorating as the assurance that one is suffering for a righteous cause, so there is nothing so wretchedly depressing as the consciousness of guilt.

Lastly, it is like a winepress. [Lamentations 1:15] This image is elaborated with more detail, although at the expense of unity of design. God is said to have called a "solemn assembly" to oppress the Jews, by an ironical reversal of the common notion of such an assembly. The language recalls the idea of one of the great national festivals of Israel. But now instead of the favoured people their enemies are summoned, and the object is not the glad praise of God for His bounties in harvest or vintage, but the crushing of the Jews. They are to be victims, not guests as of old. They are themselves the harvest of judgment, the vintage of wrath. The wine is to be made, but the grapes crushed to produce it are the people who were accustomed to feast and drink of the fruits of God’s bounty in the happy days of their prosperity. So the mighty men are set at nought, their prowess counting as nothing against the brutal rush of the enemy; and the young men are crushed, their spirit and vigour failing them in the great destruction.

The most terrible trait in these pictures, one that is common to all of them, is the Divine origin of the troubles. It was God who sent fire into the bones, spread the net, made the sufferer desolate and faint. The yoke was bound by His hands. It was He who set at nought the mighty men, and summoned the assembly of foes to crush His people. The poet even goes so far as to make the daring statement that it was the Lord Himself who trod the virgin daughter of Judah as in a winepress. It is a ghastly picture - a dainty maiden trampled to death by Jehovah as grapes are trampled to squeeze out their juice! This horrible thing is ascribed to God! Yet there is no complaint of barbarity, no idea that the Judge of all the earth is not doing right. The miserable city does not bring any railing accusation against her Lord; she takes all the blame upon herself. We must be careful to bear in mind the distinction between poetic imagery and prosaic narrative. Still it remains true that Jerusalem here attributes her troubles to the will and action of God. This is vital to the Hebrew faith. To explain it away is to impoverish the religion of Israel, and with it the Old Testament revelation. That revelation shews us the absolute sovereignty of God, and at the same time it brings out the guilt of man, so that no room is allowed for complaints against the Divine justice. The grief is all the greater because there is no thought of rebellion. The daring doubts that struggle into expression in Job never obtrude themselves here to check the even flow of tears. The melancholy is profound, but comparatively calm, since it does not once give place to anger. It is natural that the succession of images of misery conceived in this spirit should be followed by a burst of tears. Zion weeps because the comforter who should refresh her soul is far away, and she is left utterly desolate. [Lamentations 1:16]

Here the supposed utterance of Jerusalem is broken for the poet to insert a description of the suppliant making her piteous appeal. [Lamentations 1:17] He shews us Zion spreading out her hands, that is to say, in the well-known attitude of prayer. She is comfortless, oppressed by her neighbours in accordance with the will of her God, and treated as an unclean thing; she who had despised the idolatrous Gentiles in her pride of superior sanctity has now become foul and despicable in their eyes!

The semi-dramatic form of the elegy is seen in the reappearance of Jerusalem as speaker without any formula of introduction. After the poet’s brief interjection describing the suppliant, the personified city continues her plaintive appeal, but with a considerable enlargement of its scope. She makes the most distinct acknowledgment of the two vital elements of the case-God’s righteousness and her own rebellion. [Lamentations 1:18] These carry us beneath the visible scenes of trouble so graphically illustrated earlier, and fix our attention on deep-seated principles. It cannot be supposed that the faith and penitence unreservedly confessed in the elegy were truly experienced by all the fugitive citizens of Jerusalem, though they were found in the devout "remnant" among whom the author of the poem must be reckoned. But the reasonable interpretation of these utterances is that which accepts them as the inspired expressions of the thoughts and feelings which Jerusalem ought to possess, as ideal expressions, suitable to those who rightly appreciate the whole situation. This fact gives them a wide applicability. The ideal approaches the universal. Although it cannot be said that all trouble is the direct punishment of sin, and although it is manifestly insincere to make confession of guilt one does not inwardly admit, to be firmly settled in the conviction that God is right in what He does even when it all looks most wrong, that if there is a fault it must be on man’s side, is to have reached the centre of truth. This is very different from the admission that God has the right of an absolute sovereign to do whatever He chooses, like mad Caligula when intoxicated with his own divinity; it even implies a denial of that supposed right, for it asserts that He acts in accordance with something other than His will, viz., righteousness.

Enlarging the area of her appeal, no longer content to snatch at the casual pity of individual travellers on the road, Jerusalem now calls upon all the "peoples"-i.e., all neighbouring tribes-to hear the tale of her woes. [Lamentations 1:18] This is too huge a tragedy to be confined to private spectators; it is of national proportions, and it claims the attention of whole nations. It is curious to observe that foreigners, whom the strict Jews sternly exclude from their privileges, are nevertheless besought to compassionate their distresses. These uncircumcised heathen are not now thrust contemptuously aside; they are even appealed to as sympathisers. Perhaps this is meant to indicate the vastness of the misery of Jerusalem by the suggestion that even aliens should be affected by it; when the waves spread far in all directions there must have been a most terrible storm at the centre of disturbance. Still it is possible to find in this widening outlook of the poet a sign of the softening and enlarging effects of trouble. The very need of much sympathy breaks down the barriers of proud exclusiveness, and prepares one to look for gracious qualities among people who have been previously treated with churlish indifference or positive animosity. Floods and earthquakes tame savage beasts. On the battlefield wounded men gratefully accept relief from their mortal enemies. Conduct of this sort may be self-regarding, perhaps weak and cowardly; still it is an outcome of the natural brotherhood of all mankind, any confession of which, however reluctant, is a welcome thing.

The appeal to the nations contains three particulars. It deplores the captivity of the virgins and young men; the treachery of allies-"lovers" who have been called upon for assistance, but in vain; and the awful fact that men of such consequence as the elders and priests, the very aristocracy of Jerusalem, had died of starvation after an ineffectual search for food-a lurid picture of the horrors of the siege. [Lamentations 1:18-19] The details repeat themselves with but very slight variations.

It is natural for a great sufferer to revolve his bitter morsel continuously. The action is a sign of its bitterness. The monotony of the dirge is a sure indication of the depth of the trouble that occasions it. The theme is only too interesting to the mourner, however wearisome it may become to the listener.

In drawing to a close the appeal goes further, and, rising altogether above man, seeks the attention of God. [Lamentations 1:20-22] It is not enough that every passing traveller is arrested, nor even that the notice of all the neighbouring nations is sought; this trouble is too great for human shoulders to bear. It will absorb the largest mass of sympathy, and yet thirst for more. Twice before in the first part of the elegy the language of the poet speaking in his own person was interrupted by an outcry of Jerusalem to God. [Lamentations 1:9; Lamentations 1:11] Now the elegy closes with a fuller appeal to Heaven. This is an utterance of faith where faith is tried to the uttermost. It is distinctly recognised that the calamities bewailed have been sent by God; and yet the stricken city turns to God for consolation. And the appeal is not at all in the form of a cry to a tormentor for mercy; it seeks friendly sympathy and avenging actions. Nothing could more clearly prove the consciousness that God is not doing any wrong to His people. Not only is there no complaint against the justice of His acts; in spite of them all He is still regarded as the greatest Friend and Helper of the victims of His wrath.

This apparently paradoxical position issues in what might otherwise be a contradiction of thought. The ruin of Jerusalem is attributed to the righteous judgment of God, against which no shadow of complaint is raised; and yet God is asked to pour vengeance on the heads of the human agents of His wrath! These people have been acting from their own evil, or at all events their own inimical motives. Therefore it is not held that they deserve punishment for their conduct any the less on account of the fact that they have been the unconscious instruments of Providence. The vengeance here sought for cannot be brought into line with Christian principles; but the poet had never heard the Sermon on the Mount. It would not have occurred to him that the spirit of revenge was not right, any more than it occurred to the writers of maledictory Psalms.

There is one more point in this final appeal to God which should be noticed, because it is very characteristic of the elegy throughout. Zion bewails her friendless condition, declaring, "there is none to comfort me." [Lamentations 1:21] This is the fifth reference to the absence of a comforter. {See Lamentations 1:2; Lamentations 1:9; Lamentations 1:16-17; Lamentations 1:21} The idea may be merely introduced in order to accentuate the description of utter desolation. And yet when we compare the several allusions to it, the conclusion seems to be forced upon us that the poet has a more specific intention. In some cases, at least, he seems to have one particular comforter in mind, as, for example, when he says, "The comforter that should refresh my soul is far from me." [Lamentations 1:16] Our thoughts instinctively turn to the Paraclete of St. John’s Gospel. It would not be reasonable to suppose that the elegist had attained to any definite conception of the Holy Spirit such as that of the ripe Christian revelation.

But we have his own words to witness that God is to him the supreme Comforter, is the Lord and Giver of life who refreshes his soul. It would seem, then, that the poet’s thought is like that of the author of the twenty-second Psalm, which was echoed in our Lord’s cry of despair on the cross. [Mark 15:34] When God our Comforter hides the light of His countenance the night is most dark. Yet the darkness is not always perceived, or its cause recognised. Then to miss the consolations of God consciously, with pain, is the first step towards recovering them.


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Lamentations 1:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary".

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