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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary
Lamentations 4

 

 

Verses 1-12

CONTRASTS

Lamentations 4:1-12

IN form the fourth elegy is slightly different from each of its predecessors. Following the characteristic plan of the Book of Lamentations, it is an acrostic of twenty-two verses arranged in the order of the Hebrew alphabet. In it we meet with the same curious transposition of two letters that is found in the second and third elegies; it has also the peculiar metre of Hebrew elegaic poetry-the very lengthy line, broken into two unequal parts. But, like the first and second, it differs from the third elegy, which repeats the acrostic letters in three successive lines, in only using each acrostic once at the beginning of a fresh verse; and it differs from all the three first elegies, which are arranged in triplets, in having only two lines in each verse.

This poem is very artistically constructed in the balancing of its ideas and phrases. The opening section of it, from the beginning to the twelfth verse, consists of a pair of duplicate passages-the first from verse one to verse six, the second from verse seven to verse eleven, the twelfth verse bringing this part of the poem to a close by adding a reflection on the common subject of the twin passages. Thus the parallelism which we usually meet with in individual verses is here extended to two series of verses, we might perhaps say, two stanzas, except that there is no such formal division.

In each of these elaborately-wrought sections the elegist brings out a rich array of similes to enforce the tremendous contrast between the original condition of the people of Jerusalem and their subsequent wretchedness. The details of the two descriptions follow closely parallel lines, with sufficient diversity, both in idea and in illustration, to avoid tautology and to serve to heighten the general effect by mutual comparisons. Both passages open with images of beautiful and costly natural objects to which the elite of Jerusalem are compared. Next comes the violent contrast of their state after the overthrow of the city. Then turning aside to more distant scenes, each of which is more or less repellent-the lair of wild beasts in the first case, in the second the battle-field-the poet describes the much more degraded and miserable condition of his people. Both passages direct especial attention to the fate of children-the first to their starvation, the second to a perfectly ghastly scene. At this point in each part the previous daintiness of the upbringing of the more refined classes is contrasted with the condition of degradation worse than that of savages to which they have been reduced. Each passage concludes with a reference to those deeper facts of the case which make it a sign of the wrath of heaven against exceptionally guilty sinners.

The elegist begins with an evident allusion to the consequences of the burning of the temple, which we learn from the history was effected by the Babylonian general Nebuzar-adan. [2 Kings 25:9] The costly splendour with which this temple at Jerusalem was decorated allowed of a rare glitter of gold, such as Josephus describes when writing of the later temple; gold not like that of the domes of St. Mark’s, mellowed by the climate of Venice to a sober depth of hue, but all ablaze with dazzling radiance. The first effect of the smoke of a great conflagration would be to cloud and soil this somewhat raw magnificence, so that the choice gold became dull. That the precious stones stolen from the temple treasury would be flung carelessly about the streets, as our Authorised Version would seem to suggest, is not to be supposed in the case of the sack of a city by a civilised army, whatever might happen if a Vandal host swept through it. "The stones of the sanctuary," [Lamentations 4:1] however, might be the stones with which the building had been constructed. Still, even with this interpretation the statement seems very improbable that the invaders would take the trouble to cart these huge blocks about the city in order to distribute them in heaps at all the street corners. We are driven to the conclusion that the poet is speaking metaphorically, that he is meaning the Jews themselves, or perhaps the more favoured classes, "the noble sons of Zion" of whom he writes openly in the next verse. [Lamentations 4:2] This interpretation is confirmed when we consider the comparison with the parallel passage, which starts at once with a reference to the "princes." [Lamentations 4:7] It seems likely then that the gold that has been so sullied also represents the choicer part of the people. The writer deplores the destruction of his beloved sanctuary; and the image of that calamity is in his mind at the present time; and yet it is not this that he is most deeply lamenting. He is more concerned with the fate of his people. The patriot loves the very soil of his native land, the loyal citizen the very streets and stones of his city. But if such a man is more than a dreamer or a sentimentalist, flesh and blood must mean infinitely more to him than earth and stones. The ruin of a city is something else than the destruction of its buildings; an earthquake or a fire may effect this, and yet, like Chicago, the city may rise again in greater splendour. The ruin that is most deplorable is the ruin of human lives.

This somewhat aristocratic poet, the mouthpiece of an aristocratic age, compares the sons of the Jewish nobility to purest gold. Yet he tells us that they are treated as common earthen vessels, perhaps meaning in contrast to the vessels of precious metal used in the palaces of the great. They are regarded as of no more value than potter’s work, though formerly they had been prized as the dainty art of a goldsmith. This first statement only treats of insult and humiliation. But the evil is worse. The jackals that he knows must be prowling about the deserted ruins of Jerusalem even while he writes suggest a strange, wild image to the poet’s mind. [Lamentations 4:3] These fierce creatures suckle their young, though not in the tame manner of domestic animals. It is singular that the nurture of princes amid the refinements of wealth and luxury should be compared to the feeding of their cubs by. scavengers of the wilderness. But our thoughts are thus directed to the wide extent, the universal exercise of maternal instincts throughout the animal world, even among the most savage and homeless creatures. Startling indeed is it to think that such instincts should ever fail among men, or even that circumstances should ever hinder the natural performance of the functions to which they point with imperious urgency. Although the second passage tells of the violent reversal of the natural feelings of maternity under the maddening influence of famine, here we read how starvation has simply stopped the tender ministry which mothers render to their infants, with a vague hint at some cruelty on the part of the Jewish mothers. A comparison with the supposed conduct of ostriches in leaving their eggs suggests that this is negative cruelty; their hearts being frozen with agony, the wretched mothers lose all interest in their children. But then there is not food for them. The calamities of the times have staunched the mother’s milk; and there is no bread for the older children. [Lamentations 4:4] It is the extreme reversal of their fortunes that makes the misery of the children of princely homes most acute; even those who do not suffer the pangs of hunger are flung down to the lowest depths of wretchedness. The members of the aristocracy have been accustomed to live luxuriously; now they wander about the streets devouring whatever they can pick up. In the old days of luxury they used to recline on scarlet couches; now they have no better bed than the filthy dunghill. [Lamentations 4:5]

The passage concludes with a reflection on the general character of this dreadful condition of Israel. [Lamentations 4:6] It must be closely connected with the sins of the people. The drift of the context would lead us to judge that the poet does not mean to compare the guilt of Jerusalem with that of Sodom, but rather the fate of the two cities. The punishment of Israel is greater than that of Sodom. But this is punishment; and the odious comparison would not be made unless the sin had been of the blackest dye. Thus in this elegy the calamities of Jerusalem are again traced back to the ill-doings of her people. The awful fate of the cities of the plain stands out in the ancient narrative as the exceptional punishment of exceptional wickedness. But now in the race for a first place in the history of doom Jerusalem has broken the record. Even Sodom has been eclipsed in the headlong course by the city once most favoured by heaven. It seems well-nigh impossible. What could be worse than total destruction by fire from heaven? The elegist considers that there are two points in the fate of Jerusalem that confer a gloomy pre-eminence in misery. The doom of Sodom was sudden, and man had no hand in it; but Jerusalem fell into the hands of man-a calamity which David judged to be worse than falling into the hands of God; and she had to endure a long, lingering agony.

Passing on to the consideration of the parallel section, we see that the author follows the same lines, though with considerable freshness of treatment. Still directing especial attention to the tremendous change in the fortunes of the aristocracy, he begins again by describing the splendour of their earlier state. This had been advertised to all eyes by the very complexion of their countenances. Unlike the toilers who were necessarily bronzed by working under a southern sun, these delicately nurtured persons had been able to preserve fair skins in the shady seclusion of their cool palaces, so that in the hyperbole of the poem they could be described as "purer than snow" and "whiter than milk." [Lamentations 4:7] Yet they had no sickly pallor. Their health had been well attended to; so that they were also ruddy as "corals," while their dark hair glistened "like sapphires," But now see them! Their faces are "darker than blackness." [Lamentations 4:8] We need not enquire after a literal explanation of an expression which is in harmony with the extravagance of Oriental language, although doubtless exposure to the weather, and the grime and smoke of the scenes these children of luxury had passed through, must have had a considerable effect on their effeminate countenances. The language here is evidently figurative. So it is throughout the passage. The whole aspect of the lives and fortunes of these delicately nurtured lordlings has been reversed. They tell their story by the gloom of their countenances and by the shrivelled appearance of their bodies. They can no longer be recognised in the streets, so piteous a change have their misfortunes wrought in them. Withered and wizen, they are reduced to skin and bone by sheer famine. Sufferers from such continuous calamities as these fallen princes are passing through are treated to a worse fate than that which overtook their brethren who fell in the war. The sword is better than hunger. The victims of war, stricken down in the heat of battle but in the midst of plenty, so that they leave the fruits of the field behind them untouched because no longer needed, are to be counted happy in being taken from the evil to come.

The gruesome horror of the next scene is beyond description. [Lamentations 4:10] More than once history has had to record the absolute extinction, nay, we must say the insane reversal, of maternal instincts under the influence of hunger. We could not believe it possible if we did not know that it had occurred. It is a degradation of what we hold to be most sacred in human nature; perhaps it is only possible where human nature has been degraded already, for we must not forget that in the present case the women who are driven below the level of she-wolves are not children of nature, but the daughters of an effete civilisation who have been nursed in the lap of luxury. This is the climax. Imagination itself could scarcely go further. And yet according to his custom throughout, the elegist attributes these calamities of his people to the anger of God. Such things seem to indicate a very "fury" of Divine wrath; the anger must be fierce indeed to kindle such "a fire in Zion." [Lamentations 4:11] But now the very foundations of the city are destroyed even that terrible thirst for retribution must be satisfied.

These are thoughts which we as Christians do not care to entertain; and yet it is in the New Testament that we read that "our God is a consuming fire"; [Hebrews 12:29] and it is of our Lord that John the Baptist declares: "He will throughly purge His threshing-floor." [Matthew 3:12] If God is angry at all His anger cannot be light; for no action of His is feeble or ineffectual. The subsequent restoration of Israel shows that the fires to which the elegist here calls our attention were purgatorial. This fact must profoundly affect our view of their character. Still they are very real, or the Book of Lamentations would not have been written.

In view of the whole situation so graphically portrayed by means of the double line of illustrations the poet concludes this part of his elegy with a device that reminds us of the function of the chorus in the Greek drama. We see the kings of all other nations in amazement at the fate of Jerusalem. [Lamentations 4:12] The mountain city had the reputation of being an impregnable fortress, at least so her fond citizens imagined. But now she has fallen. It is incredible! The news of this wholly unexpected disaster is supposed to send a shock through foreign courts. We are reminded of the blow that stunned St. Jerome when a rumour of the fall of Rome reached the studious monk in his quiet retreat at Bethlehem. Men can tell that a severe storm has been raging out in the Atlantic if they see unusually great rollers breaking on the Cornish crags. How huge a calamity must that be the mere echo of which can produce a startling effect in far countries! But could these kings really be so astonished, seeing that Jerusalem had been captured twice before? The poet’s language rather points to the overweening pride and confidence of the Jews, and it shows how great the shock to them must have been since they could not but regard it as a wonder to the world. Such then is the picture drawn by our poet with the aid of the utmost artistic skill in bringing out its striking effects. Now before we turn away from it let us ask ourselves wherein its true significance may be said to lie. This is a study in black and white. The very language is such; and when we come to consider the lessons that language sets forth with so much sharpness and vigour, we shall see that they too partake of the same character.

The force of contrasts-that is the first and most obvious characteristic of the scene. We are very familiar with the heightening of effects by this means, and it is needless to repeat the trite lessons that have been derived from the application of it to life. We know that none suffer so keenly from adversity as those who were once very prosperous. Marius in the Mamertine dungeon, Napoleon at St. Helena, Nebuchadnezzar among the beasts, Dives in Hell, are but notorious illustrations of what we may all see on the smaller canvas of everyday life. Great as are the hardships of the children of the "slums," it is not to them, but to the unhappy victims of a violent change of circumstances, that the burden of poverty is most heavy. We have seen this principle illustrated repeatedly in the Book of Lamentations. But now may we not go behind it, and lay hold of something more than an indubitable psychological law? While looking only at the reversals of fortune which may be witnessed on every hand, we are tempted to hold life to be little better than a gambling bout with high stakes and desperate play. Further consideration, however, should teach us that the stakes are not so high as they appear; that is to say, that the chances of the world do not so profoundly affect our fate as surface views would lead us to suppose. Such things as the pursuit of mere sensation, the life of external aims, the surrender to the excitement of the moment, are doubtless subject to the vicissitudes of contrast; but it is the teaching of our Lord that the higher pursuits are free from these evils. If the treasure is in heaven no thief can steal it, no moth or rust can corrupt it; and therefore, since where the treasure is there will the heart be also, it is possible to keep the heart in peace even among the changes that upset a purely superficial life with earthquake shocks. Sincere as is the lament of the elegist over the fate of his people, a subtle thread of irony seems to run through his language. Possibly it is quite unconscious; but if so it is the more significant, for it is the irony of fact which cannot be excluded by the simplest method of statement. It suggests that the grandeur which could be so easily turned to humiliation must have been somewhat tawdry at best.

But unhappily the fall of the pampered youth of Jerusalem was not confined to a reversal of external fortune. The elegist has been careful to point out that the miseries they endured were the punishments of their sins. Then there had been an earlier and much greater collapse. Before any foreign enemy had appeared at her gates the city had succumbed to a fatal foe bred within her own walls. Luxury had undermined the vigour of the wealthy; vice had blackened the beauty of the young. There is a fine gold of character which will be sullied beyond recognition when the foul vapours of the pit are permitted to break out upon it. The magnificence of Solomon’s temple is poor and superficial in comparison with the beauty of young souls endowed with intellectual and moral gifts, like jewels of rarest worth. Man is not treated in the Bible as a paltry creature. Was he not made in the image of God? Jesus would not have us despise our own native worth. Hope and faith come from a lofty view of human nature and its possibilities. Souls are not swine; and therefore by all the measure of their superiority to swine souls are worth saving. The shame and sorrow of sin lie just in this fact, that it is so foul a degradation of so fair a thing as human nature. Here is the contrast that heightens the tragedy of lost souls. But then we may add, in its reversal this same contrast magnifies the glory of redemption-from so deep a pit does Christ bring back His ransomed, to so great a height does He raise them!


Verses 13-16

LEPERS

Lamentations 4:13-16

PASSING from the fate of the princes to that of the prophets and priests, we come upon a vividly dramatic scene in the streets of Jerusalem amid the terror and confusion that precede the final act of the national tragedy. The doom of the city is attributed to the crimes of her religious leaders, whose true characters are now laid bare. The citizens shrink from the guilty men with the loathing felt for lepers, and shriek to them to depart, calling them unclean, and warning them not to touch any one by the way, because there is blood upon them. Dreading the awful treatment measured out to the victims of lynch-law, they stagger through the streets in a state of bewilderment, and stumble like blind men. Fugitives and vagabonds, with the mark of Cain upon them, driven out at the gates by the impatient mob, they can find no refuge even in foreign lands, for none of the nations will receive them.

We do not know whether the poet is here describing actual events, or whether this is an imaginary picture designed to express his own feelings with regard to the persons concerned. The situation is perfectly natural, and what is narrated may very well have happened just as it is described. But if it is not history it is still a revelation of character, a representation of what the writer knows to be the conduct of the moral lepers, and their deserts; and as such it is most suggestive.

In the first place there is much significance in the fact that the overthrow of Jerusalem is unhesitatingly charged to the account of the sins of her prophets and priests. These once venerated men are not merely no longer protected by the sanctity of their offices from the accusations that are brought against the laity; they are singled out for a charge of exceptionally heinous wickedness which is regarded as the root cause of all the troubles that have fallen upon the Jews. The second elegy had affirmed the failure of the prophets and the vanity of their visions. [Lamentations 2:9; Lamentations 2:14] This new and stronger accusation reads like a reminiscence of Jeremiah, who repeatedly speaks of the sins of the clerical class and the mischief resulting therefrom. {Jeremiah 6:13;, Jeremiah 8:10;, Jeremiah 23:11-14; Jeremiah 26:7 ff.} Evidently the terrible truth the prophet dwelt upon so much was felt by a disciple of his school to be of the most serious consequence.

The accusation is of the very gravest character. These religious leaders are charged with murder. If the elegist is recording historical occurrences he may be alluding to riots in which the feuds of rival factions had issued in bloodshed; or he may have had information of private acts of assassination. His language points to a condition in Jerusalem similar to that which was found in Rome at the Fifteenth Century, when popes and cardinals were the greatest criminals. The crimes were aggravated by the fact that the victims selected were the "righteous," perhaps men of the Jeremiah party, who had been persecuted by the officials of the State religion. But quite apart from these dark and tragic events, the record of which has not been preserved, if the wicked policy of their clergy had brought down on the heads of the citizens of Jerusalem the mass of calamities that accompanied the siege of the city by the Babylonians, this policy was in itself a cause of great bloodshed. The men who invited the ruin of their city were in reality the murderers of all who perished in that calamity. We know from Jeremiah’s statements on the subject that the false, time-serving, popular prophets were deceivers of the people, who allayed alarm by means of lies, saying "peace, peace; when there was no peace." [Jeremiah 6:14;, Jeremiah 8:11] When the deception was discovered their angry dupes would naturally hold them responsible for the results of their wickedness.

The sin of these religious leaders of Israel consists essentially in betraying a sacred trust. The priest is in charge of the Torah, -traditional or written; he must have been unfaithful to his law or he could not have led his people astray. If the prophet’s claims are valid this man is the messenger of Jehovah, and therefore he must have falsified his message in order to delude his audience; if, however, he has not himself heard the Divine voice he is no better than a dervish, and in pretending to speak with the authority of an ambassador from heaven he is behaving as a miserable charlatan. In the case now before us the motive for the practice of deceit is very evident. It is thirst for popularity. Truth, right, God’s will-these imperial authorities count for nothing, because the favour of the people is reckoned as everything. No doubt there are times when the temptation to descend to untruthfulness in the discharge of a public function is peculiarly pressing. When party feeling is roused, or when a mad panic has taken possession of a community, it is exceedingly difficult resist the current and maintain what one knows to be right in conflict with the popular movement. But in its more common occurrence this treachery cannot plead any such excuse. That truth should be trampled under foot and souls endangered merely to enable a public speaker to refresh his vanity with the music of applause is about the most despicable exhibition of selfishness imaginable. If a man who has been set in a place of trust prostitutes his privileges simply to win admiration for his oratory, or at most in order to avoid the discomfort of unpopularity or the disappointment of neglect, his sin is unpardonable.

The one form of unfaithfulness on the part of these religious leaders of Israel of which we are specially informed is their refusal to warn their reckless fellow-citizens of the approach of danger, or to bring home to their hearers’ consciences the guilt of the sin for which the impending doom was the just punishment. They are the prototypes of those writers and preachers who smooth over the unpleasant facts of life. It is not easy for any one to wear the mantle of Elijah, or echo the stern desert voice of John the Baptist. Men who covet popularity do not care to be reckoned pessimists; and when the gloomy truth is not flattering to their hearers they are sorely tempted to pass on to more congenial topics. This was apparent in the Deistic optimism that almost stifled spiritual life during the Eighteenth Century. Our age is far from being optimistic: and yet the same temptation threatens to smother religion today. In an aristocratic age the sycophant flatters the great; in a democratic age he flatters the people-who are then in fact the great. The peculiar danger of our own day is that the preacher should simply echo popular cries, and voice the demands of the majority irrespective of the question of their justice. Thrust into the position of a social leader with more urgency than his predecessors of any time since the age of the Hebrew prophets, it is expected that he will lead whither the people wish to go, and if he declines to do so he is denounced as retrograde. And yet as the messenger of Heaven he should consider it his supreme duty to reveal the whole counsel of God, to speak for truth and righteousness, and therefore to condemn the sins of the democracy equally with the sins of the aristocracy. Brave labour-leaders have fallen into disfavour for telling working-men that their worst enemies were their own vices such as intemperance. The wickedness of a responsible teacher who treasonably neglects thus to warn his brethren of danger is powerfully expressed by Ezekiel’s clear, antithetical statements concerning the respective guilt of the watchman and his fellow citizen, which show conclusively that the greatest burden of blame must rest on the unfaithful watchman. [Ezekiel 3:16-21]

In the hour of their exposure these wretched prophets and priests lose all sense of dignity, even lose their self-possession, and stumble about like blind men, helpless and bewildered. Their behaviour suggests the idea that they must be drunk with the blood they have shed, or overcome by the intoxication of their thirst for blood; but the explanation is that they cannot lift up their heads to look a neighbour in the face, because all their little devices have been torn to shreds, all their specious lies detected, all their empty promises falsified. This shame of dethroned popularity is the greatest humiliation. The unhappy man who has brought himself to live on the breath of fame cannot hide his fall in oblivion and obscurity as a private person may do. Standing in the full blaze of the world’s observation which he has so eagerly focused on himself, he has no alternative but to exchange the glory of popularity for the ignominy of notoriety.

Possibly the confusion consequent on their exposure is all that the poet is thinking of when he depicts the blind staggering of the prophets and priests. But it is not unreasonable to take this picture as an illustration of their moral condition, especially after the references to the faults of the prophets in the second elegy have directed our attention to their spiritual darkness and the vanity of their visions. When the refuge of lies in which they had trusted was swept away they would necessarily find themselves lost and helpless. They had so long worshipped falsehood, it had become so much their god that we might say, in it they had lived, and moved, and had their being. But now they have lost the very atmosphere of their lives. This is the penalty of deceit. The man who begins by using it as his tool becomes in time its victim. At first he lies with his eyes open; but the sure effect of this conduct is that his sight becomes dim and blurred, till, if he persist in the fatal course long enough, he is ultimately reduced to a condition of blindness. By continually mixing truth and falsehood together he loses the power of distinguishing between them. It may be supposed that at an earlier stage of their decline, if the religious leaders of Israel had been honest with regard to their own convictions they must have admitted the possible genuineness of those prophets of ruin whom they had persecuted in deference to popular clamour. But they had rejected all such unwelcome thoughts so persistently that in course of time they had lost the perception of them. Therefore when the truth was flashed upon their unwilling minds by the unquestionable revelation of events they were as helpless as bats and owls suddenly driven out into the daylight by an earthquake that has flung down the crumbling ruins in which they had been sheltering themselves.

The discovery of the true character of these men was the signal for a yell of execration on the part of the people by flattering whom they had obtained their livelihood, or at least all that they most valued in life. This too must have been another shock of surprise to them. Had they believed in the essential fickleness of popular favour, they would never have built their hopes upon so precarious a foundation, for they might as well have set up their dwelling on the strand that would be flooded at the next turn of the tide. History is strewn with the wreckage of fallen popular reputations of all degrees of merit, from that of the conscientious martyr who had always looked to higher ends than the applause which once encircled him, to that of the frivolous child of fortune who had known of nothing better than the world’s empty admiration. We see this both in Savonarola martyred at the stake and in Beau Nash starved in a garret. There is no more pathetic scene to be gathered from the story of religion in the present century than that of Edward Irving, once the idol of society, subsequently deserted by fashion, stationing himself at a street corner to proclaim his message to a chance congregation of idlers; and his mistake was that of an honest man who had been misled by a delusion. Incomparably worse is the fate of the fallen favourite who has no honesty of conviction with which to comfort himself when frowned at by the heartless world that had recently fawned upon him.

The Jews show their disgust and horror for their former leaders by pelting them with the leper call. According to the law the leper must go with rent clothes and flowing hair, and his face partly covered, crying, "Unclean, unclean." [Leviticus 13:45] It is evident that the poet has this familiar mournful cry in his mind when he describes the treatment of the prophets and priests. And yet there is a difference. The leper is to utter the humiliating word himself; but in the case now before us it is flung after the outcast leaders by their pitiless fellow citizens. The alteration is not without significance. The miserable victim of bodily disease could not hope to disguise his condition. "White as snow," his well-known complaint was patent to every eye. But it is otherwise with the spiritual leprosy, sin. For a time it may be disguised, a hidden fire in the breast. When it is evident to others, too often the last man to perceive it is the offender himself; and when he himself is inwardly conscious of guilt he is tempted to wear a cloak of denial before the world. More especially is this the case with one who has been accustomed to make a profession of religion, and most of all with a religious leader. While the publican who has no character to sustain will smite his breast with self-reproaches and cry for mercy, the professional saint is blind to his own sins, partly no doubt because to admit their existence would be to shatter his profession.

But if the religious leader is slow to confess or even perceive his guilt, the world is keen to detect it and swift to cast it in his teeth. There is nothing that excites so much loathing; and justly so, for there is nothing that does so much harm. Such conduct is the chief provocative of practical scepticism. It matters not that the logic is unsound; men will draw rough and ready conclusions. If the leaders are corrupt the hasty inference is that the cause which is identified with their names must also be corrupt. Religion suffers more from the hypocrisy of some of her avowed champions than from the attacks of all the hosts of her pronounced foes. Accordingly a righteous indignation assails those who work such deadly mischief. But less commendable motives urge men in the same direction. Evil itself steals a triumph over good in the downfall of its counterfeit. If they knew themselves there must have been some hypocrisy on the side of the persecutors in the demonstrative zeal with which they hounded to death the once pampered children of fortune the moment they had fallen from the pedestal of respectability; for could these indignant champions of virtue deny that they had been willing accomplices in the deeds they so loudly denounced? or at least that they had not been reluctant to be pleasantly deceived, had not enquired too nicely into the credentials of the flatterers who had spoken smooth things to them? Considering what their own conduct had been, their eagerness in execrating the wickedness of their leaders was almost indecent. There is a Pecksniffian air about it. It suggests a sly hope that by thus placing themselves on the side of outraged virtue they were putting their own characters beyond the suspicion of criticism. They seem to have been too eager to make scapegoats of their clergy. Their action appears to show that they had some idea that even at the eleventh hour the city might be spared if it were rid of this plague of the blood-stained prophets and priests. And yet, however various and questionable the motives of the assailants may have been, there is no escape from the conclusion that the wickedness they denounced so eagerly richly deserved the most severe condemnation. Wherever we meet with it, this is the leprosy of society. Disguised for a time, a secret canker in the breast of unsuspected men, it is certain to break out at length; and when it is discovered it merits a measure of indignation proportionate to the previous deception.

Exile is the doom of these guilty prophets and priests. But even in their banishment they can find no place of rest. They wander from one foreign nation to another: they are permitted to stay with none of them. Unlike our English pretenders who were allowed to take up their abode among the enemies of their country, these Jews were suspected and disliked wherever they went. They had been unfaithful to Jehovah; yet they could not proclaim themselves devotees of Baal. The heathen were not prepared to draw fine distinctions between the various factions in the Israelite camp. The world only scoffs at the quarrels of the sects. Moreover, these false, worthless leaders had been the zealots of national feeling in the old boastful days when Jeremiah had been denounced by their party as a traitor. Then they had been the most exclusive of the Jews. As they had made their bed so must they lie on it. The poet suggests no term to this melancholy fate. Perhaps while he was writing his elegy the wretched men were to his own knowledge still journeying wearily from place to place. Thus like the fraticide Cain, like the Wandering Jew of mediaeval legend, the fallen leaders of the religion of Israel find their punishment in a doom of perpetual homelessness. Is it too severe a penalty for the fatal deceit that wrought death, and so was equivalent to murder of the worst sort, cold-blooded, deliberate murder? There is a perfectly Dantesque appropriateness in it. The Inferno of the popularity-mongers is a homeless desert of unpopularity. Quiet, retiring souls and dreamy lovers of nature might derive rest and refreshment from a hermit life in the wilderness. Not so these slaves of society. Deprived of the support of their surrounding element-like jelly-fish flung on to the beach to shrivel up and perish-in banishment from city life such men must experience a total collapse. Just in proportion to the hollowness and unreality with which a man has made the pursuit of the world’s applause the chief object of his life, is the dismal fate he will have to endure when, having sown the wind of vanity, he reaps the whirlwind of indignation. The ill-wind of his fellow men is hard to bear; but behind it is the far more terrible wrath of God, whose judgment the miserable time-server has totally ignored while sedulously cultivating the favour of the world.


Verses 17-20

VAIN HOPES

Lamentations 4:17-20

THE first part of the fourth elegy was specially concerned with the fate of the gilded youth of Jerusalem; the second and closely parallel part with that of the princes; the third introduced us to the dramatic scene in which the fallen priests and prophets were portrayed; now in the fourth part of the elegy the king and his courtiers are the prominent figures. While all the rest of the poem is written in the third person, this short section is composed in the first person plural. The arrangement is not exactly like that of the third elegy, in which, after speaking in his own person, the poet appears as the representative and spokesman of his people. The more simple form of the composition now under consideration would lead us to suppose that the pronoun "we" comes in for the most natural reason-viz., because the writer was himself an actor in the scene which he here describes. We must conclude, then, that he was one of the group of Zedekiah’s personal attendants, or at least a member of a company of Jews which escaped at the time of the royal flight and took the same road when the citizens were scattered by the sack of the city.

The picture, however, is somewhat idealised. Events that could only have taken place in succession are described as though they were all occurring in the present. We have first the anxious watching of the besieged for the advent of an army of relief; then the chase of their victims through the streets by the invaders-which must have been after they had broken into the city; next the flight and pursuit over the mountains; and lastly, the capture of the king. This setting of a succession of events in one scene as though they were contemporaneous is so far an imaginary arrangement that we must be on our guard against a too literal interpretation of the details. Evidently we have here a poetic picture, not the bare deposition of a witness.

The burden of the passage is the grievous disappointment of the court party at the failure of their fond hopes. But Jeremiah was directly opposed to that party, and though our author was not the great prophet himself we have abundant evidence that he was a faithful disciple who echoed the very thoughts and shared the deepest convictions of his master. How then can he now appear as one of the court party? It is just possible that he was no friend of Jeremiah at the time he is now describing. He may have been converted subsequently by the logic of facts, or by the more potent influence of the discipline of adversity, a possibility which would give peculiar significance to the personal confessions contained in the previous elegy, with its account of "the man who had seen affliction." But the poetic form of the section dealing with the court, and the fact that all it describes is expressed in the present tense, prevent us from pressing this conjecture to a definite conclusion. It would be enough if we could suppose, as there is no difficulty in doing, that in the general confusion our poet found himself in unexpected companionship with the flying court. Thus he would witness their experiences.

We have, then, in this place an expression of the attitude of the court party in the midst of the great calamities that have overtaken them. It is emphatically one of profound disappointment. These deluded people had been sanguine to the last, and proudly sceptical of danger, with an infatuation almost amounting to insanity which had blinded them to the palpable lessons of defeats already endured-for we must not forget that Jerusalem had been taken twice before this. Naturally their disappointment was proportionate to their previous elation.

The hopes that had been thus rudely dashed to the ground had been based on a feeling of the sacred inviolability of Jerusalem. This feeling had been sedulously nurtured by a bastard form of religion. Like the worship of Rome in Virgil’s day, a sort of cult of Jerusalem had now grown up. Men who had no faith in Jehovah put their trust in Jerusalem: The starting-point and excuse of this singular creed are to be traced to the deep-rooted conviction of the Jews that their city was the chosen favorite of Jehovah, and that therefore her God would certainly protect her. But this idea was treated most inconsistently when people coolly ignored the Divine will while boldly claiming Divine favour. In course of time even that position was abandoned, and Jerusalem became practically a fetich. Then, while faith in the destiny of the city was cherished as a superstition, prophets such as Jeremiah, who directed men’s thoughts to God, were silenced and persecuted. This folly of the Jews has its counterpart in the exaltation of the papacy during the Middle Ages. The Pope claimed to be seated on his throne by the authority of Christ; but the papacy was really put in the place of Christ. Similarly people who trust in the Church, their City of God, rather than in her Lord, have fallen into an error like that of the Jews, who put confidence in their city rather than in their own God. So have those who confide in their own election instead of looking to the Divine Sovereign who, they declare, has named them in His eternal decrees; and those again who set reliance on their religion, its rites and creeds; and lastly, those who trust in their very faith as itself a saving power. In all these cases, the city, the Pope, the election, the Church, the religion, the faith are simply idols, no more able to protect the superstitious people who put them in the place of God than the ark that was captured in battle when the Jews tried to use it as a talisman, or even the fish-god Dagon that lay shattered before it in the Philistine temple.

But now we find the old-established faith in Jerusalem so far undermined that it has to be supplemented by other grounds of hope. In particular there are two of these-the king and a foreign ally. The ally is mentioned first because the poet starts from the time when men still hoped that the Egyptians would espouse the cause of Israel, and come to the help of the little kingdom against the hosts of Babylon. There was much to be said in favour of this expectation. In the past Egypt had been in alliance with the people now threatened. The two great kingdoms of the Nile and the Euphrates were rivals; and the aggressive policy of Babylon had brought her into conflict with Egypt. The Pharaohs might be glad to have Israel preserved as a "buffer state." Indeed, negotiations had been carried on with that end in view. Nevertheless the dreams of deliverance built on this foundation were doomed to disappointment. The poet shows us the anxious Jews on their city towers straining their eyes till they are weary in watching for the relief that never comes. They could look down through the gap in the hills towards Bethlehem and the South country, and the dust of an army would be visible from afar in the clear Syrian atmosphere; but, alas! no distant cloud promises the approach of the deliverer. We are reminded of the siege of Lucknow; but in the hour of the Jews’ great need there is no sign corresponding to the welcome music of the Scotch air that ravished the ears of the British garrison.

Faithful prophets had repeatedly warned the Jews against this false ground of hope. In a former generation Isaiah had cautioned his contemporaries not to lean on "this broken reed" [Isaiah 36:6] Egypt; and at the present crisis Jeremiah had followed with similar advice, predicting the failure of the Egyptian alliance, and replying to the messengers of Zedekiah who had come to solicit the prophet’s prayers: "Thus saith the Lord, the God of Israel: Thus shall ye say to the king of Judah, that sent you unto me to enquire of me; Behold, Pharaoh’s army, which is come forth to help you, shall return to Egypt into their own land. And the Chaldaeans shall come again, and fight against this city; and they shall take it, and burn it with fire." [Jeremiah 37:7-8] Though regarded at the time as unpatriotic and even treasonable, this advice proved to be sound, and the predictions of the messenger of Jehovah correct. Now that we can read the events in the light of history we have no difficulty in perceiving that even as a matter of state policy the counsel of Isaiah and Jeremiah was wise and statesmanlike. Babylon was quite irresistible. Even Egypt could not stand against the powerful Empire that was making itself master of the world. Besides, alliance with Egypt involved the loss of liberty, for it had to be paid for, and the weak ally of a great kingdom was no better than a tributary state. Meanwhile Israel was embroiled in quarrels from which she should have tried, as far as possible, to keep herself aloof.

But the prophets shewed that deeper questions than such as concern political diplomacy were at stake. In happier days the arm of Providence had been laid bare, and Jerusalem saved without a blow, when the destroying angel of pestilence swept through the Assyrian host. It is true Jerusalem had to submit soon after this; but the lesson was being taught that her safety really consisted in submission. This was the kernel of Jeremiah’s unpopular message. Historically and politically that too was justified. It was useless to attempt to stem the tide of one of the awful marches of a world-conquering army. Only the obstinacy of a fanatical patriotism could have led the Jews of this period to hold out so long against the might of Babylon, just as the very same obstinacy encouraged their mad descendants in the days of Titus to resist the arms of Rome. But then the prophets were constantly preaching to heedless ears that there was real safety in submission, that a humble measure of escape was to be had by simply complying with the demands of the irresistible conquerors. Proud patriots might despise this consolation, preferring to die fighting. But that was scarcely the case with the fugitives; these people had neither the relief that is the reward of a quiet surrender, nor the glory that accompanies death on the battle-field. To those who could hear the deeper notes of prophetic teaching the safety of surrender meant a much more valuable boon. The submission recommended was not merely to be directed to King Nebuchadnezzar; primarily it consisted in yielding to the will of God. People who will not turn to this one true refuge from all danger and trouble are tempted to substitute a variety of vain hopes. Most of us have our Egypt to which we look when the vision of God has become dim in the soul. The worldly cynicism that echoes and degrades the words of the Preacher, "Vanity of vanities: all is vanity," is really the product of the decay of dead hopes. It would not be so sour if it had not been disappointed. Yet so persistent is the habit of castle-building, that the cloudland in which many previous structures of fancy have melted away is resorted to again and again by an eager throng of fresh aerial architects. After experience has confirmed the warning that riches take to themselves wings and flee away, and in face of our Lord’s advice not to lay up treasures where thieves break through and steal, and where moth and rust consume, we see men as eager as ever to scrape wealth together, as ready to put all their trust in it when it has to come to them, as astonished and dismayed when it has failed them. Ambition was long ago proved to be a frail bubble; yet ambition never wants for slaves. The cup of pleasure has been drained so often that the world should know by this time how very nauseous its dregs are; and still feverish hands are held out to grasp it.

Now this obstinate disregard of the repeated lessons of experience is too remarkable a habit of life to be reckoned as a mere accident. There must be some adequate causes to account for it. In the first place, it testifies with singular force to the vitality of what we may call the faculty of hope itself. Disappointment does not kill the tendency to reach forth to the future, because this tendency comes from within, and is not a mere response to impressions. In persons of a sanguine temperament this may be taken to be a constitutional peculiarity; but it is too widespread to be disposed of as nothing more than a freak of nature. It is rather to be considered an instinct, and as such a part of the original constitution of man. How then has it come to be? Must we not attribute the native hopefulness of mankind to the deliberate will and purpose of the Creator? But in that case must we not say of this. as we can say with certainty of most natural instincts: He who has given the hunger will also supply the food with which to satisfy it? To reject that conclusion is to land ourselves in a form of pessimism that is next door to atheism. Schopenhauer rests the argument by means of which he thinks to establish a pessimistic view of the universe largely on the delusiveness of natural instincts which promise a satisfaction never attained: but in reasoning in this way he is compelled to describe the Supreme Will that he believes to be the ultimate principle of all things as a non-moral power. The mockery of human existence to which his philosophy reduces us is impossible in view of the Fatherhood of God revealed to us in Jesus Christ. Shelley, contrasting our fears and disappointments with the "clear keen joyance" of the skylark, bewails the fact that

"We look before and after,

And pine for what is not."

If this is the end of the matter, evolution is a mocking progress, for it leads to the pit of despair. If the large vision that takes in past and future only brings sorrow, it would have been better for us to have retained the limited range of animal perceptions. But faith sees in the very experience of disappointment a ground for fresh hope. The discovery that the height already attained is not the summit of the mountain, although it appeared to be-when viewed from the plain, is a proof that the summit is higher than we had supposed. Meanwhile, the awakening of desires for further climbing is a sign that the disappointments we have experienced hitherto are not occasions for despair. If, as Shelley goes on to say-

"Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought,"

the sadness cannot be without mitigation, for there must be an element of sweetness in it from the first: and if so this must point to a future when this sadness itself shall pass away. The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews argues on these lines when he draws the conclusion from the repeated disappointments of the hopes of Israel in conjunction with the repeated promises of God that "there remaineth therefore a rest for the people of Hebrews 4:9." Instincts are God’s promises written in the Book of Nature. Seeing that our deepest instincts are not satisfied by any of the common experiences of life, they must point to some higher satisfaction.

Here we are brought to the explanation of the disappointment itself. We must confess, in the first instance, that it arises from the perverse habit of looking for satisfaction in objects that are too low, objects that are unworthy of human nature. This is one of the strongest evidences of a fall. The more mind and heart are corrupted by sin the more will hope be dragged down to inferior things. But the story does not end at this point. God is educating us through illusions. If all our aspirations were fulfilled on earth we should cease to hope for what was higher than earth. Hope is purged and elevated by the discovery of the vanity of its pursuits.

These considerations will be confirmed when we follow the elegist in his treatment of the disappointment of the second ground of hope, that which was found in the royalist’s confidence in his sovereign. The poetic account of the events which ended in the capture of Zedekiah seems to consist in a blending of metaphor with history. The image of the chase underlies the whole description. It has been pointed out that with the narrowness of eastern streets and the simplicity of the weapons of ancient warfare, it would be impossible for the Chaldaeans to pick out their victims and shoot them down from outside the walls. But when they had effected an entrance they would not simply make the streets dangerous, for then they would be breaking into the houses where the people are here supposed to be hiding. The language seems more fit for the description of a faction fight, such as often occurred in Paris at the time of the French Revolution, than an account of the sack of a city by a foreign enemy. But the hunting image is in the poet’s mind, and the whole picture is coloured by it. After the siege the fugitives are pursued over the mountains. Taking the route across the Mount of Olives and so down to the Jordan, that which David had followed in his flight from Absalom, they would soon find themselves in a difficult wilderness country. They had despaired of their lives in the city, exclaiming: "Our end is near, our days are fulfilled; for our end is come." [Lamentations 4:18] Now they are in sore extremities. The swift pursuit suggests Jeremiah’s image of the eagles on the wing overtaking their quarry. "Behold, he shall come up as clouds," said the prophet, "and his chariots shall be as the whirlwind; his horses are swifter than eagles." [Jeremiah 4:13] There was no possibility of escape from such persistent foes. At the same time, ambuscades were in waiting among the many caves that honeycomb these limestone mountains-in the district where the traveller in the parable of "The good Samaritan" fell among thieves. The king himself was taken like a hunted animal caught in a trap, though, as we learn from the history, not till he had reached Jericho. [2 Kings 25:4-5, Jeremiah 39:4-5]

The language in which Zedekiah is described is singularly strong. He is "the breath of our nostrils, the anointed of the Lord." The hope of the fugitives had been "to live under his shadow among the nations." [Lamentations 4:20] It is startling to find such words applied to so weak and worthless a ruler. It cannot be the expression of sycophancy; for the king and his kingdom had disappeared before the elegy was written. Zedekiah was not so bad as some of his predecessors. Like Louis XVI, he reaped the long accumulating retribution of the sins of his ancestors. Yet after making due allowance for the exuberance of the Oriental style, we must feel that the language is out of proportion to the possibilities of the most courtly devotion of the time. Evidently the kingly idea means more than the prosaic personality of any particular monarch. The romantic enthusiasm of Cavaliers and Nonjurors for the Stuarts was not to be accounted for by the merits and attractions of the various successive sovereigns and pretenders towards whom it was directed. The doctrine of the Divine right of kings is always associated with vague thoughts of power and glory that are never realised in history. This is most strikingly evident in the Hebrew conception of the status and destiny of the line of David. But in that one supreme case of devotion to royalty the dream of the ages ultimately came to be fulfilled, and more than fulfilled, though in a very different manner from the anticipation of the Jews. There is something pathetic in the last shred of hope to which the fugitives were clinging. They had lost their homes, their city, their land; yet even in exile they clung to the idea that they might keep together under the protection of their fallen king. It was a delusion. But the strange faith in the destiny of the Davidic line that here passes into fanaticism is the seed-bed of the Messianic ideas which constitute the most wonderful part of Old Testament prophecy. By a blind but divinely guided instinct the Jews were led to look through the failure of their hopes on to the appointed time when One should come who only could give them satisfaction.


Verse 21-22

THE DEBT OF GUILT EXTINGUISHED

Lamentations 4:21-22

ONE after another the vain hopes of the Jews melt in mists of sorrow. But just as the last of these flickering lights is disappearing a gleam of consolation breaks out from another quarter, like the pale yellow streak that may sometimes be seen low on the western sky of a stormy day just before nightfall, indicating that the setting sun is behind the clouds, although its dying rays are too feeble to penetrate them. Hope is scarcely the word for so faint a sign of comfort as this melancholy fourth elegy affords in lifting the curtain of gloom for one brief moment: but the bare, negative relief which the prospect of an end to the accumulation of new calamities offers is a welcome change in itself, besides being a hint that the tide may be on the turn.

It is quite characteristic of our poet’s sombre tones that even in an attempt to touch on brighter ideas than usually occupy his thoughts, he should illustrate the improving prospects of Israel by setting them in contrast to a sardonic description of the fate of Edom. This neighbouring nation is addressed in the time of her elation over the fall of Jerusalem. The extension of her territory to the land of Uz in Arabia-Job’s country is mentioned to show that she is in a position of exceptional prosperity. The poet mockingly encourages the jealous people to "rejoice and be glad" at the fate of their rival. The irony of his language is evident from the fact that he immediately proceeds to pronounce the doom of Edom. The cup of God’s wrath that Israel has been made to drink shall pass to her also; and she shall drink deeply of it till she is intoxicated and, like Noah, makes herself an object of shame. Thus will God visit the daughter of Edom with the punishment of her sins. The writer says that God will discover them. He does not mean by this phrase that God will find them out. They were never hidden from God; there are no discoveries for Him to make concerning any of us, because He knows all about us every moment of our lives. The phrase stands in opposition to the common Hebrew expression for the forgiveness of sins. When sins are forgiven they are said to be covered; therefore when they are said to be uncovered it is as though we were told that God does the reverse of forgiving them-strips them of every rag of apology, lays them bare. That is their condemnation. Nothing is more ugly than a naked sin.

The selection of this one neighbour of the Jews for special attention is accounted for by what contemporary prophets tell us concerning the behaviour of the Edomites when Jerusalem fell. They flew like vultures to a carcase. Ezekiel writes: "Thus saith the Lord God, Because that Edom hath dealt against the house of Judah by taking vengeance, and hath greatly offended, and revenged himself upon them; therefore thus saith the Lord God, I will stretch out Mine hand upon Edom, and will cut off man and beast from it, and I will make it desolate from Teman; even unto Dedan shall they fall by the sword. And I will lay My vengeance upon Edom by the hand of My people Israel, and they shall do in Edom according to Mine anger and according to My fury, and they shall know My vengeance, saith the Lord God." [Ezekiel 25:12-14] Isaiah 34:1-17 is devoted to a vivid description of the coming punishment of Edom. This race of rough mountaineers had seldom been on friendly terms with their Hebrew neighbours. Nations, like individuals, do not always find it easy to avoid quarrels with those who are closest to them. Neither blood relationship nor commerce prevents the outbreak of hostilities in a situation that gives many occasions for mutual jealousy. For centuries France and England, which should be the best friends if proximity generated friendship, regarded one another as natural enemies. Germany is even a nearer neighbour to France than England is, and the frontiers of the two great nations are studded with forts. It does not appear that the extension of the means of communication among the different countries is likely to close the doors of the temple of Janus. The greatest problem of sociology is to discover the secret of living in crowded communities among a variety of conflicting interests without any injustice, or any friction arising from the juxtaposition of different classes. It is far easier to keep the peace among backwoodsmen who live fifty miles apart in lonely forests. Therefore it is not a surprising thing that there were bitter feuds between Israel and Edom. But at the time of the Babylonian invasion these had taken a peculiarly odious turn on the side of the southern people, one that was doubly offensive. The various tribes whom the huge Babylonian empire was swallowing up with insatiable greed should have forgotten their mutual differences in face of a common danger. Besides, it was a cowardly thing for Edom to follow the example of the Bedouin robbers, who hovered on the rear of the great armies of conquest like scavengers. To settle old debts by wreaking vengeance on a fallen rival in the hour of her humiliation was not the way to win the honours of war. Even to a calm student of history in later ages this long past event shews an ugly aspect. How maddening must it have been to the victims! Accordingly we are not astonished to see that the doom of the Edomites is pronounced by Hebrew prophets with undisguised satisfaction. The proud inhabitants of the rock cities, the wonderful remains of which amaze the traveller in the present day, had earned the severe humiliation so exultingly described.

In all this it is very plain that the author of the Lamentations, like the Hebrew prophets generally, had an unhesitating belief in the supremacy of God over foreign nations that was quite as effective as His supremacy over Israel. On the other hand, iniquity is ascribed to Israel in exactly the same terms that are applied to foreign nations. Jehovah is not imagined to be a mere tribal divinity like the Moabite Chemosh; and the Jews are not held to be so much His favourites that the treatment measured out to them in punishment of sin is essentially different from that accorded to their neighbours.

To Israel, however, the doom of Edom is a sign of the return of mercy. It is not merely that the passion of revenge is thereby satisfied-a poor consolation, even if allowable. But in the overthrow of their most annoying tormentor the oppressed people are at once liberated from a very appreciable part of their troubles. At the same time they see in this event a clear sign that they are not selected for a solitary example of the vengeance of heaven against sin; that would have been indeed a hard destiny. But above all, this occurrence affords a reassuring sign that God who is thus punishing their enemies is ending the severe discipline of the Jews. In the very middle of the description of the coming doom of Edom we meet with an announcement of the conclusion of the long penance of Israel. This singular arrangement cannot be accidental; nor can it have been resorted to only to obtain the accentuation of contrast which we have seen is highly valued by the elegist. Since it is while contemplating the Divine treatment of the most spiteful of the enemies of Israel that we are led to see the termination of the chastisement of the Jews, we may infer that possibly the process in the mind of the poet took the same course. If so, the genesis of prophecy, which is usually hidden from view, here seems to come nearer the surface.

The language in which the improving prospect of the Jews is announced is somewhat obscure; but the drift of its meaning is not difficult to trace. The word rendered "punishment of iniquity" in our English versions-Revised as well as Authorised-at the beginning of the twenty-second verse, is one which in its original sense means simply "iniquity"; and in fact it is so translated further down in the same verse, where it occurs a second time, and where the parallel word "sins" seems to settle the meaning. But if it has this meaning when applied to Edom in the later part of the verse is it not reasonable to suppose that it must also have it when applied to the daughter of Zion in an immediately preceding clause? The Septuagint and Vulgate Versions give it as "iniquity" in both cases. And so does a suggestion in the margin of the Revised Version. But if we accept this rendering, which commends itself to us as verbally most correct, we cannot reconcile it with the evident intention of the writer. The promise that God will no more carry His people away into captivity, which follows as an echo of the opening thought of the verse, certainly points to a cessation of punishment. Then the very idea that the iniquity of the Jews is accomplished is quite out of place here. What could we take it to mean? To say that the Jews had sinned to the full, had carried out all their evil intentions, had put no restraint on their wickedness, is to give a verdict which should carry the heaviest condemnation; it would be absurd to bring this forward as an introduction to a promise of a reprieve. It would be less incongruous to suppose the phrase to mean, as is suggested in the margin of the Revised Version, that the sin has come to an end, has ceased. That might be taken as a ground for the punishment to be stayed also. But it would introduce a refinement of theology out of keeping with the extreme simplicity of the ideas of these elegies. Moreover, in another place, as we have seen already, the word "sins" seems to be used for the punishment of sins. [Lamentations 3:39} We have also met with the idea of the fulfillment, literally the finishing, of God’s word of warning, with the necessary suggestion that there is to be no more infliction of the evil threatened. {Lamentations 2:17] Therefore, if it were not for the reappearance of the word in dispute where the primary meaning of it seems to be necessitated by the context, we should have no hesitation in taking it here in its secondary sense, as the punishment of iniquity. The German word schuld, with its double signification-debt and guilt has been suggested as a happy rendering of the Hebrew original in both places; and perhaps this is the best that can be proposed. The debt of the Jews is paid; that of the Edomites has yet to be exacted.

We are brought then to the conclusion that the elegist here announces the extinction of the Jews’ debt of guilt. Accordingly they are told that God will no more carry them away into captivity. This promise has occasioned much perplexity to people, concerned for the literal exactness of Scripture. Some have tried to get it applied to the time subsequent to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans, after which, it is said, the Jews were never again removed from their land. That is about the most extravagant instance of all the subterfuges to which literalists are driven when in a sore strait to save their theory. Certainly the Jews have not been exiled again-not since the last time. They could not be carried away from their land once more, for the simple reason that they have never been restored to it. Strictly speaking, it may be said indeed, something of the kind occurred on the suppression of the revolt under Bar-cochba in the second century of the Christian era. But all theories apart, it is contrary to the discovered facts of prophecy to ascribe to the inspired messengers of God the purpose of supplying exact predictions concerning the events of history in far-distant ages. Their immediate message was for their own day, although we have found that the lessons it contains are suitable for all times. What consolation would it be for the fugitives from the ravaging hosts of Nebuchadnezzar to know that six hundred years later an end would come to the successive acts of conquerors in driving the Jews from Jerusalem, even if they were not told that this would be because at that far-off time there would commence one long exile lasting for two thousand years? But if the words of the elegist are for immediate use as a consolation to his contemporaries, it is unreasonable to press their negative statement in an absolute sense, so as to make it serve as a prediction concerning all future ages. It is enough for these sufferers to learn that the last of the series of successive banishments of Jews from their land by the Babylonian government has at length taken place.

But with this information there comes a deeper truth. The debt is paid. Yet this only at the commencement of the Captivity. Two generations must live in exile before the restoration will be possible. There is no reference to that event, which did not take place till the Babylonian power had been utterly destroyed by Cyrus. Still the deliverance into exile following the terrible sufferings of the siege and the subsequent flight is taken as the final act in the drama of doom. The long years of the Captivity, though they constituted an invaluable period of discipline, did not bring any fresh kind of punishment at all comparable with the chastisements already inflicted.

Thus we are brought face to face with the question of the satisfaction of punishment. We have no right to look to a single line of a poem for a final settlement of the abstract problem itself. Whether, as St. Augustine maintained, every sin is of infinite guilt because it is an offence against an infinite Being; whether, therefore, it would take eternity to pay the debts contracted during one short life on earth, and other questions of the same character, cannot be answered one way or the other from the words before us. Still there are certain aspects of the problem of human guilt to which our attention is here drawn.

In the first place, we must make a distinction between the national punishment of national wickedness and the personal consequences of personal wrongdoing. The nation only exists on earth, and it can only be punished on earth. Then the nation outlasts generations of individual lives, and so remains on earth long enough for the harvest of its actions to be reaped. Thus national guilt may be wiped out while the separate accounts of individual men and women still remain unsettled. Next we must remember that the exaction of the uttermost farthing is not the supreme end of the Divine government of the world. To suggest any such idea is to assimilate this perfect government to that of corrupt Oriental monarchies, the chief object of which in dealing with their provinces seems to have been to drain them of tribute. The payment of the debt of guilt in punishment, though just and necessary, cannot be a matter of any satisfaction to God. Again, when, as in the case now before us, the punishment of sin is a chastisement for the reformation of the corrupt nation on whom it is inflicted, it may not be necessary to make it exactly equivalent to the guilt for which it is the remedy rather than the payment. Lastly, even when we think of the punishment as direct retribution, we cannot say what means God may provide for the satisfaction of the due claims of justice. The second Isaiah saw in the miseries inflicted upon the innocent at this very time, a vicarious suffering by the endurance of which pardon was extended to the guilty; [Isaiah 53:4-6] and from the days of the Apostles, Christians have recognised in his language on this subject the most striking prophecy the Bible contains concerning the atonement wrought by our Lord in His sufferings and death. When we put all these considerations together, and also call to our assistance the New Testament teachings about the character of God and the object of the work of Jesus Christ, we shall see that there are various possibilities lying behind the thought of the end of chastisement which no bare statement of the abstract relations of sin, guilt, and doom would indicate.

It may be objected that all such ideas as those just expressed tend to generate superficial views of sin. Possibly they may be employed so as to encourage this tendency. But if so, it will only be by misinterpreting and abusing them. Certainly the elegist does not belittle the rigour of the Divine chastisement. It must not be forgotten that the phrase which gives rise to these ideas concerning the debt of guilt occurs in the doleful Book of Lamentations, and at the close of an elegy that bewails the awful fate of Jerusalem in the strongest language. But in point of fact it is not the severity of the punishment, beyond a certain degree, but the certainty of it that most affects the mind when contemplating the prospect of doom. Not only does the imagination fail to grasp that which is immeasurably vast in the pictures presented to it, but even the reason rises in revolt and questions the possibility of such torments, or the conscience ventures to protest against what appears to be unjust. In any of these cases the effect of the menace is neutralised by its very extravagance. On the other hand, we have St. Paul’s teaching about the goodness of God that leads us to repentance. [Romans 2:4] Thus we understand how it can be said that Christ-who is the most perfect revelation of God’s goodness-was raised up to give "repentance to Israel" as well as "remission of sins." [Acts 5:31] It is at Calvary, not at Sanai, that sin looks most black. When a man sees his guilt in the light of his Saviour’s love he is in no mood to apologise for it or to minimise his ill desert. If he then contemplates the prospect of the full payment of the debt it is with a feeling of the impossibility of ever achieving so stupendous a task. The punishment from which he would revolt as an injustice if it were held over him in a threat now presents itself to him of its own accord as something quite right and reasonable. He cannot find words strong enough to characterise his guilt, as he lies at the foot of the cross in absolute self-abasement. There is no occasion to fear that such a man will become careless about sin if he is comforted by a vision of hope. This is just what he needs to enable him to rise up and accept the forgiveness in the strength of which he may begin the toilsome ascent towards a better life.

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Lamentations 4:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/lamentations-4.html.

Lectionary Calendar
Tuesday, November 12th, 2019
the Week of Proper 27 / Ordinary 32
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