Lamentations 1 – Mourning Over the Fallen City
The Book of Lamentations is the collection of five poems or songs mourning the conquest of Jerusalem and the Kingdom of Judah.
“Dirge poetry of the kind exemplified by Lamentations was by no means uncommon in Near Eastern antiquity. The author of Lamentations stood therefore in a long and respectable literary tradition when he bewailed the destruction of Jerusalem and the desolation of Judah in 587 BC.” (R.K. Harrison)
Lamentations is a remarkable written work, because the first four of the five poems are written as acrostics. The twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet are used in succession to begin the lines and sections of those songs.
“The use of the alphabet symbolizes that the completeness—‘the A to Z’—of grief is being expressed.” (H.L. Ellison)
Lamentations both reflected and gave words to the deliberate choice of the Jewish people to remember and mourn their fallen city and kingdom. “For as far back as tradition reaches, Lamentations has been read on Tisha b’Av; and it is not unreasonable to assume that it was intended for this purpose from the first.” (H.L. Ellison)
“As oft as I read the Lamentations of Jeremiah, saith Gregory Nazianzen, my voice faileth me, and I am overwhelmed with tears. The misery of that poor people cometh under my view, as it were, and my heart is therewith very much affected and afflicted.” (John Trapp)
A. Jerusalem afflicted with no comfort.
1. (1-2) Grieving over an empty city.
How lonely sits the city
That was full of people!
How like a widow is she,
Who was great among the nations!
The princess among the provinces
Has become a slave!
She weeps bitterly in the night,
Her tears are on her cheeks;
Among all her lovers
She has none to comfort her.
All her friends have dealt treacherously with her;
They have become her enemies.
a. How lonely sits the city: Writing after the catastrophe of Jerusalem’s defeat, Jeremiah thought of the contrast between happy, prosperous Jerusalem and the lonely, empty, conquered city after the Babylonian conquest. Once she was full of people, now she is empty. Once she was great among the nations, now she is like a slave.
i. Jeremiah is never specifically mentioned as the author of Lamentations, but it is a reasonable conclusion from both long-standing tradition and great similarity to the book of Jeremiah. It is likely that he wrote this collection of five poems after the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem but before he was taken to Egypt against his will (Jeremiah 43). Jeremiah is specifically mentioned as the author of other laments (2 Chronicles 35:25).
ii. “In all copies of the Septuagint, whether of the Roman or Alexandrian editions, the following words are found as a part of the text: ‘And it came to pass after Israel had been carried away captive, and Jerusalem was become desolate, that Jeremiah sat weeping: and he lamented with this lamentation over Jerusalem; and he said.’” (Clarke)
iii. How lonely sits the city: “The coin struck by Vespasian on the capture of Jerusalem, on the obverse of which there is a palm-tree, the emblem of Judea, and under it a woman, the emblem of Jerusalem, sitting, leaning as before described, with the legend Judea capta, illustrates this expression.” (Clarke)
iv. Who was great among the nations: “So was Athens, once the glory of Greece, for both arts and arms, now a dog hole in comparison. Sparta also, that other eye of Greece, is now a small burrow called Misithra, having nothing to boast of but the fame and thoughts of its former greatness.” (Trapp)
b. She weeps bitterly in the night: With poetic skill Jeremiah thought of Jerusalem as the widow princess brought low, weeping uncontrollably with none to comfort her. Jeremiah’s sorrow is deep and plain; even though Jerusalem’s conquest vindicated Jeremiah’s many prophecies, he has no sense of triumph or “I told you so.” Jeremiah deeply sorrows with the sorrow of Jerusalem and Judah.
i. “To heighten the tragedy of destruction the author uses the image of a woman bereaved of her husband and children, bitterly lamenting her present sorry state in anguish and apprehension.” (Harrison)
ii. “In this brief Book of Lamentation the spirit of the man is strikingly revealed. There is no exultation over the fulfilment of his predictions, and there is a twofold loyalty manifest throughout, first to God in the confession of sin, and then to his people in the expression of their sorrow.” (Morgan)
c. All her friends have dealt treacherously with her: In better days, Jerusalem enjoyed loyal alliances. Those one-time friends became her enemies.
i. “Israel was always faced with an inescapable choice. She could rely on God for her safety against external aggression, or she could turn to allies great and small.” (Ellison)
2. (3-6) Under affliction from the LORD.
Judah has gone into captivity,
Under affliction and hard servitude;
She dwells among the nations,
She finds no rest;
All her persecutors overtake her in dire straits.
The roads to Zion mourn
Because no one comes to the set feasts.
All her gates are desolate;
Her priests sigh,
Her virgins are afflicted,
And she is in bitterness.
Her adversaries have become the master,
Her enemies prosper;
For the LORD has afflicted her
Because of the multitude of her transgressions.
Her children have gone into captivity before the enemy.
And from the daughter of Zion
All her splendor has departed.
Her princes have become like deer
That find no pasture,
That flee without strength
Before the pursuer.
a. Judah has gone into captivity: After the poetic images of the first few verses, Jeremiah simply reported the fact. Judah was conquered and captive. Once busy entrances to the city seemed empty (all her gates are desolate), and all who were connected with Jerusalem are dispirited; they sigh and are afflicted. Judah’s enemies are blessed as they prosper and master over them.
i. No one comes to the set feasts: “The routes to Jerusalem, once thronged with pilgrims going up to the Temple to participate in festal rites, are now completely deserted.” (Harrison)
b. For the LORD has afflicted her: Jeremiah understood that this catastrophe was not due to fate, human cruelty, or blind cycles of history. It was because Judah had sinned so long and so deep that it was God’s will to afflict her with severe correction. It was because of the multitude of her transgressions.
i. The multitude of her transgressions: “Though pesa is traditionally rendered ‘transgression,’ it is essentially a secular word meaning ‘rebellion’—a word that brings out more fully its meaning in this type of context.” (Ellison)
ii. Her children have gone into captivity before the enemy: “For the multitude of our sins, directly contrary to his promise in case of obedience… Not only our young and old men, but the little children, have been driven like sheep before the enemy into a miserable captivity.” (Poole)
c. All her splendor has departed: Jeremiah’s pain was amplified as he thought of how it used to be in Jerusalem. Now, the people and place of Jerusalem were desolate and defeated.
d. Her princes have become like deer: Both hope and leadership for the city abandoned Jerusalem. The princes ran away like deer, but also without success (that flee without strength before the pursuer).
i. “The image of pastureless deer contrasts sharply with the situation depicted in Psalm 23.” (Harrison)
3. (7) Remembering pleasant days.
In the days of her affliction and roaming,
Jerusalem remembers all her pleasant things
That she had in the days of old.
When her people fell into the hand of the enemy,
With no one to help her,
The adversaries saw her
And mocked at her downfall.
a. Jerusalem remembers all her pleasant things: The tragedy of Jerusalem’s fall was worse after considering how things were once so much better. The memory of days of pleasant things stung in the days of her affliction and roaming.
b. When her people fell into the hand of the enemy, with no one to help her: When the enemy came against her, Jerusalem was completely alone; the help many hoped for from Egypt never arrived. Because of this, the adversaries saw her and mocked at her downfall.
4. (8-11) The reason Jerusalem is left without comfort.
Jerusalem has sinned gravely,
Therefore she has become vile.
All who honored her despise her
Because they have seen her nakedness;
Yes, she sighs and turns away.
Her uncleanness is in her skirts;
She did not consider her destiny;
Therefore her collapse was awesome;
She had no comforter.
“O LORD, behold my affliction,
For the enemy is exalted!”
The adversary has spread his hand
Over all her pleasant things;
For she has seen the nations enter her sanctuary,
Those whom You commanded
Not to enter Your assembly.
All her people sigh,
They seek bread;
They have given their valuables for food to restore life.
“See, O LORD, and consider,
For I am scorned.”
a. Jerusalem has sinned gravely, therefore she has become vile: As Jeremiah described the tragedy of Jerusalem’s fall, one would rightly ask why. The answer was simple; it was because of the great sin of the people of the city over many generations.
i. “The story of her desolation is mingled with confessions of her sin. She asks boldly if any sorrow could be compared to her sorrow, and then confesses that not one pang or stroke had been in excess of her sin.” (Meyer)
b. They have seen her nakedness: The once dignified city was humiliated and exposed. Like a queen stripped of her royal robes, she sighs and turns away.
i. “Here she is compared to a debased, slatternly harlot, shamelessly exposing her nakedness and indifferent to the marks of menstrual blood.” (Ellison)
ii. Her uncleanness is in her skirts: “She rather glorieth in her wickedness, than is any whit abashed of it – a metaphor from a menstruous woman that is immodest.” (Trapp)
c. She did not consider her destiny: Like a foolish woman (or man), Jerusalem never thought about where her path of sin and rebellion would lead her. Her lack of forethought meant her collapse was awesome.
d. O LORD, behold my affliction: A prayer, as if from the lips of the afflicted city, breaks into the description of misery. With no comforter to help when the enemy exalted himself, all Jerusalem could do was cry out to the God she had rejected.
i. She has seen the nations enter her sanctuary: “Now those very foreigners who had been prohibited from entering the congregation of the Israelites were polluting the sacred house in the most wanton manner.” (Harrison)
e. See, O LORD, and consider, for I am scorned: Another prayer rises from Jerusalem, crying out for help from the starving city (they seek bread).
5. (12) Incomparable sorrow.
“Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?
Behold and see
If there is any sorrow like my sorrow,
Which has been brought on me,
Which the LORD has inflicted
In the day of His fierce anger.
a. It is nothing to you, all you who pass by? An unsympathetic world looked upon Jerusalem’s misery and regarded it as nothing. She had no comforter at all (Lamentations 1:9). Jerusalem personified wondered at the lack of sympathy.
b. Is there any sorrow like my sorrow: Jerusalem felt what many sufferers feel; that her sorrow was incomparable to others and incomprehensible to others. There is a sense in which this is true, but it is true for everyone who endures a deep season of suffering. Few if any can truly relate to the depths of their sorrow.
i. “The desolations and distress brought upon this city and its inhabitants had scarcely any parallel. Excessive abuse of God’s accumulated mercies calls for singular and exemplary punishment.” (Clarke)
c. When the LORD has inflicted: Jeremiah (and Jerusalem personified) knew the true source of their sorrow. It was not the Babylonians; it was the LORD who had inflicted this devastation.
B. God’s hand in Jerusalem’s tragedy.
1. (13-15) What the LORD did to Jerusalem.
“From above He has sent fire into my bones,
And it overpowered them;
He has spread a net for my feet
And turned me back;
He has made me desolate
And faint all the day.
“The yoke of my transgressions was bound;
They were woven together by His hands,
And thrust upon my neck.
He made my strength fail;
The Lord delivered me into the hands of those whom I am not able to withstand.
“The Lord has trampled underfoot all my mighty men in my midst;
He has called an assembly against me
To crush my young men;
The Lord trampled as in a winepress
The virgin daughter of Judah.
a. From above He has sent fire into my bones: In the context, this fire was the judgment God sent upon Jerusalem. The judgment came from heaven (from above). The context makes it clear that this is Jerusalem personified speaking, yet Jeremiah used the same image of fire into my bones that he used of his own prophetic call in Jeremiah 20:9.
i. “Not Jerusalem’s enemies, but God himself had entrapped the city, bringing it to an inescapable and ignominious end.” (Ellison)
b. He has made me desolate and faint all the day: Jerusalem was like a trapped, blocked, empty, and exhausted foe.
c. The yoke of my transgressions was bound; they were woven together by His hands: Jeremiah pictured Jerusalem as bound with a yoke like a brute ox; yet the yoke was fashioned out of their own transgressions. It was bound to them by cords woven by God’s own hands.
i. The yoke of my transgressions was bound: “I am now tied and bound by the chain of my sins; and it is so wreathed, so doubled and twisted round me, that I cannot free myself. A fine representation of the miseries of a penitent soul, which feels that nothing but the pitifulness of God’s mercy can loose it.” (Clarke)
d. The Lord trampled as in a winepress the virgin daughter of Judah: Jeremiah set forth image after image to describe the ruin of Jerusalem and Judah, but each image understood it to come from the hand of God.
i. “God had trodden upon the Jews as men use to stamp grapes in a wine-press, where they use to crush them to pieces to get out the juice, and then they throw the husks, that are good for nothing, upon the dunghills. These are but various expressions to set out the misery into which God had brought this people for their sins.” (Poole)
2. (16-17) Weeping without comfort.
“For these things I weep;
My eye, my eye overflows with water;
Because the comforter, who should restore my life,
Is far from me.
My children are desolate
Because the enemy prevailed.”
Zion spreads out her hands,
But no one comforts her;
The LORD has commanded concerning Jacob
That those around him become his adversaries;
Jerusalem has become an unclean thing among them.
a. For these things I weep: Sometimes Jeremiah is described as the weeping prophet, and he would agree with the description. Lamentations was not written with a dry eye, but with overflowing eyes.
b. Because the comforter, who should restore my life, is far from me: The worst aspect of Jerusalem’s misery was not the catastrophe of itself. It was that in the catastrophe, they had little or no sense of God’s comfort or help. It felt as if He were far from them.
c. Zion spreads out her hands, but no one comforts her: Jerusalem felt no comfort from God, and received none from man. By God’s design (the LORD has commanded) all her neighbors had become her adversaries, and regarded her as an unclean thing.
i. The LORD has commanded: “God is here presented as the righteous judge who has finally punished His recalcitrant people for their long-standing rebellion.” (Harrison)
ii. Jerusalem has become an unclean thing: “Jerusalem is as a menstruous woman, to whom none dared to approach, either to help or comfort, because of the law, Leviticus 15:19-27.” (Clarke)
3. (18-19) Confessing God’s righteousness and Jerusalem’s sin.
“The LORD is righteous,
For I rebelled against His commandment.
Hear now, all peoples,
And behold my sorrow;
My virgins and my young men
Have gone into captivity.
“I called for my lovers,
But they deceived me;
My priests and my elders
Breathed their last in the city,
While they sought food
To restore their life.”
a. The LORD is righteous, for I rebelled against His commandment: Jerusalem personified confessed her sin and proclaimed the righteousness of God. Her sorrow and captivity were because she was a rebel against God.
i. “Again there is the confession which admits that God is in the right. This is often a hard admission to make. One can feel the agony of heart that is wrung out even while the people make confession.” (Wright)
b. I have called for my lovers, but they deceived me: Jerusalem cried out for her lovers – a metaphor for those in whom she placed her love and trust in rather than Yahweh – for help. They deceived Jerusalem and were of no help as the city starved to death.
4. (20-22) Out of distress, a call for justice.
“See, O LORD, that I am in distress;
My soul is troubled;
My heart is overturned within me,
For I have been very rebellious.
Outside the sword bereaves,
At home it is like death.
“They have heard that I sigh,
But no one comforts me.
All my enemies have heard of my trouble;
They are glad that You have done it.
Bring on the day You have announced,
That they may become like me.
“Let all their wickedness come before You,
And do to them as You have done to me
For all my transgressions;
For my sighs are many,
And my heart is faint.”
a. See, O LORD, that I am in distress: All Jerusalem could do was cry out to the God whom she had rejected. There was no one else who could or would help. War and destruction brought death both outside and at home.
b. They are glad that You have done it: This was the response of the neighboring nations, Judah’s enemies. Knowing that, the prophet prayed that their appointed judgment would come soon (do to them as You have done to me).
i. They are glad: “It must have been a matter of some gratification to the enemies of the Israelites to know that God, who in earlier days had wrought such havoc on the foes of the Chosen People, had now recoiled in punitive wrath upon His own.” (Harrison)
ii. Do to them as You have done to me: “We may lawfully pray for such evils to the implacable enemies of the church and people of God, as may restrain and weaken their hands, and put them out of a capacity of wasting the Lord’s heritage: we are only obliged by it to wish well to their souls, and to desire no evil against them out of private revenge or malice, but only out of love to God, and zeal for his glory.” (Poole)
iii. “The last two verses are a tentative prayer that God will vindicate His righteousness among the other nations. If Judah has needed to experience judgement to lead her to repentance, then others need the experience of judgement also.” (Wright)
c. For my sighs are many, and my heart is faint: We see Jerusalem almost gone; all she can manage are a series of sighs, and a faint heart.