Lamentations 5 – From Desolation, Hope for Restoration
“Though this chapter consists of exactly twenty-two verses, the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet, yet the acrostic form is no longer observed. Perhaps any thing so technical was not thought proper when in agony and distress (under a sense of God’s displeasure on account of sin) they prostrated themselves before him to ask for mercy.” (Adam Clarke)
A. What has come upon Jerusalem.
1. (1-8) Zion’s great misery.
Remember, O LORD, what has come upon us;
Look, and behold our reproach!
Our inheritance has been turned over to aliens,
And our houses to foreigners.
We have become orphans and waifs,
Our mothers are like widows.
We pay for the water we drink,
And our wood comes at a price.
They pursue at our heels;
We labor and have no rest.
We have given our hand to the Egyptians
And the Assyrians, to be satisfied with bread.
Our fathers sinned and are no more,
But we bear their iniquities.
Servants rule over us;
There is none to deliver us from their hand.
a. Remember, O LORD, what has come upon us: In his theology, Jeremiah understood that God knew what had come upon Jerusalem. Yet he understandably felt that God had forgotten them. He prayed that God would look upon them and behold the scorn and spite directed at them (reproach).
b. Our inheritance has been turned over to aliens: The land and houses God gave to the tribes of Israel as an inheritance was now in control of foreigners.
c. We have become orphans and waifs: The people were devastated by the loss of their families, by economic catastrophe (we pay for the water we drink), by labor with norest.
i. Orphans and waifs: “2 Kings 24:14; 25:12, and Jeremiah 39:10 make it clear that most of those left in Judah were the very poor, who were expected to keep the fields and vineyards in order.” (Ellison)
ii. We pay for the water we drink: “I suppose the meaning of this is, that every thing was taxed by the Chaldeans, and that they kept the management in their own hands, so that wood and water were both sold, the people not being permitted to help themselves. They were now so lowly reduced by servitude, that they were obliged to pay dearly for those things which formerly were common and of no price.” (Clarke)
d. We have given our hand to the Egyptians: The leaders of Judah hoped that an alliance with Egypt or the Assyrians would rescue them. There was no help from them.
i. “The reference to Assyria in v. 6 is difficult, since she had long ceased to be an empire, although Egypt was a place to which refugees had gone (Jer. 43}. Perhaps the verse is a condensed allusion to former alliances with Assyria and Egypt that the prophets had denounced (2 Kings16.7-9; Isa.7.1-9; 30.1-7), i.e. once our fathers looked to them for grand military help; now we should be thankful if they would give us enough employment to supply the bare necessities of life.” (Wright)
e. Our fathers sinned and are no more, but we bear our iniquities: Jeremiah quoted a common proverb and complaint from that time (found also in Ezekiel 18:2 and Jeremiah 31:29-30). This popular proverb both expressed and promoted a popular idea. The idea was that God was unfair; unfair in not punishing the fathers as they deserved, and unfair in punishing the present generation.
i. Ezekiel 18 is an eloquent refutation of this proverb. It answers the serious error of believing in communal or family salvation or damnation and teaches the great truth of the individual’s responsibility before God.
ii. “Nations, as such, cannot be punished in the other world; therefore national judgments are to be looked for only in this life. The punishment which the Jewish nation had been meriting for a series of years came now upon them, because they copied and increased the sins of their fathers, and the cup of their iniquity was full.” (Clarke)
f. Servants rule over us: The catastrophe of Jerusalem’s fall meant that all of society’s order was upset. Now lowly men ruled and there was none to deliver us from their hand.
2. (9-16) More of Zion’s misery.
We get our bread at the risk of our lives,
Because of the sword in the wilderness.
Our skin is hot as an oven,
Because of the fever of famine.
They ravished the women in Zion,
The maidens in the cities of Judah.
Princes were hung up by their hands,
And elders were not respected.
Young men ground at the millstones;
Boys staggered under loads of wood.
The elders have ceased gathering at the gate,
And the young men from their music.
The joy of our heart has ceased;
Our dance has turned into mourning.
The crown has fallen from our head.
a. We get our bread at the risk of our lives: Under Babylonian occupation, everything was rationed and controlled. Getting enough bread was risky, under the sword in the wilderness.
i. “They could not go into the wilderness to feed their cattle, or to get the necessaries of life, without being harassed and plundered by marauding parties, and by these were often exposed to the peril of their lives. This was predicted by Moses, Deuteronomy 28:31.” (Clarke)
b. Our skin is hot as an oven: The people were sick and suffered under sunstroke.
i. Our skin is hot as an oven: “‘Hot’ skin is literally ‘scorched’ or ‘blackened’ skin, showing general starvation.” (Ellison)
c. They ravished the women in Zion: The women of Jerusalem and in the cities of Judah were raped and brutalized by the Babylonian soldiers.
i. “The evil mentioned here was predicted by Moses, Deuteronomy 28:30, 32, and by Jeremiah, Jeremiah 6:12.” (Clarke)
d. Princes were hung up by their hands: All the people suffered. The women were ravished, the princes held in chains, the young men and boys made slaves. The joys of life – elders gathering at the gate, young men enjoying their music, the dance – all had turned into mourning.
i. Princes were hung up by their hands: “It is very probable that this was a species of punishment. They were suspended from hooks in the wall by their hands till they died through torture and exhaustion.” (Clarke)
ii. Young men ground at millstones: “In happier days they would have been soldiers; now they had to do women’s work.” (Ellison)
3. (16b-18) The cause of Zion’s desolation.
Woe to us, for we have sinned!
Because of this our heart is faint;
Because of these things our eyes grow dim;
Because of Mount Zion which is desolate,
With foxes walking about on it.
a. Woe to us, for we have sinned: The familiar theme is repeated. Jeremiah understood that all the calamity came upon them because of their sin.
b. Because of this our heart is faint: Their sin brought judgment and faintness of heart, which brought dimming eyes, which brought desolation to Mount Zion.
B. A prayer for restoration.
1. (19-20) Praying for the everlasting God to remember His people.
You, O LORD, remain forever;
Your throne from generation to generation.
Why do You forget us forever,
And forsake us for so long a time?
a. You, O LORD, remain forever: At the conclusion of the Book of Lamentations, Jeremiah put the focus upon God’s eternal and unchanging nature. His reign is eternal, with His throne enduring from generation to generation.
i. As Hebrews 13:8 would later say, Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.
ii. “THOU sufferest no change. Thou didst once love us, O let that love be renewed towards us!” (Clarke)
b. Why do You forget us forever: God remains forever; but now it seemed to Jeremiah and the survivors of Jerusalem that He had forgotten them forever. The theological truth of God’s eternal, unchanging nature had yet to be experienced in their present situation.
2. (21-22) Praying for restoration.
Turn us back to You, O LORD, and we will be restored;
Renew our days as of old,
Unless You have utterly rejected us,
And are very angry with us!
a. Turn us back to You, O LORD: Despite feeling forgotten by God, Jeremiah represented the people before God in a proper way. He understood that their only hope was to cry out to God for the gift of repentance. Jeremiah knew they didn’t even have the power to properly repent on their own; they needed Yahweh to turn them back to Himself. If He would, then they will be restored.
i. If God is not the author of our repentance, we will never properly repent. Sometimes the best prayer possible is not “I repent” (though that is a good prayer). A better prayer is, turn me back to You, O LORD. I need you to give me the gift of true repentance.
ii. “In a last brief and yet forceful word, he prayed Jehovah to turn the people unto Himself. This he introduced by a declaration of his confidence in the perpetual enthronement of Jehovah. It was a cry which recognized the last helplessness of man, namely, his inability even to repent.” (Morgan)
iii. “There is nothing better than to adopt the cry of the prophet, and ask God to turn the soul, and renew its blessed and holy experiences. There will be no doubt of our being turned, if He turns us.” (Morgan)
b. Renew our days as of old: With God turning us back to Himself, we can trust renewal, a return to our better days as in time past. If we have backslidden or declined, we can pray that God would grant us repentance so that we may renew our days as of old.
c. Unless You have utterly rejected us, and are very angry with us: Lamentations seems unable to end on a positive hope for the future, even if the general trend is positive towards the end. Yet, Jeremiah ended with the fear that perhaps God had utterly rejected Israel and that His anger would remain forever. The specific words of Scripture and the history of Israel since this prayer confirm beyond question that God had not and did not later utterly reject His people, nor did His anger last forever. The days of lamentation would not be the final chapter of Israel’s history.
i. “Several Old Testament prophecies conclude on a negative or inauspicious note (cf. Ecclesiastes 12:14; Isaiah 66:24; Malachi 4:6), as does Lamentations. Consequently in synagogue readings it became customary to conclude such compositions with a repetition of the preceding verse, so that under these circumstances verse 21 would be read again after verse 22.” (Harrison)
ii. “The book ends the way God intended it to end, with the kind of unresolved anguish we have come to expect from the Weeping Prophet. Yet Lamentations was never intended to have the last word.” (Ryken)