Introduction to Lamentations
The prophecy of Jeremiah is immediately followed in the English Version by five lyric poems, the title of which in the versions is taken from the general nature of the contents; thus the Septuagint called these poems Θρῆνοι Thrēnoi, Threni, i. e. Dirges, and the Syriac and Vulgate "Lamentations." In the Hebrew Bible the "Lamentations" are arranged among the Kethubim, or (holy) writings, because of the nature of their contents: the Lamentations as being lyrical poetry are classed not with prophecies, but with the Psalms and Proverbs. This classification is probably later than the translation of the Septuagint, who have appended the Lamentations to Jeremiah's prophecy, inserting between them the apocryphal book of Baruch, and in fact counting the three as only one book. Although no name is attached to these poems in the Hebrew, yet both ancient tradition (Septuagint, Josephus, the Targum of Jonathan, the Talmud, etc.) and internal evidence point to Jeremiah as the author. The time of the composition of these poems is certainly the period immediately after the capture of Jerusalem, and probably during the month which intervened between the capture of Jerusalem and its destruction.
Their subject is the destruction of Jerusalem by the Chaldaeans. In the "first" of these poems the prophet dwells upon the miseries of hunger, of death in battle, of the profanation and plundering of the sanctuary, and of impending exile, oppressed by which the city sits solitary. In the "second," these same sufferings are described with more intense force, and in closer connection with the national sins which had caused them, and which had been aggravated by the faithlessness of the prophets. In the "third," Jeremiah acknowledges that chastisement is for the believer's good, and he dwells more upon the spiritual aspect of sorrow, and the certainty that finally there must be the redeeming of life for God's people, and vengeance for His enemies. In the "fourth," Judah's sorrows are confessed to have been caused by her sins. Finally, in the "fifth," Jeremiah prays that Zion's reproach may be taken away, and that Yahweh will grant repentance unto His people, and renew their days as of old.
The structure of the first four poems is highly artificial. They are arranged in 22 portions, according to the number of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet; but in the first three poems each portion is again subdivided into three double clauses, the third differing from the first and second in that each also of these divisions begins with the same letter. In Lamentations 4, again we have 22 verses beginning with the letters of the alphabet in order, but each verse is divided into only two portions. In Lamentations 5, though there are again 22 verses, the alphabetical initials are discontinued. Hence, some have thought that this prayer was added by the prophet to his Lamentations when he was in Egypt at a somewhat later time.
The Book of Lamentations has always been much used in liturgical services as giving the spiritual aspect of sorrow. It is recited in the Jewish synagogues on the ninth of Ab, the day on which the temple was destroyed. In the Church of England the whole of Lamentations 3, and portions of Lamentations 1; Lamentations 2; Lamentations 4 are read on the Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday in holy week. For this choice two chief reasons may be given; the first, that in the wasted city and homeless wanderings of the chosen people we see an image of the desolation and ruin of the soul cast away - because of sin - from God's presence into the outer darkness; the second and chief, because the mournful words of the prophet, set Him before us who has borne the chastisement due to human sin, and of whom we think instinctively as we pronounce the words of Lamentations 1:12.
How doth the city sit solitary, that was full of people! how is she become as a widow! she that was great among the nations, and princess among the provinces, how is she become tributary!In these two verses is the same sad image as appears in the well-known medal of Titus, struck to celebrate his triumph over Jerusalem. A woman sits weeping beneath a palm-tree, and below is the legend "Judaea capta."
Translate Lamentations 1:1 :
How sitteth solitary the city that was full of people:
She is become as a widow that was great among the nations:
A princess among provinces she is become a vassal.
Tributary - In the sense of personal labor Joshua 16:10.
She weepeth sore in the night, and her tears are on her cheeks: among all her lovers she hath none to comfort her: all her friends have dealt treacherously with her, they are become her enemies.Lovers ... friends - i. e. the states in alliance with Judaea, and all human helpers.
Judah is gone into captivity because of affliction, and because of great servitude: she dwelleth among the heathen, she findeth no rest: all her persecutors overtook her between the straits.Because of ... - i. e. the people, not of Jerusalem only, but of the whole land, "is gone into exile to escape from the affliction and laborious servitude," to which they are subject in their own land.
Persecutors ... between the straits - Rather, "pursuers ... in the midst of her straits." The Jews flee like deer to escape from the invading Chaldaeans, but are driven by them into places from where there is no escape.
The ways of Zion do mourn, because none come to the solemn feasts: all her gates are desolate: her priests sigh, her virgins are afflicted, and she is in bitterness.Zion, as the holy city, is the symbol of the religious life of the people, just as Judah in the previous verse represents their national life. The "virgins" took a prominent part in all religious festivals Jeremiah 31:13; Exodus 15:20.
Her adversaries are the chief, her enemies prosper; for the LORD hath afflicted her for the multitude of her transgressions: her children are gone into captivity before the enemy.Are the chief ... prosper - Or, "are become the head"... are at rest. Judaea is so entirely crushed that her enemies did not need to take precautions against resistance on her part.
Children - i. e. "young children," who are driven before the enemy (literally the adversary), not as a flock of lambs which follow the shepherd, but for sale as slaves.
And from the daughter of Zion all her beauty is departed: her princes are become like harts that find no pasture, and they are gone without strength before the pursuer.Her princes ... - Jeremiah had before his mind the sad flight of Zedekiah and his men of war, and their capture within a few miles of Jerusalem Jeremiah 39:4-5.
Jerusalem remembered in the days of her affliction and of her miseries all her pleasant things that she had in the days of old, when her people fell into the hand of the enemy, and none did help her: the adversaries saw her, and did mock at her sabbaths.Jerusalem remembers in the days of her affliction,
And of her homelessness,
All her pleasant things which have been from the days of old:
Now that her people fall by the hand of the adversary,
And she hath no helper;
Her adversaries have seen her,
They have mocked at her sabbath-keepings.
The word rendered "homelessless" means wanderings, and describes the state of the Jews, cast forth from their homes and about to be dragged into exile.
Sabbaths - Or, sabbath-keepings, and the cessation from labor every seventh day struck foreigners as something strange, and provoked their ridicule.
Jerusalem hath grievously sinned; therefore she is removed: all that honoured her despise her, because they have seen her nakedness: yea, she sigheth, and turneth backward.Grievously sinned - literally, "Jerusalem hath sinned a sin," giving the idea of a persistent continuance in wickedness.
Removed - Or, become an abomination. Sin has made Jerusalem an object of horror, and therefore she is cast away.
Yea, she sigheth ... - Jerusalem groans over the infamy of her deeds thus brought to open shame, and turns her back upon the spectators in order to hide herself.
Her filthiness is in her skirts; she remembereth not her last end; therefore she came down wonderfully: she had no comforter. O LORD, behold my affliction: for the enemy hath magnified himself.Her filthiness is in her skirts - Her personal defilement is no longer concealed beneath the raiment Jeremiah 13:22.
She came down wonderfully - Jerusalem once enthroned as a princess must sit on the ground as a slave.
The adversary hath spread out his hand upon all her pleasant things: for she hath seen that the heathen entered into her sanctuary, whom thou didst command that they should not enter into thy congregation.Her pleasant things - Chiefly, the sacred vessels of the temple 2 Chronicles 36:10.
Sanctuary ... congregation - Even a Jew might not enter the innermost sanctuary, which was for the priests only; but now the tramp of pagan soldiery has been heard within its sacred precincts.
All her people sigh, they seek bread; they have given their pleasant things for meat to relieve the soul: see, O LORD, and consider; for I am become vile.Sigh ... seek - Are sighing ... are seeking. The words are present participles, describing the condition of the people. After a siege lasting a year and a half the whole country, far and near, would be exhausted.
To relieve the soul - See the margin, i. e. to bring back life to them. They bring out their jewels and precious articles to obtain with them at least a meal.
Is it nothing to you, all ye that pass by? behold, and see if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow, which is done unto me, wherewith the LORD hath afflicted me in the day of his fierce anger.The lamentation of the city, personified as a woman in grief over her fate.
From above hath he sent fire into my bones, and it prevaileth against them: he hath spread a net for my feet, he hath turned me back: he hath made me desolate and faint all the day.It prevaileth - Or, hath subdued.
He hath turned me back - Judaea, like a hunted animal, endeavors to escape, but finds every outlet blocked by nets, and recoils from them with terror and a sense of utter hopelessness.
The yoke of my transgressions is bound by his hand: they are wreathed, and come up upon my neck: he hath made my strength to fall, the Lord hath delivered me into their hands, from whom I am not able to rise up.Bound by his hand - As the plowman binds the yoke upon the neck of oxen, so God compels Judah to bear the punishment of her sins.
They are wreathed, and ... - Or, they are knotted together, "they come up" etc. Judah's sins are like the cords by which the pieces of the yoke are fastened together Jeremiah 27:2; they are knotted and twined like a bunch upon the neck, and bind the yoke around it so securely that it is impossible for her to shake it off.
He hath made ... - Or, it hath made "my strength" to stumble. The yoke of punishment thus imposed and securely fastened, bows down her strength by its weight, and makes her totter beneath it.
The Lord - The third distich of the verse begins here, and with it a new turn of the lamentation. The title Adonai (properly, my Lord) is in the Lamentations used by itself in fourteen places, while the name Yahweh is less prominent; as if in their punishment the people felt the lordship of the Deity more, and His covenant-love to them less.
The Lord hath trodden under foot all my mighty men in the midst of me: he hath called an assembly against me to crush my young men: the Lord hath trodden the virgin, the daughter of Judah, as in a winepress.The Lord hath trodden under foot - Or, אדני 'ădonāy has made contemptible (i. e. put into the balance, made to go up as the lighter weight, and so made despicable) "my war-horses" (put metaphorically for heroes).
In the midst of me - They had not fallen gloriously in the battlefield, but remained ignominiously in the city.
Assembly - Or, "a solemn feast;" the word especially used of the great festivals Leviticus 23:2. אדני 'ădonāy has proclaimed a festival, not for me, but against me.
The Lord hath trodden ... - Or, "אדני 'ădonāy hath trodden the winepress for the virgin daughter of Judah." See Jeremiah 51:14 note. By slaying Judah's young men in battle, God is trampling for her the winepress of His indignation.
For these things I weep; mine eye, mine eye runneth down with water, because the comforter that should relieve my soul is far from me: my children are desolate, because the enemy prevailed.
Zion spreadeth forth her hands, and there is none to comfort her: the LORD hath commanded concerning Jacob, that his adversaries should be round about him: Jerusalem is as a menstruous woman among them.Spreadeth forth her hands - In prayer Exodus 9:29, Exodus 9:33, but Zion entreats in vain. There is no one to comfort her - not God, for He is chastising her, nor man, for all the neighboring nations have become her enemies. See Lamentations 1:2.
That his adversaries ... - Rather, that those round about him should be his adversaries; all the neighboring states should regard him with aversion.
Jerusalem is ... - i. e. is become an abomination. The words are virtually the same as in Lamentations 1:8.
The LORD is righteous; for I have rebelled against his commandment: hear, I pray you, all people, and behold my sorrow: my virgins and my young men are gone into captivity.People - peoples, pagan nations.
I called for my lovers, but they deceived me: my priests and mine elders gave up the ghost in the city, while they sought their meat to relieve their souls.I called for ... - Rather, to "my lovers."
While they sought their meat - literally, "for they sought food for themselves to revive their souls." Complete the sense by adding, "and found none."
Behold, O LORD; for I am in distress: my bowels are troubled; mine heart is turned within me; for I have grievously rebelled: abroad the sword bereaveth, at home there is as death.Troubled - Or, inflamed with sorrow.
Turned within me - Agitated violently.
At home there is as death - i. e. "in the house" there are pale pining forms, wasting with hunger, and presenting the appearance of death.
They have heard that I sigh: there is none to comfort me: all mine enemies have heard of my trouble; they are glad that thou hast done it: thou wilt bring the day that thou hast called, and they shall be like unto me.They have heard ... - Or, "They heard that I sigh," that I have "no comforter."
Thou wilt bring the day ... - literally, thou hast brought "the day thou hast proclaimed, and they shall be like unto me." The day of Judah's punishment was the proof that the nations now triumphing over Jerusalem's fall would certainly be visited.
Let all their wickedness come before thee; and do unto them, as thou hast done unto me for all my transgressions: for my sighs are many, and my heart is faint.