Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
Remember, O LORD, what is come upon us: consider, and behold our reproach.V.
(1) Remember, O Lord.—The fact that the number of verses is, as in Lamentations 1, 2, 4, the same as that of the Hebrew alphabet suggests the inference that this chapter also, though not actually alphabetic, was intended to have been so, and that we have the last of the five elegies in a half-finished state. It would seem as if Jeremiah first wrote freely what was in his mind, and then set to work as an artist to bring it under the alphabetic scheme. This chapter, it may be stated, has more the character of a prayer than any other, and the prayer begins with recapitulating the woes of Judah as a ground for the compassion of Jehovah.
Our inheritance is turned to strangers, our houses to aliens.(2) Turned.—Used here as in the sense of transferred.
Houses.—In Jer. Iii. 13, the Chaldæans are said to have burnt the houses of Jerusalem, and those of the great men elsewhere; here, therefore, the “houses” spoken of are those of the farmers and peasants in the country.
We are orphans and fatherless, our mothers are as widows.(3) Our mothers are as widows—i.e., their husbands, though living, were carried into exile, and they were as destitute as though they had been deprived of them by death. The Chaldee paraphrase gives the same meaning to the last clause also, “We are like orphans.”
We have drunken our water for money; our wood is sold unto us.(4) Our water . . . our wood.—The point of the complaint lies in the possessive pronoun. The Chaldæan conquerors were in possession of the country, and the very necessaries of life, which had been looked on as the common property of all, were only to be had for money. In the Hebrew of the first clause the fact appears yet more emphatically: Our water comes to us for money. The words have been referred by some commentators to the sufferings of the exiles in Egypt, but the context fits in better with the idea of the hardships of those who were left in Judah.
Our necks are under persecution: we labour, and have no rest.(5) Our necks are under persecution.—Better, were under pursuit: i.e., the enemies were pressing close on them, always, as in our English phrase, at their very heels.
We have given the hand to the Egyptians, and to the Assyrians, to be satisfied with bread.(6) We have given the hand.—The recognised phrase for submission (Jeremiah 1:15). “Assyria,” as in Jeremiah 2:18; Ezra 6:22, stands for “Babylon.” The people had been forced by sheer pressure of hunger to submit to one or other of these princes. “Egypt” refers, probably, to the fugitives who had sought a home in that country (Jeremiah 42:14).
Our fathers have sinned, and are not; and we have borne their iniquities.(7) We have borne their iniquities.—The words seem at first parallel to the proverb of the “sour grapes” in Jeremiah 31:29; Ezekiel 18:2. Here, however, it is followed in Lamentations 5:16 by a confession of personal guilt, and the complaint is simply that the former generation of offenders had passed away without the punishment which now fell upon their descendants, who thus had to bear, as it were, a double penalty.
Servants have ruled over us: there is none that doth deliver us out of their hand.(8) Servants have ruled over us.—The Chaldæans, it would seem, added insult to injury, sending as rulers those who had filled menial offices in the courts of their kings. (Comp. Jeremiah 39:3.)
We gat our bread with the peril of our lives because of the sword of the wilderness.(9) The sword of the wilderness.—Another element of suffering is hinted at. Those who were left in the land were attacked, as they gathered in their scanty harvest, by the nomad tribes of the wilderness. Amalekites, Midianites, and others. (Comp. Jeremiah 40:14.)
Our skin was black like an oven because of the terrible famine.(10) Our skin was black . . .-Better, fiery red, and for “terrible famine,” the fever-blast of famine. The words paint the hot fever of hunger rather than the livid paleness of exhaustion.
Princes are hanged up by their hand: the faces of elders were not honoured.(12) Princes are hanged . . .—The words point to the shameless exposure of the bodies of the dead. (Comp. the treatment of Saul and his sons in 1Samuel 31:10-12.) This was the common practice of the Assyrian kings (Records of the Past, i. 38). Neither age nor dignity (both are implied in the word “elders”) was any safeguard against atrocities, either in life or death.
They took the young men to grind, and the children fell under the wood.(13) They took . . .—Better, Young men bear the mill: i.e., were not only set to grind the handmill, which was itself the work of a menial slave, commonly of women, but were made to carry the mill itself, probably as they marched along with the Chaldæan armies on their way to Babylon. (Comp. Isaiah 47:2.) So in like manner the next clause describes the sufferings of the striplings, who were made to carry the wood which was used as fuel or other purposes, and who literally “fell” (or staggered) under their burdens.
The elders have ceased from the gate, the young men from their musick.(14) Have ceased from the gate.—The gate in an Eastern city was the natural place of meeting for the elder citizens as for counsel and judgment (Ruth 4:1; Joshua 20:4), and also for social converse (Job 29:7; Proverbs 31:23). The “music” of this verse and the “dancing” of the next point to a like interruption of the social joys of the young.
The crown is fallen from our head: woe unto us, that we have sinned!(16) The crown is fallen.—The phrase is naturally symbolic of degradation, and need not be restricted to the destruction of the Temple or the devastation of Jerusalem.
We have sinned!—The confession of personal sinfulness produced by the contemplation of the miseries of the people contrasts, as has been already noticed, with the half-complaining tone of Lamentations 5:7.
For this our heart is faint; for these things our eyes are dim.(17) For this . . . for these things.—The first clause refers to the loss of national honour indicated in Lamentations 5:16; the latter, to all the horrors named in Lamentations 5:8-15.
Because of the mountain of Zion, which is desolate, the foxes walk upon it.(18) Foxes.—Better, jackals, who are thought of as haunting the ruins of Jerusalem. (Comp. Psalm 63:10.)
Thou, O LORD, remainest for ever; thy throne from generation to generation.(19) Thou, O Lord, remainest.—Literally, Thou sittest: i.e., as the next clause shows, upon a throne. The lamentation is drawing to its close, and the mourner finds comfort in the thought of the eternity of God (Psalm 102:12), and therefore the unchangeableness of His purpose of love towards His people.
Wherefore dost thou forget us for ever, and forsake us so long time?(20) Wherefore dost thou forget . . .—This was the problem of the mystery of suffering then, as it has been at all times. Jehovah had seemed forgetful of His people, indifferent to their miseries.
Turn thou us unto thee, O LORD, and we shall be turned; renew our days as of old.(21) Turn thou us . . . O Lord . . .—The answer to the problem was found in man’s submission and in prayer. He could not turn himself, and so re-establish the old filial relation. He could ask God to turn him, and he felt that the prayer would not be asked in vain.
But thou hast utterly rejected us; thou art very wroth against us.(22) But thou hast . . .—The Authorised version represents the mourner as falling back from the hopeful prayer into the depths of despair. For “but” we should, however, read unless. The hypothesis of utter rejection is just stated as the only thing that could prevent renewal and restoration, and it is stated as per impossible; God has not rejected, and therefore He will renew.
It may be noted that in Synagogue use, and in many MSS., Lamentations 5:21 is repeated after Lamentations 5:22, so that the book may not end with words of so terrible a significance. The same practice obtained in the case of the last verse of Isaiah, Ecclesiastes, and Malachi.