Lamentations 4 COMMENTARY (Ellicott)

Lamentations 4
Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
How is the gold become dim! how is the most fine gold changed! the stones of the sanctuary are poured out in the top of every street.

(1) How is the gold . . .—The chapter, considered as a distinct poem, reproduces in its general character that of Lamentations 1, 2, differing from them, however, in tracing more fully the connection between the sufferings and the sins of Judah. The “gold” and the stones of holiness are none other than the material treasures of palace or temple, and the repetition of the phrase “in the top of every street,” used in Lamentations 2:19 of children, seems intended to indicate that the words include all that was most precious among the possessions of Jerusalem.

The precious sons of Zion, comparable to fine gold, how are they esteemed as earthen pitchers, the work of the hands of the potter!
(2) The precious sons of Zion . . .—The adjective is applied not to a special class, priests, nobles, or the like, but to all the sons of Zion” in their ideal character as a “kingdom of priests” (Exodus 19:6). They had been “comparable to” (literally, weighed with), i.e., equal to their weight in, fine gold, the work of God. Now they had became as “earthen pitchers,” the work of the potter. We note the comparison as characteristic of the writer (Jeremiah 18:1-6; Jeremiah 19:1-10).

Even the sea monsters draw out the breast, they give suck to their young ones: the daughter of my people is become cruel, like the ostriches in the wilderness.
(3) Even the sea monsters . . .—Better, jackals. The Authorised Version is intended apparently to apply to cetaceous mammals; elsewhere (Jeremiah 14:6) the word is rendered “dragons.” “Jackals,” it may be noted, are combined with “owls” or ostriches,” as they are here, in Job 30:29; Isaiah 13:21. A like reference to the seeming want of maternal instinct in the ostrich is found in Job 39:16. The comparison was obviously suggested by facts like those referred to in Lamentations 2:20.

The tongue of the sucking child cleaveth to the roof of his mouth for thirst: the young children ask bread, and no man breaketh it unto them.
They that did feed delicately are desolate in the streets: they that were brought up in scarlet embrace dunghills.
(5) They that were brought up . . .—Literally, that were carried (as children are carried). “Scarlet” as in 2 Samuel 1:24, stands for the shawls or garments of the rich, dyed, as they were, in the Tyrian purple or crimson. Those that had been once wrapped in such shawls now threw themselves, “embracing” them as their only refuge, on dunghills.

For the punishment of the iniquity of the daughter of my people is greater than the punishment of the sin of Sodom, that was overthrown as in a moment, and no hands stayed on her.
(6) The punishment of the iniquity.—Better, The iniquity of the daughter of my people was greater than the sin of Sodom. The words in both cases point to guilt rather than its penalty, though, as the context shows, the greatness of the former is inferred from that of the latter. The point of comparison was that Sodom was not doomed to a protracted misery, like that which had been the lot of Jerusalem.

No hands stayed on her . . .—Literally, no hands went round about her: i.e., her destruction was the direct work of God, and not of human agents, with their more merciless tortures. (Comp. 2 Samuel 24:14.) The main thought may be noticed as reproduced in Matthew 10:15; Matthew 11:24.

Her Nazarites were purer than snow, they were whiter than milk, they were more ruddy in body than rubies, their polishing was of sapphire:
(7) Her Nazarites . . .—The word has been rendered “princes” by some commentators, on the ground that it means literally those who are “separated” from their brethren (Genesis 49:26; Deuteronomy 33:16), whether by rank or by the vows of consecration. There is no reason, however, for abandoning the rendering of the Authorised version. The reference to the Nazarites in Amos 2:11-12 shows that they were prominent as a body during the history of the monarchy, and the drift of Jeremiah’s mind, as seen in his admiration of the Rechabites (Jeremiah 35), shows that he was likely to think of them with reverence. The temperance, purity, cleanliness of such a body seem to have made them conspicuous among their fellows for an almost angelic beauty. (Comp. the interesting parallel of Daniel 1:15.) They had the red and white complexion which was in the East the ideal of comeliness (1 Samuel 17:42; Song Song of Solomon 5:10). Their “polishing” (better, their form) was faultless, like that of a well cut sapphire. For “rubies” read coral.

Their visage is blacker than a coal; they are not known in the streets: their skin cleaveth to their bones; it is withered, it is become like a stick.
(8) Their visage is blacker . . .—We look, as it were, on the two pictures: the bloom and beauty of health, the wan, worn, spectral looks of starvation.

They that be slain with the sword are better than they that be slain with hunger: for these pine away, stricken through for want of the fruits of the field.
(9) For want of . . .—The italics indicate the difficulty of the sentence. Literally the clause stands, from the fruits of the field, and it has been explained by some as referring to those that died in battle, stricken through while yet there were fruits, i.e., not doomed to perish slowly from hunger. The construction of Psalm 109:24, however, “faileth of fatness”—i.e., for want of fatness—gives a sufficient support to the Authorised version.

The hands of the pitiful women have sodden their own children: they were their meat in the destruction of the daughter of my people.
(10) The hands of the pitiful women.—See Note on Lamentations 2:20.

The LORD hath accomplished his fury; he hath poured out his fierce anger, and hath kindled a fire in Zion, and it hath devoured the foundations thereof.
(11) And hath kindled a fire . . .—The phrase is partly literal (2 Chronicles 36:19), partly figurative, for the complete destruction of Jerusalem by the wrath of Jehovah.

The kings of the earth, and all the inhabitants of the world, would not have believed that the adversary and the enemy should have entered into the gates of Jerusalem.
(12) Would not have believed.—In. looking to the fact that Jerusalem had been taken by Shishak (1 Kings 14:26), Joash (2 Kings 14:13), the statement seems at first hyperbolical. It has to be remembered, however, that since the latter of these two the city had been strongly fortified by Uzziah, Hezekiah, and Manasseh, and the failure of Sennacherib’s attempt had probably led to the impression that it was impregnable.

For the sins of her prophets, and the iniquities of her priests, that have shed the blood of the just in the midst of her,
(13) That have shed the blood of the just . . .—The words point to incidents like the death of Zechariah the son of Jehoiada (2 Chronicles 24:21); the “innocent blood” shed by Manasseh (2 Kings 21:16); the attempts on Jeremiah’s own life (Jeremiah 26:7); possibly to some unrecorded atrocities during the siege on the part of the priests and false prophets, who looked on the true prophets as traitors (Jeremiah 26:23).

They have wandered as blind men in the streets, they have polluted themselves with blood, so that men could not touch their garments.
(14) They have wandered . . .—Literally, reeled. The blindness, i.e., either that of the insatiable lust of blood, or of hopeless despair, or both. (Comp. Deuteronomy 28:28; Jeremiah 23:12; Isaiah 29:10.) The horror of the picture is heightened by the fact that the very garments of the priests were so dripping with blood that men shrank from touching them.

They cried unto them, Depart ye; it is unclean; depart, depart, touch not: when they fled away and wandered, they said among the heathen, They shall no more sojourn there.
(15) They cried unto themi.e., these, as they passed, cried to the blood-stained priests. The cry “unclean” was that uttered by the leper as a warning to those he met (Leviticus 13:45). Here it comes from those whom they meet, and who start back in their fear of defilement.

When they fled away.—The words seem to refer to some lost facts, like those suggested by Lamentations 4:14 : the murderers fleeing from their own countrymen, and finding themselves equally abhorred among the heathen.

The anger of the LORD hath divided them; he will no more regard them: they respected not the persons of the priests, they favoured not the elders.
(16) The anger of the Lord.—Literally, the face, as the symbol of wrath.

They respected not.—The subject of the verbs has to be supplied. The enemies, or the heathen, or men in general, ceased to feel any reverence for the fugitive priests and elders.

As for us, our eyes as yet failed for our vain help: in our watching we have watched for a nation that could not save us.
(17) As for us . . .—Better, Still do our eyes waste away, looking for our vain help.

In our watching.—Better, upon our watch-tower. (Comp. Habakkuk 2:1.) The people of Judah are represented as looking out for the approach of an ally, probably Egypt (Jeremiah 37:7), and looking in vain.

They hunt our steps, that we cannot go in our streets: our end is near, our days are fulfilled; for our end is come.
(18) They hunt our steps.—Better, They lie in wait. The words probably point to the posts occupied here and there near the wide places of the city, which led people to avoid them through fear of being attacked. The only cry possible at such a time was that “all was over.”

Our persecutors are swifter than the eagles of the heaven: they pursued us upon the mountains, they laid wait for us in the wilderness.
(19) Our persecutors.—Better, Our pursuers, the words referring to the Chaldæan enemies rather than to persecutors in the modern sense of the word. The comparison with eagles has a parallel in Deuteronomy 28:49. If we take the second clause as referring to the flight of Zedekiah, mentioned in the next verse, the mountains would be the heights east of Jerusalem, beginning with the Mount of Olives, and the wilderness that of the Ghor, or Jordan Valley (Jeremiah 39:5).

The breath of our nostrils, the anointed of the LORD, was taken in their pits, of whom we said, Under his shadow we shall live among the heathen.
(20) The breath of our nostrils.—The “breath of life” of Genesis 2:7. The phrase emphasises the ideal character of the king as the centre of the nation’s life. So Seneca (Clement. i. 4) speaks of a ruler as the spiritus vitalis of his people.

Of whom we said.—The words that follow point to the scheme which was rendered abortive by Zedekiah’s capture. Those who followed him had hoped to find a refuge among some friendly neighbouring nation, where they might at least have maintained the continuity of their national existence, and waited for better days.

Rejoice and be glad, O daughter of Edom, that dwellest in the land of Uz; the cup also shall pass through unto thee: thou shalt be drunken, and shalt make thyself naked.
(21) O daughter of Edom.—The triumph of Edom in the downfall of Zion was, as in Psalms 137, the crowning sorrow of the mourner. But with this sorrow there is a vision of judgment, which is also a vision of hope; the prophet returning to his favourite image of the wine-cup (Jeremiah 25:17). On the “Land of Uz” see Notes on Job 1:1, Jeremiah 25:20.

Shalt make thyself naked.—See Note on Lamentations 1:8, and comp. Nahum 3:5 for a bolder form of the same image.

The punishment of thine iniquity is accomplished, O daughter of Zion; he will no more carry thee away into captivity: he will visit thine iniquity, O daughter of Edom; he will discover thy sins.
(22) Is accomplished.—The mourner shares in the Messianic hopes of Isaiah 40:2, and expresses it nearly in the same words.

He will no more carry thee away.—Interpreted by later history, the words take their place in the list of unfulfilled prophecies, for, like all promises, they were dependent upon implied conditions, and in the rejection of the Christ by the Jews of His time there was a sin which involved a forfeiture of the blessing, and made the chastisement of a prolonged guilt necessary. For five centuries, however, the prophet’s words held good, and there was no thorough “dispersion” of the Jews till after the Roman conquest.

He will discover thy sins.—To cover sins is to forgive them (Psalm 32:1; Psalm 32:5; Psalm 85:2; so to dis or un-cover sins is, therefore, to punish them.

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