This chapter has two parts: verses 1-11 and verses 12-22. In verses 1-11 we have a general description of the misery after the destruction of Jerusalem. It describes life in the land after the destruction. It is the condition of the few who remained in the land. The verses are written in the third person singular, recorded from the mouth of an observer and at the same time directly affected.
In verses 12-22 we hear Zion’s lament about what the LORD has done. These verses are written in the first person singular, recorded from the mouth of the prophet who is expressing the feelings of the suffering city. It is someone who is overwhelmed with sadness, grief and pain. But there is no rebellion, for one’s own guilt is confessed as the cause of this misery.
A division into smaller units or pericopes is difficult. The poet, guided by the Spirit, by using the alphabet has made a division that actually makes each verse a separate pericope. We can, however, cautiously try to discover whether there is a certain connection between certain verses after all, creating pericopes larger than those indicated by the alphabet. The following classification is therefore no more than a suggestion that hopefully will help to better understand the coherence of this book.
1 - 3 City and Land in Deep Sorrow
1 How lonely sits the city
That was full of people!
She has become like a widow
Who was [once] great among the nations!
She who was a princess among the provinces
Has become a forced laborer!
2 She weeps bitterly in the night
And her tears are on her cheeks;
She has none to comfort her
Among all her lovers.
All her friends have dealt treacherously with her;
They have become her enemies.
3 Judah has gone into exile under affliction
And under harsh servitude;
She dwells among the nations,
[But] she has found no rest;
All her pursuers have overtaken her
In the midst of distress.
We see in verse 1a characteristic of the book of Lamentations and that is the contrast between the brilliant past and the desolate present. The city is described in the change that has occurred. It has changed in terms of population (verse 1a) and in economic (verse 1b) and social (verse 1c) terms.
1. Verse 1a. The once populous city, in which there were also many pilgrims during the great feasts, is now “lonely”. It has been robbed of most of its inhabitants through strife and deportation.
2. Verse 1b. Once the city was great among the nations. She was so because of the God Who she had and by kings whom He gave. This was especially so in the days of David and Solomon (cf. Psa 48:2). Now she is without protection and help, she no longer has a husband, but is a vulnerable widow. She experiences it this way, that God has been taken away from her.
3. Verse 1c. She used to be a princess, great in esteem in her surroundings. She, who has ruled over others, is now a slave of the king of Babylon.
In the night, sorrow is most strongly felt and expressed (verse 2). There is no moment of rest in the night, which serves to sleep and rest. It is also night in her entire existence. Incessantly, grief is felt and tears flow. Her cheeks are permanently full of them. It is not that she cries herself to sleep. A strong burst of crying can be a relief. That is not the case here.
Tears that usually dry quickly do not get the chance to do so, because they continue to flow, making them stick to the cheeks as it were. There is no one to dry them either. She weeps not only because of her suffering, but more so because she has been betrayed by her “lovers” and “friends” (cf. Jer 4:30c).
The grief is aggravated because there is no comforter (cf. Ecc 4:1). That she is without a comforter, that is, without God as her Comforter (verse 16), runs like a thread – perhaps better: sounds with the regularity of the striking of a death bell – through this chapter (verses 9,16,17,21).
The issue is not so much that some treasonous act was committed by Judah’s allies, but more that the people were ashamed of their trust in those allies. They should have trusted in the LORD for their safety. However, they did not, for they sought their help from the nations around them (Hos 8:9-10a; 1Kgs 15:16-20).
The prophets have always warned that such covenants lead to apostasy (Hos 5:13; 8:8,11; 14:3). But both the leaders of the northern ten tribes realm and those of the southern two tribes realm would not listen. Jerusalem had to learn that such friends are a broken reed (Eze 29:6-7). This is a lesson that all of us also need to learn more often in our lives.
The most difficult thing for lamenting people is to find comfort in someone who really understands something of the grief and helps to bear it. In any case, the former lovers of Jerusalem, with whom she dealt adulterously and with whom she made alliances, cannot give that comfort. But her former friends do not give comfort either; on the contrary, they treat her as an enemy. She sought love and friendship from others than from the LORD. Such love and friendship always disappoint.
From Jerusalem, Jeremiah now turns to Judah (verse 3). The people of Judah are no longer in the land. She has been led into exile, where she is in misery and harsh servitude. She lives outside the land, among the nations. She is a displaced person, away from the place of rest and therefore restless. The true rest, that of the realm of peace, is far away. Enemies control the place of rest. Zedekiah and some soldiers did try to escape the exile by fleeing, but they were overtaken by the enemy (Jer 39:4-5).
4 - 6 The City, Formerly Full of Feast and Joy
4 The roads of Zion are in mourning
Because no one comes to the appointed feasts.
All her gates are desolate;
Her priests are groaning,
Her virgins are afflicted,
And she herself is bitter.
5 Her adversaries have become her masters,
Her enemies prosper;
For the LORD has caused her grief
Because of the multitude of her transgressions;
Her little ones have gone away
As captives before the adversary.
6 All her majesty
Has departed from the daughter of Zion;
Her princes have become like deer
That have found no pasture;
And they have fled without strength
Before the pursuer.
In these verses the prophet looks back to earlier, better days. Against that backdrop, the present misery comes out all the more poignant. The roads of Zion, that is, the roads that lead to Zion, used to be full of those who come “to the appointed feasts” (verse 4). Now they lie desolate, for no one goes up to Zion anymore, nor can they, for the people are in exile.
To emphasize the desolation, the roads are represented as persons who “in mourning” because of the desolation. Three times a year the feasting people covered the roads with song as they went up to Jerusalem for the feasts of the LORD. Now these roads mourn because no one goes up to Jerusalem for the feast anymore. There are no more people.
The gates of the city are in ruins, and when the gates are in ruins, the city is also in ruins. It is an open city; anyone who wants to can walk right in. The gates are the places where justice was spoken (Rth 4:1). But there is no more justice. The gates were also where social intercourse took place and markets were held. It was the meeting place between the pilgrim and the city (Psa 122:2). All that is over.
The priests who were leading the people in idolatry see the result of their false pursuits and sigh. The few faithful priests can no longer enter the temple, for it has been destroyed. The few young women who are still there, who provided singing at the great feasts (Psa 68:25; Jer 31:13), who also imagined life so very different, are saddened. For herself, that is the city, the society in it, everything is bitter.
Zion has been surrendered into the hand of her adversaries who are now her masters (verse 5; cf. Deu 28:13,44b-45). These now finally prosper (cf. Job 12:6). The thorn in their side, Jerusalem, has been destroyed. It is painful to be humiliated. It is extra painful to find that the enemy finds satisfaction in it.
Who really did it is the LORD. He has had to bring this sorrow upon her and to do so “because of the multitude of her transgressions”. Here, for the first time, the occasion of the misery is mentioned. It is the first statement – from the poet and not yet from Jerusalem itself – about the city’s transgressions and that the LORD therefore had to execute judgment. More such statements follow (verses 8,14,18,20,22). The people must come to this confession and seek the cause of judgment in themselves.
Immediately after this expression of faith, the poet again sees the prevailing distress and is again seized by it. He describes until the end of verse 6 what Jerusalem has lost. First he mentions the little children, the toddlers, the children of the covenant. It shows in a very penetrating way that the LORD has abandoned His people.
Several times in this book the children are mentioned (Lam 2:20; 4:4; cf. Jer 9:21). For them especially, the consequences are disastrous. They are the greatest victims of the unfaithfulness of a people or parents. They are chased into captivity before the adversary, torn away from their parents and from brothers and sisters. Little children must be eliminated so that they cannot grow up and in their adulthood become a danger to the occupying forces.
Of the splendor that the city, the “daughter Zion”, once possessed because of the glorious sanctuary in which the LORD dwelt (Psa 96:6), nothing remains, it has disappeared (verse 6). The princes, the people who ruled the city, have become hunted deer with nowhere to rest and pasture. The siege of the city has left them starving and powerless. They can’t even flee anymore, but are herded out like slaughter cattle before the persecutors.
7 - 8 Reflection
7 In the days of her affliction and homelessness
Jerusalem remembers all her precious things
That were from the days of old,
When her people fell into the hand of the adversary
And no one helped her.
The adversaries saw her,
They mocked at her ruin.
8 Jerusalem sinned greatly,
Therefore she has become an unclean thing.
All who honored her despise her
Because they have seen her nakedness;
Even she herself groans and turns away.
Jerusalem – here the name of the city is mentioned for the first time – is in misery and homelessness (verse 7). As for before, there are only memories of what she possessed then in many precious things. This only makes the situation sadder. When she was in possession of all those precious things, the enemy came and she fell into the hand of the adversary. Again and again she must think of that terrible moment.
There was no helper, which makes it even more dramatic. It is dramatic to be without a helper in the power of a ruthless enemy. It is in this condition that a people or a human being ends up when God is rejected as Helper (Hos 13:9). Then it also becomes apparent that such a situation, instead of arousing pity, gives gloating to the adversary, who rejoices at her downfall. This laughter is a hateful, evil, devilish laughter.
This change of situation is the result of her grievous sins, the guilt of which became greater and greater because those sins were repeated incessantly (verse 8). As a result, Jerusalem has become disgraced and stripped of all value and honor, while she now lies ‘naked’, that is without any means of protection, open to her enemies. Her nakedness is the punishment for her unfaithfulness to the LORD. We see here again the contrast between past and present. All those who used to revere her, with whom she had made covenants, and who now see her, despise her.
The city is always seen as a woman. In verse 1 she is a widow and here she is an unclean woman because of her monthly uncleanness, but she is also a naked woman. All she does is sigh and turn away, turn backwards. She has developed an aversion to herself. She does not want to see herself or know what others see of her.
9 - 11 The Present Condition as a Lament to God
9 Her uncleanness was in her skirts;
She did not consider her future.
Therefore she has fallen astonishingly;
She has no comforter.
“See, O LORD, my affliction,
For the enemy has magnified himself!”
10 The adversary has stretched out his hand
Over all her precious things,
For she has seen the nations enter her sanctuary,
The ones whom You commanded
That they should not enter into Your congregation.
11 All her people groan seeking bread;
They have given their precious things for food
To restore their lives themselves.
“See, O LORD, and look,
For I am despised.”
The poet compares the city to a woman in whom menstruation has stained her skirts, which is seen by everyone and evokes horror in everyone (verse 9). This refers to her idolatry by which she has become unclean, an uncleanness that clings to her whole walk. She has not thought at all about the consequences of her idolatry, what the end of it is, where it would end up and what it has ended up in now (cf. Deu 32:29; Isa 47:7). She did not consider that the LORD would intervene, although He had often warned her of this through His prophets.
The depth of misery into which the city sank because of her unfaithfulness was “astonishingly” (cf. Deu 28:43). She had never imagined this. “Astonishingly” means that God has acted in an astonishing way with her, causing her to sink into an unimaginable depth of misery. The depth into which the city sank has a supernatural origin in the eyes of the prophet. Following on from this, we read for the second time that she has no comforter, an observation that shows her misery even more emphatically.
In the last part of verse 9 we hear for the first time the city herself speak of her, “my”, affliction. Jeremiah here makes himself one with the city. He puts the words in the mouth of the city. The exclamation “see, O LORD” occurs two more times in this chapter (verses 11,20). The purpose of the exclamation is to point out to the LORD her affliction, so that when He sees it, surely this will arouse in Him compassion for her. She points out to Him that by humbling her the enemy makes himself great. Surely He, Who alone is truly “great”, cannot let that go unpunished.
The adversary not only disgraced Jerusalem, but he also reached out his hand to the valuables of the temple (verse 10; 2Chr 36:10; Jer 52:17-23). That nations have entered the sanctuary is a shocking thing and intolerable to a Jew (Psa 79:1; cf. Deu 23:3-4).
Foreigners were forbidden to enter the temple (Eze 44:7). People who were not even allowed to join the congregation of Israel had entered the sanctuary. That it could happen is because Jerusalem did not keep the sanctuary of her heart free from the destruction of the enemy of the soul. She has allowed the enemy to rob her spiritual treasures because she has become involved with the enemy and started serving his gods.
After the destruction of the city – and not during the siege – “all her people”, that is, the remaining population, sigh and are desperate for food (verse 11). The desperation is general. They have given all their valuables just to get some food. This revived them for a while and extended their lives (cf. Jdg 15:19; 1Sam 30:12). Now there is nothing left to give. Starvation is their future.
For the second time we read “see, O LORD” (verse 11; verse 9). It comes from the depths of her soul. It is not about calling His attention to the scorn as such, but to the depth and extent of it. She hopes this will move the LORD to compassion.
12 - 14 The LORD Has Done It, for the Sake of Sin
12 “Is it nothing to all you who pass this way?
Look and see if there is any pain like my pain
Which was severely dealt out to me,
Which the LORD inflicted on the day of His fierce anger.
13 “From on high He sent fire into my bones,
And it prevailed [over them].
He has spread a net for my feet;
He has turned me back;
He has made me desolate,
Faint all day long.
14 “The yoke of my transgressions is bound;
By His hand they are knit together.
They have come upon my neck;
He has made my strength fail.
The Lord has given me into the hands
Of [those against whom] I am not able to stand.
After the lament about Jerusalem in verses 1-11, in the second part of this chapter we hear the lament of Jerusalem (verses 12-22). That lament is not directed to the LORD, as in verse 11, but to those “who pass this way”, the nations around her who are represented as travelers passing along the roads of ruined Judah (verse 12).
Jeremiah, identifying himself with the city and speaking on her behalf, appeals to the passers-by to see if it does not affect them when they see the misery in which he, the city, finds himself. He urges them to look carefully and consider whether there is any suffering anywhere in the world comparable to the suffering that has been inflicted on her. He adds that he is aware, that this suffering is from the LORD and not from the enemies. The LORD has grieved her, but it is because His fierce anger had to come upon the guilty city.
The “day of His fierce anger” is the day of the LORD, the day announced as a day of judgment by Him through His prophets. This day will dawn in its fullness in the end times, when the LORD intervenes acting and judgingly in world events for the benefit of the remnant of His people who are suffering terribly, with the end result being the realm of peace. The day of the fall of Jerusalem is connected to the suffering in the end times.
Behind this speaking of Jeremiah about the misery in which he and the city find themselves, we also hear the Lord Jesus speaking. He has uniquely been in the fierce anger of God. This was not because of His sins – He did not do or know them – but because of the sins He took upon Himself of those who believe in Him. He is the true Man of sorrows, Who as no other has felt the unfaithfulness of His people. What makes Him infinitely greater than Jeremiah is that He has removed the deepest cause of this and will bring about a new situation that is completely in accordance with God’s will.
In verse 13 we have three pictures by which judgment is described. The pictures are very different and show no connection between them. This reinforces the impression of desperation.
The first picture is that of a “fire” that penetrates to the bones, that is, to the deepest interior and total. It is the expression of intense, unbearable suffering (Psa 102:3; Job 30:30). Jeremiah feels so identified with the destroyed city that he feels in his bones the fire of judgment that the LORD has sent and that He rules over it. He experiences the LORD as an adversary Who has ignited in anger against His people and His city.
The second is “a net”. This refers to the suddenness of the judgment. Judgment overwhelmed Jerusalem, just as a wild animal unexpectedly finds itself in a net that a hunter has stretched, into which it becomes entangled and from which it cannot free itself (cf. Psa 10:9; Hos 7:12; Eze 12:13; 19:8). Jeremiah sees before his feet a net by which he is caught. That net has been put there by the LORD (cf. Job 19:6). Jeremiah feels himself in the power of the hunter who forces him to turn backward.
The third picture is that of being “faint” as a result of judgment. He feels the desolation to which he has been given by the LORD. It makes him faint all day long, not knowing a moment’s relief from the pains and despair that plague him.
Here we hear a man deeply concerned with the suffering that has befallen the city. He has announced that suffering for many years and in many ways (Jer 11:16; 15:14; 17:4,27; 21:10,12,14; 22:7; 34:2,22; 37:8,10; 38:23), with the intention that Jerusalem would repent and she would be spared this suffering. Then, when it has come, he does not say reproachfully that he has said it all along anyway and that now she will get her due. No, he grieves deeply over the fulfillment of God’s judgment.
The yoke of transgressions weighs heavily on the city, on Jeremiah (verse 14). On the one hand, the city has woven this yoke itself through her sins. But it is also the LORD Who has done it and is placing it on her neck as a disciplinary measure. Sin pressing down on a man robs him of strength and causes him to stumble.
For Jeremiah, the discipline by the enemies comes from “the Lord”, Adonai, his sovereign Lord and Master. He is delivered by Him into the hands of the enemies. The acceptance of this ensures that the discipline has a complete effect. He cannot get up to go his own way. No form of resistance is possible. All freedom of movement is gone.
15 - 17 The people of Jerusalem
15 “The Lord has rejected all my strong men
In my midst;
He has called an appointed time against me
To crush my young men;
The Lord has trodden [as in] a wine press
The virgin daughter of Judah.
16 “For these things I weep;
My eyes run down with water;
Because far from me is a comforter,
One who restores my soul.
My children are desolate
Because the enemy has prevailed.”
17 Zion stretches out her hands;
There is no one to comfort her;
The LORD has commanded concerning Jacob
That the ones round about him should be his adversaries;
Jerusalem has become an unclean thing among them.
The powerful of the city are gone. They have been rejected by the Lord (verse 15). Jeremiah, or rather Jeremiah who identifies with Jerusalem, calls them “my strong men”. They have been rejected from the midst of the city. This is based on a decision of God. He has called an appointed time for that. It is a terrible appointed time. It is not an appointed time for the LORD, but of the enemies. The enemies have crushed the strength of the young men. In a picture of a virgin immediately following, the daughter of Judah is seen in a wine press being stepped on by the Lord. He judges her.
Wine belongs to a feast. The joy of wine is obtained by the treading of the grapes in the winepress, which is a picture of judgment (Isa 63:3; Joel 3:13; Rev 14:19). There is irony in the used pictures of feast and wine press. They arouse the thought of joy, jubilation, when it is a question of the judgment that has come in all its horror upon Jerusalem, “the virgin daughter of Judah”.
All this misery causes the prophet intense grief and a flood of tears (verse 16). He feels without comfort. The LORD, Who is his only Comforter, is so far away. And if He doesn’t comfort, who will? His sons, who are the children of His people, are appalled at the power of the enemy who can exercise it undisturbed over the city.
In verse 17, Jeremiah is again a spectator. He no longer speaks of ´I´, but of ´them´, which is Zion. He sees Zion spreading its hands to heaven, but having no comforter. Heaven is silent. Throughout this book we hear no answer from God. Jeremiah expresses the certainty that whatever befalls the people is commanded by the LORD. All suffering comes from Him. He has caused the bystanders to become opponents and Jerusalem to find support in no one. She has been given up by the LORD, abandoned, because she has become “an unclean thing”. She owes this to her own unfaithfulness to Him.
18 - 19 Reflection
18 “The LORD is righteous;
For I have rebelled against His command;
Hear now, all peoples,
And behold my pain;
My virgins and my young men
Have gone into captivity.
19 “I called to my lovers, [but] they deceived me;
My priests and my elders perished in the city
While they sought food to restore their strength themselves.
In these verses Jeremiah or the city speaks again, that is, the faithful remnant (verse 18). They are innocent, but bow their heads under judgment. It is precisely they who complain and bow down. The unbelieving multitude does not complain, but curses and rebels. The remnant makes itself one with the condition of the multitude.
He declares the LORD to be righteous in His dealings with the city (Jer 12:1) and with him, for he also knows himself to be guilty. Here, knowing God and knowing himself go hand in hand. He is no better than the masses. Yet because of his confession he can call the nations to look at his suffering (verse 12). That suffering is that the flower of the nation, “my virgins and my young men”, the hope of the future, has gone into captivity.
The city had put her hope in those who had an intimate relationship with her because of the profit they derived from her, with whom she had made an alliance (verse 19). But she has been deceived by it. In need, they all turned out to fail.
It was sinful to have lovers, for the LORD Himself was her Lover. Moreover, it was sinful to cry out to those lovers in distress instead of to the LORD. The prophet’s need to make himself one with the city is so great here that he takes both the first – the surrounding peoples as lovers – and the second – crying out to those lovers in their distress – for his account.
Even in the city, there is no help from people she first relied on, the priests and the elders. They also thought only of themselves and their own needs. There was no life left in them. They tried to get food in order to thereby “restore their strength”, that is, to revive themselves (verse 11). In doing so, these leaders did not remain alive. They expired and perished.
20 - 22 Prayer
20 “See, O LORD, for I am in distress;
My spirit is greatly troubled;
My heart is overturned within me,
For I have been very rebellious.
In the street the sword slays;
In the house it is like death.
21 “They have heard that I groan;
There is no one to comfort me;
All my enemies have heard of my calamity;
They are glad that You have done [it].
Oh, that You would bring the day which You have proclaimed,
That they may become like me.
22 “Let all their wickedness come before You;
And deal with them as You have dealt with me
For all my transgressions;
For my groans are many and my heart is faint.”
For the third time the cry “see, O LORD” is heard (verse 20; verses 9,11). Now this is no longer to focus attention on the misery or the enemies, but on himself. His spirit is afraid and he is full of turmoil inside. His heart is overturned within him. He is consumed with guilt over his disobedience which he fully acknowledges. Jeremiah is here again the voice of the city. He sees death everywhere. The children, by whom are meant here the inhabitants of the city, have been killed by the sword outside the house. As a result, the house is like dead now.
The enemy is always out to kill our children. He does this especially when they are outside the safe sphere of the home, when they need to be outside, in the world. He has also succeeded in penetrating the safe atmosphere of the homes of believers and sows death and destruction there as well.
The city is aware that the enemy hears her sighs of misery (verse 21). Her groaning is primarily that there is no comforter. The enemies perceive the city’s calamity and rejoice in it. They see that the hand of the LORD has smitten His people. The judgment that was to strike the people from the hand of enemies came from the hand of the LORD. That is what the enemies are saying here.
The people acknowledge that the LORD is indeed the Executor of judgment. He has caused the day to come that He has announced (Jer 4:9; 7:32-34; 17:16-18). The people also say that this judgment will also come on the enemies because of their wickedness. The enemies have carried out God’s judgment, but they have done it in an ungodly, selfish way and therefore the LORD will judge them as well.
Jeremiah reminds the LORD of all the evil that the enemies have done to him, that is the city of Jerusalem (verse 22). For this he asks the LORD that He will justly repay them in the same way that the LORD has done to him because of all his transgressions (cf. Jer 51:35). He is able to ask this because numerous sighs are uttered by him, indicating that he is bowing deeply under the discipline that has come upon him. His heart is thereby jaded and deeply dejected. He no longer boasts of anything.