This chapter is very similar to Lamentations 2. Like Lamentations 1 and 2, it begins with the word “how” (Lam 1:1; 2:1). The difference is that each verse consists of four lines rather than six. The chapter consists of laments before the LORD and it is about oneself and not about others. It deals with the glorious past and the disastrous present of Zion.
1 - 10 Past and Present
1 How dark the gold has become,
[How] the pure gold has changed!
The sacred stones are poured out
At the corner of every street.
2 The precious sons of Zion,
Weighed against fine gold,
How they are regarded as earthen jars,
The work of a potter’s hands!
3 Even jackals offer the breast,
They nurse their young;
[But] the daughter of my people has become cruel
Like ostriches in the wilderness.
4 The tongue of the infant cleaves
To the roof of its mouth because of thirst;
The little ones ask for bread,
[But] no one breaks [it] for them.
5 Those who ate delicacies
Are desolate in the streets;
Those reared in purple
Embrace ash pits.
6 For the iniquity of the daughter of my people
Is greater than the sin of Sodom,
Which was overthrown as in a moment,
And no hands were turned toward her.
7 Her consecrated ones were purer than snow,
They were whiter than milk;
They were more ruddy [in] body than corals,
Their polishing [was like] lapis lazuli.
8 Their appearance is blacker than soot,
They are not recognized in the streets;
Their skin is shriveled on their bones,
It is withered, it has become like wood.
9 Better are those slain with the sword
Than those slain with hunger;
For they pine away, being stricken
For lack of the fruits of the field.
10 The hands of compassionate women
Boiled their own children;
They became food for them
Because of the destruction of the daughter of my people.
In verse 1 it is about the building of the temple – the once magnificent golden building, the magnificent dwelling place of God – which has now been robbed of its golden luster. Gold and fine gold are indications of what is very precious and shiny. That luster is gone. The entire sanctuary has been demolished. The large stones are scattered throughout the city. We see here again the characteristic trait of the lament: the juxtaposition of the glorious past and the ruinous present.
In verse 2, it is about the inhabitants of Jerusalem. They, like the gold of the temple, are precious. They were intended by the LORD to be His “own possession”, to be for Him “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exo 19:5-6). But nothing is left of their luster either. They have degenerated into fragile pottery that is carelessly thrown away because of its uselessness. Again, the prosperous past is contrasted with the disastrous present.
The theme of the children comes up again and again (verse 3). They are the most suffering, the hardest hit. Jackals have even more feeling for their young than the inhabitants of Jerusalem. They are like ostriches. Ostriches do not care about their young (Job 39:13-18). This is the result of Nebuchadnezzar’s destruction which in turn is the result of the sins of the people. The children are not looked after (verse 4). There are no natural feelings with the cruel enemy, but also no longer with the people. The infant is not given the breast and pleading older children are ignored.
Even the rich and princes, who have been used to luxury, have nothing left of their wealth (verse 5). They have no food. Once they prostrated themselves on precious cushions, now they sit in the ash pit, surrounded by it and embracing it (cf. Job 2:8).
In verse 6 we hear the cause of the misery from the mouth of Jeremiah. It has been said before. Yet it is not a repetition, for it goes deeper. It is not the description of a condition, but of its cause: the sin of the people which is greater than that of Sodom.
What the iniquities are is not mentioned. It is mentioned earlier that the sins of Jerusalem are similar to those of Sodom (Isa 1:10; Jer 23:14; Eze 16:46-48), but here they are presented as greater than those of Sodom. The cause is the greater responsibility that Jerusalem has. They have knowledge of the LORD and more privileges. They have not lived by these, but on the contrary have abused the privileges (cf. Amos 3:2; Lk 12:47-48a).
Sodom was judged by sudden destruction, and no human hand was involved in that either (Gen 19:25; cf. Dan 2:34,45). The judgment on Jerusalem is more severe. Jerusalem suffers constantly and that from the part of men. she suffered many months of siege and its inhabitants were finally ruthlessly killed by the enemies.
“Her consecrated ones” (verse 7) is literally “her Nazarites”, a word used for one who is set apart from his contemporaries by a special characteristic (Gen 49:26; Deu 33:16). Here it is the made-up ladies and gentlemen who passed gracefully through the city. They no longer have anything of the former elegance. The features white and red are features with which the bride describes the bridegroom in Song of Songs (Song 5:10a). They are the characteristics that the Bridegroom placed on Jerusalem, but there is nothing left of them.
All beauty – of which white skin is a sign – has disappeared. In its place has come repulsive blackness (verse 8; cf. Song 1:5-6a). They have become even more lackluster than something covered with soot (Job 30:30). Their faces are so distorted that they are no longer acknowledged. They walk like skeletons. Their skin that glowed with oil is all wilted like that of old people.
The sword provides a quick death, but death by hunger is preceded by a long suffering (verse 9). Just as others are pierced by the sword and die quickly, so they are mortally wounded by lack of food and die slowly.
The distress caused by famine can be so great that it drives people insane (verse 10). In their madness, women who were once merciful now unmercifully cook their own children (Lam 2:20; 2Kgs 6:25-29; cf. Isa 49:15; Jer 19:9). They eat their children as comfort bread, burial bread (Jer 16:17; Eze 24:17; Hos 9:4). “The daughter” is sometimes the city itself and sometimes the inhabitants.
11 - 16 Confession of the Cause of Misery
11 The LORD has accomplished His wrath,
He has poured out His fierce anger;
And He has kindled a fire in Zion
Which has consumed its foundations.
12 The kings of the earth did not believe,
Nor [did] any of the inhabitants of the world,
That the adversary and the enemy
Could enter the gates of Jerusalem.
13 Because of the sins of her prophets
[And] the iniquities of her priests,
Who have shed in her midst
The blood of the righteous;
14 They wandered, blind, in the streets;
They were defiled with blood
So that no one could touch their garments.
15 “Depart! Unclean!” they cried of themselves.
“Depart, depart, do not touch!”
So they fled and wandered;
[Men] among the nations said,
“They shall not continue to dwell [with us].”
16 The presence of the LORD has scattered them,
He will not continue to regard them;
They did not honor the priests,
They did not favor the elders.
In these verses we hear a detailed confession of the cause of the misery. All this befalls Zion because the LORD has accomplished His wrath (verse 11). “Accomplished” means ‘completed’, ‘fully expressed’. Hence this dire fate. The LORD has destroyed Zion with the fire of His anger. Not Nebuchadnezzar, but He has kindled the fire that has consumed the foundations of the city, so that there is no foundation left to be called a city.
Everyone knows that Jerusalem was a strong, impregnable city (verse 12). It was unthinkable that it would be taken. Yet that is what happened now, because God’s holiness was not reckoned with. He cannot let sin go unpunished, even among His chosen city and people.
The cause of the city’s condition is the sins and iniquities of the spiritual leaders of the people, the false prophets and priests (verse 13). God has had to cancel His protection of the city. On her sticks the blood of the righteous who have perished with the unrighteous.
The prophets are the false prophets, who instead of showing God’s will to the people have prophesied what has arisen in their own hearts and is pleasing to men. The priests have had to explain God’s law, but have become the grossest lawbreakers and have gone ahead the people on a path of sin that has caused this judgment.
This select company of prophets and priests have blood on their hands. They have killed those who warned them of the coming judgment (cf. Mt 23:35). And not only that. They have silenced the warning voices so that judgment has become inevitable.
These deceivers wander in the streets like blind men (verse 14). They look terrible in their blood-stained garment. It is the outward sign of their conduct in which they have shed the blood of righteous people. They bear the mark of Cain and must be treated as lepers (verse 15).
The prestige they had among the people is completely gone. The people who are themselves unclean because of their sins are now driving out these false prophets and priests. The misguided people cry out in anger to them that they must go away. They shout what lepers are obliged to shout of themselves (Lev 13:45). As if they were lepers, they are driven out by all. They are not granted a place to stay among the nations in exile.
In verse 16 the second confession of sin ends, which is at the same time a confession of faith. In fact, the false confessors are scattered not by the people, but by the LORD, so that they can no longer exercise their evil influence. It is because they have not been honoring the true priests and did not favor the elders.
17 - 20 Lamentation About Dashed Hope
17 Yet our eyes failed,
[Looking] for help was useless;
In our watching we have watched
For a nation that could not save.
18 They hunted our steps
So that we could not walk in our streets;
Our end drew near,
Our days were finished
For our end had come.
19 Our pursuers were swifter
Than the eagles of the sky;
They chased us on the mountains,
They waited in ambush for us in the wilderness.
20 The breath of our nostrils, the LORD’s anointed,
Was captured in their pits,
Of whom we had said, “Under his shadow
We shall live among the nations.”
In verses 17-18 we read something about the siege, about the feelings during the siege. They looked forward to Egypt to deliver them (Jer 37:5,11), but in vain (verse 17). Jeremiah warned them not to trust in Egypt (Jer 2:36b). Again and again they made that mistake of relying on a carnal arm. Jeremiah here again makes himself one with the people.
Their enemies are onto them. They could no longer show themselves outside, for then they would be struck by the arrows of the enemy (verse 18). They saw that their end drew near (cf. Eze 7:1-4). They no longer doubted that. But they did not take refuge in the LORD.
In verses 19-20 we read the second description about the end of the siege. Some tried to escape, but were seized (verse 19). That happened to Zedekiah. He and the little group that wanted to flee experienced how fast the enemy is (Deu 28:49; Jer 48:40; Hab 1:8).
“The LORD’s anointed” is Zedekiah. It does not refer to him as a person, but to his office, just as Saul was the LORD’s anointed (1Sam 10:1; 24:7,11; cf. 1Sam 16:3; 2Sam 23:1; 1Kgs 1:34; 2Kgs 11:12). He was the breath of life of the people (cf. Gen 2:7; 7:22). He was the natural hope of his people, under whose “shadow”, i.e., his protection (Jdg 9:15; Isa 30:2), they wanted to live. If they had trusted in the LORD, they would have been safe in His shadow (Psa 91:1).
21 - 22 Edom and Zion
21 Rejoice and be glad, O daughter of Edom,
Who dwells in the land of Uz;
[But] the cup will come around to you as well,
You will become drunk and make yourself naked.
22 [The punishment] of your iniquity has been completed, O daughter of Zion;
He will exile you no longer.
[But] He will punish your iniquity, O daughter of Edom;
He will expose your sins!
Edom is the greatest enemy of the people, with the greatest gloating. Edom will be judged and Zion saved, says the prophet Obadiah. Here Edom is called to gloat because it still is possible (verse 21; Psa 137:7; Eze 25:12). He represents all the enemies of God’s people (Isa 34:1-8).
At the same time, Edom is told that he too will come to his end. It is a comfort to Zion to know that the enemy who now laughs will also be judged by the LORD (Jer 49:12). The cup of God’s wrath will be given to him to drink. That will make him naked and disgraced (cf. Gen 9:21).
There will come a time when for God’s people iniquity will be over and they will be free from the exile and they will never be led into it again (verse 22). For God’s people, judgment will not have the last word. The opposite will be the fate of Edom. Jeremiah pronounces this with the greatest certainty. So it will be with all the enemies of Israel.