Lamentations

Introduction

The sixth century B.C. was an age of crisis, a turning point in the history of Israel. With the destruction of the temple and the interruption of its ritual, the exile of the leaders and loss of national sovereignty, an era came to an end. Not long after the fall of Jerusalem (587) an eyewitness of the national humiliation composed these five laments. They combine confession of sin, grief over the suffering and humiliation of Zion, submission to merited chastisement, and strong faith in the constancy of Yahweh’s love and power to restore. The union of poignant grief and unquenchable hope reflects the constant prophetic vision of the weakness of man and the strength of God’s love; it also shows how Israel’s faith in Yahweh could survive the shattering experience of national ruin.

As a literary work, the Book of Lamentations is carefully constructed according to a familiar structural device. The first four poems are acrostics in which the separate stanzas begin with successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet from the first to the last. Far from destroying the spontaneous pathos of the songs, this literary feature permits a symbolic and disciplined expression of the profound grief, the sinful responsibility, and the enduring hope of the suffering community. The figure of Israel as the bride of Yahweh, familiar from the prophets, appears here again; but now Zion is a desolate widow, the Judaea Capta of Titus’ memorial coins, sustained only by the faith that God’s chastisement will eventually give place to his infinite compassion.

 

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Chapter 1

1

1 How lonely she is now, the once crowded city! Widowed is she who was mistress over nations; The princess among the provinces has been made a toiling slave.

2

Bitterly she weeps at night, tears upon her cheeks, With not one to console her of all her dear ones; Her friends have all betrayed her and become her enemies.

3

Judah has fled into exile from oppression and cruel slavery; Yet where she lives among the nations she finds no place to rest: All her persecutors come upon her where she is narrowly confined.

4

The roads to Zion mourn for lack of pilgrims going to her feasts; All her gateways are deserted, her priests groan, Her virgins sigh; she is in bitter grief.

5

Her foes are uppermost, her enemies are at ease; The LORD has punished her for her many sins. Her little ones have gone away, captive before the foe.

6

Gone from daughter Zion is all her glory: Her princes, like rams that find no pasture, Have gone off without strength before their captors.

7

Jerusalem is mindful of the days of her wretched homelessness, When her people fell into enemy hands, and she had no one to help her; When her foes gloated over her, laughed at her ruin.

8

Through the sin of which she is guilty, Jerusalem is defiled; All who esteemed her think her vile now that they see her nakedness; She herself groans and turns away.

9

Her filth is on her skirt; she gave no thought how she would end. Astounding is her downfall, with no one to console her. Look, O LORD, upon her misery, for the enemy has triumphed!

10

The foe stretched out his hand to all her treasures; She has seen those nations enter her sanctuary Whom you forbade to come into your assembly.

11

All her people groan, searching for bread; They give their treasures for food, to retain the breath of life. “Look O LORD, and see how worthless I have become!

12

“Come, all you who pass by the way, look and see Whether there is any suffering like my suffering, which has been dealt me When the LORD afflicted me on the day of his blazing wrath.

13

“From on high he sent fire down into my very frame; He spread a net for my feet, and overthrew me. He left me desolate, in pain all the day.

14

2 “He has kept watch over my sins; by his hand they have been plaited: They have settled about my neck, he has brought my strength to its knees; The Lord has delivered me into their grip, I am unable to rise.

15

“All the mighty ones in my midst the Lord has cast away; He summoned an army against me to crush my young men; The LORD has trodden in the wine press virgin daughter Judah.

16

“At this I weep, my eyes run with tears: Far from me are all who could console me, any who might revive me; My sons were reduced to silence when the enemy prevailed.”

17

Zion stretched out her hands, but there was no one to console her; The LORD gave orders against Jacob for his neighbors to be his foes; Jerusalem has become in their midst a thing unclean.

18

“The LORD is just; I had defied his command. Listen, all you peoples, and behold my suffering: My maidens and my youths have gone into captivity.

19

3 “I cried out to my lovers, but they failed me. My priests and my elders perished in the city; Where they sought food for themselves, they found it not.

20

“Look, O LORD, upon my distress: all within me is in ferment, My heart recoils within me from my monstrous rebellion. In the streets the sword bereaves, at home death stalks.

21

“Give heed to my groaning; there is no one to console me. All my enemies rejoice at my misfortune: it is you who have wrought it. Bring on the day you have proclaimed, that they may be even as I.

22

4 “Let all their evil come before you; deal with them As you have dealt with me for all my sins; My groans are many, and I am sick at heart.”

 

 



1 [1-22] In this poem the poet first describes Jerusalem’s miserable state after the destruction wrought by the Chaldeans ( Lam 1:1-11-12); in v 11b the city itself takes up the lament.

2 [14] They have been plaited . . . my neck: the sins of the people have been bound together and laid as a yoke on their back; cf Matthew 23:4.

3 [19] My lovers: Zion’s foreign allies, who failed to help her, as the prophets had warned.

4 [22] Zion fully acknowledges her guilt and the justness of divine punishment; nevertheless, she pleads that her enemies also be punished for their guilt.