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Coffman Commentaries on the Old and New Testament

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LAMENTATIONS 4

A LAMENT OVER WHAT HAPPENED TO JERUSALEM DURING THE TERRIBLE FAMINE SIEGE AND FAMINE

Lam. 4:1-10

How is the gold become dim!

How is the most pure gold changed!

The stones of the sanctuary are poured out

at the head of every street.

The precious sons of Zion,

comparable to fine gold.

How are they esteemed as earthen pitchers,

the work of the hands of the potter!

Even the jackals 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.

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.

For the iniquity of the daughter of my people

is greater than the sin of Sodom,

That was overthrown in a moment,

and no hands were laid upon her.

Her nobles were purer than snow,

they were whiter than milk;

They were more ruddy in body than rubies,

Their polishing was of sapphire.

Their visage is blacker than coal;

they are not known in the streets:

Their skin cleaveth to their bones;

it is withered, it is become like a stick.

They that are slain with the sword

are better than they that are slain with hunger;

For these pine away, stricken through,

for want of the fruits of the field.

The hands of the pitiful women

have boiled their own children;

They were their food

in the destruction of the daughter of my people."

These terrible lines must rank among the saddest words ever written. They described the horrors of the awful famine that preceded the flight of Zedekiah the king of Israel and the terrible destruction that followed. The actual fall of Jerusalem was an awesome event. The Temple was looted; the houses (all of them) were burned; the walls were thrown down; Zedekiah was captured; his sons were slaughtered in his presence, and then his eyes were gouged out by the Babylonians; many thousands were brutally butchered; other thousands were led away as captives, either to be sold, or to die of starvation and abuse on the journey; but these verses have no word at all concerning all those terrors. What is described here is the unspeakable horrors of the siege that preceded all that.


 
Verses 1-10
How is the gold become dim! [how] is the most pure gold changed! The stones of the sanctuary are poured out at the head of every street. The precious sons of Zion, comparable to fine gold, How are they esteemed as earthen pitchers, the work of the hands of the potter! Even the jackals 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. 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. For the iniquity of the daughter of my people is greater than the sin of Sodom, That was overthrown as in a moment, and no hands were laid upon her. Her nobles were purer than snow, they were whiter than milk; They were more ruddy in body than rubies, their polishing was as of sapphire. 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. They that are slain with the sword are better than they that are slain with hunger; For these pine away, stricken through, for want of the fruits of the field. The hands of the pitiful women have boiled their own children; They were their food in the destruction of the daughter of my people.
(Lam. 4:1a). This is metaphor. The following verse identifies the gold as the precious sons of Zion. As elaborated a few lines later, the well-dressed, amply supplied nobles of Jerusalem had become skin and bones, dying of starvation, sitting upon dunghills in search of food. We have here Jeremiah's eyewitness account of all this.

The stones of the sanctuary
(Lam. 4:lb). This refers to the precious gems which decorated the breastplate of the High Priest.F1 Their mention here is metaphorical, and they are parallel with the fine gold.

The jackals. give suck to their young ones
(Lam. 4:3a). The wild animals could nurse their young, but Jerusalem's starving women could not. Nothing, in all the horrors of warfare, ever exceeded the cruel horrors of a siege. The literature of all nations does not provide any better account of what happens in such a siege than this account from Jeremiah.

Like ostriches in the desert
(Lam. 4:3b). This creature is often cited as one that had no regard for their offspring. The ostrich leaves her eggs on the ground, forgetting that her own foot may crush them or a wild beast may break them.F2

The sucking child. the young children
(Lamentations 4:4). Starving mothers are unable to nurse their babies; the older children cry in vain for something to eat.

They that were brought up in scarlet embrace dunghills
(Lamentations 4:5). As noted above, even the favored heads of their society sought in vain for food.

The iniquity of. my people is greater than the sin of Sodom
(Lam. 4:6a). The tragedy of this shocking fact is often overlooked. Ezekiel elaborated the same truth (Ezek. 16); but the consequences of it reached far beyond Jerusalem. For Sodom's wickedness, God destroyed them. Why did he not then destroy Israel which had become worse than Sodom? It was only because God had promised Abraham and the patriarchs that he would bring in the Messiah, The Seed Singular, through Abraham's posterity. In a sense, God was 'stuck with Israel,' until that promise was fulfilled in the birth of Christ. Israel deserved a worse punishment than Sodom, for their sin was greater, and this verse indicates that their punishment was worse!

Sodom was overthrown. no hands were laid upon her
(Lam. 4:6b). This emphasizes the fact that Sodom's punishment was lighter than Israel's. They did not endure such a terror as siege. Their overthrow was instantaneous; Israel's lasted seventy years, beginning with this unspeakably tragic siege.

Her nobles
(Lamentations 4:7-8). These were the upper crust of Jerusalem's society. They were the nobility, dressed in scarlet, living in extravagant luxury, faring sumptuously every day; and now! During the siege, like everyone else, they were starving to death.

They that are slain with the sword. better than they that are slain with hunger
(Lamentations 4:9). It is better to die instantly than to suffer for a long time starving to death. Many of the people, no doubt, prayed for a sudden death.

The pitiful women. have boiled their own children ... they were their food
(Lamentations 4:10). This is the climax of this terrible paragraph. Second Kings, chapter 6 (2 Kings 6:24-30) has the account of a similar disaster suffered by the Northern Israel (Samaria) during the siege of that city by Benhadad king of Syria. Yes, indeed, the punishment of Israel, whose sins were worse than the sins of Sodom, was divinely punished by a destruction that was also far worse than what happened to Sodom.

THE DIVINE EXPLANATION OF WHY GOD DESTROYED THEM

Jehovah hath accomplished his wrath,

he hath poured out his fierce anger;

And he hath kindled afire in Zion,

which hath devoured the foundations thereof.

The kings of the earth believed not,

neither all the inhabitants of the world,

That the adversary and the enemy

would enter into the gates of Jerusalem.

It is because of the sins of her prophets,

and the iniquities of her priests,

That have shed the blood of the just

in the midst of her.

They wander as blind men in the streets,

they are polluted with blood,

So that men cannot touch their garments.

Depart ye, they cry unto them,

Unclean! depart, depart, touch not!

When they fled away and wandered,

men said among the nations,

They shall no more sojourn here.

The anger of Jehovah hath scattered them: They respected not the persons of the priests,

they favored not the elders."


 
Verses 11-16
Jehovah hath accomplished his wrath, he hath poured out his fierce anger; And he hath kindled a fire in Zion, which hath devoured the foundations thereof. The kings of the earth believed not, neither all the inhabitants of the world, That the adversary and the enemy would enter into the gates of Jerusalem. [It is] because of the sins of her prophets, [and] the iniquities of her priests, That have shed the blood of the just in the midst of her. They wander as blind men in the streets, they are polluted with blood, So that men cannot touch their garments. Depart ye, they cried unto them, Unclean! depart, depart, touch not! When they fled away and wandered, men said among the nations, They shall no more sojourn [here]. The anger of Jehovah hath scattered them; He will no more regard them: They respected not the persons of the priests, they favored not the elders.
(Lamentations 4:11). The foundations which were destroyed were not those of the 'righteous remnant of the people' who were among the captives in Babylon. The foundations which were destroyed were those of the sinful kingdom (Amos 9:8), the monarchy that was never God's will but a concession to the Chosen People who wanted to be like the nations around them (1 Samuel 8:7). God said, I gave them a king in mine anger, and took him away in my wrath (Hosea 13:11); and this verse tells how it was done.

The kings of the earth believed not
(Lamentations 4:12). After all, the whole world was on the verge of believing in Israel's God. Look at what had happened! God had brought them up out of Egypt in a spectacular deliverance that astounded all mankind. Before them, he displaced the populations of Canaan, and settled them in Palestine. Their second king had astounded the whole world with his magnificence. No one, among the ancient populations, supposed that such a God would allow any nation to destroy his Temple and remove his people to another land. Therein is the unmitigated tragedy of Israel's apostasy. That apostasy required that God should destroy them; but when he did, the ancient notion that the physical defeat of any nation meant also the defeat of their god resulted in a terrible resurgence of paganism. Israel's destruction meant that God would have to begin all over again in his campaign to redeem Adam's fallen race, a redemption that required, absolutely, that men should believe, worship and obey the true God.

It is because of the sins of her prophets .. and her priests
(Lam. 4:13a). This should be read, because of the sins even of her prophets and priests. It was the wickedness of Israel's godless kings and of the people as a whole that brought on their destruction; and the thought here is that the very last vestige of the people's righteousness, the last repository of any righteousness, even the prophets and priests were corrupted.

They have shed the blood of the just in the midst of her
(Lam. 4:13b). The sins of the false prophets and priests aided and encouraged great wickedness; but the actual killing of the innocent was accomplished by such kings as Manasseh (2 Kings 21:16).

It is important to note that only Jeremiah could have written this. It is inconceivable that anyone except Jeremiah could have written Lam. 4:13 without naming Jeremiah as a glorious exception to the general fact there stated. Therefore, Jeremiah is the author.

Lam. 4:14-15 are difficult passages; but what seems to be the meaning is that death was so widespread in Jerusalem during the siege that the priests were in a constant state of defilement through contact with dead bodies and graves, making them ceremonially unclean, thus robbing the people of any means of religious consolation during their awful desolation.

The anger of Jehovah hath scattered them
(Lam. 4:16a). There was no denial of the truth that the humiliation of Jerusalem came as a direct result of God's anger. The near-universal immorality and wickedness of the people had finally overflowed against God's will beyond the point of 'no return.' No other explanation was possible.

They respected not the persons of the priest, they favored not the elders
(Lam. 4:16b). The indication here is that the whole population were caught up in the wholesale iniquity that led to Israel's defeat and deportation to Babylon. It was not merely the sins of false prophets and priests, but the general wickedness of the whole nation that led to God's destruction of the sinful kingdom.

SIEGE ENDS; THE ENEMY ENTERS; CHASES FUGITIVES

Our eyes do yet fail in looking for our vain help

In our watching, we have watched for a nation

that could not save.

They hunt our steps,

so that we cannot go in our streets:

Our end is near, our days are fulfilled;

for our end is come.

Our pursuers were swifter than the eagles of the heavens:

They chased us upon the mountains,

they laid wait for us in the wilderness.

The breath of our nostrils,

the anointed of Jehovah,

was taken in their pits;

Of whom we said,

Under his shadow we shall live among the nations."


 
Verses 17-20
Our eyes do yet fail [in looking] for our vain help: In our watching we have watched for a nation that could not save. They hunt our steps, so that we cannot go in our streets: Our end is near, our days are fulfilled; for our end is come. Our pursuers were swifter than the eagles of the heavens: They chased us upon the mountains, they laid wait for us in the wilderness. The breath of our nostrils, the anointed of Jehovah, was taken in their pits; Of whom we said, Under his shadow we shall live among the nations.
(Lamentations 4:17). Zedekiah, the last king of Israel to reign in Jerusalem, had violated his oath of loyalty to Nebuchadnezzar and secretly hoped that Egypt would help Israel; but Egypt would not have helped Israel if she could have done it, and could not have done so even if she had desired to do it.

They hunt our steps. we cannot go about our streets... our end is come
(Lamentations 4:18) The siege is over. The king has fled; the walls are breached; the soldiers of the enemy are in the streets. Of course, all who are able to do so flee from the city.

They chase us upon the mountains
(Lamentations 4:19). There is no escape from the enemy. Even those fortunate enough to get out of the city were too weak from hunger to make a successful escape. They were easily captured.

The anointed of Jehovah was taken in their pits
(Lamentations 4:20). This is a reference to Zedekiah the king.F3 However, we agree with Dummelow that, This is rather a strong expression to be applied to Zedekiah.F4 Cook explained it on the basis that, With the capture of Zedekiah, Israel was robbed of the only rallying point that they had.F5

A PROPHETIC REFERENCE TO THE PUNISHMENT OF EDOM

Rejoice and be glad, O daughter of Edom, that dwellest in the land of Uz:

The cup shall pass through unto thee also; thou shalt be drunken, and shalt make thyself naked.

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 uncover thy sins."

The traditional hatred of Edom (the descendants of Esau) against Israel was, in all probability, exhibited by them during Jerusalem's siege and capture by the Chaldeans. Amos 1:11-12 and the Book of Obadiah make strong references to this hatred. We may safely conclude that a disaster of such dimensions as the ruin of Jerusalem and the captivity of her people would not have been overlooked by the Edomites as a wonderful opportunity for them to rejoice over the sorrows of the people they hated.


 
Verses 21, 22
Rejoice and be glad, O daughter of Edom, that dwellest in the land of Uz: The cup shall pass through unto thee also; thou shalt be drunken, and shalt make thyself naked. 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 uncover thy sins.
(Lam. 4:21a). This is sarcasm. It is as though he said, Go ahead and laugh, O Edom, God will take care of you also, before it's all ended.

The cup shall pass through unto you also; thou shalt be drunken. and naked
(Lam. 4:21b). The cup here is the cup of the wrath of God; and the prophet flatly foretells the eventual doom of the Edomites, who are in the Old Testament (especially Isaiah) exhibited as a type of all sinful men. (See our discussion of this in Vol. 1, Major Prophets, (Isaiah), pp. 309-314.)

O daughter of Zion, he will no more carry thee away into captivity
(Lam. 4:22a). This is a parenthetical remark included within the prophecy of Edom's doom, given here especially for the comfort of Israel. Thank God, Israel, your punishment is completed.

He will visit thine iniquity, O daughter of Edom, he will uncover thy sins
(22b). That God did indeed bring judgment and destruction upon Edom was fully accomplished. (See a discussion of the historical fulfillment of this prophecy in Vol. 2, Minor Prophets (Obadiah), p. 347ff.) Edom's doom, in Scripture, is a prophecy of the divine punishment of all sinful men.


Footnotes for Lamentations 4
1: C. F. Keil, Keil-Delitzsch's Old Testament Commentaries (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company), Vol. 8, p. 432.
2: Pulpit Commentaries (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdman's Publishing Company, 1950), Vol. 11b, p. 84.
3: Wycliffe Old Testament Commentary, p. 700.
4: J. R. Dummelow's Commentary, p. 486.
5: Barnes' Notes on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, a 1989 reprint of 1878 edition), Lamentations, p. 296.

Copyright Statement
James Burton Coffman Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved.

Bibliography Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Lamentations 4". "Coffman Commentaries on the Old and New Testament". <http://classic.studylight.org/com/bcc/view.cgi?book=la&chapter=004>. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.  

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