Lamentations of Jeremiah: Chapter 4:1-11

Lamentations 4:1‑11  •  6 min. read  •  grade level: 9
It is impossible to view this sorrowful plaint of the prophet as merely historical. Nothing which had ever occurred in the way of disaster or humiliation at all approached the picture of desolation here described. The Spirit of prophecy is therefore forecasting the horrible abyss that awaited the beloved but guilty people.
“How the gold is become dim! the most fine gold is changed! The sacred stones are thrown down at the top of every street! The precious sons of Zion, comparable to fine gold, how they are esteemed as earthen pitchers, the work of the hands of the potter.” Who could say that God screened or spared the iniquity of Israel? The most exalted in rank, dignity, and office were those who made their affliction most conspicuous. Could the most obdurate conscience in Jerusalem doubt whose hand had inflicted such reverses, whatever the instrument employed?
Hence the prophet, as he is growingly solemn in his glances at the uttermost distress, so is he calm but the more complete in setting it forth. It is as it were the evil all out, the leper white from head to feet, whose very extremity assures of God's opportunity to interfere both for the Jew and against the adversaries more especially such as ought to pity Jerusalem in the day of her calamity.
That the Chaldean foe should be bitter in reproach and cruel in punishment was not wonderful; but alas! the chosen nation's cup was not full of the indignity they must drink till they were the bitterest, out of sheer want and woe, against their own kin. “Even the dragons [or jackals] draw out the breast, they suckle their young: the daughter of my people [is] cruel like the ostriches in the wilderness.” It is of the last bird we read in Job 39:14-1714Which leaveth her eggs in the earth, and warmeth them in dust, 15And forgetteth that the foot may crush them, or that the wild beast may break them. 16She is hardened against her young ones, as though they were not hers: her labor is in vain without fear; 17Because God hath deprived her of wisdom, neither hath he imparted to her understanding. (Job 39:14‑17), “which leaveth her eggs in the earth, and warmth them in the dust, and forgetteth that the foot may crush them, or that the wild beast may break them. She is hardened against her young ones, as though they were not hers; her labor is in vain without fear; because God hath deprived her of wisdom, neither hath he imparted to her understanding.”
The sense seems to me certain, though one may not say indisputable, seeing that so sensible a commentator as Calvin contrives to extract a different meaning. He understands the clause to mean that the daughter of the people had come to a savage or cruel one; and hence that whelps of serpents were more kindly dealt with than the Jews. The people had to do with nothing but cruelty, there being no one to succor them in their miseries. Thus the force would be, not that the people are accused of cruelty in not nourishing their children, but that they were given up to the most relentless of enemies. But I see no force in his reasoning which appears to be founded on unacquaintance with the Hebrew idiom, the masculine gender being used for emphasis where formally we might have expected the feminine, as not infrequently happens. Hence there is no real ground for going on with the allusion to the ostrich, as if the prophet meant that the Jews were so destitute of every help that they were banished into solitary places beyond the sight of men.
The true meaning is far more expressive and sets forth the awful state of the Jews, when not enemies only but those who should have been their own tenderest protectors were destitute of feelings found in the fiercest brutes, and only comparable for heartlessness to creatures of the most exceptional hardness and folly. Such were the mothers of Salem in the outpouring of Jeremiah's grief.
Accordingly in verse 4 he pursues the case. “The tongue of the suckling cleaveth to its palate for thirst; infants ask bread—none breaketh [it] for them.” Such was the pitiable state of children from the tenderest days upward. Was it any better with their elders? “They that fed daintily perish in the streets; they who were brought up on scarlet embrace dunghills.” (Ver. 5.) Parents and other adults were famishing and dying of hunger, and this gladly as it were on the dunghill instead of the splendid couches on which they used to recline when weary of pleasure itself.
Next the prophet draws out the proof that the vengeance under which the people were worse than that of Sodom, especially in this, that the notorious city of the plain was overwhelmed in a sudden blow of destruction, whereas that of Jerusalem was prolonged and most varied agony. “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.” (Verse 6.) The “hands” of man added to the soreness of the Jewish chastening: Sodom was dealt with by God without any human intervention. Compare the feeling of David when he brought to the verge of ruin the people whom God had entrusted him to feed. (2 Sam. 24:13, 1413So Gad came to David, and told him, and said unto him, Shall seven years of famine come unto thee in thy land? or wilt thou flee three months before thine enemies, while they pursue thee? or that there be three days' pestilence in thy land? now advise, and see what answer I shall return to him that sent me. 14And David said unto Gad, I am in a great strait: let us fall now into the hand of the Lord; for his mercies are great: and let me not fall into the hand of man. (2 Samuel 24:13‑14).)
Nor does any consecration to God avail to shelter: so complete the ruin, so unsparing the vengeance let. loose on every class and every soul. “Her Nazarites were brighter than snow, they were whiter than milk; they were more ruddy in body than rubies (or coral), their cutting (shape) of sapphire. Their aspect is darker than dusk, they are not known in the streets; their skin cleaveth to their bones, it is dried up like a stick.” Nothing availed in presence of these searching desolating judgments. The blessing which was once so marked on those separated was now utterly and manifestly fled, yea, wretchedness as under His ban had taken its place. And so truly was it so, that he proceeds to show how but a choice of ills awaited the Jew, a violent death or a life yet more horrible. “Happier the slain with the sword than the slain with hunger; because these pine away pierced through for the fruits of the field,1 i.e., for the want of them. For it is very forced to take it as Calvin does, pierced through by the fruits of the earth, as if the productions of the earth became swords.
So obliterated were all traces of compassion or even natural feeling that, as we are next told, “the hands of pitiful women boiled their children; they became their food in the destruction of the daughter of my people.” (Ver. 10.) Nothing could account for such barbarity but that which he adds immediately after (ver. 11): “Jehovah hath spent his fury; he hath poured out his fierce anger, and hath kindled a fire in Zion which hath devoured her foundations.” What can be more thorough than to devour foundations? So it was declared of God against Jerusalem for their heinous sins. Impossible to escape His hand stretched out against His own: how deep their sin and vain to deny it!