Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, by Carl Friedrich Keil and Franz Delitzsh, [1857-78], at sacred-texts.com
A Prayer to the Lord by the Church, Languishing in Misery, for the Restoration of Her Former State of Grace
1 Remember, O Jahveh, what hath happened to us; consider, and behold our reproach.
2 Our inheritance is turned to strangers, our houses to foreigners.
3 We are orphans, without a father; our mothers are as widows.
4 Our own water we drink for money, our own wood cometh to us in return for payment.
5 On our necks are we persecuted; we are jaded, - there is no rest for us.
6 [Towards] Egypt we reach our hand, - [towards] Assyria, to satisfy ourselves [with] bread.
7 Our fathers sinned, they are not; we bear their iniquities.
8 Servants rule us; there is none to deliver us out of their hand.
9 At the risk of our life we bring in our bread, because of the sword of the wilderness.
10 Our skin gloweth with heat like a furnace, because of the fever-heat of hunger.
11 They have forced women in Zion, virgins in the cities of Judah.
12 Princes are hung up by their hand; the face of the elders is not honoured.
13 Young men carry millstones, and lads stagger under [loads of] wood.
14 Elders cease from the gate, young men from their instrumental music.
15 The joy of our heart hath ceased, our dancing has turned into mourning.
16 The crown of our head is fallen; woe unto us, that we have sinned!
17 Because of this our heart became sick; because of these [things] our eyes became dark.
18 Upon Mount Zion, which is laid waste, jackals roam through it.
19 Thou, O Jahveh, dost sit [enthroned] for ever; They throne is for generation and generation.
20 Why dost thou forget us for ever, - forsake us for a length of days?
21 Lead us back, O Jahveh, to thyself, that we may return; renew our days, as of old.
22 Or, hast Thou indeed utterly rejected us? art thou very wroth against us?
This poem begins (Lam 5:1) with the request addressed to the Lord, that He would be pleased to think of the disgrace that has befallen Judah, and concludes (Lam 5:19-22) with the request that the Lord may not forsake His people for ever, but once more receive them into favour. The main portion of this petition is formed by the description of the disgrace and misery under which the suppliants groan, together with the acknowledgment (Lam 5:7 and Lam 5:16) that they are compelled to bear the sins of their fathers and their own sins. By this confession, the description given of their misery is divided into two strophes (Lam 5:2-7 and Lam 5:8-16), which are followed by the request for deliverance (Lam 5:19-22), introduced by Lam 5:17 and Lam 5:18. The author of this prayer speaks throughout in the name of the people, or, to speak more correctly, in the name of the congregation, laying their distress and their supplication before the Lord. The view of Thenius, - that this poem originated among a small company of Jews who had been dispersed, and who, in the mist of constant persecution, sought a place of refuge from the oppression of the Chaldeans, - has been forced upon the text through the arbitrary interpretation of detached figurative expressions.
Supplication and statement regarding the distress. The quest made in Lam 5:1 refers to the oppression depicted in what follows. The words, "Remember, O Lord, what hath happened (i.e., befallen) us," are more fully explained in the second member, "Look and behold our disgrace." It is quite arbitrary in Thenius to refer the first member to the past, the second to the present, described in what follows, Lam 5:12-16. The Qeri הבּיטה is an unnecessary alteration, after Lam 1:11; Lam 3:63. - With Lam 5:2 begins the description of the disgrace that has befallen them. This consists, first of all, in the fact that their inheritance has become the possession of strangers. Rosenmller rightly explains נחלה to mean, terra quae tuo nobis dono quandam est concessa. נחפך is used of the transference of the property to others, as in Isa 60:5. Many expositors would refer בּתּינוּ to the houses in Jerusalem which the Chaldeans had not destroyed, on the ground that it is stated, in Kg2 25:9 and Jer 52:13, that the Chaldeans destroyed none but large houses. There is no foundation, however, for this restriction; moreover, it is opposed by the parallel נחלתנוּ. Just as by נחלה we are to understand, not merely the possession of Jerusalem, but of the whole country, so also בּתּינוּ are the dwelling-houses of the country in towns and villages; in this case, the question whether any houses still remained standing in Jerusalem does not demand consideration at all. Ngelsbach is wrong in his remark that נחלה and בּתּים respectively mean immovable and portable property, for houses are certainly not moveable property.
Lam 5:3 is very variously interpreted by modern expositors. Ewald and Vaihinger understand "father" as meaning the king, while Thenius refers it specially to Zedekiah; the "mothers," according to Ewald and Vaihinger, are the cities of Judah, while Thenius thinks they are the women of Zedekiah's harem. But to call the women of the royal harem "mothers" of the nation, would be as unexampled as the attribution of the title to the cities of Judah. The second clause, "our mothers are like widows," contains a simile: they are not really widows, but like widows, because they have lost the protection which the mother of a family has in her husband. In like manner, the first clause also is to be understood as a comparison. "We are fatherless orphans," i.e., we are like such, as the Chaldee has paraphrased it. Accordingly, C. B. Michaelis, Pareau, Rosenmller, Kalkschmidt, and Gerlach have rightly explained the words as referring to the custom of the Hebrews: hominies omni modo derelictos omnibusque praesidiis destitutos, pupillos et viduas dicere; cf. Psa 94:6; Isa 1:17; Jam 1:27.
And not merely are the inhabitants of Judah without land and property, and deprived of all protection, like orphans and widows; they are also living in penury and want, and (Lam 5:5) under severe oppression and persecution. Water and wood are mentioned in Lam 5:4 as the greatest necessities of life, without which it is impossible to exist. Both of these they must buy for themselves, because the country, with its waters and forests, is in the possession of the enemy. The emphasis lies on "our water...our wood." What they formerly had, as their own property, for nothing, they must now purchase. We must reject the historical interpretations of the words, and their application to the distress of the besieged (Michaelis); or to the exiles who complained of the dearness of water and wood in Egypt (Ewald); or to those who fled before the Chaldeans, and lived in waste places (Thenius); or to the multitudes of those taken prisoner after the capture of Jerusalem, who were so closely watched that they could not go where they liked to get water and wood, but were obliged to go to their keepers for permission, and pay dearly for their services (Ngelsbach). The purchase of water and wood can scarcely be taken literally, but must be understood as signifying that the people had to pay heavy duties for the use of the water and the wood which the country afforded.
"On our necks we are persecuted," i.e., our persecutors are at our necks, - are always close behind us, to drive or hunt us on. It is inadmissible to supply any specific mention of the yoke (imposito collo gravi servitutis jugo, Raschi, Rosenmller, Vaihinger, etc.); and we must utterly reject the proposal to connect "our neck" with Lam 5:4 (lxx, Syriac, J. D. Michaelis), inasmuch as the symmetry of the verses is thereby destroyed, nor is any suitable meaning obtained. "We are jaded: no rest is granted us." הוּנח is Hophal of הניח, to give rest to. The Qeri ולא instead of לא is quite as unnecessary as in the case of אין, Lam 5:3, and אינם and אנחנוּ in Lam 5:7. The meaning of the verse is not, "we are driven over neck and head," according to which the subject treated of would be the merciless treatment of the prisoners, through their being driven on (Ngelsbach); still less is it meant to be stated that the company to which the writer of the poem belonged was always tracked out, and hunted about in the waste places where they wished to hide themselves (Thenius). Neither of these interpretations suits the preceding and succeeding context. Nor does the mention of being "persecuted on the neck" necessarily involve a pursuit of fugitives: it merely indicates incessant oppression on the side of the enemy, partly through continually being goaded on to hard labour, partly through annoyances of different kinds, by which the victors made their supremacy and their pride felt by the vanquished nation. In רדף there is contained neither the notion of tracking fugitives nor that of driving on prisoners.
The meaning of נתן is more exactly defined by the superadded לשׂבּע לחם, which belongs to both members of the verse. "In order to satisfy ourselves with bread (so as to prolong our lives), we give the hand to Egypt, to Assyria." מצרים and אשּׁוּר are local accusatives. To give the hand is a sign of submission or subjection; see on Jer 50:15. Pareau has correctly given the meaning thus: si victum nobis comparare velimus, vel Judaea nobis relinquenda est atque Aegyptii sunt agnoscendi domini, vel si hic manemus, Chaldaeis victoribus nos subjiciamus necesse est; quocunque nos vertamus, nihil superest nisi tristissima servitus. This complaint shows, moreover, that it is those in Judea who are speaking. נתנּוּ, "we give the hand," shows that the assumption of Thenius, - that the writer here brings to remembrance the fate of two other companies of his fellow-countrymen who were not carried away into exile, - -is an arbitrary insertion. Asshur, as the name of the great Asiatic empire, stands for Babylon, as in Ezr 6:22, cf. Jer 2:18.
"We suffer more than we are guilty of; we are compelled to bear the iniquities of our fathers," i.e., to atone for their guilt. There is a great truth contained in the words, "Our fathers have sinned; they are no more; we bear their iniquities (or guilt)." For the fall of the kingdom had not been brought about by the guilt of that generation merely, and of none before; it was due also to the sins of their fathers before them, in previous generations. The same truth is likewise expressed in Jer 16:11; Jer 32:18; and in Kg2 23:26 it is stated that God did not cease from His great wrath because of the sins of Manasseh. But this truth would be perverted into error, if we were to understand the words as intimating that the speakers had considered themselves innocent. This false view, however, they themselves opposed with the confession in Lam 5:16, "for we have sinned;" thereby they point out their own sins as the cause of their misfortune. If we compare this confession with the verse now before us, this can only mean the following: "The misfortune we suffer has not been incurred by ourselves alone, but we are compelled to atone for the sins of our fathers also." In the same way, too, Jeremiah (Jer 16:11) threatens the infliction of a penal judgment, not merely "because your fathers have forsaken me (the Lord)," but he also adds, "and ye do still worse than your fathers." God does not punish the sins of the fathers in innocent children, but in children who continue the sins of the fathers; cf. Isa 65:7, and the explanation given of Jer 31:29 and Eze 18:2. The design with which the suffering for the sins of the fathers is brought forward so prominently, and with such feeling, is merely to excite the divine compassion for those who are thus chastised.
Further description of the miserable condition under which the congregation languishes. Lam 5:8. "Servants rule over us," etc. עבדים are not the Chaldean soldiers, who are in Kg2 24:10 designated the servants of Nebuchadnezzar (Pareau, Rosenmller, Maurer); still less the Chaldeans, in so far as they, till shortly before, had been the subjects of the Assyrians (Kalkschmidt); nor the Chaldean satraps, as servants of the king of Babylon (Thenius, Ewald); nor even "slaves who had been employed as overseers and taskmasters of the captives while on the march" (Ngelsbach); but the Chaldeans. These are called servants, partly because of the despotic rule under which they were placed, partly in the sense already indicated by C. B. Michaelis, as being those qui nobis potius, si pii fuissemus, servire debuissent, in accordance with the analogous designation of Jerusalem as a princess among the countries of the world, Lam 1:1.
And in addition to this humiliation under dishonourable servitude, we can get our daily bread only at the risk of our life. Thus there is fulfilled to them the threatening in Deu 28:28, "Ye shall be servants among your enemies, in hunger and thirst, in nakedness and want of everything." בּנפשׁנוּ, "for the price of our soul," i.e., with our life at stake, we bring in our bread. The danger is more exactly described by what is added: "before the sword of the wilderness." By this expression are meant the predatory Bedouins of the desert, who, falling upon those that were bringing in the bread, plundered, and probably even killed them. The bringing of the bread is not, however, to be referred (with Rosenmller, Maurer, and Kalkschmidt) to the attempts made to procure bread from the neighbouring countries; still less is it to be referred (with Thenius, Ewald, and Ngelsbach) to the need for "wringing the bread from the desert and its plunderers;" but it refers to the ingathering of the scanty harvest in the country devastated by war and by the visitations of predatory Bedouins: הביא is the word constantly employed in this connection; cf. Sa2 9:10; Hag 1:6.
The bread which we are thus obliged to struggle for, at the risk of our life, is not even sufficient to allay hunger, which consumes our bodies. נכמר does not mean to be blackened (Chaldee, Kimchi, C. B. Michaelis, Maurer), but in Gen 43:30; Kg1 3:26, and Hos 11:8, to be stirred up (of the bowels, compassion), hence to kindle, glow. This last meaning is required by the comparison with תּנּוּר, oven, furnace. This comparison does not mean cutis nostra tanquam fornace adusta est (Gesenius in Thes., Kalkschmidt), still less "black as an oven" (Dietrich in Ges. Lex.), because תּנּוּר does not mean the oven viewed in respect of its blackness, but (from נוּר) in respect of the fire burning in it. The meaning is, "our skin glows like a baker's oven" (Vaihinger, Thenius, Ngelsbach, Gerlach), - a strong expression for the fever-heat produced by hunger. As to זלעפות, glowing heat, see on Psa 11:6.
With this must further be considered the maltreatment which persons of every station, sex, and age have to endure. Lam 5:11. Women and virgins are dishonoured in Jerusalem, and in the other cities of the land. Lam 5:12. Princes are suspended by the hand of the enemy (Ewald, contrary to the use of language, renders "along with" them). To hang those who had been put to death was something superadded to the simple punishment by death (Deu 21:22.), and so far as a shameful kind of execution. "The old men are not honoured," i.e., dishonoured; cf. Lam 4:16; Lev 19:32. The words are not to be restricted to the events mentioned in Jer 39:6, but also apply to the present condition of those who are complaining,
Youths and boys are forced to engage in heavy servile work. טחון נשׂאוּ does not mean "they take them for the mill," ad molendum sumpserunt (Ewald, Rosenmller). Apart from the consideration that there is no ground for it in the language employed, such a view of the words does not accord with the parallelism. נשׂא, construed with a simple infinitive or accusative (without ל), does not mean "to take for something." טחון is a substantive, "the mill." "To bear (carry) the mill" signifies to work at and with the mill. We must think of the hand-mill, which was found in every household, and which could thus be carried from one place to another. Grinding was the work of salves; see on Jdg 16:21. The carrying of the mill (not merely of the upper millstone) is mentioned as the heaviest portion of the work in grinding. "Boys stagger (fall down) on the wood laid on them to be carried," i.e., under the burden of it. כּשׁל with בּ means to stumble on something; here בּ denotes the cause of the stumbling; cf. Jer 6:21; Lev 26:37. It is arbitrary to understand עץ as meaning the wooden handle of the mill (Aben Ezra, and Bochart in Hieroz. i. 157, ed. Rosenmller); the same must also be said regarding the opinion of Thenius and Ngelsbach, who refer the words to the dragging of the hand-mills, and of the wood necessary for baking bread for the comfort of the soldiers, on the march of the captives to Babylon.
Under the pressure of such circumstances, all public meetings and amusements have ceased. "The elders cease from the fate." The gate was the place of assembly for the people, not merely for deliberating upon public affairs (Rut 4:15; Jos 20:4), but also "for social entertainment (since there were no refreshment-rooms, coffeehouses, and public baths, such as are now to be found in the East), or even for quiet enjoyment in looking at the motley multitude of passers-by; Gen 19:1; Sa1 4:18; Sa1 9:18; Job 29:7" (Winer's Bibl. R.W.B. s.v. Thor). That the gate is here to be regarded as a place of entertainment and amusement, is shown by the parallel member, "young men cease from their instrumental music;" cf. Lam 1:4. On Lam 5:15, cf. Jer 7:34; Jer 16:9, and Jer 31:13; Psa 30:12. Lastly, in Lam 5:16, the writer sums up the whole of the misery in the complaint, "The crown of our head is fallen! woe unto us, for we have sinned," i.e., we suffer the punishment for our sins. "The fallen crown can only be a figurative expression for the honourable position of the people in its entirety, but which is now lost." Such is the view which Ewald rightly takes; on the other hand, the interpretation of Thenius, that "the 'crown of our head' is nothing else than Zion, together with its palaces, placed on Jerusalem, as it were on the head [of the country], and adorning it," deserves mention simply as a curious specimen of exegetical fancy. Ngelsbach has gone too far in restricting the figurative expression to the crown of Jerusalem, which consists in her being mistress among the nations, a princess among the regions of the earth (Lam 1:1), the perfection of beauty, and the joy of the whole earth (Lam 2:15); for "our crown" is not equivalent to Jerusalem, or a crown on the head of Jerusalem.
The request that the judgment of wrath may be averted, and that the former gracious condition may be restored. Lam 5:17 and Lam 5:18 form the transition to the request in Lam 5:19-22. "Because of this" and "because of these [things]" refer mainly to what precedes, yet not in such a way as that the former must be referred to the fact that sin has been committed, and the latter to the suffering. The two halves of the verse are unmistakeably parallel; the sickening of the heart is essentially similar to the dimness coming on the eyes, the former indicating the sorrow of the soul, while the latter is the expression of this sorrow in tears. "Because of this (viz., because of the misery hitherto complained of) the heart has become sick," and the grief of the heart finds vent in tears, in consequence of which the eyes have become dim; cf. Lam 2:11. But this sorrow culminates in the view taken of the desolation of Mount Zion, which receives consideration, not because of its splendid palaces (Thenius), but as the holy mountain on which the house of God stood, for "Zion" comprehended Moriah; see on Psa 2:6; Psa 9:12; Psa 76:3. The glory formerly attaching to Mount Zion (Psa 48:3; Psa 50:2) is departed; the mountain has been so much laid waste, that jackals roam on it. שׁוּעלים are not properly foxes, but jackals (as in Psa 63:11), which lodge among the ruins. הלּך is an intensive form, meaning to rove or roam about.
The glory of Zion, the earthly habitation of the Lord, is at an end, but the throne of the Lord endures eternally. Through this thought, the lamentation rises to the prayer that the Lord may not forsake His people for ever, but re-establish His kingdom on the earth. "Thou, O Jahveh, art enthroned eternally." This thought is expressed as the ground of hope, in nearly the same words as are found in Psa 102:13. Jahveh is the God of salvation. Since His throne endures eternally in heaven, He cannot let His kingdom perish on the earth. On this is founded the request, "Why wilt Thou forget us for ever, forsake us for a length of days (i.e., through life, always, Psa 23:6)?" This the Lord cannot do, because of His grace. From this is developed the further request (Lam 5:21), "Lead us back to Thyself, that we may return." We must not restrict השׁיב and שׁוּב to conversion to the Lord (Kalkschmidt, Ewald, Vaihinger, Gerlach); they signify the re-establishment of the gracious relation, which is, of course, impossible without repentance and conversion on the part of Israel. It is wrong to refer the words to the restoration of the people to their native land, or to the re-establishment of the theocracy (Dathe, Thenius), because it is not the exiles who address this petition to the Lord. The mode in which we are to understand the "bringing back to Jahveh" is shown in the second hemistich, "renew our days, as they were in former times," i.e., vouchsafe to us again the life (or state of grace) which we enjoyed in former times. In Lam 5:22 this request is based on an argument introduced in a negative form. כּי אם, after a negative clause, signifies nisi, but (Ger. sondern). This meaning developed into that of a strong limitation (cf. Ewald, 356), unless = provided that. Thus literally here: "unless Thou hast utterly rejected us, - art very wroth against us." This case, however, is merely stated as a possibility, the actual occurrence of which is out of the question. The idea is the same as that expressed by Jeremiah (Jer 14:19) in the form of a question, in order to give greater emphasis to his intercession for his nation. The Lord cannot have utterly rejected His people Israel, because He would thereby make His name to be despised in the eyes of the nations (Jer 14:21). Thus terminates this lamentation, with a request for whose fulfilment faith can hope with confidence.
In many Hebrew MSS Lam 5:21 is found repeated after Lam 5:22, to make the whole more suitable for public reading in the synagogue, that the poem may not end with the mention of the wrath of God, as is the case also at the close of Isaiah, Malachi, and Ecclesiastes: the intention is, to conclude with words of comfort. But v. 22, rightly understood, did not require this repetition: for, as Rhabanas has already remarked in Ghisleri commentar. on v. 22: non haec quasi desperando de salute populi sui locutus est, sed ut dolorem suum nimium de contritione et objectione diutina gentis suae manifestaret. This conclusion entirely agrees with the character of the Lamentations, in which complaint and supplication should continue to the end, - not, however, without an element of hope, although the latter may not rise to the heights of joyful victory, but, as Gerlach expresses himself, "merely glimmers from afar, like the morning star through the clouds, which does not indeed itself dispel the shadows of the night, though it announces that the rising of the sun is near, and that it shall obtain the victory."