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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

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Commentary on Lamentations

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( 1:1–11a ) A Dirge over the Ruined City

We are immediately introduced to the city, Zion, the major focus of the book. The Hebrew word for ‘city’ is feminine, and this encourages the use of female personification—though the language of humiliation (as in v. 8 ) raises pressing ethical questions for some readers (O'Connor 1992 ). The city is often presented as the wife of YHWH in the OT (cf. Galambush 1992 ), and the motif of the ‘widowed city’ (v. 1 ) is found outside Israel too (C. Cohen 1973 ); it is not unreasonable to understand Zion here as bereaved of YHWH himself. ‘Daughter Zion’ (v. 6 ) is a key phrase in the book, as also in Isaiah (e.g. 1:8; 52:2; cf. Sawyer 1989 ). The Hebrew has ‘daughter of Zion’ (as in RSV), but the NRSV's ‘daughter Zion’ captures well the sense, namely the city personified. The formula is used also of Jerusalem and Judah, sometimes designated as ‘virgin’ (e.g. 1:15; 2:13 ).

As is commonplace in such dirges (cf. Isa 1:21–3 ), v. 1 contains several contrasts between a former positive situation (‘full’, ‘great’, ‘princess’) and the present negative one (‘lonely’, ‘widow’, ‘vassal’), and in this it sets a pattern for the whole book. The language of grief pervades the work, vv. 2 and 16 providing notable examples. That Zion ‘has no one to comfort her’ (v. 2 ) is a recurrent theme (cf. vv. 16, 17, 21 ). Reference to Zion's deceptive lovers (vv. 2, 19 ) probably stands, as often, for false political allies (cf. 4:17 ). The chapter features two related motifs: ‘The foe looked on mocking’ (v. 7; cf. v. 21 ; the historical circumstances described in 2 Kings 24:2 may be in mind); and ‘all you who pass by’ (v. 12; cf. 2:15 , where passers-by mock).

v. 3 provides the first mention of exile. Some have noted that explicit reference to the actual destruction of the temple (in 587) seems to be lacking in this chapter; indeed Rudolph argued that ch. 1 was written shortly after the first capture of Jerusalem in 597 (Rudolph 1962: 209–11). Provan (1990 ) contends that the precise historical background to ch. 1 is unclear, but that this is not crucial for its theological interpretation. The references to festivals and priests (v. 4 ) highlight the cultic concern which will mark the whole book. As we learn in v. 10 , the nations have invaded the sanctuary (the theme is similar to Psalms such as 74 and 79 ). ‘Her priests groan; her young girls grieve’ (v. 4 ): the emphasis here is on the reaction to events; RSV's ‘her maidens have been dragged away’ unnecessarily follows LXX, presupposing a different Hebrew verb. v. 5 provides the first of many theological explanations of the disaster. In the course of the book as a whole some inconsistent accounts are given, but in ch. 1 it is made clear that YHWH is in charge (vv. 12, 14 ) and that he has acted on account of Judah's sin (vv. 8, 18 ). v. 9b introduces the first use of the first person. In this it anticipates the section which begins at v. 11b , and for this reason NRSV presents these words as a quotation. However, such movement from one grammatical person to another, found throughout the book, is not at all unusual in Hebrew poetry. Lanahan (1974 ) reflects imaginatively on the ‘voices’ that speak at various points in the book.

( 1:11b–22 ) A Lament Uttered by Zion

With 11b, there begins a passage consistently in the first person (through to the end of the chapter, with the exception of v. 17 ). ‘Is it nothing to you?’ (v. 12 ): the Hebrew has merely ‘not to you’. It is perhaps preferable to take this as an assertion, ‘This is none of your business’, part of Zion's inconsistent emotional reaction to her tragedy. The end of v. 12 echoes ‘day of the LORD’ language, as does v. 15 (cf. 2:1, 21, 22 ); in the present circumstances, it is clear that the day of the Lord means bad news for Israel (cf. Am 5:18 ). In a bloody image, ‘The Lord has trodden as in a wine press the virgin daughter Judah’ (v. 15; cf. Isa 63:1–6 ). ‘My transgressions were bound into a yoke’ (v. 14 ): the Hebrew word translated ‘were bound’ here is found nowhere else in the OT, but the context (esp. the following words) seems to demand some such sense. It is unnecessary to follow those, ancient and modern, who have suggested significant alternatives, e.g. LXX, ‘watch was kept over my sins’. The chapter ends with a call for vengeance upon Zion's enemies; it is noteworthy that the same theme is found at the end of chs. 3 and 4 . ‘Bring on the day’ (v. 21 ): the Hebrew actually has ‘You have brought on the day’, which makes perfect sense as a reference to Zion's fate, before the appeal that the same should befall her enemies is introduced in the following clause, ‘let them be as I am’.

( 2:1–22 )

The chapter begins with the exclamation ‘How!’, as do chs. 1 and 4 , and takes the form of another dirge over the ruined city. The divine anger is a recurrent theme, found here in vv. 1–4 , as is the statement that YHWH acts ‘without mercy’ (cf. vv. 17, 21 ). He has ‘humiliated’ daughter Zion: the Hebrew verb is found only here in the OT and its meaning is uncertain; the main alternative interpretation is represented by the RSV's ‘set under a cloud’. His ‘footstool’ is the Jerusalem temple (cf. Ps 99:5 ); ‘he has broken down his booth like a garden’ (cf. Isa 1:8 ) and ‘has destroyed his tabernacle’ (v. 6 ): a truly shocking claim! In other ways too expectations are overturned. In v. 3 ‘he has withdrawn his right hand from them’, the hand of protection in this case, whilst in v. 4 he has ‘his right hand set like a foe’ against Israel, in an apparent inversion of the holy war tradition. In v. 7 festal acclamations are turned into the shouts of war within the temple itself (cf. v. 22 ).

In vv. 7–9 , the physical features of the city are listed; rampart and wall ‘languish together’, a strange image perhaps, but not so unusual for the poetry of the OT! YHWH has stretched the measuring line in judgement (v. 8; cf. Job 38:5; Am 7:7–9 ). All sources of authority are removed: kings, princes, prophets, elders (vv. 9–10 ); ‘guidance is no more’, that is, the teaching given by the priests (as in Jer 18:18; Mal 2:5–8 ). v. 10 illustrates Judean mourning rites (cf. Bloch-Smith 1992 ), whilst vv. 11–12 highlight another central issue of the book, hunger ( 1:11, 19; 4:4–5, 9–10; cf. 2 Kings 25:3 ). Wine is mentioned in v. 12 because water would have been too polluted to drink. The famine theme culminates in the grim reality of cannibalism, here in v. 20 and at 4:10 (cf. 2 Kings 6:28–9 ).

‘What can I say for you, to what compare you?’: these moving words of v. 13 recall the comparison in 1:12 , but the voice is different here, possibly even that of mocking irony, for the question ‘who can heal you?’ implies of course the answer ‘no one’ (cf. Isa 1:5–6 ). Certainly the prophets cannot help; as in v. 9 , so now in v. 14 they are the butt of stern criticism (cf. Ezek 13:1–16; Jer 23:9–32 ). We should not worry about whether Jeremiah himself has been overlooked, even if he was a contemporary of the poet, for these words are the stuff of rhetorical hyperbole. Mockers ‘clap their hands’ (v. 15 ): in ancient Israel, this was a sign of derision; they ‘hiss and wag their heads’ (cf. Ps 69:9–12, 19–21 ). ‘Is this the city that was called the perfection of beauty?’: a poignant question indeed; we are reminded of Zion Psalms such as 46 and 48 . ‘The LORD has done what he purposed’ (v. 17 ): he is indeed responsible for the catastrophe, which ‘he ordained long ago’ (cf. Deut 28:64–5; 1 Kings 9:6–9 ).

‘Cry aloud’ (v. 18 ): this is an emendation followed by many modern translations and commentators; the Hebrew actually has ‘Their heart cried’. v. 19 introduces the language of prayer, even repentance; and in this anticipates themes of ch. 3 . And yet in v. 20 even God is rebuked, anger towards God being one of the many inconsistent reactions to events in this book. ‘Should priest and prophet be killed in the sanctuary of the Lord?’: a terrible fate, but 4:13 implies that they deserve to be! The chapter culminates in v. 22 with reference to an invitation to the enemies to come and slaughter the Judaeans (the language shares something with Ezek 38 ), a judgement so total that ‘no one escaped or survived’ (cf. Am 5:19 ).

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