Assyria and Babylonia were located in Mesopotamia, the area of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers where Iraq is located today—400-500 miles (650-800 km) northeast of Israel. Babylonia (southern Mesopotamia) has surpassed Assyria (northern Mesopotamia) as the dominant Mesopotamian power. In 605 B.C. Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylonia defeated Egypt at Carchemish, thereby establishing Babylonia as the reigning superpower.
In 598 B.C. Nebuchadnezzar responded to a rebellion in Judah by laying siege to Jerusalem, forcing Jerusalem’s most prominent citizens into exile in Babylonia, and carrying off “all the treasures of the house of the Lord” (2 Kings 24:13).
In 587 B.C. Nebuchadnezzar responded to a rebellion by Zedekiah of Judah by again laying siege to Jerusalem. This time he destroyed the city and killed many of its inhabitants. He took most of the rest to Babylon—leaving behind only the poorest (2 Kings 25). Then a rebellion by some of Judah’s remaining population against Gedaliah, Babylonia’s proxy ruler (2 Kings 25:22-26 Jeremiah 41), inspired a final deportation to Babylon. The prophets made it clear that this was Yahweh’s judgment on Judah for her sins.
The book of Lamentations was almost certainly written during the Babylonian Exile, which lasted from 587 B.C. to 539 B.C. when Cyrus of Persia freed the exiles. Lamentations consists of five poems, each of which comprises a chapter of the book. The first four poems are alphabetic acrostics—poems in which each line begins with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet. The first four chapters were probably written during the first part of the exile. The fifth chapter may have been written later—but still during the exile. The book as a whole serves as a funeral dirge for the nation.
Lamentations does not tell us the author’s name, but the authorship has traditionally been ascribed to Jeremiah. Some scholars question Jeremiah’s authorship, pointing to stylistic variations between the books of Jeremiah and Lamentations—but scholars are divided on this matter.
In the Hebrew canon, the book of Lamentations is found among the Writings rather than the Prophets. However the Septuagint (the Greek version of the Old Testament) places Lamentations after the book of Jeremiah, and the Christian canon follows that model.
LAMENTATIONS 1:1. HOW THE CITY SITS SOLITARY
1 How the city sits solitary, that was full of people!
She has become as a widow, who was great among the nations!
She who was a princess among the provinces has become tributary!
“How the city sits solitary, that was full of people!” (v. 1a). The city of Jerusalem was a thriving, bustling city, her streets full of people and her air full of the cries of merchants hoping to sell their wares. Pilgrims from many nations came by the tens of thousands for the great pilgrimage festivals. Priests kept the sacrificial fires burning at the temple.
But now, the city sits lonely. Many of its people were killed in the great siege that preceded the Babylonian victory, and most of the rest have been taken into exile in Babylonia. The city sits quiet, lonely, and almost deserted.
This verse brings to mind the last scene in the 1959 movie, “On the Beach.” That movie pictured the aftermath of a nuclear war, where radiation killed those spared by the fireballs. Australia became the last habitable nation, but air currents soon carried the deadly radiation there as well. In the last scene, survivors aboard a submarine look through a periscope at the city of Melbourne. Life has ceased to exist. The streets are empty, scraps of paper blown by the wind providing the only movement. That’s how this verse pictures Jerusalem—lifeless—lonely—deserted—desolate.
“She has become as a widow, who was great among the nations! She who was a princess among the provinces has become tributary!” (v. 1b). These two lines express the same thought in different words (an example of parallelism —characteristic of Hebrew poetry). It pictures Jerusalem as a woman—a great woman—a princess—who has been widowed.
In that patriarchal culture, widows are vulnerable. They have few property rights and only marginal ways to make a living. While Jewish law has provisions to protect widows (Deuteronomy 10:18; 14:28-29; 24:17-21; 25:5-10; 27:19), they often find themselves reduced to desperate circumstances financially and subject to exploitation (Psalm 94:6; Isaiah 1:23; Ezekiel 22:7).
The point here is that Jerusalem, a formerly great city—a princess among cities—has become like a widow. She is a vassal of Babylonia, and no longer has control over her future.
LAMENTATIONS 1:2. SHE WEEPS BITTERLY IN THE NIGHT
2 She weeps bitterly in the night, and her tears are on her cheeks;
among all her lovers she has none to comfort her:
All her friends have dealt treacherously with her;
they are become her enemies.
“She weeps bitterly in the night, and her tears are on her cheeks” (v. 2a). It is a terrible thing to go from being a princess to being a widow. It is a terrible thing to go from being an independent nation to being a vassal. Jerusalem is grieving at her loss.
“among all her lovers she has none to comfort her” (v. 2b). Jerusalem’s problem began with her many lovers—her many flirtations with pagan gods. She was bound to Yahweh by a covenant relationship, but chose to go after the Baals and other Canaanite gods. Now these former lovers offer her no comfort.
In times of distress, it is wonderful to be comforted by someone who loves us. When we are afraid, it is wonderful to have our lover take us in his/her arms and reassure us. When we feel unsure of ourselves, it is wonderful to have the person we love tell us that he/she loves us. However, a person who chases many lovers will soon find that the fragmented life that grows out of multiple relationships provides more tension than comfort.
When we have a problem, it is wonderful to have someone who loves us say, “How can I help?”—or “Don’t worry about that. I’ll take care of it.” But Jerusalem has found that her pagan gods have no power to help—no comfort to offer. They are just idols—sticks and stones—worthless and powerless.
“All her friends have dealt treacherously with her; they are become her enemies” (v. 2c). Lacking faith in Yahweh, Judah made political alliances with Egypt and other nations to protect itself from Babylonia. However, once Babylonia sent its armies against Jerusalem, these other nations refused to come to Jerusalem’s rescue. Deferring to Babylonia’s power, they have become Judah’s enemies.
LAMENTATIONS 1:3.JUDAH IS GONE INTO CAPTIVITY
3 Judah is gone into captivity because of affliction,
and because of great servitude;
she dwells among the nations (Hebrew: goyim), she finds no rest:
all her persecutors overtook her within the straits.
“Judah is gone into captivity” (v. 3a). This is a clear reference to the Babylonian exile that followed the destruction of Jerusalem.
“she dwells among the nations” (goyim) (v. 3b). Judah, once a proud nation, has been forced to live among the goyim. While this word, goyim, means nations, it also means Gentiles and has the sense of foreign nations. Judah, once so proud of its position as God’s chosen people, has been forced to live among the goyim—the unwashed. Not only is she living among the goyim, but she has become their servant.
LAMENTATIONS 1:4. THE WAYS OF ZION DO MOURN
4 The ways of Zion do mourn,
because none come to the solemn assembly;
all her gates are desolate, her priests do sigh:
her virgins are afflicted, and she herself is in bitterness.
“The ways of Zion do mourn, because none come to the solemn assembly” (v. 4a). The city of Jerusalem is sited on Mount Zion, so the word Zion is often used to mean Jerusalem.
It isn’t just Jerusalem that is in mourning, but also the roads leading to it. In the past, those roads have been busy with the commerce of the bustling city as well as the travel of pilgrims coming to worship at the temple during the great pilgrimage festivals. Now those same roads are nearly empty. The occasional traveler no longer enjoys the safety of numbers, but has few defenses against brigands.
“all her gates are desolate” (v. 4b). City gates are busy places. They are the only way to enter or leave the city, so people have to go through the gates to attend to their fields during the day and return through the gates at night. City elders administer justice at the city gates. Prophets deliver prophecies there. Merchants conduct business there.
But none of that is happening at Jerusalem’s city gates. This center of commerce and justice is now desolate, as is the rest of the city.
“her priests do sigh” (v. 4c). In the past, priests kept busy taking care of temple sacrifices. Now, however, there are neither temple nor sacrifices—and it seems likely that most priests are either dead or in exile.
“her virgins are afflicted” (v. 4d). In that patriarchal society, young women must find a husband if they are to have any kind of life. They are dependent on husbands for financial support as well as affection and procreation. In Jerusalem, the young girls are grieving because their prospects of marriage are dim.
“and she herself is in bitterness” (v. 4e). It is not only the people who are suffering, but the city itself. It has been razed. Its temple lies in ruins. Its people have been killed or taken into exile. Jerusalem’s past was glorious, but it seems as if it has no future. The city is like a widow (v. 1)—lonely, vulnerable, and subject to exploitation.
LAMENTATIONS 1:5. HER ADVERSARIES PROSPER
5 Her adversaries are become the head (Hebrew: ro’sh), her enemies prosper;
for Yahweh has afflicted her for the multitude of her transgressions:
her young children are gone into captivity before the adversary.
“Her adversaries are become the head (ro’sh), her enemies prosper” (v. 5a). In Deuteronomy 28, Yahweh outlined a series of blessings that the people of Israel would enjoy if they proved faithful (Deuteronomy 28:1-14) and a series of curses that they would experience if they proved unfaithful (Deuteronomy 28:15-68). Note that there are many more verses of curses than of blessings. Yahweh has given these people fair warning of the consequences of infidelity.
This verse of Lamentations hearkens back to Deuteronomy 28:44, which says that aliens residing among the Israelites “shall be the head (ro’sh) and you shall be the tail.” This, of course, has come to pass. The Babylonians have become the rulers and the people of Judah/Jerusalem have become the subjects.
“for Yahweh has afflicted her for the multitude of her transgressions” (v. 5b). Israel’s suffering is not a sign that Yahweh was unable to protect the people of Judah and Jerusalem. It is, instead, divine justice visited upon an unfaithful people.
“her young children are gone into captivity before the adversary” (v. 5c). This, in fact, has happened. The people of Judah/Jerusalem who survived the siege have been taken into exile in Babylonia. They are once again slaves, as they were once slaves in Egypt.
LAMENTATIONS 1:6. ALL ZION’S MAJESTY IS DEPARTED
6 From the daughter of Zion all her majesty is departed:
her princes are become like harts that find no pasture,
they are gone without strength before the pursuer.
“From the daughter of Zion all her majesty is departed” (v. 6a). Jerusalem has been a princess, but has become a vassal (v. 1). The city and the temple have been destroyed, and the people killed or taken into captivity. There is no majesty left in Jerusalem—only ruins.
“her princes are become like harts that find no pasture, they are gone without strength before the pursuer” (v. 6b). When the Babylonians breached the city walls, King Zedekiah and his soldiers fled by night. When the Babylonians pursued and overtook them, Zedekiah’s soldiers deserted him. Then the Babylonians “took (Zedekiah) and carried him up to the king of Babylon to Riblah; and they gave judgment on him. They killed the sons of Zedekiah before his eyes, and put out the eyes of Zedekiah, and bound him in fetters, and carried him to Babylon” (2 Kings 25:4-7).
Presumably, some of Zedekiah’s lieutenants escaped, but where can they go—Babylonia is in control everywhere! If these former princes of Jerusalem want to evade capture and punishment, they will have to hide in remote places where nobody lives—the kinds of places where there it is difficult to procure food and water—difficult to survive.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Dobbs-Allsopp, F.W., Interpretation: Lamentations (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002)
Garrett, Duane A. and House, Paul R., Word Biblical Commentary: Song of Songs & Lamentations, Vol. 23B (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2000)
Guest, John, The Preacher’s Commentary: Jeremiah, Lamentations, Vol. 19 (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2002)
Harrison, R.K., Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Jeremiah & Lamentations, Vol. 19 (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973)
Huey, F. B. Jr., New American Commentary: Isaiah, Lamentations, Vol. 16 (Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1993)
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Newsome, James D. in Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; McCann, J. Clinton; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV–Year C (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994)
Radner, Ephraim, in Van Harn, Roger (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Text. The First Readings: The Old Testament and Acts (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001)
Tucker, Gene M. in Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holliday, Carl R.; and Tucker, Gene M.,Preaching Through the Christian Year, C (Valley Forge: Trinity Press, 1994)
Copyright 2010, Richard Niell Donovan