Study Guide

Lamentations Exile

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How lonely sits the city that once was full of people! (NRSV 1:1)

How doth the city sit solitary, that was full of people! (KJV 1:1)

Well, that doesn't start off on a happy note. Jerusalem is a deserted wasteland because everyone's gone. Actually, not everyone. Just the important folks. But still. This is the first instance of the Poet comparing his present-day Jerusalem with its former glory.

Judah has gone into exile with suffering and hard servitude; she lives now among the nations, and finds no resting place; her pursuers have all overtaken her in the midst of her distress. The roads to Zion mourn, for no one comes to the festivals; all her gates are desolate. (NRSV 1:3-4)

Judah is gone into captivity because of affliction, and because of great servitude: she dwelleth among the heathen, she findeth no rest: all her persecutors overtook her between the straits. The ways of Zion do mourn, because none come to the solemn feasts: all her gates are desolate. (KJV 1:3-4)

One of the tragedies of the city's destruction was that there was no longer a Temple in which to carry out the required sacrifices and rituals. Pilgrimage festivals were very busy times in Jerusalem. Jews came from all over the region to sacrifice and socialize. Young men and women would dress up and hang out, hoping to find a spouse. Having to live among the heathens was especially awful.

Enemies have stretched out their hands over all her precious things; she has even seen the nations invade her sanctuary, those whom you forbade to enter your congregation. (NRSV 1:10)

The adversary hath spread out his hand upon all her pleasant things: for she hath seen that the heathen entered into her sanctuary, whom thou didst command that they should not enter into thy congregation. (KJV 1:10)

Not even ordinary Judeans were allowed in the holiest parts of the Temple. Think about how they felt about the Babylonian army trampling around in there. Totally defiled.

I called to my lovers but they deceived me; my priests and elders perished in the city while seeking food to revive their strength. (NRSV 1:19)

I called for my lovers, but they deceived me: my priests and mine elders gave up the ghost in the city, while they sought their meat to relieve their souls. (KJV 1:19)

Judah had hoped that powerful allies like Egypt might come to her rescue against the Babylonians, but no such luck.

The Lord has become like an enemy; he has destroyed Israel. He has destroyed all its palaces, laid in ruins its strongholds, and multiplied in daughter Judah mourning and lamentation. He has broken down his booth like a garden, he has destroyed his tabernacle; the Lord has abolished in Zion festival and sabbath, and in his fierce indignation has spurned king and priest. The Lord has scorned his altar, disowned his sanctuary; he has delivered into the hand of the enemy the walls of her palaces; a clamor was raised in the house of the Lord as on a day of festival. The Lord determined to lay in ruins the wall of daughter Zion; he stretched the line; he did not withhold his hand from destroying; he caused rampart and wall to lament; they languish together. Her gates have sunk into the ground; he has ruined and broken her bars; her king and princes are among the nations; guidance is no more, and her prophets obtain no vision from the Lord. (NRSV 2:5-9)

The Lord was as an enemy: he hath swallowed up Israel, he hath swallowed up all her palaces: he hath destroyed his strong holds, and hath increased in the daughter of Judah mourning and lamentation. And he hath violently taken away his tabernacle, as if it were of a garden: he hath destroyed his places of the assembly: the Lord hath caused the solemn feasts and sabbaths to be forgotten in Zion, and hath despised in the indignation of his anger the king and the priest. The Lord hath cast off his altar, he hath abhorred his sanctuary, he hath given up into the hand of the enemy the walls of her palaces; they have made a noise in the house of the Lord, as in the day of a solemn feast. The Lord hath purposed to destroy the wall of the daughter of Zion: he hath stretched out a line, he hath not withdrawn his hand from destroying: therefore he made the rampart and the wall to lament; they languished together. Her gates are sunk into the ground; he hath destroyed and broken her bars: her king and her princes are among the Gentiles: the law is no more; her prophets also find no vision from the Lord. (KJV 2:5-9)

In this passage, you really get the idea of how utter and complete the destruction of Jerusalem and its society was. At least in Babylon there was a working city and culture.

All who pass along the way clap their hands at you; they hiss and wag their heads at daughter Jerusalem; "Is this the city that was called The perfection of beauty, The joy of all the earth?" All your enemies open their mouths against you; they hiss, they gnash their teeth, they cry: "We have devoured her! Ah, this is the day we longed for; at last we have seen it!" (NRSV 2:15-16)

All that pass by clap their hands at thee; they hiss and wag their head at the daughter of Jerusalem, saying, Is this the city that men call the perfection of beauty, The joy of the whole earth? All thine enemies have opened their mouth against thee: they hiss and gnash the teeth: they say, We have swallowed her up: certainly this is the day that we looked for; we have found, we have seen it. (KJV 2:15-16)

The enemies of Jerusalem are pretty psyched to see this once great city fall. Even if they're not the ones enjoying the spoils of war, they sure like seeing the Jewish people in this low point.

The kings of the earth did not believe, nor did any of the inhabitants of the world, that foe or enemy could enter the gates of Jerusalem. (NRSV 4:12)

The kings of the earth, and all the inhabitants of the world, would not have believed that the adversary and the enemy should have entered into the gates of Jerusalem. (KJV 4:12)

Jerusalem sounds a bit like the Titanic. The people inside the city walls thought their ship was unsinkable. With God living right in the midst of the city, it was really unthinkable that it could be conquered.

So they became fugitives and wanderers; it was said among the nations, "They shall stay here no longer." The Lord himself has scattered them, he will regard them no more; no honor was shown to the priests, no favor to the elders. (NRSV 4:15-16)

They cried unto them, Depart ye; it is unclean; depart, depart, touch not: when they fled away and wandered, they said among the heathen, They shall no more sojourn there. The anger of the Lord hath divided them; he will no more regard them: they respected not the persons of the priests, they favoured not the elders. (KJV 4:15-16)

Here, the Poet is talking specifically about the prophets who deceived Jerusalem. God exiled them (along with everyone else) because they didn't manage to convince the people to repent. Does it seem kind of harsh to punish everyone for the sins of the few?

Our eyes failed, ever watching vainly for help; we were watching eagerly for a nation that could not save. They dogged our steps so that we could not walk in our streets; our end drew near; our days were numbered; for our end had come. Our pursuers were swifter than the eagles in the heavens; they chased us on the mountains, they lay in wait for us in the wilderness. The Lord's anointed, the breath of our life, was taken in their pits—the one of whom we said, "Under his shadow we shall live among the nations." (NRSV 4:17-20)

As for us, our eyes as yet failed for our vain help: in our watching we have watched for a nation that could not save us. They hunt our steps, that we cannot go in our streets: our end is near, our days are fulfilled; for our end is come. Our persecutors are swifter than the eagles of the heaven: they pursued us upon the mountains, they laid wait for us in the wilderness. The breath of our nostrils, the anointed of the Lord, was taken in their pits, of whom we said, Under his shadow we shall live among the heathen. (KJV 4:17-20)

You can feel the people's helplessness in this passage as the invading army gradually approached. They knew the end was near but could do nothing to save themselves.

The punishment of your iniquity, O daughter Zion, is accomplished, he will keep you in exile no longer. (NRSV 4:22)

The punishment of thine iniquity is accomplished, O daughter of Zion; he will no more carry thee away into captivity. (KJV 4:22)

A glimmer of hope? The Poet seems to think that the inhabitants of the city have gone through enough. They've been kicked out of town, but they'll be back soon. God will see to that. Spoiler alert: he did!

Our inheritance has been turned over to strangers, our homes to aliens. We have become orphans, fatherless; our mothers are like widows. We must pay for the water we drink; the wood we get must be bought. With a yoke on our necks we are hard driven; we are weary, we are given no rest. We have made a pact with Egypt and Assyria, to get enough bread. (NRSV 5:2-6)

Our inheritance is turned to strangers, our houses to aliens. We are orphans and fatherless, our mothers are as widows. We have drunken our water for money; our wood is sold unto us. Our necks are under persecution: we labour, and have no rest. We have given the hand to the Egyptians, and to the Assyrians, to be satisfied with bread. (KJV 5:2-6)

In those times, when a city was captured, it was typical for the conquerors to exile the locals and move their own citizens into the area. The locals lost the rights to their own property and now have to purchase what they formerly supplied for themselves. Pretty humiliating for a formerly rich and independent kingdom.

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