The prophet presents a graphic view of Jerusalem once abounding with people now sitting alone, and as a widow; she that was mighty among nations, a princess among the provinces, now become tributary. She is seen weeping sore, and this in the night when darkness and sleep bring respite to others, to her only a renewal of that grief, less restrained, which covers her cheeks with tears. Now is proved the folly as well as the sin that forsook Jehovah for others; but there is for her no comforter out of her lovers. All her friends, the allies she counted on, deal treacherously by her, and are but enemies. (Ver. 1, 2.)
The last hope of the nation was gone. Israel had been long a prey to the Assyrian. But now in the captivity of Judah mourning overspreads Zion where once were crowded feasts. And there is no exception to the rule of affliction: her priests sigh, her virgins are afflicted, herself as a whole in bitterness. On the other hand her adversaries are in power and command over her. How bitter was all this to a Jew! and in a sense most bitter where the Jew was godly. For besides the grief of nature he might share with his countrymen, there was the added and poignant sorrow that the normal witnesses of Jehovah on earth had proved false, and he could not see how glory would be brought to God in spite of and through Israel's unfaithfulness.
It is necessary to bear in mind the peculiar place of Israel and Jerusalem: otherwise we can never appreciate such a book as this, and many of the Psalms, as well as much of the Prophets. The patriotism of a Jew was bound up as that of no other people or country was with the honour of Jehovah. Providence governs everywhere: no raid of Red Indians, no manoeuvre of the greatest military power in the West, no movement or struggle in Asia, without His eye and hand. But He had set up a direct government in His own land and people, modified from Samuel's days by kingly power, which had blessing guaranteed on obedience. But who could guarantee the obedience? Israel pledged it indeed, but in vain. The people disobeyed, the priests disobeyed, the kings disobeyed. We see too that in Jeremiah's days false prophets imitated the true, and supplanted them in the heed of a court and nation which desired a delusive sanction from God on their own wilfulness, prophesying what pleased the people in flattery and deceit. Hence the corruption only lent an immense impetus to those who were already hastening down the steep of ruin. But this did not lesson the agony of such as Jeremiah. They realized the inevitable ruin; and he, not in moral sense only but by divine inspiration, gives expression to his feelings here. The blessed Lord Jesus Himself is the perfect pattern of similar grief over Jerusalem, in Him absolutely unselfish and in every way pure, but so much the more deeply felt. Unless the relation of that city to God be understood, one cannot enter into this; and there is danger of either explaining it away into care for their souls, or of perverting it into a ground for similar feelings, each for his own country. But it is clear that a man's soul is the same in Pekin or London, in Jerusalem or Baltimore. The Lord does show us the immeasurable value of a soul elsewhere; but this is not the key to His tears over Jerusalem. The impending judgment of God in this world, the dismal consequences yet in the womb of the future, because of the rejection of the Messiah as well as all other evil against God, made the Saviour weep. We cannot wonder therefore that the Spirit of Christ which was in Jeremiah, and guided him in this Book of Lamentations, gave the prophet communion with his Master before He Himself proved its worst against His own person.
God might raise up a fresh testimony, as we know He has done; but, while bowing to His sovereign will, the utter ruin of the old witness justly filled the heart of every pious God-fearing Israelite with sorrow unceasing; and surely not the less "because Jehovah hath afflicted her for the multitude of her transgressions." Grief is not less over God's people because they have dishonoured God and are righteously chastised. "Her children are gone into captivity before the enemy. And from the daughter of Zion all her beauty is departed: her princes are as harts which find no pasture and go powerless before the pursuer."
There was the bitter aggravation, ever present, of what the city of the great King had lost, which He, when He came and was refused, told out in His broken words of weeping over it. "Jerusalem remembered in the days of her affliction and of her miseries all her pleasant things that she had in the days of old, when her people fell into the hand of the enemy, and none did help her: the adversaries saw her, and did mock at her sabbaths. Jerusalem hath grievously sinned; therefore she is removed: all that honoured her despise her, because they have seen her nakedness: yea, she sigheth, and turneth backward. Her filthiness is in her skirts; she remembereth not her last end; therefore she came down wonderfully: she had no comforter. O Jehovah, behold my affliction: for the enemy hath magnified himself, 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. All her people sigh, they seek bread; they have given their pleasant things for meat to relieve the soul: see, O Jehovah, and consider: for I am become vile." (Ver. 7-11.) Faith however sees in the prostration of the guilty city under the relentless adversary a plea for Jehovah's compassion and interposition on its behalf.
Then the prophet personifies the downtrodden Zion turning to the passing strangers for their pity. "Is it nothing to you, all ye that pass by? behold, and see if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow, which is done unto me, wherewith Jehovah hath afflicted me in the day of his fierce anger. From above hath he sent fire into my bones, and it prevaileth against them: he hath spread a net for my feet, he hath turned me back: he hath made me desolate and faint all the day. The yoke of my transgressions is bound by his hand: they are wreathed, and come up upon my neck: he hath made my strength to fall, the Lord hath delivered me into their hands, from whom I am not able to rise up. The Lord hath trodden under foot all my mighty men in the midst of me: he hath called an assembly against me to crush my young men: the Lord hath trodden the virgin, the daughter of Judah, as in a winepress. For these things I weep; mine eye, mine eye runneth down with water, because the comforter that should relieve my soul is far from me: my children are desolate, because the enemy prevailed." (Ver. 12-16.) Still all is traced to Jehovah's dealing because of Jerusalem's rebellious sins; and hence He is morally vindicated. "Zion spreadeth forth her hands, and there is none to comfort her: Jehovah hath commanded concerning Jacob, that his adversaries should be round about him: Jerusalem is as a menstruous woman among them. Jehovah is righteous; for I have rebelled against his commandment: hear, I pray you, all people, and behold my sorrow: my virgins and my young men are gone into captivity. 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." (Ver. 17-19.)
Finally, Jehovah is called to behold, because Jerusalem was thus troubled, and this too inwardly, because of its own grievous rebellion; and He is besought to requite the enemy who took pleasure in their abject shame and deep suffering. "Behold, O Jehovah; for I am in distress: my bowels are troubled; mine heart is turned within me; for I have grievously rebelled: abroad the sword bereaveth, at home there is as death. They have heard that I sigh: there is none to comfort me: all mine enemies have heard of my trouble, they are glad that thou hast done it; thou wilt bring the day that thou hast called, and they shall be like unto me. Let all their wickedness come before thee; and do unto them as thou hast done unto me for all my transgressions: for my sighs are many, and my heart is faint." (Ver. 20-22.)