The misery that has come on the inhabitants of Jerusalem is a punishment for their deep guilt. The description given of this misery is divided into two strophes: for, first (Lam 4:1-6), the sad lot of the several classes of the population is set forth; then (Lam 4:7-11) a conclusion is drawn therefrom regarding the greatness of their sin.
The first strophe. Lam 4:1. The lamentation begins with a figurative account of the destruction of all that is precious and glorious in Israel: this is next established by the bringing forth of instances.
Lam 4:1, Lam 4:2 contain, not a complaint regarding the desolation of the sanctuary and of Zion, as Maurer, Kalkschmidt, and Thenius, with the lxx, assume, but, as is unmistakeably declared in Lam 4:2, a lamentation over the fearful change that has taken place in the fate of the citizens of Zion. What is stated in Lam 4:1 regarding the gold and the precious stones must be understood figuratively; and in the case of the "gold that has become dim," we can as little think of the blackening of the gilding in the temple fabric when it was burnt, as think of bricks (Thenius) when "the holy stones" are spoken of. The בְּנֵי צִיֹּון (inhabitants of Zion), Lam 4:2, are likened to gold and sacred stones; here Thenius would arbitrarily change בְּנֵי into בָּתֵּי (houses, palaces). This change not merely has no critical support, but is objectionable on the simple ground that there is not a single word to be found elsewhere, through all the chapter, concerning the destruction of the temple and the palaces; it is merely the fate of the men, not of the buildings, that is bewailed. "How is gold bedimmed!" יוּעַם is the Hophal of עָמַם, to be dark, Eze 28:3, and to darken, Eze 31:8. The second clause, "how is fine gold changed!" expresses the same thing. שָׁנָא = שָׁנָה, according to the Chaldaizing usage, means to change (oneself), Mal 3:6. The growing dim and the changing refer to the colour, the loss of brilliancy; for gold does not alter in substance. B. C. Michaelis and Rosenmüller are too specific when they explain that the gold represents populus Judaicus (or the potior populi Hebraei pars), qui (quae) quondam auri instar in sanctuario Dei fulgebat, and when they see in אַבְּנֵי קֹדֶשׁ an allusion to the stones in the breast-plate of the high priest. Gold is generally an emblem of very worthy persons, and "holy stones" are precious stones, intended for a sacred purpose. Both expressions collectively form a figurative description of the people of Israel, as called to be a holy nation and a kingdom of priests. Analogous is the designation of the children of Israel as אַבְּנֵי נֵזֶר, Zec 9:16 (Gerlach). הִשְׁתַּפֵּךְ, to be poured out (at all the corners of the streets), is a figurative expression, signifying disgraceful treatment, as in Lam 2:11. In Lam 4:2 follows the application of the figure to the sons (i.e., the citizens) of Zion, not merely the chief nobles of Judah (Ewald), or the princes, nor children in the narrowest sense of the word (Gerlach); for in what follows mention is made not only of children (Lam 4:3, Lam 4:4), but also of those who are grown up (Lam 4:5), and princes are not mentioned till Lam 4:7. As being members of the chosen people, all the inhabitants of Jerusalem have been held "dear," and "weighed out with gold," i.e., esteemed as of equal value with gold (cf. Job 28:16, Job 28:19); but now, when Jerusalem is destroyed, they have become regarded as earthenware pots, i.e., treated as if they were utterly worthless, as "a work of the hands of the potter," whereas Israel was a work of the hands of God, Isa 64:7. סָלָא = סָלָה, cf. Job 28:16, Job 28:19 to weigh; Pual, be weighed out, as an equivalent.
This disregard or rejection of the citizens of Zion is evidence in Lam 4:3 and onwards by many examples, beginning with children, ascending to adults (3-5), and ending with princes. The starvation to death of the children (Lam 4:3, Lam 4:4) is mentioned first; and the frightful misery that has befallen Jerusalem is vividly set forth, by a comparison of the way in which wild animals act towards their young with the behaviour of the mothers of Jerusalem towards their children. Even jackals (תַּנִּין for תַּנִּים, see on Jer 9:10) give their breasts to their young ones to suck. חָֽלְצוּ , extrahunt mammam = they present their breast. As Junius has remarked, the expression is taken a mulieribus lactantibus, quae laxata veste mammam lactanti praebent; hence also we are not, for the sake of this expression, to understand תַּנִּין as meaning cetus (Bochart and Nägelsbach), regarding which animal Bochart remarks (Hieroz. iii. p. 777, ed. Rosenmüller), ceti papillas non esseἐπιφανεῖς, quippe in mammis receptae tanquam in vaginis conduntur. Rosenmüller has already rejected this meaning as minus apta for the present passage. From the combination of jackals and ostriches as inhabiting desert places (Isa 13:21.; Job 30:29), we have no hesitation in fixing on "jackals" as the meaning here. "The daughter of my people" (cf. Lam 2:11) here means the inhabitants of Zion or Jerusalem. לְאַכְזָר, "has become cruel." The Kethib כי ענים instead of כַּיְעֵנִים (Qeri) may possibly have arisen from a purely accidental separation of the letters of the word in a MS, a reading which was afterwards painfully retained by the scribes. But in many codices noted by Kennicott and De Rossi, as well as in several old editions, the word is found correctly joined, without any marginal note. יְעֵנִים means ostriches, usually בַּת יַעֲנָה ("daughter of crying," or according to Gesenius, in his Thesaurus, and Ewald, following the Syriac, "the daughter of gluttony"), the female ostrich. The comparison with these animals is to be understood in accordance with Job 39:16 : "she (the female ostrich) treats her young ones harshly, as if they were not her own." This popular belief is founded on the fact that the animal lays her eggs in the ground, - after having done no more than slightly scratching up the soil, - and partly also, when the nest is full, on the surface of the ground; she then leaves them to be hatched, in course of time, by the heat of the sun: the eggs may thus be easily broken, see on Job 39:14-16.
Sucking infants and little children perish from thirst and hunger; cf. Lam 2:11-12. פָּרַשׂ = פָּרַס, as in Mic 3:3, to break down into pieces, break bread = divide, Isa 58:7; Jer 16:7. In Lam 4:5 it is not children, but adults, that are spoken of. לְמַעֲדַנִּים is variously rendered, since אָכַל occurs nowhere else in construction with לְ. Against the assumption that לְ is the Aramaic sign of the object, there stands the fact that אָכַל is not found thus construed with לְ, either in the Lamentations or elsewhere, though in Jer 40:2 לְ is so used. Gerlach, accordingly, would take לְמַעֲדַנִּים adverbially, as meaning "after their heart's desire," prop. for pleasures (as to this meaning, cf. Pro 29:17; 1Sa 15:32), in contrast with אָכַל לָשׂבַע, to eat for satisfaction, Exo 16:3; Lev 25:19, etc. But "for pleasure" is not an appropriate antithesis to satisfaction. Hence we prefer, with Thenius, to take אָכַל לְ in the sense of nibbling round something, in which there is contained the notion of selection in the eating; we also take מַעֲדַנִּים, as in Gen 49:20, to mean dainties. נָשַׁמּוּ, to be made desolate, as in Lam 1:13, of the destruction of happiness in life; with בַּחוּצֹות, to sit in a troubled or gloomy state of mind on the streets. הָאֱמֻנִים, those who (as children) were carried on purple (תֹּולָע for שָׁנִי rof תֹּו towla`at תֹּולַעַת, cochineal, crimson), embrace (i.e., cling to) dung-heaps, seek them as places or rest.
The greatness of their guilt is seen in this misery. The ו consecutive joined with יִגְדַּל here marks the result, so far as this manifests itself: "thus the offence (guilt) of the daughter of my people has become greater than the sin of Sodom." Most expositors take עָֹון and הַטָּאת dna here in the sense of punishment; but this meaning has not been established. The words simply mean "offence" and "sin," sometimes including their consequences, but nowhere do they mean unceremonious castigation. But when Thenius is of opinion that the context demands the meaning "punishment" (not "sin"), he has inconsiderately omitted the ו consec., and taken a wrong view of the context. הָפַךְ is the usual word employed in connection with the destruction of Sodom; cf. Gen 19:21, Gen 19:25; Deu 29:22, etc. 'וְלֹא חָלוּ וגו is translated by Thenius, et non torquebatur in ea manus, i.e., without any one wringing his hands. However, חוּל (to go in a circle) means to writhe with pain, but does not agree with יָדַיִם, to wring the hands. In Hos 11:6 חוּל is used of the sword, which "circles" in the cities, i.e., cuts and kills all round in them. In like manner it is here used of the hands that went round in Sodom for the purpose of overthrowing (destroying) the city. Nägelsbach wrongly derives חָלוּ from חָלָה, to become slack, powerless. The words, "no hands went round (were at work) in her," serve to explain the meaning of כְּמֹו רֶגַע, "as in a moment," without any need for the hands of men being engaged in it. By this additional remark, not merely is greater prominence given to the sudden destruction of Sodom by the hand of God; but it is also pointed out how far Jerusalem, in comparison with that judgment of God, suffers a greater punishment for her greater sins: for her destruction by the hand of man brings her more enduring torments. "Sodom's suffering at death was brief; for there were no children dying of hunger, no mothers who boiled their children" (Nägelsbach). Sodom was spared this heartrending misery, inasmuch as it was destroyed by the hand of God in an instant.
The second strophe. - Lam 4:7, Lam 4:8. The picture of the misery that has befallen the princes. נְזִירִים, princes, prop. separati, here non voto (Nazarites) sed dignitate, as Nolde appropriately remarks; see on Gen 49:26. זָכַךְ is used, Job 15:15; Job 25:5, of the brightness of the heaven and the stars; here it is used of female beauty. Thenius would refer "pure (or bright) as snow and milk" to the white clothing, "because the Orientals have not milk-white faces." But the second member irrefragably shows that the reference is to bodily form; and for the very reason adduced by Thenius, a comparatively whiter skin than is commonly met with is esteemed more beautiful. So also does Son 5:10, "My friend is white and red," show the high esteem in which beauty was held (Gerlach). אָדַם, to be reddish. עֶצֶם, "bone," for the body (pars pro toto). פְּנִינִים, not (white) pearls, but (red) corals. "The white and the red are to be understood as mixed, and shading into one another, as our popular poetry speaks of cheeks which 'like milk and purple shine' " (Delitzsch on Job 28:18, Clark's translation). "Sapphire their form" (גִּזְרָה, prop. cut, taille, of the shape of the body). The point of the comparison is not the colour, but the luminosity, of this precious stone. Once on a time the princes glittered so; but (Lam 4:8) now their form is dark as blackness, i.e., every trace of beauty and splendour has vanished. Through hunger and want their appearance is so disfigured, that they are no longer recognised in the streets (חוּצֹות, in contrast with "at home," in their own neighbourhood). "The skin sticks to the bones," so emaciated are they; cf. Psa 102:4; Job 19:20. צָפַד, ἅπ. λεγ., to adhere firmly. The skin has become dry (יָבֵשׁ) like wood.
This pining away with hunger is much more horrible than a speedy death by the sword. שֶׁהֵם, "for they" = qui ipsi; יָזוּבוּ, prop. flow away, i.e., pine away as those pierced through (מְדֻקָּרִים, cf. Jer 37:10; Jer 51:4). 'מִתְּנוּבֹות שׁ does not mean "of the fruits," but מִן is a brief expression for "because there are no fruits," i.e., from want of the produce of the field; cf. בְּשָׂרִי , "my flesh wastes away from oil," i.e., because there is a want of oil, Psa 109:24. There was thus no need for the conjecture מִתַּלְאֻבֹות, "from burning glow," from drought, which has been proposed by Ewald in order to obtain the following sense, after supplying כְּ: "as if melting away through the drought of the field, emaciated by the glowing heat of the sun." The free rendering of the Vulgate, consumpti a sterilitate terrae, gives no support to the conjecture.
Still more horrible was the misery of the women. In order to keep themselves from dying of hunger, mothers boiled their children for food to themselves; cf. Lam 2:20. By the predicate "compassionate," applied to hands, the contrast between this conduct and the nature, or the innate love, of mothers to their children, is made particularly prominent. בָּרֹות is a noun = בָּרוּת, Psa 69:22. On "the destruction of the daughter of my people," cf. Lam 2:11.
This fearful state of matters shows that the Lord has fully poured out His wrath upon Jerusalem and His people. כִּלָּה, to complete, bring to an end. The kindling of the fire in Zion, which consumed the foundations, is not to be limited to the burning of Jerusalem, but is a symbol of the complete destruction of Zion by the wrath of God; cf. Deu 32:32.