Lamentations 4

The opening "Alas!" recalls the first two poems; it is swiftly reinforced in the second half of v2.

As with all three preceding poems, this, too, can work as two voices, although here as first-person singular (most) and first-person plural (17–20 or 17–22).[1] Unlike them, however, the personalised perspective is neither female (as in Lam.1 and 2) nor male (Lam.3), but rather various groups within the population. And whereas the addressee in 1 and 3 had been the Lord, and in 2 had been mostly the city, here there is no specific addressee until the personified cities in the closing verses.

While the narration of 1–16 is predominantly observational of the inhabitants ("my Daughter People") it is punctuated at three places, vv.6, 11 and 16, by theological reflection and interpretation of perhaps an over-reliance on Zion theology.[2] It might be regarded as a third voice.

Visually, a unique aspect of this chapter is the striking use of colour in the opening eight verses and its erasure as the degradation of the siege takes hold.[3]

It starts with the impossible. Pure gold cannot tarnish under normal circumstances.[4] Yet here it does. The city, temple and king had been believed to be safe under the Lord's protection; defeat and devastation were unthinkable. Yet here all this can fall, and does.[5] Things are so bad that even nature, God's own created order, is out of kilter. And it continues into the human realm, including the horror of mothers cannibalising their own God-given children. "Blessings of the covenant become human carnage."[6]

From an inner-biblical perspective, just as the opening verses of Lam.3 seem to pull in tension against Psalm 23, so here are other contrasts, and even overturnings of other passages:

Acrostic omissions: J, K, Q, X

Alas![11] The gold, now dulled;
 finest gold tarnished!
the holy stones[12] disgorged[13]
 on every street corner.


Belovèd sons[14] of Zion
 of gold-weight worth,
alas, ranked mere clay crocks—
 work of a potter's hands.


Cubs even of jackals
 are breast-fed nursed,
but my Daughter People is cruel
 as the desert ostrich.[15]


Dry-thirsted, the suckling's tongue
 glues to its palate;
infants beg for bread
 but no one offers any.


Embraced now on dung heaps are those
 once robed in purple;[16]
Those once feasting on delicacies
 lie destitute in streets.


Far greater my Daughter People's iniquity
 than the outrage of Sodom,[17]
which had been overthrown in an instant
 with no hand on her laid.


Glistening as snow, once, her princes,
 whiter than milk;
their limbs more ruddy than coral,
 their beauty as sapphire.


How soot-black now their faces,
 unrecognised in streets;
their skin shriveled, taut on their bones
 as dessicated wood.


Impaling on sword? Far better
 than impaling by famine,
ebbing away, stomach pierced,
 starved of all food.


Loving[18] women's own hands
 cook their own children:
they became their food for them
 at my Daughter People's ravaging.[19]


Meted out in full is the Lord's anger,
 his fury disgorged;
He has kindled a firestorm in Zion
 that consumed her foundations.


Not the kings of the earth
 nor its people believed
that enemy or foe could penetrate
 the gates of Jerusalem.


Outrages of her prophets, the cause,
 and the iniquities of her priests,
who had disgorged in the midst of the city
 the blood of the just.


Polluted with blood, through the streets
 they[20] strayed blindly;
so defiled that none would dare
 touch their garments.


"Repulsive! Away!"
 [people shout at them.]
"Replusive! Repulsive! Hands off!"
 So they straggled; they strayed.
[Resolute were the nations:]
 "They'll not reside here."[21]


Scattered from the Lord's own face:[22][23]
 he no longer takes note of them.
The people from the priests turn their own faces:
 show elders no favour.


Tired out eyes scan, exhausted,
 for help, but in vain;
From our watchtowers we watched for a nation,[24]
 but that cannot deliver.


Unceasing, they ensnared our steps,
 our city squares no more ours.
Our end drew near, our days gone;
 our end had come.


Vicious and swifter than sky-hawks
 came our pursuers:
Hot on our heels through the hills;
 ambushers of the desert.


Wedged in their traps was our life-breath,
 the Lord's own anointed,[25]
of whom we had thought "in his shade
 we will dwell among nations."


You rejoice; you gloat, Daughter Edom:[26][27]
 sit[28] basking in Uz;
but to you, too, the chalice shall pass—
 to you, boozed and debauched.[29]


Zion-Daughter, your iniquity expiated,
 he no longer keeps you exiled.[30]
But your iniquity, Daughter Edom, will he prosecute,
 lay bare your outrages.

[1] For 17–20 see Goldingay (2022), p.163 and Provan (2016), p.109; for 17–22 see Middlemas (2021), p.25.

[2] Berman (2023), pp.131, 138.

[3] Berlin (2004), p.103.

[4] Any tarnishing we perceive is not of the gold itself, but of small amounts of other embedded metal impurities.

[5] Berman (2023), p.129.

[6] Hens-Piazza (2017), p.60.

[7] Goldingay (2022), p.168; Berman (2023), p.130.

[8] Berman (2023), p.134.

[9] Goldingay (2022), p.179.

[10] Berman (2023), pp.148–150.

[11] See footnotes on 1:1.

[12] Often translated "jewels", "holy stones" is not only more literal but also allows the metaphor for the stones of the destroyed Temple. Taken in conjunction with following verse, this metaphor links an increasingly human sequence: "gold", "holy stones", "belovèd sons & Daughter People".

[13] A "disgorge" thread runs through the chapter at vv.1, 11 and 13. See also the "pour" thread in chapter 2.

[14] The Hebrew words at "stones" (v1) and "sons" (v2) are similar. This has guided the choice of words in this version.

[15] A folk tradition, then familiar but now forgotten, about ostriches abandoning their hatchlings. Contrast the first half of this verse. (See also Job 39.)

[16] The purple of luxury. If this Hebrew poem is then overlayed with the Christian gospels there is a resonance with the trial, mocking and crucifixion of Jesus.

[17] The pairing of "iniquity" and "outrage" is common to vv.6, 13 and 22; see Goldingay (2022), p.186. "Outrage" in this chapter, required by the 'O' acrostic in v13, corresponds to "sin" in other chapters. (The O-acrostic possibility of "offence" seems too mild.)

[18] The word for God's daily compassionate "mercies" from 3:22 here re-appears (adjectively) in a horrifyingly different guise; O'Connor (2002), p.62; also Goldingay (2022), p.173. Our acrostic constraint requires use of a substitute word, which unfortunately loses that association.

[19] The "Daughter People" half-line is the same at 2:11, 3:48 and 4:10.

[20] The referent "they" is ambiguous. It makes sense for it to be the priests and prophets of the previous verse; this leads well into vv.15–16; Goldingay (2022), p.176. And there is a certain irony in the prophets—the visionaries—being blind; Berlin (2004), p.111.

[21] This verse, like 1:7 and 2:19, has an extra line in the Hebrew, considered by some commentators to be a marginal gloss.

[22] Astonishingly, very few English translations capture this verse's double use of "face" in the Hebrew. See the translation notes.

[23] "The Lord's face" is usually a positive image, and with priestly blessing of favour: Num. 6:24–26. But here his face operates in a hostile fashion; see Goldingay (2022), p.179. It can be his angry face: Lev. 26:17; see Berlin (2004), p.102, note 'm'.

[24] The identity of the nation which could not or would not help is unknown. One possibility is Edom. This would connect with its condemnation a few verses ahead. Berlin (2004), pp.112–113; Provan (2016), p.121.

[25] "The Lord's own anointed" is the line of the dynasty of King David, and in this instance probably Zedekiah; Berlin (2004), p.113. The associated terms "life-breath" and "in his shade we will dwell" are Ancient Near East images of beneficent rulers; Goldingay (2022), p.183. Also see Berman (2023), pp.140–141.

[26] The Edomites were descended from Esau, the twin brother of Jacob (later called Israel). The brothers, and their descendents, were locked in sibling rivalry from the outset: Gen.25:22–30.

[27] While "Daughter Zion" is clearly a term of endearment, by contrast "Daughter Edom", for Zion's enemy, can, and probably should, be read with a sarcastic twist. Berlin (2004) p.113; Dobbs-Allsopp (2012), p.137.

[28] Same verb as for Daughter Zion at the 1:1 opening of the book, now coming full circle to describe the unsuspecting fate of the enemy.

[29] See also Jer. 25:15–29 for this imagery, where Edom and Uz are included.

[30] The phrase of punishment "he no longer..." of v16 is transformed into a parallel phrase of grace. Berman (2023), p.148.