The Book of Lamentations reflects the experience of an individual who had seen and experienced the violence and the brutality that occurred in Jerusalem during its conquest by the Babylonian army in 587 BCE. He probably lived in the city during the long months of the siege, a siege that deprived the people of the necessary means of survival.
It is possible that most of his audience, the people to whom his poems were addressed, were survivors of the catastrophe which overcame the city. The survivors were witnesses to the devastation caused by the siege and by the invading army. The people who had endured the onslaught of the Babylonian army would never forget the events that forced them to go through the horrible experience of the siege. The survivors of the invasion were forced to see their beloved city and their holy temple fall into the hands of their enemies.
To the writer of Lamentations and to the survivors of the invasion of Jerusalem, the most disturbing aspect of their suffering was the notion that this horrible event was caused by their God. The author of Lamentations uses strong language to convey to his readers that they were the victims of divine violence, “The Lord has trampled his beloved city like grapes are trampled in a winepress” (Lamentations 1:15 NIV).
The author of Lamentations writes to express his suffering and the suffering of the people, but he also expresses his anger at what God had done to the people. He writes, “O LORD, think about this! Should you treat your own people this way?” (Lamentations 2:20 NIV). Even though he believed that God caused this calamity to come upon his people, the author of Lamentations was a man of faith who also believed that in pain and suffering, one still could meet a merciful and gracious God, for, as he expressed, “The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases, his mercies never come to an end” (Lamentations 3:22).
Zion: The Lonely Widow, Lamentations 1:1-11
The Book of Lamentations begins by a personification of Jerusalem as a lonely widow, weeping bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks, lamenting the pain, the suffering, and the humiliation she has endured. The lonely widow is overwhelmed with sorrow because “she has no one to comfort her” (Lamentations 1:2).
The author of Lamentations uses vivid imagery to describe the plight of the lonely widow who has been ravished and oppressed by her oppressors. The woman is described as a princess who “has become a vassal of her oppressors” (Lamentations 1:1). She has become a widow, a woman without a male protector (Lamentations 1:2).
The author also uses female imagery to portray the plight of the nation. Judah “has been led away into captivity, oppressed with cruel slavery.” She is a homeless woman pursued by her captors (Lamentations 1:3).
The lonely widow is a mother who saw her young children taken away as prisoners by the conquering army (Lamentations 1:5). The lonely widow was deprived of her honor, raped by her oppressors, a woman left alone, without a comforter (Lamentations 1:8–9).
The author speaks about his plight from the darkness of his soul, “[God] has driven and brought me into darkness without any light” (Lamentations 3:2). His poem is an elegy, written in the qinah meter, the poetic form used in funeral laments, to describe the fate of his nation and the distressful condition of his fellow citizens.
The condition of the city was pitiful. Jerusalem, a city which once was crowded with people was now deserted, “How lonely sits the city that once was full of people” (Lamentations 1:1). During his reign, Zedekiah enlarged the walls of the city to accommodate the influx of people moving into Jerusalem. It is estimated that the population who lived within the walls of Jerusalem at the time Nebuchadnezzar besieged the city was approximately 25,000 people (Broshi 1978).
The writer is thinking about the ruined city, practically desolated, with many of its citizens killed during the invasion or deported to Babylon. To someone who once lived in a great city, with a magnificent temple, the burned, deserted city made a deep impact on the writer.
The author complains that Judah has now become a vassal of the Babylonians. The Hebrew word for vassal, mas, means “forced labor.” To become a vassal means to be subjected to forced labor. To the people of Judah, such a situation reminded them of the time they were under forced labor in Egypt. In the minds of some of the survivors, the exile of Israel to Babylon was a return to life in Egypt, “she lives now among the nations” (Lamentations 1:3).
The lonely widow laments that the people of Judah had gone into exile after much suffering and after much harsh treatment by her conquerors. As a result, the roads that lead to Zion, once full of pilgrims going to worship in the temple, are now deserted, no one comes to celebrate the annual festivals at the temple because the temple has been destroyed. The priests and the women who served in the temple are mourning because the joyful times of celebration have come to an end.
While the priests and the female singers are mourning, her enemies are at ease because they have “become the masters” (Lamentations 1:5). The reason for Judah’s suffering was because of its sins and its violations of the covenant, “because the LORD has made her suffer for the multitude of her transgressions.” As a result of the people’s disobedience, “the people have gone away into captivity driven in front of the oppressor.”
With the destruction of the city, all its glory has been taken away. The reference to glory may be an allusion of the silver and gold taken away to Babylon, “Jerusalem remembers, in the days of her affliction and wandering, all the precious things that were hers in days of old” (Lamentations 1:7) The leaders of the nation have become “like starving deer searching for pasture. They are too weak to run from the pursuing enemy” (Lamentations 1:6 NIV).
The author of Lamentations expresses the sins of Judah in terms of unfaithfulness. The author uses the language of adultery and sexual infidelity to refer to Judah’s worship of Baal, the fertility god of the Canaanites. The language of “nakedness” (Lamentations 1:8) refers to the shame of public exposure as well as to rape and to sexual abuse the women of Judah suffered at the hands of their enemies.
Judah had become an object of mockery and shame, “she has become a mockery; all who honored her despise her, for they have seen her nakedness” (Lamentations 1:8). The reference to the enemy spreading his hands, has sexual connotations. Adele Berlin writes, “Jerusalem’s sexual misbehavior is followed by the enemy’s treatment of her, described as a heinous sexual act. He molested her (‘spread his hand’) and he raped her” (Berlin 2002: 55).
The author of Lamentations describes what people did during the siege of the city. The devastation caused by the famine in the city was affecting everyone. The people were hungry; they groaned as they searched for something to eat. In their dire distress, they even traded their precious belongings for food in order to stay alive (Lamentations 1:11). The author reminds Yahweh how ashamed and despised the lonely widow was. He believes that her shame was also Yahweh’s shame.
The Widow’s Complaint, Lamentations 1:12-22
The widow makes a plea to God to look at her condition, “Look, O LORD, and see how worthless I have become” (Lamentations 1:11). When God does not answer, the widow addresses her lament to people who are passing by: “Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?” (Lamentations 1:12). These people are witnesses of the pain and the suffering of the people of Jerusalem, but instead of having compassion for them, they mocked them, “We have become a taunt to our neighbors, mocked and derided by those around us” (Psalm 79:4).
In her affliction, the widow calls on those passing by to do what God had not done: to look at her situation: “Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow, which was brought upon me, which the LORD inflicted on the day of his fierce anger” (Lamentations 1:12). If God is silent to her plea and if he refuses to look at her situation, the lonely widow hopes that those passing by will look at her pain and at the devastation caused by the Babylonians who were doing the work of God.
To the author of Lamentations, it was not the Babylonians who caused the devastation; it was God: “he sent fire . . . he spread a net for my feet; he turned me back; he has left me stunned, faint all day long . . . the Lord handed me over to those whom I cannot withstand. . . . The LORD has rejected all my warriors in the midst of me; he proclaimed a time against me to crush my young men; the Lord has trodden as in a wine press the virgin daughter Judah” (Lamentations 1:13–15).
The pain the widow was experiencing was the result of the “fierce anger” of Yahweh (Lamentations 1:12). Yahweh’s merciless violence left her stunned, “he has left me stunned, faint all day long” (Lamentations 1:13).
The realization that it was Yahweh who caused all her pains and suffering, left her devastated, “For these things I weep; my eyes flow with tears; for a comforter is far from me, one to revive my courage” (Lamentations 1:16). Over and over again, Lady Zion declares that there is no one to comfort her (Lamentations 1:2, 9, 17, 21). The absence of one to comfort her shows her hopelessness and her desperation. Her God is silent; no word of comfort comes from him. Her enemies, they speak, but they speak only to mock and ridicule her.
Jerusalem is without a comforter because “Jerusalem became as a menstruous woman among her neighbors” (Lamentations 1:17 NIV). The reference to a menstrual cloth indicates impurity caused by menstruation. According to Levitical laws, anyone touching such a cloth would become ritually impure.
In her discussion of the menstrual cloth, O’Connor writes, “No member of the Israelite community would touch such a rag for they too would risk becoming ritually impure. To say that Zion has become a filthy thing ‘makes her shame vivid, graphic, and repulsive’” (O’Connor 2002: 27).
In her desperate situation, the woman recognizes that Yahweh was justified in sending the judgment: “ The LORD is in the right, for I have rebelled against his word” (Lamentations 1:18). Again, the woman appeals to those passing by, but her concern is for her children, “hear, all you peoples, and behold my suffering; my young women and young men have gone into captivity” (Lamentations 1:18).
Her heart is broken because her children left her by force to go to a strange land. She puts the blame on her lovers, “I called to my lovers but they deceived me” (Lamentations 1:19). Who these lovers were is not clear. The NIV calls them allies: “I called to my allies but they betrayed me” (Lamentations 1:19). The NIV refers to an alliance Judah made with Egypt, which Egypt failed to fulfill its obligation.
Because of the fierce siege of Jerusalem, food became scarce and people had to go to extreme lengths to provide food for themselves and for their children. The famine became so severe that people were dying in the streets for lack of food, “My priests and my elders perished in the city while they searched for food to keep themselves alive” (Lamentations 1:19 NIV).
Once again, the woman begs God to look at her distressful situation, “Look O LORD upon my distress. My heart is broken and my soul despairs, for I have rebelled against you. In the streets the sword kills, and at home there is only death” (Lamentations 1:20). She pleads with God to look at her painful condition, but there is no answer because God never speaks.
God did not hear her plea, but the enemies heard her cry of anguish and they were happy to hear what had happened: “All my enemies heard of my trouble; they are glad that you have done it” (Lamentations 1:21). The enemies were gloating at the distress of the people. In her misery and in the distress of her soul, there was no one to comfort her. She expected God to act, to provide for the needs of the suffering people, but again, God remained silent; he did not act.
The woman again speaks to God and asks him to deal severely with those who had caused her pain and suffering, “Oh, bring the day you promised, when they will suffer as I have suffered. Let all their wickedness come before you; deal with them as you have dealt with me” (Lamentations 1:22).
In Chapter 1 of Lamentations two voices speak of the immense tragedy that befell Jerusalem at the time of the Babylonians’ siege of Jerusalem. The author of Lamentations speaks as one who was aware of the tragedies that occurred in the city as a result of the long siege of the city.
The second voice is that of the lonely widow, also called “Daughter Zion” (Lamentations 1:6). The city is personified as a woman, as a widow who mourns for the death of her children and the suffering they had to endure.
Both of these two voices lament the conditions of the city and the calamities the people had to endure to survive. As a widow, bereft of her children, Daughter Zion laments the loss of her honor, the death of her children, the deportation of some people to live in an unknown country among a people who had a strange language.
Daughter Zion agrees that the punishment was deserved because of all her iniquities. However, she weeps bitterly for the loss of her children, the deportation of sacred articles to Babylon, the loss of the temple, and the looting of people’s homes.
The voice of the woman reveals her desperation. In her pain and sorrows she speaks to a God who is silent. Even though the nation had made political alliances, in the end those alliances were worthless in Judah’s struggles against the Babylonians.
In the end, her grief became unbearable in the face of divine silence. She expected God to act and deliver the people because of the promises of the covenant. Her greatest pain was the awareness that her God was the one who allowed the unspeakable horrors and devastation to come upon her and her children.
Claude MariottiniEmeritus Professor of Old TestamentNorthern Baptist Seminary
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Berlin, Adele. Lamentations. Old Testament Library. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002.
Broshi, Magen “Estimating the Population of Ancient Jerusalem.” Biblical Archaeology Review 4 no 2 (1978).
O’Connor, Kathleen. Lamentations and the Tears of the World. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2002.
Republished with permission from Blogs.crossmap.com, featuring inspiring Bible verses about Lamentations Chapter 1: Lamenting and Mourning for Zion.