Tarnished gold—Lamentations 4

Psalms not in the psalter

Lamentations of Jeremiah

The Lamentations are five psalms that describe the results of Babylon’s destruction of Jerusalem in 587 B.C. in detail. The first four chatters are in the form of an acrostic poem, this form using the whole of the Hebrew alphabet in order. The other common element is that these songs are written in groups of five words in each line, like other Hebrew laments, three words followed by two in a rhythm that feels like limping. 

A tearnished gold ring.
Free image via Openverse

Look at how the gold has lost its brightness!
    See how dull the fine gold has become!
The sacred jewels are scattered
    at every street corner.

The priceless children of Zion
    were worth their weight in gold.
But now they are thought of as clay pots
    made by the hands of a potter.

Even wild dogs
    nurse their young pups.
But my people are as mean
    as ostriches in the desert.

When the babies get thirsty,
    their tongues stick to the roofs of their mouths.
When the children beg for bread,
    no one gives them any.

Those who once ate fine food
    are dying in the streets.
Those who wore royal clothes
    are now lying on piles of trash.

My people have been punished
    more than Sodom was.
It was destroyed in a moment.
    No one offered it a helping hand.

Jerusalem’s princes were brighter than snow.
    They were whiter than milk.
Their bodies were redder than rubies.
    They looked like lapis lazuli.

But now they are blacker than coal.
    No one even recognizes them in the streets.
Their skin is wrinkled on their bones.
    It has become as dry as a stick.

Those killed by swords are better off
    than those who die of hunger.
Those who are hungry waste away to nothing.
    They don’t have any food from the fields.

10 With their own hands, loving mothers
    have had to cook even their own children.
They ate their children
    when my people were destroyed.

11 The Lord has become very angry.
    He has poured out his burning anger.
He started a fire in Zion.
    It burned its foundations.

12 The kings of the earth couldn’t believe what was happening.
    Neither could any of the peoples of the world.
Enemies actually attacked and entered
    the gates of Jerusalem.

13 It happened because Jerusalem’s prophets had sinned.
    Her priests had done evil things.
All of them spilled the blood
    of those who did what was right.

14 Now those prophets and priests
    have to feel their way along the streets
    as if they were blind.
The blood of those they killed has made them “unclean.”
    So no one dares to touch their clothes.

15 “Go away! You are ‘unclean’!”
    people cry out to them.
“Go away! Get out of here!
    Don’t touch us!”
So they run away and wander around.
    Then people among the nations say,
    “They can’t stay here anymore.”

16 The Lord himself has scattered them.
    He doesn’t watch over them anymore.
No one shows the priests any respect.
    No one honors the elders.

17 And that’s not all. Our eyes grew tired.
    We looked for help that never came.
We watched from our towers.
    We kept looking for a nation that couldn’t save us.

18 People hunted us down no matter where we went.
    We couldn’t even walk in our streets.
Our end was near, so we only had a few days to live.
    Our end had come.

19 Those who were hunting us down were faster
    than eagles in the sky.
They chased us over the mountains.
    They hid and waited for us in the desert.

20 Zedekiah, the Lord’s anointed king, was our last hope.
    But he was caught in their traps.
We thought he would keep us safe.
    We expected to continue living among the nations.

21 People of Edom, be joyful.
    You who live in the land of Uz, be glad.
But the cup of the Lord’s anger will also be passed to you.
    Then you will become drunk.
    Your clothes will be stripped off.

22 People of Zion, the time for you to be punished
    will come to an end.
    The Lord won’t keep you away from your land any longer.
But he will punish your sin, people of Edom.
    He will show everyone the evil things you have done.

Lamentations 4 NIRV

The fourth of these laments has a particular form of being written in two lines of five words, not the three lines in the previous laments. The first of these two lines starts with each letter of the Hebrew alphabet, starting with aleph and ending with taw. Each set of three lines corresponds with a verse in English, and other, translations.

Although this poem is set in and is about Jerusalem and is written in Hebrew, the continued reversal of two letters of the alphabet in verses 16 and 17 to follow the order of the Chaldean alphabet as in the two previous Lamentations shows that Lamentations 4 has a Babylonian perspective.

Verse 1 talking about gold corroding could be a reference back to King Rehoboam, the son of Solomon and grandson of David. In the 5th year of Rehoboam’s reign, King Shishak of Egypt invaded Judah and the gold sheilds in the temple were carries away. Rehoboam had then replaced by brass sheilds. Tarnished gold is a metaphor for corruption in the countries political and religious leaders failing to follow God.

Verse 1 also refers to the total destruction of Jerusalem—the destruction is everywhere, on every corner.

That is the scene set: Lamentations 4 has four sections.

  • The suffering of Jerusalem’s children (1-10)
  • God’s punishing Jerusalem’s religious leaders (11-16)
  • The power of Jerusalem’s enemies (17-20)
  • The end of Jerusalem’s sufferings (21-22)

This is not an easy chapter of the Bible to read for a visual thinker. The images are so graphic and so real.

Back in 1985, around the time of the Live Aid concert, someone asked why the aid was going towards the adults being hit by famine rather than the children. The answer was that if there is not enough food to feed a family of five if you feed the children and not the adults then the adults are not able to fend for the children, so the children die anyway. If you feed the adults and one of the children then the adults can look after the remaining child. The parents have to make the horrible choice of which child to keep. Famine is unbelievaby cruel like that.

The picture in Jerusalem of mothers having to choose to kill and eat their own child is an even worse situation to be in, but some of the family survive as a result. (Lamentations 4:10). I cannot imagine the level of desperation people have to be in to have to resort to that.

Pictures of the Ethiopian famine of 1984 and ’85 have stayed with me ever since.

The imagery of ruins on every street corner can be seen on television, and there are stories on the news about shoddy building practices in south-eastern Turkey that contributed to the devastation of the recent earthquake. It can be seen in the destroyed cities of eastern Ukraine as that country tries to repel its Russian invaders.

Jeremiah lays the blame for this situation on Jerusalem’s religious leaders and the people are suffering because the countries leaders, including King Zedekiah, were listening to the voice of false prophets instead of listening to the voice of God warning of exile from right back in the book of Deuteronomy and particularly in Isaiah where chapter 30 warns:

These people of Judah refuse to obey me.
    They are children who tell lies.
    They will not listen to what I want to teach them.
10 They say to the seers,
    ‘Don’t see any more visions!’
They say to the prophets,
    ‘Don’t give us any more visions of what is right!
Tell us pleasant things.
    Prophesy things we want to hear even if they aren’t true.

Isaiah 30:9-10 NIRV

When people will only listen to things they want to hear, reject things that disagree with what they want to believe, and accept a simple lie over a complex or disturbing truth even if they know it is a lie, then there will be repercussions. We saw it in the presidential campaign and presidency of Donald Trump, taking down the opposition with the simplicity of saying “Fake News” without offering up why it was fake. We saw it in the 2019 election campaign of Boris Johnson saying “Get Brexit done.” Brexit was already done. All the government needed to do was wait 60 days from the election date and the UK would be out of the EU. Another year after keeping to EU regulations and we were out. People prefer a simple lie to a difficult truth. Isaiah said that thousands of years earlier.

There is hope in Lamentations 4. In Deuteronomy, it was prophesied that the exile that would happen would come to an end. Jeremiah

We need to get back to listening to and evaluating all voices, not just the ones we agree with. We need the difficult truth to be listened to. We need God’s voice to be listened to, and that includes all the verses about God standing up for widows and orphans, the poor and the oppressed.

< Lamentations 3 | Lamentations 4 | Lamentations 5 >

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