As with Lamentations 2, the fourth ode begins with an impersonal third person narrator, then shifts into more personal language. Though, instead of the first person of the second singular of the second ode, this one talks about “our eyes” (Lam. 4:17) and “our end” (Lam. 4:18).

The ode opens with an image of greatness brought low: Dimmed gold and holy jewels scattered. The image is a dual one, as it can be taken mostly literally (the holy jewels likely referring to the Temple riches that are now profaned and scattered), and as a reference to the city – and its people – itself. This second interpretation is spelled out for us when the “sons of Zion” are compared to gold in Lam. 4:2.

This theme continues in Lam. 4:7-8 where Jerusalem’s princes, who had been pure and white, now find themselves in the streets, their faces blackened with soot. In Lam. 4:5, those who had once feasted on dainties now die in the streets (presumably of starvation, given the context), and those who had been brought up in purple now lie in ash heaps (purple being significant because of the price the dye – only the wealthiest families could afford to bring their children up in purple).

Jerusalem had once been so strong that “the kings of the earth did not believe […] that foe or enemy could enter the gates of Jerusalem” (Lam. 4:12).

Starvation & Cruelty

Along with the fall of Jerusalem came starvation, a detail we know from 2 Kgs 25:3. This period is so terrible that the narrator says it would have been better to simply fall by the sword in the early days of the Babylonian attack rather than waste away in the famine that followed (Lam. 4:9). Even the theme of otherwise “compassionate women” who eat their own children returns (Lam. 2:20, Lam. 4:10) – a reality of sieges we had already heard of from 2 Kgs 6:26-29.

Despite the mention of “compassionate women,” the narrator seems to see a cruelty in how the children are treated. They call out in hunger, but no one feeds them (Lam. 4:4), and while even jackals suckle their young, the “daughter of my people” has become as cruel as an ostrich (Lam. 4:3). An odd statement, since there’s nothing especially cruel about ostriches’ treatment of their young. Quite the opposite, in fact, as ostriches care for their young collectively, and will even adopt chicks from other families (well, it involves stealing, but they’ll still care for young that are not genetically related to themselves). Had the “daughter of my people” truly become like an ostrich, it seems that the children who called out in hunger might well have been fed – by someone, if not their own parents.

Punishment

As in the other Laments, our narrator makes it clear that the suffering is a punishment, and it is entirely God’s doing: “The Lord has given full vent to his wrath” (Lam. 4:11). Interestingly, the occasion of the punishment was the sinning of Jerusalem’s priests and prophets, who “shed in the midst of her the blood of the righteous” (Lam. 4:13). This must be a reference to their less-than-stellar behaviour under the reigns of Manasseh and Amon (with the mention of spilled blood perhaps referring to being complicit in Manasseh’s slaughter of the innocents in 2 Kgs 21:16).

Nebuchadnezzar's Camp, from Petrus Comestor's "Bible Historiale", 1372

Nebuchadnezzar’s Camp, from Petrus Comestor’s “Bible Historiale”, 1372

As punishment, these higher ups are now defiled and forced to wander the streets (Lam. 4:14). They are cast off by Israelite and foreigner alike, forced to become fugitives and wanderers (Lam. 4:15). God himself scattered them, and gave no special treatment to either elder or priest (Lam. 4:16) – to which they surely must have felt entitled. Even King Zedekiah himself, “the Lord’s anointed,” was exiled (Lam. 4:20).

There are more references to being chased by pursuers (Lam. 4:18-19) in their wandering though, interestingly, this is where the narrator switches to the inclusive “we/our.”

In Lam. 4:6, the narrator tells us that the punishment was so terrible that it was greater even than the punishment of Sodom (likely because at least Sodom was destroyed instantaneously, and without the humiliation of God using human attackers to do it). Except that some translations give it as the sin of Jerusalem was so much greater than the sin of Sodom. And while that seems like a really important difference – or perhaps a very theologically salient pun – I can’t find a commentary that mentions it.

There is an idea that the Israelites looked to salvation from human means in Lam. 4:17, though, of course, it never came. This could be a reference to an alliance, perhaps something like Hezekiah’s alliance with Egypt in 2 Chron. 32.

Unfortunately, the narrator ruins it all at the end. Rather than a call to repent, or a hope in God’s mercy, or anything like that, he instead puts a finger at Edom and says, “Don’t you gloat, ’cause you’re next!” (Lam. 4:21-22). So if there’s a lesson to be learned about mercy or compassion or empathy from the exile, the Israelites who write the Lamentations clearly haven’t gotten it.