I found the fifth ode to be an easier read than the others, less challenging. It’s certainly the shortest, as the crow counts words, but I also found it to have the most easily-grasped structure. Bob MacDonald has some interesting notes on the poetry of the ode, but I’ll just stick to content.

More so than the other four odes, it can be fairly well summarized by its opening verse: “Remember, O Lord, what has befallen us; behold, and see our disgrace!” (Lam. 5:1)

What follows is a lengthy description of said disgrace, with most verses containing an inversion of the desired/previous (assumed) social order. I say “assumed” because I suspect that there may be an element of romanticising of the before-days. I find it difficult to believe that women were not raped before the coming of Babylon (Lam. 5:11), or that much of the population was not hard driven (Lam. 5:5) or forced to stagger under heavy loads (Lam. 5:13). Perhaps these things became more common, or perhaps they started to affect the literate classes as well as the poor, but I find it unlikely that a substantial portion of the Israelite population was not forced to labour under unfair conditions while under solid Israelite rule.

Nebuzaradan burns down the temple, from Petrus Comestor's "Bible Historiale", 1372

Nebuzaradan burns down the temple, from Petrus Comestor’s “Bible Historiale”, 1372

The complaints are fairly standard for what we’ve seen so far. There are several mentions of starvation and hard labour, and there’s the rape I mentioned above. Other than that, there are several complaints of the high having been brought low: The idea that Israel’s crown has fallen (Lam. 5:16), and that even princes now find themselves hung by their hands (Lam. 5:12).

But a few of the complaints stood out, for various reasons:

The first (in order) is the complaint that the Israelites now have to pay for the water and wood they use (Lam. 5:4), which is certainly timely given the water crisis in Michigan (both Flint more recently, and the shut offs in Detroit not too long ago). This idea that having to pay others for basic necessities of life as a sign of exile and things gone shockingly wrong strikes me especially in light of the Christian Right’s often libertarian leanings. But it’s also, I think, another commentary on the “high brought low,” as the Israelites are cut off from the means of self-sufficiency.

The narrator complains that it is their fathers who did the sinning, but they are dead and it is the present generation who must suffer as punishment (Lam. 5:7). It feels like there’s almost a sense of injustice at such a moral system, though of course the narrator never goes so far as to directly question God.

Lam. 5:8 complains that the Israelites are ruled by slaves. This struck me as rather strange, and I wondered if it might be an imperialistic assumption – that foreigners are meant to be slaves, and yet here they are as rulers. My Study Bible, however, notes that: “Important posts were sometimes given to slaves of the king.” In other words, the verse may well be literal – in that the Israelites are working under overseers who are, in fact, slaves.

The narrator tells us that Mount Zion has become desolate, and that it is prowled by jackals. Jackals, who have powerful stomachs that can even digest (and derive nutrition from) bones, are often associated with graveyards and the dead in ancient mythologies (having, in times of desperation, dug up corpses to supplement their diet). The Egyptian god of embalming, Anubis, is frequently associated with jackals, though apparently that’s been complicated by recent research. In any case, the point seems to be clear: The holy centre of Israel is now as desolate as a graveyard.

God’s Reign

The final four verses of the ode work well as a conclusion. God’s power is established, and the narrator makes a plea for Israel to be restored. And yet, the very final verse, Lam. 5:22, wonders if perhaps God is just too angry, and Israel is utterly rejected.