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Bible Commentaries

Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible

Lamentations 3

 

 

Verse 1

THE STEADFAST LOVE OF THE LORD NEVER CEASES[1]

This chapter begins with the words, "I am the man"; and this writer confidently identifies the prophet Jeremiah as "the man," not merely the man in this chapter, but also the author of the whole book. We are aware, of course, that this is disputed.

Most of the current scholars follow the notion that "the man" is, "A typical sufferer who represented many in the nation,"[2] "An individual, but not an historical figure, but anyone who has suffered greatly, ... Everyman ... who may feel that God is against him,"[3] "One who is playing the role of Jeremiah in the poem,"[4] "O man, (he is) the very image of thyself,"[5] "An individual whose fate is bound up with that of the nation (i.e., as kind of personification of Israel),"[6] "A representative sufferer, and eyewitness, and a type of Christ."[7] etc. However, not all current scholars agree in this. Ross Price wrote (in 1962) that, "Here Jeremiah bares his heart to the reader as he often does in his prophecy."[8] Also Hillers, while not accepting it, admitted that, "The tradition that Jeremiah is the author of Lamentations provides a ready-made answer to the questions of the chapter."[9] Also, Theophile J. Meek noted that, "The author seems to have the experiences of Jeremiah in mind."[10] Thus, even those who are unwilling to accept Jeremiah as the author, nevertheless admit that it is indeed Jeremiah whose person and experiences dominate the chapter. In fact, no other theory is acceptable. Take the "Personification" idea, for example. How could God's wife (Israel) be personified by a male character in a chapter where the masculine pronouns dominate it? "The claim that in this chapter the personified nation is speaking is altogether improbable; and in some passages, absolutely impossible."[11]

In addition to this, many of the greatest scholars of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries enthusiastically accept Jeremiah as "the man." Jamieson wrote that, "In chapter 3, Jeremiah proposes his own experiences under sufferings as examples of how the Jews should behave under theirs."[12] "The penman is Jeremiah the prophet, who is here Jeremiah the poet."[13] "Not merely the ancient traditions of Josephus, the Targum, the Talmud and the LXX, but also the internal evidence, identify Jeremiah as the author."[14] In 1915, C. von Orelli gave this emphatic summary of why Jeremiah is most certainly the author of Lamentations:

"A serious difficulty arises if we claim that Jeremiah was not the author of Lamentations in his denunciations of the prophets in Jerusalem (Lamentations 2:14; 4:13). How could the great prophet of the Destruction be ignored if he were not the author of these sentiments? If Jeremiah was indeed the author, we can easily understand it. In his `Jeremiah' he had spoken in exactly the same way (the very same words) about those evil prophets. To this it must be added that this third chapter forces us to regard Jeremiah as the author, because of his personal sufferings that are here described."[15] We have over- emphasized this point here in order to demonstrate that consensus among many current scholars in regard to a given interpretation frequently means that only one of them is thinking, or perhaps that all of them are merely repeating the allegations of other critics. There is no excuse whatever for the near-unanimous denial of many writers that "someone else ... we don't know who" wrote Lamentations.

Lamentations 3:1

I

THE CRY OF THE AFFLICTED[16]

(Lamentations 3:1-21)

"I am the man that hath seen affliction by the rod of his wrath.

Of all the men who lived through that terrible period, no one had a better right to say this than Jeremiah. "In more ways than one this brings us to the very heart of the book. It even gives us a foreglimpse of the sufferings of Christ with which it has affinities (Isaiah 3; Psalms 22)."[17]


Verse 2

"He hath led me, and caused me to walk in darkness,

and not in light.

Surely against me he turneth his hand again,

and again all day.

My flesh and my skin hath he made old;

he hath broken my bones.

He hath builded against me,

and compassed me with gall and travail.

He hath made me to dwell in dark places,

as those that have been long dead."

The language here is loaded with metaphor; but the meaning of it as a description of terrible heartache, misery, suffering and anguish of spirit come through clearly enough. In our sin-cursed world suffering is as certain as death and taxes. "It is a raw, rugged reality. We cannot fully explain it. We cannot evade it. There is always an element of mystery about it. But we can know God in such a way as to be released from it and to rise above it, and also to recognize the disciplinary value of it."[18]

Lamentations 3:6 here is a quotation of Psalms 143:3.


Verse 7

"He hath walled me about, that I cannot go forth;

he hath made my chain heavy,

Yea, when I cry, and call for help,

he shutteth out my prayer.

He hath walled up my ways with hewn stone;

he hath made my paths crooked.

He is unto me as a bear lying in wait,

as a lion in secret places.

He hath turned aside my ways,

he hath pulled me in pieces;

he hath made me desolate.

He hath bent his bow,

and set me as a mark for his arrow."

"He is unto me as a bear ... and a lion" (Lamentations 3:10). A similar use of these animals as examples of enmity are in Hosea 13:8 and in Amos 5:19.

"He hath set me as a mark for his arrow" (Lamentations 3:12). This is like Job's complaint in Job 16:13.

"This new simile arises out of the preceding one."[19] The progression is from the animals (the bear and the lion) to the hunter. Jeremiah felt himself as a sufferer from both, caught in the middle," as we might say.


Verse 13

"He hath caused the shafts of his quiver

to enter into my reins.

I am become a derision to all my people,

and their song all the day.

He hath filled me with bitterness,

he hath sated me with wormwood.

He hath also broken my teeth with gravel stones;

he hath covered me with ashes.

And thou hast removed my soul far off from peace;

I forgat prosperity.

And I said, My strength is perished,

and mine expectation from Jehovah."

"I am become a derision to all my people ... their song all the day" (Lamentations 3:14). "Here Jeremiah drops all metaphor and shows exactly what is meant by all those `arrows' he mentioned."[20] Note also that the entire nation `all my people' know who this sufferer is; and they have made him the butt of public ridicule and taunting songs. It is just too bad that the critics don't know who he was! "What other person (except Jeremiah) was the cynosure of all eyes as was Jeremiah"?[21] He hath broken my teeth with gravel (Lamentations 3:16). This is very likely more metaphor describing Jeremiah's sorrow; but Cheyne thought of it as a literal reference to what happened to the Jews in exile. They had to bake their bread in pits dug in the ground, "And they were obliged to eat bread with grit in it."[22]

"My strength is perished and mine expectation from Jehovah" (Lamentations 3:18). We read this as hyperbole for the near- despair that tempted Jeremiah; however the next section of the chapter will indicate, as Cook noted, that, "He soon reaches firm ground."[23]


Verse 19

II

JEREMIAH REMEMBERS GOD IN HIS CRY FOR HELP

(Lamentations 3:19-39)

"Remember mine affliction and my misery,

the wormwood and the gall.

My soul hath them still in remembrance,

and is bowed down within me.

This I recall to my mind;

therefore have I hope."

"Remember" (Lamentations 3:19). This should be understood as an appeal to God. Certainly, Jeremiah was not asking Israel to remember his afflictions. Israel's king had inflicted them upon the prophet. It was the remembrance of God's past mercies and blessings that he mentioned in Lamentations 3:20 as the basis of his hope. "Knowing that God hears the prayers of the contrite, Jeremiah begins to hope."[24]


Verse 22

"It is of Jehovah's lovingkindness that we are not consumed,

because his compassions fail not.

They are new every morning;

great is thy faithfulness.

Jehovah is my portion, saith my soul;

therefore will I hope in him.

Jehovah is good unto them that wait for him,

to the soul that seeketh him.

It is good that a man should hope

and quietly wait for the salvation of Jehovah.

It is good for the man

that he bear the yoke in his youth."

"Because his compassions fail not" (Lamentations 3:22). "Indeed, if any man escapes hell, it is because God's compassions fail not."[25]

This section through Lamentations 3:39 (or Lamentations 3:42) carries an expression of full assurance in God's unfailing mercies; and that such is found in Lamentations is indeed remarkable and carries its own rich consolations."[26] "It is interesting that the author, himself a sufferer, here becomes an advisor as well. He gives counsel from the wisdom he has learned, so that the nation could learn from it."[27] This section is not merely the heart of this chapter, it is also the heart of Lamentations. "This is the focal point of the whole book; it is a central core of hope of restoration for Israel in God's own good time; and there is a symmetry in the book that highlights this central core. There is also an inherent assurance here that the cry for mercy will be heard."[28] "These verses teach that God is good, especially to those who, being in adversity, can yet wait in confidence upon his mercy."[29]


Verse 28

"Let him sit alone and keep silence,

because he hath laid it upon him.

Let him put his mouth in the dust,

if so be there may be hope.

Let him give his cheek to him that smiteth him;

let him be filled full with reproach.

For the Lord will not cast off forever.

For though he cause grief, yet will he have compassion

according to the multitude of his lovingkindness.

For he doth not afflict willingly,

nor grieve the children of men."

Jeremiah repeatedly warned Israel to accept their captivity as something the nation deserved and for them to submit to Babylonian rule; and these are exactly the sentiments which are included in these verses.

"Let him keep silence ... put his mouth in the dust ... give his cheek (to the smiter) ... and be filled with reproach" (Lamentations 3:29-30). We paraphrase. Let Israel not rebel, let them humble themselves, let them turn the other cheek and accept their punishment.

Why should Israel submit?

"The Lord will not cast off forever" (Lamentations 3:31). Jeremiah himself had told them their captivity would end in seventy years. There was from the beginning of it, a projected end of Israel's captivity.

"Though he cause grief, yet will he have compassion" (Lamentations 3:32). God's love of Israel and his love for all men were not diminished by his drastic punishment of Israel.

"He doth not afflict willingly" (Lamentations 3:33). God was greatly grieved at the necessity of Israel's captivity. He destroyed their evil kingdom and sent the people to Babylon as a last resort, the only way possible to preserve that `righteous remnant' who, in time, would deliver the Messiah to mankind.

Note that these three verses give three reasons why Israel should meekly submit to the will of God in their terrible punishment.


Verse 34

"To crush underfoot all the prisoners of the earth,

To turn aside the right of a man

before the face of the Most High,

To subvert a man in his cause,

the Lord approveth not.

Who is he that saith, and it cometh to pass,

when the Lord commandeth it not?

Out of the mouth of the Most High

cometh there not evil and good?

Wherefore doth a living man complain,

a man for the punishment of his sins?"

"To crush under foot ... the prisoners" (Lamentations 3:34). "This refers to the harsh cruelties of the Babylonians."[30] The purpose of this being mentioned here is to indicate God's disapproval of men's atrocities. "We have here a short catalogue of the oppressions visited upon God's people by their conquerors."[31] The word that applies to all of these things is, "The Lord approveth not" (Lamentations 3:36).

The fact of God's strong disapproval of the cruel and sadistic actions of Israel conquerors carried with it also a pledge of the ultimate severe punishment and destruction of those oppressors.

"Who is he that saith, and it cometh to pass, when the Lord commandeth it not" (Lamentations 3:37). "It is true that God does not desire our misfortunes; but it is equally true that they do not happen without his permission (Isaiah 45:7; Amos 3:6)."[32]

"Wherefore doth a living man complain ... for the punishment of his sins" (Lamentations 3:39)? "Nothing can happen without the permission of the Most High. Then why should a man complain when he is punished for his sins? Not suffering, but sins should be lamented. Let us not murmur against God for that which we have brought upon ourselves."[33] In America today, it would be much closer to what is right for aids sufferers to be lamenting the homosexuality that lies as the root cause of so much of their suffering, instead of their complaining and screaming to high heaven for billions of dollars to be spent in an effort to cure them. Sin should be lamented, not the consequences of it.


Verse 40

III

A CALL FOR CONVERSION[34]

"Let us search and try our ways

and turn again to Jehovah.

Let us lift up our heart

with our hands unto God in heaven.

We have transgressed and have rebelled;

and thou hast not pardoned."

Jeremiah in these verses makes a plea for Israel to return to God, a tacit admission that they had indeed turned away from him. Furthermore, it is a heart-felt and sincere return that is required. "Spreading out the hands is not enough by itself (Isaiah 1:25)."[35] It is one's heart that must be lifted up to God, not merely his hands.


Verse 43

IV

ISRAEL'S SUFFERINGS FROM THEIR TRANSGRESSIONS[36]

"Thou hast covered with anger and pursued us;

thou hast slain, thou hast not pitied.

Thou hast covered thyself with a cloud,

so that no prayer can pass through.

Thou hast made us an offscouring

and a refuse in the midst of the peoples.

All our enemies have opened their mouth wide against us.

Fear and the pit are come upon us,

devastation and destruction.

Mine eye runneth down with streams of water,

for the destruction of the daughter of my people."

"All our enemies have opened their mouth wide against us" (Lamentations 3:46). This paragraph is a repetition, largely, of previous proclamations of Israel's sorrow. For example, this verse repeats verbatim Lamentations 2:16.

"Fear and the pit" (Lamentations 3:47). The metaphor in these three words is made literal in the last three words of the verse.


Verse 49

"Mine eye poureth down, and ceaseth not,

without any intermission.

Till Jehovah look down,

and behold from heaven.

Mine eye affecteth my soul

because of all the daughters of my city.

They have chased me sore like a bird,

they are mine enemies without cause.

They have cut off my life in the dungeon,

and have cast a stone upon me.

Waters flowed over my head; I said, I am cut off."

"They are mine enemies without cause" (Lamentations 3:52). Ash and other scholars refer to these words as "a puzzle ... because they do not square with previous confessions of sin."[37] The explanation is simple enough. The particular enemies here were those of Jeremiah's own people, who were indeed his enemies `without cause.' Jeremiah had prophesied for them that they should remain in Jerusalem; but they hated him, refused to obey, and in all probability forced him to flee with them into Egypt. (We have written a full account of those events in Vol. II (Jeremiah) of my series of commentaries on the major prophets, pp. 454-458.) Here again, we find that the acceptance of Jeremiah as the author of Lamentations answers all the questions that arise.

"They have cut off my life in the dungeon" (Lamentations 3:53). These words are an accurate description of Jeremiah's imprisonment (Jeremiah 37:17-19).


Verse 55

"I called upon thy name, O Jehovah,

out of the lowest dungeon.

Thou heardest my voice;

hide not thine ear at my breathing, at my cry.

Thou drewest near in the day that I called upon thee;

thou saidst, Fear not.

Lord, thou hast pleaded the causes of my soul;

thou hast redeemed my life.

O Jehovah, thou hast seen my wrong;

judge thou my cause.

Thou hast seen all their vengeance

and all their devices against me."

This whole paragraph is an eloquent summary of all the trials of Jeremiah under Zedekiah, and still later, after the fall of Jerusalem, when the remnant of the city rejected his counsel.


Verse 61

"Thou hast heard their reproach, O Jehovah,

and all their devices against me,

The lips of those that rose up against me,

and their device against me all the day.

Behold thou their sitting down and their rising up;

I am their song.

Thou wilt render unto them a recompense, O Jehovah,

according to the work of their hands.

Thou wilt give them hardness of heart,

thy curse unto them.

Thou wilt pursue them in anger,

and wilt destroy them from under the heavens of Jehovah."

"I am their song" (Lamentations 3:63). This line forces the conclusion that the enemies of these last verses were Jeremiah's own people, the Jews themselves, and not the Babylonians. The Babylonian conquerors were friendly to Jeremiah (See Vol. II of my commentary on the major prophets, Jeremiah, pp 437-440). The people who were singing taunt songs against the prophet were his own people.

A final word about the imprecations of these last verses. Yes, Jeremiah prayed for God's judgment against his enemies; and we reject the snide and self-righteous remarks that some writers have written against such imprecations. It never seems to enter the minds of current scholars that when Christians pray as their Saviour taught them, "Thy will be done"! that those words have exactly the same meaning as the imprecations of the prophet Jeremiah. When God's will is truly done, the wicked will indeed be punished. The notion that, "We sophisticated religious people of the 20th century have outgrown all the silly expectations that God is ever really going to punish anybody"! - that notion is a contradiction of everything in the Bible.

 


Copyright Statement
James Burton Coffman Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved.

Bibliography Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Lamentations 3:4". "Coffman Commentaries on the Old and New Testament". http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/bcc/lamentations-3.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.

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