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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible

Lamentations 3

 

 

Introduction

Chapter 3. In This Chapter The Prophet Commences By Bemoaning His Own Personal Afflictions, But Then Goes On To Stress God’s Faithfulness To Those Who Trust In Him. Complaining About His Experiences He Is Finally Assured That God Will Requite His Adversaries.

Some commentators have suggested that in this chapter we have a personification of corporate Jerusalem speaking, but the alternation between ‘I’ and ‘we’, the indication of personal enemies and personal suffering, the reference to ‘my people’ (Lamentations 3:14) and the fact that he can speak of ‘the daughter of my people’ (Lamentations 3:48) and ‘the daughters of my city’ (Lamentations 3:51), all point to an individual speaking on behalf of himself and others. Indeed once we see this as referring to the prophet we discover that the whole book is constructed in such a way that whilst the city of Jerusalem languishes without hope in chapters 1, 2, 4 and 5, in the centre of it all is one who trusts in God and has assurance for the godly. It is they who will be the foundation of the future hope and are the ones to whom Israel will have to look in the future.

It is noteworthy that in the first seventeen verses in which the prophet speaks of his afflictions God is simply spoken of as ‘He’ with no designation being given to Him, indicating how far off from His presence the prophet felt himself to be. And then when YHWH is at last mentioned in Lamentations 3:18 it is in order to declare his lack of expectation from Him.

But when we get to Lamentations 3:22 all changes. YHWH is mentioned four times in five verses as the prophet expresses his confidence in His faithfulness and declares his readiness to wait for his personal salvation.

He then goes on to emphasise the need for patience and forbearance in expectation that ‘the Sovereign Lord’ will not cast him off for ever (Lamentations 3:31), following it up with an indication of his confidence in the fact that God is at work on behalf of His own even if it might not seem like it. In this section ‘the Lord’ is mentioned three times, ‘the Most High’ twice, ‘God in the heavens’ once and YHWH once, and the prophet calls on men to turn to Him.

He then from Lamentations 3:43 onwards returns to the theme of previous chapters bewailing the fact of what has come on Jerusalem, although now with an expectancy that YHWH will hear (Lamentations 3:50). From Lamentations 3:52 onwards he finally describes the ignominies heaped upon him by his adversaries, expressing his confidence that YHWH will see and take notice, and will avenge what has been done to him. In this section YHWH is mentioned six times, five times as addressed by the prophet.

As previously described the chapter is an acrostic, each of the first three verses beginning with Aleph, the next three Beth, and so on as shown in the text.

In this lament we have a wonderful picture of a godly man struggling through from a position of almost despair to a confident trust that God is with him in the midst of his troubles, so much so that he can turn his thoughts away from himself to others (the change from ‘I’ to ‘we’) as he brings them before God.


Verses 1-18

In His Initial Despair The Prophet Bewails His Own Sad Condition (Lamentations 3:1-18).

In this section God is simply spoken of as ‘He’, the only mention of His Name being in Lamentations 3:18 where the prophet declares that his expectation from YHWH has perished. It describes what the prophet has had to endure in the most trying of circumstances, and the condition of soul that it has brought him to. He is almost in blank despair. But it is soul preparation which will then lead on to a recognition of God’s faithfulness. God does not leave him in the dark. He prays through it. It is a reminder that life is not necessarily easy for the people of God. Sometimes we have to walk in a difficult pathway, so that God can seem far away, and even hostile, because we do not understand His ways. But always beyond the darkness there will be light.

Lamentations 3:1-3

(Aleph) I am the man who has seen affliction (misery),

By the rod of his wrath.

(Aleph) He has led me and caused me to walk in darkness,

And not in light.

(Aleph) Surely against me he turns his hand again and again,

All the day.

The prophet is very much aware that his afflictions, which are many, and the misery that he is enduring, are due to the wrath of God, not necessarily directly directed against him, but against his people, although he is a participant in it. He is aware that he is not blameless.

In terms later taken up by Jesus, Who spoke of walking in darkness (John 8:12), and Who brought light into the darkness, the prophet recognises that God has led him in a dark path. Although he is conscious that God is leading him, He feels that he is walking in darkness and not in light. But unlike the Psalmist in Psalms 23 he does not have the confidence that YHWH is with him in a positive way in the valley of deep darkness. Rather all is black. He sees no glimmer of hope for the future. (But he still sees himself as led by God. In that no doubt was his comfort).

Indeed he feels that God is turning His hand against him ‘again and again’, from morning til night. He feels totally battered by God. Many who have truly known God have had similar experiences. Sometimes God can seem very far away. But elsewhere we learn that this can be due, not to God’s lack of love, but to God’s loving chastening (Proverbs 3:11-12).

For the phrase ‘the rod of His wrath’ compare Proverbs 22:8. It is the rod of God’s anger. See Job 9:34; Job 21:9; Isaiah 10:5.

Lamentations 3:4-6

(Beth) My flesh and my skin has he caused to waste,

He has broken my bones.

(Beth) He has built against me,

And encompassed me with gall and travail.

(Beth) He has made me dwell in dark places,

As those who are dead for ever.

‘Wasted.’ The verb indicates a wasting away. It means to wear out by rubbing, to cause to fall away, from the verb, to be worn out, which is applied to clothes (Job 13:28), and then transferred to bodies (Psalms 49:14). For the breaking of the bones see Isaiah 38:13, where Hezekiah sees his bones as being broken by lions in a similar situation of despair. Compare Psalms 51:8. The prophet feels that God has worn away his flesh and broken his bones, not literally but metaphorically. He feels absolutely ‘wasted’ both outwardly and inwardly. The whole of his being is affected.

‘He has built against me.’ Indeed he feels under siege, under attack and surrounded by bitterness (gall) and stress (travail). He feels almost as though he in the grave with the dead, with no hope for the future (with those who are dead for ever), so dark is his experience. The thought is taken from Psalms 143:3. This could well have in mind Jeremiah’s experience in the pit, which must have seemed like a burial (Jeremiah 38:6).

Lamentations 3:7-9

(Gimel) He has walled me about so that I cannot go forth,

He has made my chain heavy.

(Gimel) Yes, when I cry, and call for help,

He shuts out my prayer.

(Gimel) He has walled up my ways with hewn stone,

He has made my paths crooked.

He feels himself like a prisoner, walled in so that he cannot go out, and bowed down by a heavy chain, constricted in his movements. Life has hemmed him in. The thought here is metaphorical, but it would again fit in with Jeremiah’s literal experience.

Indeed things are so bad that he feels that God is shutting out his prayer. Compare Psalms 18:41; Jeremiah 7:16. The heavens appear deaf and unresponsive. Everywhere he turns he finds his way blocked as though by hewn stone (therefore huge blocks of stone), so that he has to make his way through as best he can along devious paths.

Lamentations 3:10-12

(Daleth) He is to me as a bear lying in wait,

As a lion in secret places.

(Daleth) He has turned aside my ways, and pulled me in pieces,

He has made me desolate.

(Daleth) He has bent his bow,

And set me as a mark for the arrow.

With regard to the figure of a bear lying in wait see Hosea 13:8 : Amos 5:19. For the lion in ambush see Psalms 10:9; Psalms 17:12. Psalms 17:12 appears to have been directly in writer’s mind. Jeremiah often compared enemies to lions, e.g. Jeremiah 4:7; Jeremiah 5:6; Jeremiah 49:19; Jeremiah 50:44. The prophet feels as though YHWH is actually out to get him.

He feels that YHWH has prevented him from taking the way that he wanted, and has rather pulled him to pieces. This may well continue the thought of the lion and bear. He feels as though he has been savagely attacked, making him desolate. Indeed YHWH appears to him to have turned him into a target for His arrows, which are thudding into him one by one. Instead of the Hunter slaying the lion and the bear, He is slaying the prophet. The arrows represent the ills and sorrows appointed by God, compare Deuteronomy 32:23; Psalms 38:2; Job 6:4.

Lamentations 3:13-15

(He) He has caused the shafts (literally ‘children’) of his quiver,

To enter into my reins.

(He) I am become a derision to all my people,

And their song all the day.

(He) He has filled me with bitternesses,

He has sated me with wormwood.

The thought of the arrows of YHWH continues. YHWH has caused them to enter into his ‘reins’ (kidneys, mind, a man’s inmost parts - see Jeremiah 11:20), the means by which his life is guided and controlled. He has also made him into a laughingstock and object of derision, as men derisively sing about him all day. Jeremiah was a good illustration of this. And He has filled him full with bitternesses and wormwood (something poisonous and accursed).

Lamentations 3:16-18

(Waw) He has also broken my teeth with gravel,

He has covered me with ashes.

(Waw) And my soul has despised peace;

I forgot prosperity.

(Waw) And I said, ‘My strength is perished,

And my expectation from YHWH.’

Proverbs 20:17 makes clear that the idea here is that the grain of which the bread he is given is made is so coarse that it breaks his teeth. This could well describe prison bread. The main idea, however, is that he has been given something hard to accept and unpalatable. To be covered with ashes indicated a state of real unpleasantness. It is a figure signifying either the deepest disgrace and humiliation, or indicating mourning and deep sorrow (Ezekiel 27:30).

Indeed things have become so bad for him that he has lost all peace, something that he lays at God’s door, whilst well-being, both spiritual and material, has become a thing of the past. He has thus lost all hope. His strength has gone and so has any expectation that he had from YHWH. He has reached the bottom of the barrel.


Verses 19-39

The Prophet Prays His Way Through To Confidence In YHWH (Lamentations 3:19-39).

When our souls have reached their lowest point there is only one thing to do, and that is to cast ourselves on God. That is what the prophet now does. He remembers past times of affliction and misery and how God has kept him through them, and this gives him the confidence that he can hope in God again.

Lamentations 3:19-21

(Zayin) Remember my affliction and my misery,

The wormwood and the gall.

(Zayin) My soul has them still in remembrance,

And is bowed down within me.

(Zayin) This I recall to my mind,

Therefore have I hope.

The prophet calls to mind his past experiences of affliction and misery, and of extreme bitterness, ‘of the wormwood and the gall’. He still remembers them and is bowed down by them. But he recalls to mind that he had experienced them and survived them, and this enables him to express hope. Alternately ‘bowed down’ might indicate a humble submission to YHWH, the idea being that he remembers in the past how affliction had caused him to bow down to YHWH.

Lamentations 3:22-24

(Cheth) It is due to YHWH’s covenant loves that we are not consumed,

Because his compassions fail not.

(Cheth) They are new every morning,

Great is your faithfulness.

(Cheth) YHWH is my portion, says my soul,

Therefore will I hope in him.

He recognises that the very reason that he has survived his experiences, and that part of the nation has survived, is because of YHWH’s ‘covenant loves’ (His mercies), the plural expressing intensity. That is why he has hope. He recognises that he has survived because of it. It is because ‘His compassions fail not and are new every morning’. For in spite of the circumstances YHWH is still faithful to those who look to Him. Indeed his compassions are new every morning because great is His faithfulness. Nothing has happened that He had not said would happen. That is why the prophet can say that YHWH is still his portion, the One in Whom he has confidence and to whom he gives his loyalty, and it is because of that that he can have hope in Him.

‘YHWH is my portion, says my soul.’ This idea is based on Numbers 18:20. See also Psalms 16:5; Psalms 73:26; Psalms 119:57; Psalms 142:5. It is declaring that YHWH is all that the prophet wants, and that He is his all-sufficiency.

Lamentations 3:25-27

(Teth) Good is YHWH to those who wait for him,

To the soul who seeks him.

(Teth) Good is it that a man should hope,

And quietly wait for the salvation of YHWH.

(Teth) Good is it for a man that he bear the yoke,

During his youth.

For while God’s judgment has come upon Jerusalem, YHWH is still good to those who wait for Him, who are trusting in His faithfulness, and seeking Him with all their hearts. So it is a good thing that a man should hope and quietly wait (‘wait in silence’) for YHWH to deliver, not complaining and not trying to hurry God up. Just as it is good for him to bear the yoke of suffering during his youth, so that he will thereby be strengthened and fitted for what might lie ahead. Patient endurance and confidence in God should be man’s response to YHWH’s goodness.

Lamentations 3:28-30

(Yod) Let him sit alone and keep silence,

Because he has laid it on him.

(Yod) Let him put his mouth in the dust,

If so be there may be hope.

(Yod) Let him give his cheek to him who smites him,

Let him be filled full with reproach.

The yoke that the young man should be ready to bear is now described:

· It enables him to sit alone and in silence because it is YHWH’s will for him. He does not complain or get involved in doubtful activities.

· It makes him ready for complete submission to the will of YHWH because he knows that in that will is his hope. Prostrating oneself in the dust was a token of complete submission.

· It makes him ready to accept insults and reproach because he knows that he is bearing them as a consequence of his faithfulness to God.

Lamentations 3:31-33

(Kaph) For he will not be cast off for ever,

By the Lord.

(Kaph) For though he cause grief,

Yet will he have compassion according to the multitude of his lovingkindnesses (covenant loves).

(Kaph) For he does not afflict willingly,

Nor grieve the children of men.

And such a man can have the above attitudes because he knows that he will not be cast off for ever by the Lord (see Psalms 77:7). For though the Lord might make him endure grief, He will have compassion on him in accordance with the multitude of His lovingkindnesses and mercies, His covenant love. For He never afflicts men willingly, nor does He gladly grieve the children of men.

Such a recollection does, of course, very much have a bearing on what had happened to Jerusalem. It made clear that what had happened was YHWH’s chastisement, and that beyond it there was hope.

Lamentations 3:34-36

(Lamed) To crush under foot,

All the prisoners of the earth,

(Lamed) To turn aside the right of a man,

Before the face of the Most High,

(Lamed) To subvert a man in his cause,

The Lord approves not.

For there are three things of which the Lord does not approve:

o He does not approve of the crushing underfoot of the prisoners of the earth. They have a right for their needs to be considered and to compassion.

o He does not approve of the turning aside of the rights of a man before the face of the Most High (Elyon). All should be allowed full access to Him, and be given justice when their cases are tried before Him. And He does not approve of injustice and false dealings with regard to those who bring their cases to the lower judiciary. For above all God is a God of justice.

Lamentations 3:37-39

(Mem) Who is he who speaks, and it comes about,

When the Lord does not command it?

(Mem) Out of the mouth of the Most High,

Does there not come evil and good?

(Mem) Why does a living man complain,

A man for the punishment of his sins?

Thus no man should complain at his lot, because he should realise that in the end it has come from God. Whenever someone speaks and brings something about we can be sure that God is overall, and therefore that He has allowed it. We should see that it is His purpose. For in the way of things both evil and good do ‘come from out of the mouth of the Lord’. In other words, He gives permission for them and allows them to happen, even in some cases stepping in and exerting His own will. This does not, of course, mean that God is approving of moral evil, but only that He allows things to happen, some of which are good and beneficial, and some of which are harmful. And He does this for our good. It is because He is chastening us for our sinfulness. Thus rather than complaining a man who still has life granted to him should accept it and rejoice in it, and respond accordingly (compare James 1:2 ff.).


Verses 40-51

The People Are Called On To Seek YHWH, And They Face Up To The Situation That They Are In Whilst The Prophet Himself Continues To Plead For Them (Lamentations 3:40-51).

The prophet now calls on the people to examine themselves and to seek YHWH and pray sincerely to Him from the heart, not just by lifting up their hands formally. They are to recognise and acknowledge why He does not hear them. It is because they have rebelled and transgressed against Him. They are also to recognise their present position, that He pursues them, slaying and covering His ears against their cries, while He makes them like refuse among the peoples. This then brings the prophet himself to tears, as he prays on behalf of his people, contemplating their destruction. He is determined to go on praying without stopping until YHWH looks down from Heaven and sees the situation.

Lamentations 3:40-42

(Nun) Let us search and try our ways,

And turn again to YHWH.

(Nun) Let us lift up our heart with our hands,

To God in the heavens.

(Nun) (saying) ‘We have transgressed and have rebelled,

You have not pardoned.’

The prophet calls on the people to seek YHWH, firstly by searching out and putting to the test their own ways, that is by self-examination, and then by turning to YHWH and lifting up not only their hands, but also their hearts to God in the heaven, in other words engaging in genuine and not just formal prayer. They were to admit that they had rebelled and transgressed against Him, and that He had not pardoned them. They were being required to face up to the reality of what they had done. Their hope must be that in spite of the fact that they had transgressed and rebelled God would hear them.

But as we learn from what follows in their view He did not immediately hear. He did not pardon. Their punishment went on. They were acknowledging that He had reached the limits of His patience.

Lamentations 3:43-45

(Samek) You have covered with anger and pursued us,

You have slain, you have not pitied.

(Samek) You have covered yourself with a cloud,

So that no prayer can pass through.

(Samek) You have made us an off-scouring and refuse,

Among the peoples.

They cried out that YHWH had put on anger as a garment and had pursued them, slaying without pity. That He had covered Himself with a cloud so that no prayer could pass through. That He was deaf to their pleas. And that He had made them like dirt and refuse among the peoples. His chastening was severe so that they would learn their lesson.

We can view this either as a cry of despair, or as an admission that they were getting what they deserved. Either way the people were facing up to the realities of their situation. Being honest with God is very often necessary before we can begin to have a new hope.

Lamentations 3:46-48

(Pe) All our enemies have opened their mouth,

Wide against us.

(Pe) Fear and the pit are come upon us,

Devastation and destruction.

(Pe) My eye runs down with streams of water,

For the destruction of the daughter of my people.

Their prayer continues as they continue to face up to the facts about their situation. The opening lines are an acknowledgement that what had been said in Lamentations 2:16 was true. Their enemies were ‘opening their mouths against them’, scornfully pointing to what had happened to them, and sneering at them. They also acknowledge why that is. It is because they have been overcome by ‘terror and trap’ (in the Hebrew the phrase is alliterative, pachad wa pachath), by ‘devastation and destruction’ (hasseth we hassaber). They are experiencing fear, and what it was like to be a trapped animal. They are experiencing total devastation.

The very thought of this destruction of his people causes the prophet to weep, and his eyes run down like streams of water.

Lamentations 3:49-51

(Ayin) My eye pours down, and ceases not,

Without any intermission,

(Ayin) Till YHWH look down,

And behold from heaven.

(Ayin) My eye affects my soul,

Because of all the daughters of my city.

And he declares that they will continue to do so, without any cessation, until YHWH looks down from Heaven and beholds their situation. And it is not only his eye that weeps. His weeping affects him deep inside as he thinks of what has happened to ‘the daughters of my city’. This last almost certainly refers to the women of Jerusalem who would receive cavalier treatment from the invaders both before and after the fall of Jerusalem, especially the young virgins who would have suffered the most. Consider Lamentations 1:4; Lamentations 1:18 and Lamentations 2:20-21, where the sad fate and wretched conditions of the virgins of the city are mentioned as peculiarly deplorable, and Lamentations 5:11 where it was defenceless virgins who were most to be pitied when the city fell. Some, however, refer it to the satellite cities, towns and villages connected with Jerusalem.

‘My eye affects my soul.’ Literally ‘my eye inflicts an injury on my inner life’, in context referring to the pain he feels as he contemplates the situation. Notice the connection between this and YHWH looking down from Heaven. He is hoping that YHWH will be similarly affected.


Verses 52-66

The Prophet Looks Back On His Own Experiences And Calls On YHWH To Avenge Him (Lamentations 3:52-66).

The chapter commenced with the personal experience of the prophet in Lamentations 3:1-18 but there it was the present experiences that he was going through which were in mind. He now closes the chapter with a look back to his personal experiences, to what he has suffered at the hands of the leaders of his people, and calls on YHWH to avenge him.

Some, however, recognise the incongruity of these words on the lips of the one who has just described his tears for his people and see these as the words of Jerusalem personified, as they bemoan what has happened to them at the hands of the Babylonians. But the words fit better with an individual, and it is quite possible that the prophet felt deeply for his people, while still feeling hard done by with regard to the aristocrats who had for so long opposed and mistreated him, (‘the powers that be’), who were after all responsible for the sufferings of the people. We must remember that if the writer was Jeremiah he had been through terrible hardships at their hands.

Lamentations 3:52-54

(Tsade) They have chased me sore like a bird,

They who are my enemies without cause.

(Tsade) They have cut off my life in the dungeon,

And have cast a stone on me.

(Tsade) Waters flowed over my head,

I said, ‘I am cut off’.

Here have three vivid pictures of the prophet’s sufferings. He had been like a hunted bird, he had been put in a pit, he had experience overflowing suffering.

‘They have chased me sore (hunted me down) like a bird.’ Compare the vivid picture in Psalms 11:1-2 of the bird flying off to the mountains in order to escape the voracious hunters, where it is the upright in heart who are the targets. The prophet sees himself as having been constantly hunted. And it was by ‘They who are my enemies without cause’. Compare for this phrase Psalms 35:19; Psalms 69:4. He considers that they had had no grounds for their enmity because he had only had the good of his people at heart.

‘They have cut off my life in the dungeon (pit), and have cast a stone on me.’ Compare Psalms 88:6. This was literally true of Jeremiah as the pit into which he was lowered probably did have a stone covering (Jeremiah 38:6 ff). On the other hand ‘casting a stone’ might have in mind stoning. But even then it is a good possibility that at some stage Jeremiah had to flee from being stoned.

‘Waters flowed over my head.’ A picture of the misery and stress that was heaped on him. See Psalms 42:7; Psalms 88:7; Psalms 124:4.

‘I said, ‘I am cut off.’ Compare Psalms 31:22, ‘I said in my haste, “I am cut off from before your eyes. Nevertheless you heard the voice of my supplications when I cried to you’. The prophet is describing his moment of doubt before he finally effectively prayed to YHWH and was delivered by the intervention of Ebed-melech (Jeremiah 38:7 ff).

Lamentations 3:55-57

(Qoph) I called on your name, O YHWH,

Out of the lowest dungeon.

(Qoph) You heard my voice,

Do not hide your ear at my breathing (sighing), at my cry.

(Qoph) You drew near in the day that I called on you,

You said, ‘Do not be afraid’.

His momentary doubt laid to rest the prophet called on YHWH ‘out of the lowest pit’ (compare Psalms 88:6; Psalms 130:1; Jeremiah 38:6), and was immediately heard. So he now calls on YHWH to regard his sighing and respond in the same way. For YHWH had drawn near on the day that he had called on Him, and had given him the assurance, ‘Do not be afraid’.

When we reach the very lowest pit we can be sure that He will be there ready to respond to our prayer, whatever the circumstances. Notice the sequence, ‘I called -- you heard -- do not hide -- you drew near’.

Lamentations 3:58-63

(Resh) O Lord, you have pleaded the causes of my soul,

You have redeemed my life.

(Resh) O YHWH, you have seen my wrong,

Judge you my cause.

(Resh) You have seen all their vengeance,

And all their devices against me.

(Shin) You have heard their reproach, O YHWH,

And all their devices against me,

(Shin) The lips of those who rose up against me,

And their device against me all the day.

(Shin) Behold you their sitting down, and their rising up,

I am their song.

The prophet calls on YHWH to judge his case. For YHWH is the One Who has pleaded, as it were before a court, the causes of his inner life, and has redeemed his life (from threatened destruction - Psalms 103:4). In other words YHWH has fought for him and delivered him. YHWH is on his side. So now he calls on Him to judge his cause, because having pleaded them He must know his causes intimately.

Three times he draws attention to their device/devices against him (as revealed in Jeremiah 26:8-17; Jeremiah 37:14; Jeremiah 38:4). The first connected with their desire for vengeance, the second connected with all their reproach, and the third connected with their charges against him. They wanted vengeance, they were filled with reproach towards him, and they got together and spoke with animosity against him. And this was because they considered that he was a traitor who sided with the Babylonians.

‘Behold you their sitting down, and their rising up.’ This phrase basically indicates what they did during the whole of their daytime (see Deuteronomy 6:7; Deuteronomy 11:19; Psalms 139:2; Isaiah 37:28).

And he points out that when He does so He will see that they sang insulting songs about him all day, mocking and belittling him.

Lamentations 3:64-66

(Tau) You will render to them a recompense, O YHWH,

According to the work of their hands.

(Tau) You will give them hardness (literally ‘covering’) of heart,

Your curse to them.

(Tau) You will pursue them in anger,

And destroy them from under the heavens of YHWH.

So he expresses his confidence that YHWH will:

§ Recompense them (his adversaries) according to what they had done.Give them hardness (or blindness) of heart which will be a curse to them.

§ Pursue them in anger and destroy them from the earth (from under the heavens of YHWH).

And indeed this is what He did.

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Lamentations 3:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/lamentations-3.html. 2013.

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