The elegy in this chapter begins with a lamentation of the very sad and doleful change which the judgments of God had made in Jerusalem. The city that was formerly as gold, as the most fine gold, so rich and splendid, the perfection of beauty and the joy of the whole earth, has become dim, and is changed, has lost its lustre, lost its value, is not what it was; it has become dross. Alas! what an alteration is here!
I. The temple was laid waste, which was the glory of Jerusalem and its protection. It is given up into the hands of the enemy. And some understand the gold spoken of (Lam. 4:1) to be the gold of the temple, the fine gold with which it was overlaid (1 Kgs. 6:22); when the temple was burned the gold of it was smoked and sullied, as if it had been of little value. It was thrown among the rubbish; it was changed, converted to common uses and made nothing of. The stones of the sanctuary, which were curiously wrought, were thrown down by the Chaldeans, when they demolished it, or were brought down by the force of the fire, and were poured out, and thrown about in the top of every street; they lay mingled without distinction among the common ruins. When the God of the sanctuary was by sin provoked to withdraw no wonder that the stones of the sanctuary were thus profaned.
II. The princes and priests, who were in a special manner the sons of Zion, were trampled upon and abused, Lam. 4:2. Both the house of God and the house of David were in Zion. The sons of both those houses were upon this account precious, that they were heirs to the privileges of those two covenants of priesthood and royalty. They were comparable to fine gold. Israel was more rich in them than in treasures of gold and silver. But now they are esteemed as earthen pitchers; they are broken as earthen pitchers, thrown by as vessels in which there is no pleasure. They have grown poor, and are brought into captivity, and thereby are rendered mean and despicable, and every one treads upon them and insults over them. Note, The contempt put upon God’s people ought to be matter of lamentation to us.
III. Little children were starved for want of bread and water, Lam. 4:3, 4. The nursing-mothers, having no meat for themselves, had no milk for the babes at their breast, so that, though in disposition they were really compassionate, yet in fact they seemed to be cruel, like the ostriches in the wilderness, that leave their eggs in the dust (Job 39:14, 15); having no food for their children, they were forced to neglect them and do what they could to forget them, because it was a pain to them to think of them when they had nothing for them; in this they were worse than the seals, or sea-monsters, or whales (as some render it), for they drew out the breast, and gave suck to their young, which the daughter of my people will not do. Children cannot shift for themselves as grown people can; and therefore it was the more painful to see the tongue of the sucking-child cleave to the roof of his mouth for thirst, because there was not a drop of water to moisten it; and to hear the young children, that could but just speak, ask bread of their parents, who had none to give them, no, nor any friend that could supply them. As doleful as our thoughts are of this case, so thankful should our thoughts be of the great plenty we enjoy, and the food convenient we have for ourselves and for our children, and for those of our own house.
IV. Persons of good rank were reduced to extreme poverty, Lam. 4:5. Those who were well-born and well bred, and had been accustomed to the best, both for food and clothing, who had fed delicately, had every thing that was curious and nice (they call it eating well, whereas those only eat well who eat to the glory of God), and fared sumptuously every day; they had not only been advanced to the scarlet, but from their beginning were brought up in scarlet, and were never acquainted with any thing mean or ordinary. They were brought up upon scarlet (so the word is); their foot-cloths, and the carpets they walked on, were scarlet, yet these, being stripped of all by the war, are desolate in the streets, have not a house to put their head in, nor a bed to lie on, nor clothes to cover them, nor fire to warm them. They embrace dunghills; on them they were glad to lie to get a little rest, and perhaps raked in the dunghills for something to eat, as the prodigal son who would fain have filled his belly with the husks. Note, Those who live in the greatest pomp and plenty know not what straits they may be reduced to before they die; as sometimes the needy are raised out of the dunghill. Those who were full have hired out themselves for bread, 1 Sam. 2:5. It is therefore the wisdom of those who have abundance not to use themselves too nicely, for then hardships, when they come, will be doubly hard, Deut. 28:56.
V. Persons who were eminent for dignity, nay, perhaps for sanctity, shared with others in the common calamity, Lam. 4:7, 8. Her Nazarites are extremely charged. Some understand it only of her honourable ones, the young gentlemen, who were very clean, and neat, and well-dressed, washed and perfumed; but I see not why we may not understand it of those devout people among them who separated themselves to the Lord by the Nazarites’ vow, Num. 6:2. That there were such among them in the most degenerate times appears from Amos 2:11; I raised up of your young men for Nazarites. These Nazarites, though they were not to cut their hair, yet by reason of their temperate diet, their frequent washings, and especially the pleasure they had in devoting themselves to God and conversing with him, which made their faces to shine as Moses’s, were purer than snow and whiter than milk; drinking no wine nor strong drink, they had a more healthful complexion and cheerful countenance than those who regaled themselves daily with the blood of the grape, as Daniel and his fellows with pulse and water. Or it may denote the great respect and veneration which all good people had for them; though perhaps to the eye they had no form nor comeliness, yet, being separated to the Lord, they were valued as if they had been more ruddy than rubies and their polishing had been of sapphire. But now their visage is marred (as is said of Christ, Isa. 52:14); it is blacker than a coal; they look miserably, partly through hunger and partly through grief and perplexity. They are not known in the streets; those who respected them now take no notice of them, and those who had been intimately acquainted with them now scarcely knew them, their countenance was so altered by the miseries that attended the long siege. Their skin cleaves to their bones, their flesh being quite consumed and wasted away; it is withered; it has become like a stick, as dry and hard as a piece of wood. Note, It is a thing to be much lamented that even those who are separated to God are yet, when desolating judgments are abroad, often involved with others in the common calamity.
VI. Jerusalem came down slowly, and died a lingering death; for the famine contributed more to her destruction than any other judgment whatsoever. Upon this account the destruction of Jerusalem was greater than that of Sodom (Lam. 4:6), for that was overthrown in a moment; one shower of fire and brimstone dispatched it; no hand staid on her; she did not endure any long siege, as Jerusalem has done; she fell immediately into the hands of the Lord, who strikes home at a blow, and did not fall into the hands of man, who, being weak, is long in doing execution, Jdg. 8:21. Jerusalem is kept many months upon the rack, in pain and misery, and dies by inches, dies so as to feel herself die. And, when the iniquity of Jerusalem is more aggravated than that of Sodom, no wonder that the punishment of it is so. Sodom never had the means of grace the Jerusalem had, the oracles of God and his prophets, and therefore the condemnation of Jerusalem will be more intolerable than that of Sodom, Matt. 11:23, 24. The extremity of the famine is here set forth by two frightful instances of it:—1. The tedious deaths that it was the cause of (Lam. 4:9); many were slain with hunger, were famished to death, their stores being spent, and the public stores so nearly spent that they could not have any relief out of them. They were stricken through, for want of the fruits of the field; those who were starved were as sure to die as if they had been stabbed and stricken through; only their case was much more miserable. Those who are slain with the sword are soon put out of their pain; in a moment they go down to the grave, Job 21:13. They have not the terror of seeing death make its advances towards them, and scarcely feel it when the blow is given; it is but one sharp struggle, and the work is done. And, if we be ready for another world, we need not be afraid of a short passage to it; the quicker the better. But those who die by famine pine away; hunger preys upon their spirits and wastes them gradually; nay, and it frets their spirits, and fills them with vexation, and is as great a torture to the mind as to the body. There are bands in their death, Ps. 73:4. 2. The barbarous murders that it was the occasion of (Lam. 4:10): The hands of the pitiful women have first slain and then sodden their own children. This was lamented before (Lam. 2:20); and it was a thing to be greatly lamented that any should be so wicked as to do it and that they should be brought to such extremities as to be tempted to it. But this horrid effect of long sieges had been threatened in general (Lev. 26:29; Deut. 28:53), and particularly against Jerusalem in the siege of the Chaldeans, Jer. 19:9; Ezek. 5:10. The case was sad enough that they had not wherewithal to feed their children and make meat for them (Lam. 4:4), but much worse that they could find in their hearts to feed upon their children and make meat of them. I know not whether to make it an instance of the power of necessity or of the power of iniquity; but, as the Gentile idolaters were justly given up to vile affections (Rom. 1:26), so these Jewish idolaters, and the women particularly, who had made cakes to the queen of heaven and taught their children to do so too, were stripped of natural affection and that to their own children. Being thus left to dishonour their own nature was a righteous judgment upon them for the dishonour they had done to God.
VII. Jerusalem comes down utterly and wonderfully. 1. The destruction of Jerusalem is a complete destruction (Lam. 4:11): The Lord has accomplished his fury; he has made thorough work of it, has executed all that he purposed in wrath against Jerusalem, and has remitted no part of the sentence. He has poured out the full vials of his fierce anger, poured them out to the bottom, even the dregs of them. He has kindled a fire in Zion, which has not only consumed the houses, and levelled them with the ground, but, beyond what other fires do, has devoured the foundations thereof, as if they were to be no more built upon. 2. It is an amazing destruction, Lam. 4:12. It was a surprise to the kings of the earth, who are acquainted with, and inquisitive about, the state of their neighbours; nay, it was so to all the inhabitants of the world who knew Jerusalem, or had ever heard or read of it; they could not have believed that the adversary and enemy would ever enter into the gates of Jerusalem; for, (1.) They knew that Jerusalem was strongly fortified, not only by walls and bulwarks, but by the numbers and strength of its inhabitants; the strong hold of Zion was thought to be impregnable. (2.) They knew that it was the city of the great King, where the Lord of the whole earth had in a more peculiar manner his residence; it was the holy city, and therefore they thought that it was so much under the divine protection that it would be in vain for any of its enemies to make an attack upon it. (3.) They knew that many an attempt made upon it had been baffled, witness that of Sennacherib. They were therefore amazed when they heard of the Chaldeans making themselves masters of it, and concluded that it was certainly by an immediate hand of God that Jerusalem was given up to them; it was by a commission from him that the enemy broke through and entered the gates of Jerusalem.