In my previous post, I gave a brief introduction to the events that led to the fall of Jerusalem, the destruction of the temple, and the exile of Judah to Babylon. In this post I will describe the horrors experienced by the covenant community in the aftermath of the siege of Jerusalem. The despair of the people and the intense agony that followed the destruction of Jerusalem was poignantly expressed by the author of the book of Lamentations.
The readers of Lamentations are given a vivid picture of the pain and the suffering faced by the covenant community during and after the Babylonian invasion of Jerusalem. The writer gives the reason for the incomprehensible tragedy that befell the nation: “The LORD gave full vent to his wrath; he poured out his hot anger, and he kindled a fire in Zion that consumed its foundations” (Lamentations 4:11).
The book opens with of portrayal of the city of Jerusalem as a widow that has been shamed, rejected, and abandoned: “How lonely sits the city that was full of people! How like a widow has she become, she who was great among the nations! She who was a princess among the provinces has become a slave” (Lamentations 1:1).
The book of Lamentations portrays the city of Jerusalem as a woman in the deepest state of desolation. The city now is left desolate, a city that once was full of people. Jerusalem is portrayed as a widow suffering and mourning for her children. The city that once was a great city receiving the homage of the nations is now but a vassal, paying tribute to its overlord.
The portrayal of Jerusalem as a widow conveys the idea of mourning and abandonment, and it is meant to evoke pity from the reader. Pity is what Israel desires to receive from God, but the writer welcomes pity from anyone who will hear the people’s cry: “Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by? Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow, which was brought upon me, which the LORD inflicted on the day of his fierce anger” (Lamentations 1:12).
The image of the city as a widow is also meant to evoke a sense of desolation and loneliness, of pain and suffering, of horror and outrage. The outrage of the women of Judah was to watch the death of their own children: “Should women eat their offspring, the children they have borne?” (Lamentations 2:20). The reason for this outrage is because without children, there is no future.
The graphic picture of Jerusalem as a lonely widow provides a small glimpse of the great devastation that came upon the nation. Kings and people had built an impregnable city hoping to find protection behind its walls, trying to escape the judgment and the death proclaimed by the prophets, but not knowing that those mighty walls of protection were no protection at all against the God who had brought in the Babylonians as his instrument of divine justice. No city is so impregnable that it might become immune to God’s righteous judgment.
Before disaster fell on Jerusalem, optimistic prophets proclaimed that the temple of God in Jerusalem would guarantee that the city would never become a desolation. But now the ruins of the city have become a striking reminder that those prophets were wrong: “Your prophets have seen for you false and deceptive visions; they have not exposed your iniquity to restore your fortunes, but have seen oracles for you that are false and misleading” (Lamentations 2:14). It was because the people believed the message of the optimistic prophets that they neglected their duties to God and failed to heed the call to repentance.
The ruins of the city and of the temple were also vivid reminders to the people who took a low view of human life. Jeremiah had warned the people: “For if you truly amend your ways and your deeds, if you truly execute justice one with another, if you do not oppress the sojourner, the fatherless, or the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own harm, then I will let you dwell in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your fathers forever” (Jeremiah 7:5-7).
The devastation of Judah was a visible demonstration of the great moral failure of the people who refused to respect the dignity of the poor and the other weak members of their society. The tears shed by the lonely widow were the tears of remorse for the people’s violation of the covenant. Judah did not go into exile because of their faithfulness to God. Rather, the nation was driven into exile and hard servitude because of the people’s disobedience to their God.
The desperate situation of Judah after the destruction of Jerusalem is forcefully expressed in Lamentations 1:2: “She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks; among all her lovers she has none to comfort her; all her friends have dealt treacherously with her; they have become her enemies.”
Judah’s friends and allies not only abandoned her but they also dealt treacherously with her. Faced with the possibility of reprisal for supporting Judah, her allies not only assumed an attitude of indifference but they also became hostile to her situation. Left alone to confront the powerful Babylonian army, Judah’s army was no match against the invading forces.
With the destruction of the temple, the roads leading to Jerusalem were empty, people did not come to the city to worship and celebrate, for the gates of the city were desolate and the temple servants had been taken away to Babylon (Lamentations 1:4).
The pathetic picture of a community mourning the destruction of its religious life reflects the pain and devastation caused by the Babylonian army. The city now remains desolate. The people, with their eyes full of tears, express their bitterness over the destruction of their beloved city and temple. As in the days of old, the people were crying: “Ichabod, the glory has departed” (1 Samuel 4:21).
The devastation of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple took place because the people had forgotten the Lord. The people of Judah abandoned the covenant, they had trusted in themselves, and had put all their hopes on deceptive words, words that could not deliver them from the appointed hour of judgment.
How could such a judgment of unbelievable proportion afflict Judah? How could so much sorrow, and so much pain come upon the city of God, upon his holy mountain, a city beautiful in elevation, the city of the great king (Psalm 48:1-2)?
The writer again gives the reason for the catastrophe that came upon Jerusalem: “Because the LORD has afflicted her for the multitude of her transgressions” As a result, Jerusalem’s children have gone away, captives before her enemies. Because of her rebellion, Zion’s majesty has departed, her princes fled without strength before the pursuer ((Lamentations 1:5-6). These words are very descriptive of the reason for Judah’s exile. The punishment was from above, but the cause was from within.
Israel had rebelled against their God. They had gone after other gods and now they are experiencing the consequences of that disobedience. Now, in their distress they cry out to God. Their lament is a cry for help and a plea for mercy, which they cannot find. It is for this reason that the people acknowledged that God has brought this devastation: “It was for the sins of her prophets and the iniquities of her priests, who shed the blood of the righteous in the midst of her” (Lamentations 4:13). With the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of the people, the threat of the covenant curse had been invoked (Deuteronomy 28:47-57), and the righteousness of Yahweh had been vindicated.
The cry of the lonely widow is the voice of a woman who was alive, but a woman in pain, broken by her suffering. The nation was taken by force from her heritage. The exile of Judah raised questions about the destiny of the nation. Although the exile had diminished the hope of the people, they were still the people of God, even though they were in a strange land.
The people of Judah still had a hope for a future because their relationship with Yahweh was based on hesed, on covenantal love, a love that is faithful, a love that forgives and redeems. In the midst of the hurt and suffering experienced by the community, the writer of Lamentations appeals to Yahweh’s faithfulness: “Restore us to yourself, O LORD, that we may be restored; renew our days as of old – unless you have utterly rejected us, and are angry with us beyond measure” (Lamentations 5:21-22).
But, the Lord had not utterly rejected his people. To the contrary, the exile served as an opportunity for Yahweh to renew Israel’s mission in the world, as we shall see in an upcoming post.
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Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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