THE FOURTH DIRGE (LAM. 4) again casts up a variety of mental pictures to depict the suffering of the final siege of Jerusalem and beyond. It also lays out some of the reasons why the judgment was imposed, and ends in a whisper of hope.
The dirge opens by likening the people of Jerusalem to gold that has lost its luster (Lam. 4:1). Like gold, they started off precious, but now they are treated like the cheapest clay pots (Lam. 4:2). Under conditions of siege and transportation, food becomes so scarce that mothers can no longer nurse their children; even baby jackals are better treated (Lam. 4:3-4). Proverbial for wickedness, Sodom was destroyed in a quick holocaust, “in a moment” (Lam. 4:6). But the punishment of the poet’s people “is greater than that of Sodom” (Lam. 4:6); siege warfare is a wretched, drawn-out affair, and the exile that follows it goes on and on. The theological assumption, of course, is that there are degrees of guilt: those with most knowledge of God’s ways have least excuse, and so they can expect severest judgment (e.g., Matt. 11:20-24). As for the nobility, they are as emaciated, degraded, and dirty as the rest, and therefore indistinguishable from the rest (Lam. 4:8-9)—which is another way of saying that the leadership of the little nation has been destroyed. They are so filthy that they are physically and ceremonially unclean, like lepers who must eke out their existence where no one wants to have contact with them (Lam. 4:14-15). “The LORD ‘s anointed” (Lam. 4:20)—here a reference to King Zedekiah—proves to be of no help. “We thought that under his shadow we would live among the nations” (Lam. 4:20)—that is, secure in the knowledge that he was in the Davidic line, the Lord’s anointed. But as the Lord has destroyed the city and the temple, so also has he removed the Davidic descendants from the throne.
Why did the Lord do this? “[I]t happened because of the sins of her prophets and the iniquities of her priests” (Lam. 4:13). The writer does not mean to suggest that these were the only sinners, but that the religious leaders, who should have been doing the most to preserve the nation in covenantal faithfulness, led the nation instead in corruption and infidelity. Because of their own positions, far from staying the national decline, they abetted it and hastened it. Where is that true today?
The story does not end here. In mocking derision the writer tells nearby pagans that they might as well delight in the moment, for their turn will come. God’s justice will be imposed on them as well as on Israel—and one day the covenant community, though afflicted now, will put behind them every trace of the exile (Lam. 4:21-22). The Lord’s Anointed will give them rest.