Lamentations 4

The opening "Alas!" recalls the first two poems; it is swiftly reinforced in the second half of v2. As with all three preceding poems, this, too, can work as two voices, although here as first-person singular (most) and first-person plural (17–20).

Unlike them, however, the personalised perspective is neither female (as in Lam.1 and 2) nor male (Lam.3), but rather various groups within the population. And whereas the addressee in 1 and 3 had been the Lord, and in 2 had been mostly the city, here there is no specific addressee until the personified cities in the closing verses.

It starts with the impossible. Gold does not, and cannot, tarnish under normal circumstances. Yet here it does. Things are so bad that even nature, God's own created order, is out of kilter. And it continues into the human realm, including the horror of mothers cannibalising their own God-given children. "Blessings of the covenant become human carnage."[1]


Alas![2] The gold, now dulled;
 finest gold tarnished!
the holy stones[3] lie disgorged
 on every street corner.


Belovèd sons of Zion
 of gold-weight worth,
alas, rated as crocks of clay—
 work of any potter.


Cubs even of jackals
 are breast-fed nursed,
but my Daughter People is cruel
 as the desert ostrich.[4]


Dry-thirsted, the suckling's tongue
 glues to its palate;
infants beg for bread
 but none is proffered.


Embraced now on dung heaps are those
 once robed in purple;[5]
Those once feasting on sweetmeats
 lie destitute in alleys.


Far greater the iniquity of my people
 than the offence of Sodom,
which had been in an instant erased
 with no hand on her laid.


Glistening as snow, once, her princes,
 whiter than milk;
their limbs more ruddy than coral,
 their beauty as sapphire.


How soot-black now their faces,
 unrecognised in streets;
their skin shrunk, taut on their bones
 as dessicated wood.


Impaling on sword? Far better
 than piercing by famine.
Better to bleed from our wounds
 than be starved of all food. See—


Large-hearted women's own hands
 cook their own children!
Their children their food at the holocaust
 of my Daughter People.


Meted out in full is the Lord's anger,
 his wrath disgorged;
He has kindled a blaze in Zion
 that consumed her foundations.


Not the kings of the earth
 nor its people believed
that an enemy or foe could pass through
 the gates of Jerusalem.


Offences of prophets, the cause,
 and the iniquities of her priests,
who had disgorged in the midst of the city
 the blood of the just.


Polluted with blood, through the streets
 they grope blindly;
so defiled that none would dare
 touch their garments.


"Repulsive! Away!"
 [people shout at them.]
"Replusive! Repulsive! Hands off!"
 So they straggled; they strayed.
[Resolute were the nations:]
 "They'll not reside here."[6]


Scattered by the Lord himself:
 no longer he faces them.
The priests are shown no honour;
 the elders, no favour.


Teared eyes still pine; looking
 for help, but in vain;
From our watchtowers we watched for a nation,
 but that cannot deliver.


Unceasing, they stalked all our steps,
 our streets no more ours.
Our end drew near, our days gone;
 our end had come.


Vicious and swifter than sky-hawks
 came our pursuers:
Hot on our trail through the hills;
 ambushers of the desert.


Wedged in their traps was our life-breath,
 the Lord's own anointed—
He in whose shade we had thought
 to dwell among nations.


You might rejoice now, Daughter Edom
 gloating in Uz;
but to you, too, the chalice shall pass—
 to you, boozed and debauched.


Zion-Daughter, your iniquity expiated,
 your exile will he lift.
But your iniquity, Daughter Edom, will he prosecute,
 lay bare your offences.

[1]Hens-Piazza, Gina (2017) "Lamentations", p.60. 978-0814681541

[2]"Alas!": Hebrew 'Ekah, meaning "how", the name of the book itself, and beginning with the Hebrew letter 'aleph' equivalent to our 'A'.

[3]Often translated "jewels", "holy stones" is not only more literal but also allows the metaphor for the stones of the destroyed Temple. Taken in conjunction with following verse, this metaphor links an increasingly human sequence: "gold" "holy stones", "belovèd sons & Daughter People".

[4]A folk tradition, then familiar but now forgotten, about ostriches abandoning their hatchlings. Contrast the first half of this verse. (See also Job 39.)

[5]The purple of luxury. If this Hebrew poem is then overlayed with the Christian gospels there is a resonance with the trial, mocking and crucifixion of Jesus.

[6]Like 1:7 and 2:19 this verse is longer than other verses. The two bracketed half-lines indicate where editorial gloss may have been added.