Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 21: Jeremiah and Lamentations, Part V, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
PRELECTIONS OF JOHN CALVIN
THE LAMENTATIONS OF JEREMIAH
I undertake now to explain The Lamentations of Jeremiah. We must inquire when the Book was composed by the Prophet, and also what was the object of the author. Grossly mistaken was Jerome, who thought that it is the Elegy which Jeremiah composed on the death of Josiah; for we see nothing here that is suitable to that event. There is indeed mention made in one place of a king, but what is said there cannot be applied to Josiah; for he was never driven into exile, but was buried at Jerusalem with his fathers. From the whole contents of the Book we may justly conclude, that it was written after the city was destroyed, and the people led into exile.
Some think that Jeremiah, before this calamity happened, historically described it, and that he thus prophesied of what was future and yet unknown. But this is by no means probable; for Jeremiah here sets before the eyes of all, those things which they knew as facts; and we shall easily discover that his manner of stating things is wholly different from that used in prophetic writings. There is, then, no doubt but that Jeremiah, after the city was destroyed and the Temple burnt, bewailed the miserable state of his own nation, not after the manner of heathens, but that he might shew that even in so disastrous a state of things some benefit might be derived from what he says. And this is what ought to be especially noticed; for except we bear this in mind, the Book will lose its peculiar interest, but if we direct our minds to that desolation, which wholly dejected not only the people in general, but also the Prophet himself, so that he lost all hope, we may surely hence derive no small benefit. It is an easy thing to extol in high terms the favor of God in prosperity, and also to exhort those who have reasons to hope well to entertain confidence, and to bring forward God’s promises, that the minds of the godly may recumb on them; but when things are in a state of despair, and God seems to have forsaken his Church, since prophecy still remains in its force, and God appears as stretching forth his hand to the miserable, and to such as are almost in a hopeless state, we hence derive much benefit, and this is the chief use of what is taught here. But. we see that Jeremiah, when the kingdom had fallen, when the king with all his children was exposed to extreme disgrace, when in short the covenant of God seemed wholly abolished, still continued to discharge his office, which he certainly did not do in vain.
When, therefore, he understood that his teaching would not be without fruit, he was thus induced to speak first of God’s judgments; secondly, to exhort the people to repentance; thirdly, to encourage them to hope; and lastly, to open the door for prayer to God, so that the people in their extremities might venture to flee to God’s mercy; which could not have been done without faith.
We now in a measure understand for what purpose this Book was written by Jeremiah: his object was to shew that though nothing in the land appeared but desolation, and the Temple being destroyed, the Covenant of God appeared as made void, and thus all hope of salvation had been cut off, yet hope still remained, provided the people sought God in true repentance and faith; and he thus proceeded in the course of his calling, and made it evident that his doctrine would not be without benefit.
He indeed bewails, as I have said, the extreme calamity of his people; but he mingles with his lamentations the doctrine of repentance and faith’ For, on the one hand, he shews that the people suffered a just punishment for the many iniquities, of which they could not have been healed; and then, on the other hand, he gives them some intimations of God’s mercy, that in death itself the Jews might seek life, nay, that in the lowest depths they might know that God would be propitious to them. He at length by his own example stimulates them to pray; but prayer is founded on faith. It then follows, that Jeremiah, when the people had become wholly alienated from the worship of God, yet spent his labor in collecting together the remnant. Though, then, the whole Church was not only in the greatest disorder, but also reduced as it were almost to nothing, yet Jeremiah constructed some sort of building out of the ruins. This is the substance of this Book.
The Greek Translators call this Book Θρήνους, Lamentations, and very properly, as also the Hebrews call it קינוה, kinut; though the common name or title is אכה, aike, from the first word in it. But when they wish to express what the Book contains, they call it קינות, kinut, Lamentations.
Let us now proceed to the words; for what I have now briefly touched upon, can be more fully explained as we go on.