“Her nobles were purer than snow.” The meaning “nobles” is debated by scholars, and the English versions reflect that difference, note the translations: “nobles” (ASV, REV). “Nazirites” (CEB; KJV; YLT). “Princes” (CJB; ESV; NIV). “Dignitaries” (CSB). “Consecrate ones” (NASB; NET). “Young people” (NJB). Although “Nazirite” is a typical translation of the Hebrew word, that does not seem to be the most natural meaning here. It was the upper class, royalty, and the nobles who were “polished” and “known in the streets” (Lam. 4:8), not the Nazirites who were often ordinary people who had just taken a Nazirite vow for some special reason. John Goldengay writes: “While nazirim are usually people dedicated to Yahweh in a distinctive way (“Nazirites”), that meaning does not fit here. But nezer can mean a crown, which suggests a meaning such as “princes” here.”a The upper crust of society was normally well-fed, well-rested, well-educated, and not overworked, so they had a nice physical appearance. They were “purer than snow,” “whiter than milk” (this is not “white” skinned because the people were olive-skinned; but a reference to being clean and fresh-looking), ruddy (reddish, thus healthy looking) and “polished” like lapis lazuli (lapis lazuli was blue, but it symbolized glory and splendor; see Song 5:14).
“snow...milk...coral...lapis lazuli.” Lamentations 4:7 stands out from other verses in Lamentations in that the whole verse is full of color, and indeed, that is likely how the wealthy nobles seemed to the common people—full of color. Their skin was not wrinkled or darkened from the sun and hard work (cp. Song 1:5), their clothing was expensive and brightly colored, and they (especially the women, cp. Isa. 3:18-24) wore gold and colorful jewelry. That is how they were before their sin caught up with them and the Babylonians conquered Judah, but now things have changed drastically. “But now their appearance is darker than soot; ...Their skin has shriveled on their bones.” The Babylonian attack hit all segments of society very hard.
“brighter than milk.” The Hebrew word translated as “brighter” is tsachach (#06705 צָחַח), and it means “to shine, to be bright; to gleam” (BDAG); be “dazzling, be aglow” (Strong’s). There was not much that was really “white” in the ancient world. Wool was an off-white, but not a bright white. So milk stood out as something that seemed to be bright, to shine, and that seems to be the emphasis here more than the color white, especially because the next phrase says they were “ruddy,” which is a healthy pinkish color.
“coral.” The coral being mentioned here came from deep in the Mediterranean Sea and had beautiful deep orange-red color (see commentary on Proverbs 31:10).
“their form was like lapis lazuli.” The Hebrew text of this phase is difficult and has been interpreted in several different ways, as reading the English versions reveals. However, the scholarly consensus is that the phrase refers to the form or shape of the bodies of the nobles, just as lapis lazuli is cut and polished into various beautiful shapes in pieces of jewelry. The Hebrew text being translated as “lapis lazuli” is correct. Some versions say “sapphire,” but there were no sapphires (or rubies) that archaeologists are aware of around Israel in those ancient times. However, since the Hebrew refers to a blue stone, the older translations that pre-date archaeology, such as the King James Version, assumed that the valuable blue stone was a sapphire, and that tradition has continued to this day (cp. CEB; CJB; ESV. Note that the NIV84 read “sapphire,” but was changed to lapis lazuli in the 2011 update).