The Bible
  NT Background
  NT Studies
  NT Books
  OT Background
  OT Studies
  OT Books
  Bible Study
  British Museum
  Museums
  Historical Documents
  Life Questions
  How to Preach
  Teaching

Introduction to the Book of Lamentations

Julian Spriggs M.A.

Title

Originally having no title, the book was generally known by its first word in Hebrew, Eikhah, meaning “Ah, how”. In the Septuagint (LXX) it was given the title “Wailings”. The Latin Vulgate added the sub-title, “The Lamentations of Jeremiah the Prophet”.

Place in Old Testament

In the Hebrew Scriptures, this book is the third of the five Megilloth or Rolls. These are contained in the Ketubim, or Writings, the third major section of the Scriptures. Each of the five rolls is associated with a different Jewish festival. Lamentations was read in synagogues on the day in mid-July when the destruction of the temple was commemorated each year.

In the Septuagint, the book was moved and placed immediately after Jeremiah. This position was continued in the Latin Vulgate and in most modern translations. It is now included with the major prophets, even though it is not a prophetical book.

Authorship

The Book of Lamentations is anonymous, with no author named. The author gives details as an eyewitness of the siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonians (1:13-15, 2:6,9, 4:1-12) and fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians in 586 BC (2:12, 4:10).

In both Jewish and Christian traditions it is normally accepted that Jeremiah wrote the Book of Lamentations. The Babylonian Talmud gives Jeremiah as the author of three books, Jeremiah, Kings and Lamentations. “Jeremiah wrote the book which bears his name, the Book of Kings, and Lamentations.” Tractate Baba Bathra Folio 15a

There are a number of close parallels in wording and theological themes to the Book of Jeremiah in Lamentations:
Virgin daughter of Zion (Lam 1:15, Jer 8:21)
Weeping and tears (Lam 1:2, 16, 2:11, Jer 9:1,18)
Abandoned by former lovers (Lam 1:2, Jer 30:14)
Drinking the cup of judgement (Lam 4:21, Jer 49:12)

Jeremiah accused the prophets of prophesying falsely, and predicted the end (Jer 5:31, 23:11-12). The author recognised that it was Judah’s sins against her God which underlay her calamity (2:14, 4:13). “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” (4:13).

The Greek Septuagint added this heading before the text: “And it came to pass, after Israel was taken captive, and Jerusalem made desolate, that Jeremias sat weeping, and lamented with the lamentation over Jerusalem, and said ...”. The Latin Vulgate adds: “with a bitter spirit sighing and wailing”.

The tradition of Jeremiah’s authorship fits well with other things we know about Jeremiah’s life and ministry from the OT.

1. Jeremiah wrote laments for public use. “Jeremiah uttered a lament for Josiah, and all the singing men and singing women have spoken of Josiah in their laments to this day. They made these a custom in Israel; they are recorded in the Laments.” (2 Chr 35:25).

2. Jeremiah was present as a witness during the final siege of Jerusalem, being held in the court of the guard until the city was taken (Jer 38:28).

3. After the Babylonians captured the city, by orders of Nebuchadnezzar, Jeremiah was taken from the court of the guard and entrusted to Gedaliah son of Shaphan (Jer 39:11-14). Jeremiah was present and witnessed these dreadful events.

Date

The poems were written during or soon after the destruction of Jerusalem, in the midst of the grief that immediately followed. Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians in July 586 BC, then the city and temple were burned the following month. Jeremiah was taken to Egypt before the end of the year (Jer 43:1-7), so it is most likely that the book was completed before then.

Type of literature

Lamentations is a corporate national lament for the death of a nation. It is similar in style and themes to a Babylonian document called the Lament for Ur. This is a lament over the invasion and destruction of the city of Ur by the Sumerians around 2000 BC.

Structure

The Book of Lamentations has an elaborately organised poetical form which contrasts with its contents of emotionally passionate and dramatic outpourings of grief. Within this form a dirge rhythm is used to express grief.

It consists of five separate poems or dirges, each of which form one chapter in modern translations. Each has a different form and emphasis. The first four poems are in alphabetical acrostic form, using the 22 consonants of the Hebrew alphabet in order.

Acrostic literature was used by the Hebrews and by other ancient cultures. In this book, acrostic is used to express the full range of suffering and grief (A to Z). It is also an aid to memorisation. Other well-known examples in the OT are Psalm 119 and Proverbs 31, as well as the not quite complete acrostics in Psalms 9 and 10 together, 25, 34, 37 and 145.

The first poem has 22 three-line stanzas, each group of three beginning with the next letter in the Hebrew alphabet. Jerusalem is mourning her destruction and crying to God for vengeance.

The second poem has the same pattern of 22 three-line stanzas arranged acrostically, except two of the consonants are reversed (Ayin and Peh). The author now looks at the cause of the destruction of the city, particularly focussing on the failure of the prophets to warn of the approaching disaster. This is similar to Jeremiah’s complaint about the prophets and priests, when they say, “Peace, peace, when there is no peace” (Jer 6:14, 8:11). There will only be hope for the future following genuine national repentance (2:18-19)

The third poem has 22 stanzas arranged acrostically, but with a different arrangement within each stanza. For each consonant, there are groups of three single lines, each line beginning with the same consonant. The nation is personified and urged to turn to God in repentance, and trust in his divine mercy for its restoration and the punishment of the enemies. In translation, this poem is given 66 verses, compared with 22 for the other four poems.

This poem has a distinct change of emphasis part way through. The first part is a mournful lament, from one under God’s wrath, and the severe suffering of God’s judgement (v1-18). This is followed by a change to expressing hope and praise to God for his faithfulness and compassion (v19-39). The well- known very positive passage comes at this point, “The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. The LORD is my portion”, says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.” (v22-24).

The fourth poem again has 22 stanzas arranged acrostically, but each has two lines. The author describes the horror of the siege, blaming this on the sins of the priests and prophets, then looks ahead to restoration and punishment of enemies, including the Edomites.

The fifth poem also has 22 stanzas, each containing a single line, but they are not arranged acrostically. It takes the form of a prayer, asking that the people would be delivered from their suffering, and restored to peace and prosperity before God. It is similar to psalms of corporate lament (Ps 44, 80).

Message

Lamentations is probably the saddest book of the OT. It expresses suffering at a national level. It is the funeral of a city, as Jerusalem has died and now lies desolated. In his five “dirges of death” Jeremiah expresses the horror and helplessness of seeing the Jews’ proudest city reduced to rubble. The horrors of defeat, slaughter and ruin threatened for so long and continually ignored have now fallen from the hands of the brutal Babylonians. And yet, even as the prophet’s heart breaks with weeping, with life seeming to have no hope, he pauses to proclaim a ringing testimony of deep faith in the goodness and mercy of God. Though the present is bleak with judgement, the future sparkles with the promise of renewal and restoration, a promise as certain as the dawn.

Themes

1. The cry of grief and mourning over the woes that have befallen sinful Judah, and the destruction of the city of Jerusalem and the temple. God’s promised judgement for sin had finally come. Jeremiah in his sorrow speaks for himself, the captives, and the personified city.

2. Confession of sin and acknowledgement of God’s righteous & holy judgement upon Judah.

3. Hope in God’s future restoration of his people. God has never failed him in the past. God has promised to remain faithful in the future. In the light of the God he knows and loves, Jeremiah finds hope and comfort.