The title of the book differs in the English and Hebrew Bibles. The LXX is the source for Lamentations, but in the Hebrew canon, it is simply ekah, or "How," which is the first word of three of the laments. Like the other minor scrolls, it is read as part of the Jewish liturgy on designated feast days. This one is read on the 9th day of Ab, which is the fifth month of the Jewish calendar. This feast commemorates both destructions of the Temple, and falls in late summer between Pentecost and Tabernacles
The most interesting feature of Lamentations is that four of the five chapters are alphabetic acrostics. Simply stated, each verse of the first four chapters begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet – all twenty-two letters. The fifth chapter is a twenty-two-line poem, but its verses do not follow the acrostic pattern. There are several thoughts on this. One is that it made it easier to memorize. Another is that it was intended to illustrate complete comprehensiveness, as though the author was saying it covered everything from A to Z. In either case, scholars recognize the skill and ingenuity required in order to follow the format of the pattern.
There is considerable consensus that the event precipitating the poem is the destruction of Jerusalem in 586-7BCE. There is little agreement, however, on whether this was, indeed, an eyewitness account or if it was compiled later on. The eyewitness theory attributes authorship to Jeremiah. Even though there are similarities in the writing (which could be attributed to anyone writing in that general period), there are several verses that cannot be ascribed to him. The author of Lamentations saw the destruction as incomprehensible and not expected, whereas Jeremiah had been preaching the demise of the city his whole ministry. The author expressed great disappointment with alliances that failed; Jeremiah spoke continually against the need for any outside help and diligently exhorted people to depend solely on the Lord. There is also the sense from the book that the Temple was inviolate; Jeremiah preached otherwise. Nor is he likely to have written in chapter three that his prophetic work was under God's anger. And the final words of chapter five were written some time after the event, at a time when Jeremiah was already long gone to Egypt. So, most scholars allocate Lamentations to an anonymous author or authors.
Theologically speaking, the book attributes the people's suffering to their sins and God's sense of justice, while still including expressions of hope that God would be also merciful and just. In a sense, then, it deals with the issue of suffering on a national scale, much like Job deals with it on an individual level. Truth be known, however, this author cannot accept the fact that their sins were that bad, to result in complete destruction. It is overwhelming to him (or her). In fact, the great paradox is that even though the author believes God has abandoned them, he also knows they have no hope apart from God. In a very deep way, it is similar to Jesus' cry from the cross – "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" If he really believed God had done so, what would have been the point of crying out to him? The author of Lamentations foreshadows that. But it is a theology that doesn't have a tidy resolution by the end of the book. Nor is it limited to one particular disaster. That makes it particularly relevant for modern readers. We are able to empathize with the people who are suffering, to feel their frustration. We are also able to participate in their attempt to understand, to experience the reality of God in spite of the challenges of suffering and disaster. Lamentations does not give us the answers. It asks the questions and invites us to learn from the voice that is silent.
Each of the five laments is distinctive. The first is a city-lament spoken by a narrator. The second describes the destruction of the city and, with forceful language, the suffering endured by the people. The third is different from the others in that it is the voice of a "strong man," someone who has suffered and has survived. The fourth reverts back to the narrator, who identifies with the sufferers and calls for revenge on the oppressors. The fifth chapter is comprised of general statements about the city's miseries.
1:1-22 – The Desolation and Misery of Jerusalem
- A description of the sorry plight of the city, which is virtually deserted
- The reason for such distress
- Jerusalem has sinned greatly and has become unclean
- The enemy has taken all its treasure; the people scrounge for bread
- The city laments itself, weeps and hopes to move God to pity
- She stretches out her hand, but there is no one to comfort her
- The city confesses its rebellion
- "The Lord is righteous, yet I rebelled against his command"
2:1-22 – The Lord is Angry with His People
- The Lord has cast off his people
- God has withdrawn his right hand; he has not remembered his footstool
- Description of the agony of the people
- From young to old, they sit in mourning, in silence
- Heads are bowed to the ground
- The enemy has scoffed at them; the "Lord has done what he planned"
- A call to prayer
- Despair drives people to God
- A desperate account of unspeakable woe
3:1-66 – The Strong Man's Lament
- His personal suffering
- There are strong expressions of abandonment and separation from the Lord
- Every possible affliction is recounted in graphic detail
- And yet….There is reason to hope
- "Because of the Lord's great love we are not consumed"
- "His compassion will not fail; his mercies are new every morning"
- This is not intended to deny the sufferings, but they are transformed by turning to God
- Because God is omnipotent, one has no choice but to turn to Him
- A call for repentance
- People must examine their ways They have been so bad that "no prayer can get through"
- Tears are added to the prayer "until the Lord will look down and see"
- Hope can grow
- Image of a hunted bird
- He thought he would be cut off, but then "you heard my plea"
- "You came near when I called you, and you said, 'Do not fear.'"
- A call for vengeance
- May be a later addition
- Or, memory of God's help in the past brings confidence of help in the future
- "Pay them back what they deserve"
4:1-22 – The City – Past and Present
- Hunger drove the people to inhuman acts
- Death was preferable to life
- The sins of the priests and the prophets
- The fundamental concepts of priestly cleanness have been violated
- "The priests are shown no honor; the elders no favor"
- They had hoped in allies, but it was in vain
- They watched "for a nation that could not save"
- Hope is gone; reality remains
- To their enemies: rejoice now, but your judgment awaits
- To themselves: their punishment is complete and will soon end
5:1-22 – An Appeal to the Lord
- Calling on the Lord to act
- "Remember, O Lord…and see our disgrace"
- They have become like the orphans and widows who have no protector
- Grim descriptions of brutality
- Acknowledgement of the Lord's power
- Plea to not forget and forsake his people
- "Restore us…that we may return"
- "Unless you…are angry beyond measure"
The book then ends in a virtual question mark. "Are you angry beyond measure?" There is no response. The author acknowledges the Lord's power and knows he will reign forever. What is not certain is the status of his people. The catastrophe that has befallen them was beyond their imagination and could not be summed up in simple words. It has been identified, cried over, and prayed for, but the ending is unfinished. The next step to be taken is open. Some scholars say this is the essence of faith – faith that remains faith even when God is silent, faith that is still faith when we don't yet know how the story is going to end.
Bergant, Dianne. "Lamentations." Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2003.
Dobbs-Allsopp. E.W. "Lamentations." Interpretation. Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1989.
Gaebelein, Frank E. "Lamentations." The Expositor's Bible Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing, 1986.
Harrison, R.K. "Jeremiah & Lamentations." Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1973.
Provan Iain. "Lamentations." The New Century Bible Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm B Eerdmans, 1991.