Background

The Hebrew title of the book, Aychah!, meaning “How!” or “In what way?!” was the common opening word for dirges or poems of lament. See Lamentations 1:1, 2:1, and 4:1, and recall David’s dirge for Saul and Jonathan (2 Sam 1:19) or Isaiah’s lament over Babylon (Is 14:12).1The introductory information on this page is adapted from Professor Emeritus Forrest Bivens’ course notes for Senior Old Testament Isagogics at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary. Used with permission.

The Septuagint placed Lamentations after the book of Jeremiah, but in the Hebrew Bible it was placed among the “Writings” and grouped with four others: Ruth, Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, and Esther. These five are altogether known as the Megilloth (rolls, scrolls) and designated to be read at five major festivals of the Jewish church year. Lamentations is read on the Ninth of Ab to commemorate the destruction(s) of Jerusalem.

Authorship

The prophet Jeremiah is traditionally seen as the author of Lamentations, and thus it is included after the book of Jeremiah among the Major Prophets in most modern Bibles. The antiquity of the book and authorship of Jeremiah were not questioned by the Jews or the church fathers, despite no mention of Jeremiah in the book itself. The Septuagint even added this sentence to the beginning of the book: “And it came to pass after Israel was led into captivity and Jerusalem laid waste, that Jeremiah sat weeping, and lamented with this lamentation over Jerusalem and said.” The Targum and Peshitta likewise ascribe the work to Jeremiah. Jeremiah was certainly qualified to write the laments since he was an eyewitness to the destruction of Jerusalem, dearly loved the city and the people, and was known as a writer of laments prior to this event (at the death of Josiah, 2 Chr 35:25).

Content

Lamentations is a set of laments or dirges that was written about the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonian kingdom in 586 BC and the resulting exile of God’s people in Babylon.  Jerusalem sat as the capital city of God’s people, an important symbol of God and his covenant with the Israelite people he had chosen as his very own.  However, with the fall and destruction of the city it was evident to all of God’s people that he had allowed the Babylonians to exact his punishment on them.  The people had forsaken their God and sought foreign gods, and the discipline he had threatened for years through the prophets had come to pass upon his people.  He had brought the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt around 1446 BC and raised them up to be a great nation, but after hundreds of years of calling them to repentance he finally allowed his justice to be seen and felt.  The anguish over the sights and sounds of the destruction and what it meant caused the writer (most likely Jeremiah) to pour out his pain in a funeral song for this once great city.

Purpose

The book is not an easy or pleasant one to read. Furthermore, there is no clear gospel to nourish souls, although the center of the book highlights the sure mercies of our faithful Lord (see below under “Outline”). However, the book still has great value for God’s people. Here we are reminded that the Lord’s abandonment of the city and temple was due to Judah’s impenitence, not God’s lack of power. The wickedness of any people leads to the disintegration of a society and invites the anger of the Lord. Past blessings are never a guarantee of future blessings if we choose sin and turn from the Lord. The faithfulness of the Lord–to his threats as well as his promises–is firm. And the finest way of coping with suffering and grief is a repentant return to the promised mercies of the Lord. This is what the writer of Lamentations expresses well, and what we do well to imitate while undergoing discipline from the same Lord.

Christ Connection

Jerusalem was the symbol of God’s people. With it destroyed, God’s judgment on his people’s impenitence was on display for all to see. God does not tolerate sin, and he made that known to the world when the Babylonians captured and deported his people.

Yet God did not leave his people without hope. In his grace he promised the exile would last only 70 years (Jer 25:11-12). He kept his promise for the sake of the greater promise attached to the Israelite people, that the Savior would come from them (Gen 3:15; Gen 12:3).

When that Savior came, he also lamented over Jerusalem. Jesus wept over the city and its sin and destruction about 600 years later (Lk 19:41). And though they rejected God’s Savior yet again (Mt 27:22-23), he still went to the cross to pay for their sins and later called them to repentance through his apostles (Ac 2:23,36-41; 3:15,17-20).

Notable Passages

  • Lamentations 1:5
  • Lamentations 3:19-24
  • Lamentations 3:40
  • Lamentations 3:55-59

Outline

Lamentations is a skillfully structured book of five different poems, each complete in itself and independent of the others. Yet all share the same overarching theme of sorrow over the destruction of Jerusalem (though from different perspectives).

The most striking feature is the use of acrostics.  An acrostic poem is one in which the first letter of each line spells out another word or phrase.  Hebrew acrostic poems often used the letters of the alphabet in succession as the first letter of each line.  Lamentations’ acrostic structure is as follows:

  • Chapters 1 and 2 are triple-line acrostics, with each verse made up of three lines. These are complete acrostics. Each chapter thus has twenty-two verses and sixty-six lines.
  • Chapter 3 has sixty-six verses of one line each. Each letter of the alphabet, in succession, begins three lines.
  • Chapter 4 has twenty-two verses of two lines each, and the first word of each verse begins with consecutive letters of the alphabet. These are double-line acrostics.
  • Chapter 5 is a line-count acrostic, containing twenty-two verses but without the alphabetically arranged words at the start of the verses. Nor does it use the Qinah (3 + 2) meter. Perhaps, as has been suggested, the breakdown in the pattern was a deliberate attempt to convey the concept of chaos and despair.

The entire book appears patterned in a way that reinforces the Qinah metric concept. (It has been suggested that the 3+2 meter conveys the idea of something being “cut off” or a sense of “dying out, dying away.”) A look at this entire book shows the first three laments are long (66 lines each) and the last two are shortened (44 and then 22 lines) with the last one also “disintegrating” with the dropping of the alphabetical acrostic.

It has also been suggested that the book may be chiastically arranged (1-2-2-1 pattern), with Lam 3:21-42 as the centered climax. The theological content of this section is decidedly the book’s high point. It may also be mentioned here that the acrostics of chapters 2-4 contain the inversion of the ע and פ letters, as do other Old Testament acrostics, for example Psalms 9-10 and Proverbs 31 (in the Septuagint).

Since the book is fairly short and since, as noted above, each of the five laments are stand-alone pieces, there is no great need to frame an outline as such. The following brief descriptions of the five poems/chapters will be sufficient:

  1. A Lamentation for Jerusalem in her Misery, Desolation, and Desertion (Lam 1)
  2. A Lamentation highlighting the Righteous Anger and Judgment of God (Lam 2)
  3. A Lamentation expressing Personal Hope, with the Remembrance of Divine Mercies (Lam 3)
  4. A Lamentation on the Horror of the Siege especially contrasted with Prior Blessings (Lam 4)
  5. A Lamentation expressing the Plea for Future Mercy and Restoration (Lam 5)

References   [ + ]

1. The introductory information on this page is adapted from Professor Emeritus Forrest Bivens’ course notes for Senior Old Testament Isagogics at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary. Used with permission.