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An Introduction to the Book of Lamentations

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I. TITLE OF THE BOOK:

A. Hebrew: The title to the book in Hebrew is hkya (‘Ekah). This is the Hebrew term for “How,” “Alas,” or “Oh” that appears as the first word in the Hebrew text in 1:1; 2:1; 4:1. This word was commonly used in Israelite funeral dirges (cf. 2 Sam 1:19; Isa 42:12)1

B. Greek: The title to the book in Greek is QRHNOI (Threnos) meaning “lament.”

C. Latin: The title to the book in the Latin Vulgate was a transliteration for the title “lament” (Threni) and was subtitled Id est Lamentationes Jeremiae Prophatae which became the basis for our English title “Lamentations.”

II. DATE 586 B.C. and shortly after

A. Chapters 1--4 suggest an intensity which would have been right after the fall of Jerusalem

B. Chapter 5 may describe a time when the “sharp pains of defeat had dulled into the chronic ache of captivity”, but it need not necessarily describe a later period (of up to 530 according to LaSor et al)2

III. HISTORICAL BACKGROUND

A. This collection of songs was composed after the fall of the city of Jerusalem in 587/6 B.C.

B. Perhaps this time should be identified with Jeremiah 39:1-18.3Historical accounts are in 2 Kings 24--25 and 2 Chronicles 36.

IV. AUTHOR: Probably Jeremiah the Prophet

A. External Evidence:

1. The Greek Septuagint (LXX) ascribes the book to the prophet Jeremiah--”QRHNOI IEREMIOU.”

2. Jewish tradition ascribed the book of Lamentations to the prophet Jeremiah4

3. The Latin Vulgate ascribed the book to Jeremiah--Id est Lamentationes Jeremiae Prophetae

4. The early church fathers, Origen and Jerome, understood without question that Jeremiah was the author of Lamentations5

B. Internal Evidence:

1. Jeremiah and Lamentations both convey a similar tone and employ similar vocabulary6

2. The main basis for rejecting Jeremiah as the author of the book is style:

a. Some would argue that since its poetic style is different than that of Jeremiah that it should be assigned to “an unknown eyewitness of the fall of Jerusalem, since the text itself records nothing of authorship”7
But why could not Jeremiah write in a poetic style?

b. Arguments which affirm that Jeremiah and Lamentations do not share a similar view point are not built upon sound exegesis8

C. Conclusion
One cannot be dogmatic about the author of the book of Jeremiah, but it seems reasonable to follow tradition in this matter and identify its author as probably being Jeremiah the prophet9

V. CANONICAL PLACEMENT OF THE BOOK

A. The Hebrew Scriptures were probably originally canonized into a two-fold division: the Law and the Prophets10

B. By around the second century B.C.11 a three-fold division of the Hebrew Scriptures arose: The Law, The Prophets, and The Writings12

1. The three-fold division included the same books as the two-fold division

2. There are several possible reasons for a three-fold division:13

a. A distinction was made between books which were written by men who held the prophetic office, and men who only had the prophetic gift

b. Some at a later date may have felt that those books which were not written by “prophets” were not fully canonical

c. A more practical purpose was served by the topical and festal14 significance rather than by the two-fold categories

C. The Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures (The Septuagint or LXX c. 280-150 B.C.) divided the Old Testament according to subject matter which is the basis of the modern four-fold classification of the: five books of Law, twelve books of History, five books of Poetry, and seventeen books of Prophecy15

VI. Literary Style:

A. The entire book of Lamentations is poetic in its form

B. Each chapter of the book is comprised of a poem making five poems in all

C. The poems use the literary style of an acrostic where the poem is built around the alphabet16

D. The Structure of Lamentations is as follows:17

1. Chapter 1
a
(all verse 1)
b
(all verse 2)
Twenty-two verses--sixty-six lines

2. Chapter 2
Same as chapter 1

3. Chapter 3
a
(verse 1)
a
(verse 2)
a
(verse 3)
b
(verse 4)
b
(verse 5)
b
(verse 6)
Sixty=six line (one per verse).
Each line begins with the appropriate letter

4. Chapter 4
Same as chapters 1--2 except that there are two lines per stanza rather than three

5. Chapter 5
The alphabet is not used, but there are twenty-two lines. Verses 19-20, the greatest confession of the book, may be a mini-acrostic. Aleph to Kaph (first half of alphabet) and Lamedh to Tau (second half of the alphabet).
Continuing Heater writes, “The chapters are not uniform in their use of the alphabet. Chapters one and two are the same: there are sixty-six lines (thee [sic] lines per verse) and each verse begins with a letter of the alphabet. Chapter one also breaks the sense in the middle of the alphabet. Thus A to K is the author speaking of the awful fall of Jerusalem. L-Z (L-T in Hebrew) personify Zion who speaks of her desolation.
Chapter 3 (the middle chapter) intensifies the use of the alphabet. There are still sixty-six lines, but each line begins with a letter of the alphabet. The subject matter of chapter 3 is also somewhat general. The writer expresses his dismay, his contrition and his hope of restoration. This then is the ‘peak’ chapter in the book.
But just as crescendo can express emphasis, so can dimuendo, and this is what takes place in the remainder of the book. Chapter 4 reverts to the pattern of chapters 1--2, with the difference that there are only two lines per stanza instead of three. In this chapter the writer relives the agony of the destruction.
The volume of the composition drops to a whisper in chapter 5. Here there are no letters used at all, although the 22 lines represent the 22 letter alphabet. Moreover, verses 19-20 are themselves a mini-acrostic used to express the highest praise for Yahweh in the book followed by a tentative, but hopeful cry for help.
Yahweh is sovereign!
A--Thou, O Lord, dost rule for ever;
K--Thy throne is from generation to generation
But O Lord do not abandon us!!
L--Why dost thou forget us forever;
Z--Why dost Thou forsake us so long?”18

VII. PURPOSES FOR THE BOOK

A. To provide an emotional postscript to the book of Jeremiah

B. To express grief over the fall of Jerusalem because of her sin19

C. To remind the readers that “sin, in spite of all its allurement and excitement, carries with it heavy weights of sorrow, grief, misery, barrenness, and pain.”20
Note the Parallels between Lamentations and Deuteronomy21

Lamentations

Deuteronomy

1:3

She dwells among the nations but she has found no rest.

28:65

And among those nations you shall find no rest.

1:5a

Her adversaries have become the head

28:44

He shall be the head, you shall be the tail

1:5c

Her little ones have gone away as captives before the adversary.

28:32

Your sons and your daughters shall be given to another people.

1:6c

They have fled without strength before the pursuer.

28:25

You shall flee seven way before them

1:18c

My virgins and my young men have gone into captivity

28:41

You shall have sons and daughters, but they shall not be yours, for they shall go into captivity

2:15

All who pass along the way clap their hands in derision at you

28:37

You shall become a horror, a proverb, a taunt among all the people where the Lord will drive you.

2:20

Should women eat their offspring?

28:53-57

Then you shall eat the offspring of your own body ....

2:21

On the ground in the streets lie young and old

28:50

...who shall have no respect for the old, nor show favor to the young

4:10

The hands of compassionate women boiled their own children

28:56-57

...the refined and delicate women among you ... she shall eat them secretly (i.e., her children) for lack of anything else ....

5:2b

Our houses were given to aliens

28:30

You shall build a house, but you shall not live in it.

5:5

There is no rest for us.

28:65

And among those nations you shall find no rest

5:10

... the burning heat of famine ....

28:24

... the rain of your land powder and dust ....

5:11

Women of Zion ravished.

28:30

Who shall have no respect for the old ....

5:12

Elders were not respected

28:50

Who shall have no respect for the old ....

5:18

foxes prowl in Zion

28:26

And your carcasses shall be food to all birds of the sky and to the beasts of the earth, and there shall be no one to frighten them away.

D. To “offer reproof, instruction, and hope” to the survivors of fallen Jerusalem22

E. To “chasten Israel that they recognize the righteousness of God’s dealings with them, and that in a spirit of repentance they cast themselves once more upon His mercy”23


1 Andrew E. Hill and John H. Walton, A Survey of the Old Testament, 334. LaSor, Hubbard, and Bush affirm that Some rabbis also used the name Qinot, meaning 'funeral dirges' or 'lamentations (Old Testament Survey, 617).

2 LaSor, Hubbard, and Bush, Old Testament Survey, 617.

3 Hill and Walton write, The despairing tone of the petition for national renewal in the closing lines of the final poem (5:19-22) indicates that the writer apparently knew nothing of Jehoiachin's discharge from prison and its implications for the fulfillment of Jeremiah's prophecies for covenant restoration in Israel (30--33) (Andrew E. Hill and John H. Walton, A Survey of the Old Testament, 334-35).

4 The Aramaic Targum of Jonathan, The Targum at Jeremiah 1:1; Talmud B. Bat 15a; LXX and Vulgate headings. The LXX introduction which reads [AND it came to pass, after Israel was taken captive, and Jerusalem made desolate, that Jeremias [ jIeremiva] sat weeping, and lamented with this lamentation over Jerusalem, and said] (The Septuagint Version of the Old Testament, with an English Translation; and with Various Readings and Critical Notes, 972).

Hill and Walton write, This association was probably based on a misunderstanding of the statement in 2 Chronicles 35:25 that 'Jeremiah composed laments for Josiah' (Andrew E. Hill and John H. Walton, A Survey of the Old Testament, 376-77). But this is not a necessary conclusion.

5 Ibid., 377.

6 See Gleason L. Archer, Jr. A Survey of Old Testament Introduction, 374 for a discussion of some of this style.

7 Andrew E. Hill and John H. Walton, A Survey of the Old Testament, 334.

8 See the discussion by Gleason L. Archer, Jr. A Survey of Old Testament Introduction, 374-75.

9 Archer writes, If Jeremiah was not the composer, whoever wrote it must have been a contemporary of his and witnessed the same pitiless destruction meted out to Zion by its Chaldean conquerors (Gleason L. Archer, Jr. A Survey of Old Testament Introduction, 374).

10 The two-fold division is argued upon (1) the way in which Moses' Law is referred to as a unit throughout the Scriptures, (2) the way in which the historical books are linked together as a unit, (3) the reference in Daniel to the Law and the books [9:2], and (4) the recognition of the Former prophetic books by the Latter (See Geisler and Nix, A General Introduction to the Bible, pp. 148-161).

11 Prologue to Ecclesiasticus (c. 132 B.C.), Jesus in Luke 24:44 (A.D. 30) Josephus, Against Apion, I.8 (A.D. 37-100).

12 The Writings include: (1) Poetical Books--Psalms, Proverbs, Job, (2) Five Rolls (Megilloth)--Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Esther, Ecclesiastes, (3) Historical Books--Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah, Chronicles

Sometimes Ruth was attached to Judges, and Lamentations was attached to Jeremiah thereby making the Hebrew canon comprised of 22 books rather than the more usual 24 books (see Geisler and Nix, General, pp. 18-19).

13 Critical scholars assume that the three-fold division reflects dates of canonization in accordance with their dates of compositions--Law (400 B.C.), Prophets (c. 200 B.C.), Writings (c. A.D. 100). However, this thesis is untenable in light of early reports of a three-fold division (c. 132 B.C.; see above). See Geisler and Nix, General, p. 151.

This critical approach is suggested by La Sor et al as an explanation for the placement of Ezra, Nehemiah, Chronicles, Esther, Song of Solomon, and Ecclesiastes when they write, Essentially, the purpose of the Writings as a whole was to collect those sacred books whose purpose, character, or date excluded them form the collections of law and prophecy (Old, p. 508-509).

14 Song of Solomon (eighth day of Passover), Ruth (second day of Weeks, or Pentecost), Lamentations (ninth day of Ab, in mourning for the destruction of Solomon's temple by Babylon in 587 B.C. and by the Romans in A.D. 70), Ecclesiastes (third day of Tabernacles), Esther (Purim).

15 Law = Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy

History = Joshua, Judges, Ruth, I Samuel, II Samuel, I Kings, II Kings, I Chronicles, II Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther

Poetry = Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon

Prophets/Major = Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, Daniel

Prophets/Minor = Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi.

For a more extensive overview see Geisler and Nix, General, pp. 17-25.

16 Heater writes, Remember that the Hebrew alphabet has twenty-two letters beginning with A and ending with T. Chapters one and two consist of twenty-two stanzas, the first word of each beginning with the appropriate letter of the alphabet. Chapter three also has twenty-two stanzas but each of the three lines of each stanza begins with the appropriate letter. Chapter four goes back to the pattern found in chapters one and two with the exception that it has two-line stanzas rather than three. The fifth chapter has twenty-two stanzas (or lines in this case), the lines do not begin with successive letters of the alphabet.

One possible reason for acrostic poetry may be to aid the memory, but if that were its only purpose, one might expect more Scripture to have been written in that style. It is primarily an alternate style of writing poetry and is thus a piece of artistry (Homer Heater, Jr., Notes on the Book of Lamentations, unpublished class notes in seminar in the preexilic Old Testament prophets [Dallas Theological Seminary, Fall 1990], 147).

One bit of significance from this observation is made by Archer concerning chapter three: The first 18 verses of this chapter express mournful lamentation and portray God as cruelly severe, but then verses 19-39 abruptly change to a mood of hope and praise to God for His faithfulness and compassion. This is certainly the type of 'discrepancy' which critics have utilized in other books of the Old Testament to demonstrate a difference in authorship. In this particular chapter, however, no theory of multiple sources is possible, for the whole composition is firmly and inescapably locked together by the acrostic pattern in which it is written. Hence this chapter may be taken as irrefutable proof that it was possible for an ancient Hebrew author quite suddenly to shift from one mood to another and express sentiments that markedly contrast with each other (even though they are not actually contradictory) (Gleason L. Archer, Jr. A Survey of Old Testament Introduction, 375).

17 Homer Heater, Jr., Notes on the Book of Lamentations, unpublished class notes in seminar in the preexilic Old Testament prophets [Dallas Theological Seminary, Fall 1990], 148.

18 Homer Heater, Jr., Notes on the Book of Lamentations, unpublished class notes in seminar in the preexilic Old Testament prophets [Dallas Theological Seminary, Fall 1990], 148-49.

19 Hill and Walton write, The prophets had forewarned Judah of the impending catastrophe for two centuries (cf. 2 Kings 24:3; 21:12). Alas, the repetition of the threat of divine judgment dulled the ears of the people and insulated them against the idea of repentance. Moreover, the delay of Yahweh's visitation had lulled the nation into a false sense of security (e.g., Jer 6:13-14; 7:1-4). Lamentations bewails the day, warned of by the prophets, in which Yahweh would become 'like an enemy,' destroying Israel 'without pity' (Lam. 2:2, 5) (Andrew E. Hill and John H. Walton, A Survey of the Old Testament, 335).

20 Charles H. Dyer, Lamentations, The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures by Dallas Seminary Faculty: Old Testament, 1207.

21 Martin writes, Such parallelism must be more than an amazing coincidence. The author of Lamentations was making the point that the judgment described in Deuteronomy 28 had come upon the nation. Therefore, that judgment, although lamentable, was not surprising. It was the just consequence of the actions which had been performed by the people. It was due to their disobedience (John A Martin, An Outline of Lamentations, unpublished class notes in 304 preexlic and exilic prophets, (Dallas Theological Seminary, Fall 1983), 5-6). See also Charles H. Dyer, Lamentations, The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures by Dallas Seminary Faculty: Old Testament, 1209.

22 Ibid.

23 Gleason L. Archer, Jr. A Survey of Old Testament Introduction, 373. Childs writes, The canonical shaping of the material has not supplied a 'happy ending', but it has moved the problem into its proper confessional context from which the community of faith must continue to struggle with it own history before God, as it always has in the past (Brevard S. Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, 595-96).

Continuing, Childs writes, The effect of the canonical process on the book of Lamentations was not one of dehistoricizing the fully time-conditioned response of the survivors of the destruction of Jerusalem. Rather, the response was brought in to relationship with a dimension of faith which provided a religious context from which to seek meaning in suffering. ONe of the results of incorporating the events of the city's destruction into Israel's traditional terminology of worship was to establish a semantic bridge between the historical situation of the early sixth century and the language of faith which struggles with divine judgment. For this reason the book of Lamentations serves every successive generation of the suffering faithful for whom history has become unbearable (Ibid., 196).

Finally he writes, By failure to take seriously the canonical shape of the book, the actual historical response to the destruction by those who treasured Lamentations as scripture has been overlooked. The major theological issue at stake in the canonical book is the conflict between those who thought that the destruction of Jerusalem had rendered the truth of Israel's traditional faith in God's promise meaningless, and those who confessed that in spite of the enormous rupture caused by Israel's sin, the avenue of God's renewed mercy, even if withdrawn momentarily, was still open to the faithful as it had been in the past (Ibid.).

Related Topics: Introductions, Arguments, Outlines