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8. Lamentations

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Notes on the Book of Lamentations

I. The Position of Lamentations in the Canon.

Lamentations is being studied in this course on the prophets because it has been traditionally linked with the prophet Jeremiah and in our English Bibles follows Jeremiah. There is nothing in the Masoretic Text that attributes it to Jeremiah. The Greek Text does attribute it to him as do other versions of the OT. Arguments are posited for and against Jeremianic authorship, but the contents of the book do not prove conclusively whether or not they come from Jeremiah’s hand. Certainly, the thought and style are similar to Jeremiah’s, and since there is no other known person to whom the work might be attributed, we will follow the traditional position.

II. The Name of the Book.

The Hebrew name of the book is ‘Ekah (אֵיכָה), the Hebrew word for “How” or “Oh” that appears at 1:1, 2:1, and 4:1. The Greek title is Threnos meaning lament, and that title came through the Latin into English.

III. The Date of the Book.

There is virtual agreement among scholars that the book of Lamentations is contemporaneous with the events of the fall of the city and temple in 586 B.C. There is no internal evidence that it is written from the exile, and the events seem to be presented by an eyewitness to the tragic events of Judah’s last days.

IV. The Poetic Style of the Book.

The poetic structure of Lamentations is what is called an acrostic, that is the poem is built around the alphabet. 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 in 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), but 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.1

V. Structure of Lamentations2

Chapter 1

א (all verse 1)

ב (all verse 2)

Twenty‑two verses—sixty‑six lines.

Chapter 2

Same as chapter 1.

Chapter 3

א (verse 1)

א (verse 2)

א (verse 3)

ב (verse 4)

ב (verse 5)

ב (verse 6)

Sixty‑six lines (one per verse).

Each line begins with the appropriate letter.

Chapter 4

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

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).

אַתָּה יהוה לְעוֹלָם תֵּשֵׁב    כִּסְאֲךָ לְדוֹר וָדוֹר

תּפזבנוּ לארךְ ימים    לָמָּה לָנֶצַח תִּשְׁכָּחֵנוּ

The chapters are not uniform in their use of the alphabet. Chapters one and two are the same: there are sixty-six lines (three 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) personifies 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 diminuendo, 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?

VI. The Theology of the Book

From the Jewish point of view an unmitigated tragedy took place in 586 B.C. The city and temple, visible evidences of God’s presence and therefore constant reassurances that God had elected the city and the people, were gone. Popular sentiment apparently held that as long as the temple was in the city, the city was impregnable (cf. the temple sermon in Jeremiah 7). God’s people were in disgrace in exile and thus defeated by the nations. The author of Lamentations does not question the rightness of what God did, but he is confessing his grief that it happened. The people had to wrestle with the question of God’s purpose. LaSor, et al., say: “In Lamentations the three great strands of Israel’s literature and faith are woven together: the prophets’ insights into the judgment and grace of the covenant Lord; the priests’ liturgical expression of contrition and hope; the wise men’s wrestlings with the mysteries of suffering. The poet of Lamentations is heir to them all, but not as mere scribe or recorder. The texture and pattern of the weaving are his own, adding a subtlety and beauty that make the book a treasured tapestry of biblical revelation.”3

VII. Outline of the Book.

A. A vivid, dramatic description of the tragic fall of Jerusalem is given (1:1‑22).

1. The Prophet speaks of the desolate city (1:1‑11).

This unit is in the third person and speaks of the fall from greatness to that of a forced laborer. Her friends (other nations) have betrayed her. She weeps at night in exile and harsh servitude. She dwells among nations without rest. Her adversaries have become her masters (1:1‑5).

Her precious things are remembered. She has become unclean. She has no comforter (cf. 1:2, 16, 21). Her precious things are mentioned again (v. 10) and they are given for food (v 11). Zion personified breaks out in the first person in 9 and 11 to prepare the way for the last section (1:6‑11).

2. Zion speaks of the desolate city (1:12‑22).

The poem is divided in half. The second part of the alphabet uses the poetic device of personification. Zion speaks and laments her troubles.

Zion confesses the justness of what has happened to her, but she cries out bitterly that no one takes note of her distress. She acknowledges that what God has done to her was deserved, but she gives in detail what He has done: fire into my bones, spread a net for my feet, turned me back, etc. (1:12‑15).

Zion confesses her sin. “The Lord is righteous, for I have rebelled against His command.” She sought help from her lovers (Egypt, Philistia, etc.), but they deceived her. She calls out to God to judge her enemies as He has promised to do. She longs for the Day of the Lord that her enemies might experience what she has endured (1:16-22).

B. A detailed description of the city from the point of view of Yahweh and the prophet is given (2:1‑22).

1. The havoc wreaked upon the city came from Yahweh (2:1‑10).

Yahweh is referred to by name or pronoun some forty‑five times. The prophet is clearly referring to this tragedy as an act authored by Yahweh. It did not happen accidentally. Six references are made to God’s anger and more are obliquely given. Yahweh has become an enemy to Judah, and He has destroyed the temple (under the picture of a booth [שֻׂכּוֹ sukko]). He has rejected His altar and abandoned His sanctuary. The walls, gates, and bars of the city have been torn down by Yahweh as well. The king is gone, the law is no more, the prophets find no vision, the elders are silent, the virgins have bowed their heads—Yahweh has done it all.

2. The prophet speaks a lament over the “daughter of Zion” (2:11‑22).

The sense break in this chapter does not come in the middle as it did in chapter 1. At verse 11 the prophet speaks of his grief over the city. In gentle, compassionate tones he speaks of the suffering of the little children (11), of the deceit of the false prophets that led them astray (14), and of the people who pass by mocking the city (15‑16). But all of this is in God’s eternal plan. It is not something that caught Him by surprise (17). The prophet urges Yahweh to look at the devastation wrought; to see the mothers eating their children. He uses a phrase we have encountered in Jeremiah: Terrors on every side (megure misabib, מְגוּרֵי מִסָּבִיב).

C. The third chapter (the middle chapter of the book) is different from the others: it is a general rather than specific lament and it begins each line with the appropriate letter of the alphabet (3:1‑66).

1. The prophet laments God’s judgment on him (3:1‑19).

This first person section should be viewed as the prophet speaking for the people. With repeated references to Yahweh as the author of his problems, the prophet struggles with all the suffering he is undergoing. These words are reminiscent of Job in a number of details. He concludes the unit by calling upon Yahweh to remember his afflictions (19).

2. The prophet expresses hope in God (3:20‑39).

He reminds Yahweh of His ḥesed (22), and says that the one who waits patiently for the Lord is rewarded (26). This quiet confidence is the underpinning for Judah’s hope in the dark days of the exile. God does not afflict willingly (33), He does not deprive people of justice (35), both good and will come from God (38), therefore, the Jews can trust Him in this calamity, and complaint is out of order (39).

3. The prophet acknowledges that confession and repentance are proper (3:40‑42).

This little section is an asseveration of the prophet’s confidence in God’s forgiveness for those who will acknowledge their sinfulness and humbly return to Yahweh. He will receive and pardon them.

4. The prophet returns to the dismal state of the people and prays for vengeance on the enemy (3:43‑66).

He laments God’s judgment, though he confesses Judah’s transgression, which, he says, God has not pardoned (42‑44). The recurring phrase “My eyes run down with streams of water” brings him to speak again of his vulnerability and helplessness before the enemy (45‑55). He states that Yahweh has heard (56), drawn near, encouraged, and pleaded his case (58).

He concludes the unit by calling upon Yahweh to avenge Judah of her enemies: those who have mocked her and had schemes against her (59‑66).

D. The prophet returns to a poem with two line stanzas, with the first word having the appropriate letter, to relive the terrible days of destruction (4:1‑22).

1. The people of Judah are compared to marred metal (4:1‑6).

The precious sons of Zion are considered to be worthless, like earthen jars. His people have become cruel, refusing to feed their young. Delicate people have become desolate. The reason for the judgment is that Judah’s sin is like that of Sodom and Gomorrah which were overthrown without human hand.

2. The dramatic change wrought in the people because of the Babylonian attack is detailed (4:7‑13).

He refers to her consecrated ones (7). This is the word Nazirite, but he seems to be using it here to describe all the Judeans as God’s special ones. They once were beautiful, but they are now ugly. The horrors of dying of starvation are depicted here. People boiled their own children (10). This has come about because of the wrath of Yahweh (11). No one believed it would ever happen to Jerusalem—but it happened because of the sins of her prophets and priests (12‑13).

3. The prophet speaks of the creeping conclusion of their lives (4:14‑22).

One can see the people with their leaders desperately casting about for help from any source (17). Their plea to Egypt yielded little fruit and only raised false hopes. The enemy hunted their steps and brought them down. The king (Lord’s anointed) was captured (20). A brief allusion is made to Edom (see Jeremiah 49 and Obadiah) who rejoiced at the destruction of Judah. Your turn will come! says the prophet. Judah has suffered and gone into exile, but Edom will one day be punished as well (21‑22). How they must have chafed to see their arch enemy rejoicing from the side lines, while they as God’s elect went into captivity.

E. A final plea is made to Yahweh to remember them (5:1‑22).

1. A final statement is made of the desolation of Zion (5:1‑18).

The tone of this chapter is a bit more remote than the preceding. The extent of the calamity has begun to be apparent. The Judeans recognize that they have had to submit to others for daily subsistence. This reference to Egypt and Assyria alludes to the past alliances with these nations. Could it refer to the “lovers of Judah” who provided them with “bread” (so Hillers, AB) (4‑6). The terrible treatment of the women (11), the rulers and elders (12), and the boys (13) is set out. Judah’s glory has turned to shame (15‑18).

2. The book closes with a tribute and a plea to Yahweh (5:19‑22).

Yahweh is great and glorious, but He is urged not to forget His people but to restore them so that they might return.

Yahweh is sovereign!

(Mini-Acrostic)

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?

A final tentative note is sounded: “Unless Thou hast utterly rejected us.”

Prophets Directed Against Certain Nations

Four prophets directed their messages exclusively to one nations. These men lived centuries apart (Jonah in the eighth century; Nahum prior to 612 B.C.; Habakkuk sometime in the vicinity of the Neo-Chaldean empire [625-539]; Obadiah probably after the fall of Jerusalem).


1See also D. R. Hillers (Lamentations, AB, Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1972) and R. K. Harrison (Jeremiah and Lamentations, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1973) for a good discussion.

2See Heater, “Structure and Meaning in Lamentations,” BibSac 149 (1992) 304-15 (Reprinted in Vital Old Testament Issues).

3LaSor, et al., (Old Testament Survey, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982) p. 622.

Related Topics: History, Introductions, Arguments, Outlines, Prophets