Bible Book Number 25—Lamentations
Place Written: Near Jerusalem
Writing Completed: 607 B.C.E.
1. Why is the book of Lamentations well named?
THIS book of the inspired Scriptures is certainly well named. It is a lament expressing deep sorrow over that calamitous happening in the history of God’s chosen people, the destruction of Jerusalem in 607 B.C.E. by Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon. In Hebrew this book is named by its first word, ʼEh·khahʹ!, meaning “How!” The translators of the Greek Septuagint called the book Threʹnoi, which means “Dirges; Laments.” The Babylonian Talmud uses the term Qi·nohthʹ, which means “Dirges; Elegies.” It was Jerome, writing in Latin, who named it Lamentationes, from which the English title comes.
2. How has Lamentations been grouped and placed in the Bible?
2 In English versions of the Bible, Lamentations is placed after Jeremiah, but in the Hebrew canon, it is usually found in the Hagiographa, or Writings, along with The Song of Solomon, Ruth, Ecclesiastes, and Esther—a small group collectively known as the five Meghil·lohthʹ (Rolls). In some modern Hebrew Bibles, it is placed between Ruth or Esther and Ecclesiastes, but in ancient copies it is said to have followed Jeremiah, as it does in our Bible today.
3, 4. What evidence is there for Jeremiah’s writership?
3 The book does not name the writer. Yet, there is little doubt it was Jeremiah. In the Greek Septuagint, the book carries this preface: “And it occurred that, after Israel had been taken captive and Jerusalem had been desolated, Jeremiah sat down weeping and lamented with this lamentation over Jerusalem and said.” Jerome considered these words spurious and omitted them from his version. However, the ascribing of Lamentations to Jeremiah is the accepted tradition of the Jews and is confirmed by the Syriac version, the Latin Vulgate, the Targum of Jonathan, and the Babylonian Talmud, among others.
4 Some critics have tried to prove that Jeremiah did not write Lamentations. However, A Commentary on the Holy Bible cites as evidence of Jeremiah’s writership “the vivid descriptions of Jerusalem in chs.chaps 2 and 4, which are evidently the pen-pictures of an eyewitness; likewise the strongly sympathetic temper and prophetic spirit of the poems throughout, as well as their style, phraseology, and thought, which are all so characteristic of Jeremiah.”* There are many parallel expressions in Lamentations and Jeremiah, such as that of the extreme sorrow of ‘eyes running down with waters (tears)’ (Lam. 1:16; 2:11; 3:48, 49; Jer. 9:1; 13:17; 14:17) and those of disgust at the prophets and priests because of their corruption. (Lam. 2:14; 4:13, 14; Jer. 2:34; 5:30, 31; 14:13, 14) The passages at Jeremiah 8:18-22 and Jer 14:17, 18 show that Jeremiah was quite capable of the mournful style of Lamentations.
5. By what reasoning do we arrive at the time of writing?
5 The time of writing is generally agreed to have been soon after the fall of Jerusalem in 607 B.C.E. The horror of both the siege and the burning of the city was still fresh in Jeremiah’s mind, and his anguish is vividly expressed. One commentator remarks that no single facet of sorrow is fully exploited in any given place, but each returns again and again in the several poems. Then he says: “This tumult of thought . . . is one of the very strongest evidences that the book stands close to the events and emotions it purports to communicate.”*
6. What is interesting in the style and construction of Lamentations?
6 The construction of Lamentations is of great interest to the Bible scholar. There are five chapters, that is, five lyric poems. The first four are acrostic, with each verse beginning successively with one of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. On the other hand, the third chapter has 66 verses, so that 3 successive verses begin with the same letter before passing on to the next letter. The fifth poem is not acrostic, though it does have 22 verses.
7. What grief does Jeremiah express, but what hope remains?
7 Lamentations expresses overwhelming grief at the siege, capture, and destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar, and it is unsurpassed in any literature for its vividness and pathos. The writer expresses deep sorrow over the desolation, misery, and confusion that he views. Famine, sword, and other horrors have brought dreadful suffering to the city—all as a direct penalty from God, on account of the sins of the people, the prophets, and the priests. However, hope and faith in Jehovah remain, and to him go the prayers for restoration.
CONTENTS OF LAMENTATIONS
8. What desolation is described in the first poem, but how does Jerusalem personified express herself?
8 “O how she has come to sit solitary, the city that was abundant with people!” Thus the first poem opens its lament. The daughter of Zion was a princess, but her lovers have abandoned her and her people have gone into exile. Her gates are laid desolate. Jehovah has punished her for the abundance of her transgressions. She has lost her splendor. Her adversaries have laughed over her collapse. She has gone down in a wondrous manner and has no comforter, and her remaining people are hungry. She (Jerusalem personified) asks: “Does there exist any pain like my pain?” She stretches out her hands and says: “Jehovah is righteous, for it is against his mouth that I have rebelled.” (1:1, 12, 18) She calls on Jehovah to bring calamity on her exulting enemies, even as he has done on her.
9. (a) From whom has calamity come on Jerusalem? (b) How does Jeremiah speak of the scorn heaped on her and of the terrible conditions in the city?
9 “O how Jehovah in his anger beclouds the daughter of Zion!” (2:1) The second poem shows that it is Jehovah himself who has thrown down to earth the beauty of Israel. He has caused festival and Sabbath to be forgotten, and he has cast off his altar and sanctuary. Oh, the pathetic sights in Jerusalem! Jeremiah exclaims: “My eyes have come to their end in sheer tears. My intestines are in a ferment. My liver has been poured out to the very earth, on account of the crash of the daughter of my people.” (2:11) To what shall he liken the daughter of Jerusalem? How shall he comfort the daughter of Zion? Her own prophets proved worthless and unsatisfying. Now passersby laugh scornfully at her: “Is this the city of which they used to say, ‘It is the perfection of prettiness, an exultation for all the earth’?” (2:15) Her enemies have opened their mouth and whistled and ground their teeth, saying, ‘This is the day we have hoped for to swallow her down.’ Her children faint for famine, and women eat their own offspring. Corpses litter the streets. “In the day of the wrath of Jehovah there proved to be no escapee or survivor.”—2:16, 22.
10. As a basis for hope, what qualities of God does Jeremiah mention?
10 The third poem, of 66 verses, stresses Zion’s hope in God’s mercy. By many metaphors the prophet shows that it is Jehovah who has brought the captivity and desolation. In the bitterness of the situation, the writer asks God to remember his affliction and expresses faith in the loving-kindness and mercies of Jehovah. Three successive verses begin with “Good” and show the propriety of waiting for salvation from Jehovah. (3:25-27) Jehovah has caused grief, but he will also show mercy. But for now, despite confession of rebellion, Jehovah has not forgiven; he has blocked the prayers of his people and made them “mere offscouring and refuse.” (3:45) With bitter tears the prophet recalls that his enemies hunted for him as for a bird. However, Jehovah drew near to him in the pit and said: “Do not be afraid.” He calls on Jehovah to answer the reproach of the enemy: “You will pursue in anger and annihilate them from under the heavens of Jehovah.”—3:57, 66.
11. In what ways has Jehovah’s burning anger been poured out on Zion, and why?
11 “O how the gold that shines becomes dim, the good gold!” (4:1) The fourth poem bemoans the faded glory of Jehovah’s temple, whose stones are poured out in the streets. The precious sons of Zion have become of little value, like jars of earthenware. There is neither water nor bread, and those raised in luxury “have had to embrace ash heaps.” (4:5) The punishment is even greater than that for the sin of Sodom. The Nazirites, once ‘purer than snow and whiter than milk,’ have become “darker than blackness itself” and are all shriveled up. (4:7, 8) Better to have been slain by the sword than die by the famine, at a time when women have boiled their own children! Jehovah has poured out his burning anger. The unbelievable has happened—the adversary has come into the gates of Jerusalem! And why? “Because of the sins of her prophets, the errors of her priests,” who poured out righteous blood. (4:13) The face of Jehovah is not toward them. However, the error of the daughter of Zion has come to its finish, and she will not again be carried into exile. Now it is your turn, O daughter of Edom, to drink the bitter cup of Jehovah!
12. What humble appeal is made in the fifth poem?
12 The fifth poem opens with an appeal to Jehovah to remember his orphaned people. The inhabitants of Jerusalem are pictured as speaking. It is their forefathers that have sinned, and it is their error the people must now bear. Mere servants rule over them, and they are tortured by pangs of hunger. The exultation of their heart has ceased, and their dancing has been changed into mourning. They are sick at heart. Humbly they acknowledge Jehovah: “As for you, O Jehovah, to time indefinite you will sit. Your throne is for generation after generation.” They cry out: “Bring us back, O Jehovah, to yourself, and we shall readily come back. Bring new days for us as in the long ago. However, you have positively rejected us. You have been indignant toward us very much.”—5:19-22.
13. What confidence does Lamentations express, yet why is it beneficial in showing the severity of God?
13 The book of Lamentations expresses Jeremiah’s complete confidence in God. In the very depths of sorrow and crushing defeat, with absolutely no hope of comfort from any human source, the prophet looks forward to salvation by the hand of the great God of the universe, Jehovah. Lamentations should inspire obedience and integrity in all true worshipers, while at the same time providing a fearsome warning concerning those who disregard the greatest name and what it stands for. History does not show another ruined city lamented in such pathetic and touching language. It is certainly of benefit in describing the severity of God toward those who continue to be rebellious, stiff-necked, and unrepentant.
14. What divine warnings and prophecies are shown by Lamentations to be fulfilled, and how does the book tie in with other inspired writings?
14 Lamentations is also beneficial in showing the fulfillment of a number of divine warnings and prophecies. (Lam. 1:2—Jer. 30:14; Lam. 2:15—Jer. 18:16; Lam. 2:17—Lev. 26:17; Lam. 2:20—Deut. 28:53) Also note that Lamentations provides vivid testimony to the fulfillment of Deuteronomy 28:63-65. Moreover, the book contains a number of references to other parts of the sacred Scriptures. (Lam. 2:15—Ps. 48:2; Lam. 3:24—Ps. 119:57) Daniel 9:5-14 corroborates Lamentations 1:5 and; 3:42 in showing that the calamity came on account of the people’s own transgressions.
15. To what “new days” does Lamentations point forward?
15 Heartrending indeed is the tragic plight of Jerusalem! Amid all of this, Lamentations voices confidence that Jehovah will show loving-kindness and mercy and that he will remember Zion and bring her back. (Lam. 3:31, 32; 4:22) It expresses hope in “new days” like the days of long ago when Kings David and Solomon reigned in Jerusalem. There is still Jehovah’s covenant with David for an everlasting kingdom! “His mercies will certainly not come to an end. They are new each morning.” And they will continue toward those who love Jehovah until, under his righteous Kingdom rule, every creature that lives will exclaim in thankfulness: “Jehovah is my share.”—5:21; 3:22-24.
1952, edited by J. R. Dummelow, page 483.
Studies in the Book of Lamentations, 1954, Norman K. Gottwald, page 31.