The Hebrew title of the book is ’ekah (“How . . . !”), the first word not only in 1:1 but also in 2:1; 4:1. Because of its subject matter, the book is also referred to in Jewish tradition as qinot, “Lamentations,” a title taken over by the Septuagint (the pre-Christian Greek translation of the OT) and by the fourth-century Latin Vulgate.
Author and Date
Lamentations is anonymous, although ancient Jewish and early Christian traditions ascribe it to Jeremiah. These traditions are based in part on 2Ch 35:25 (though the “Laments” referred to there are not to be identified with the OT book of Lamentations); in part on such texts as Jer 7:29; 8:21; 9:1,10,20; and in part on the similarity of vocabulary and style between Lamentations and the prophecies of Jeremiah. Moreover, such an ascription gains a measure of plausibility from the fact that Jeremiah was an eyewitness to the divine judgment on Jerusalem in 586 b.c., which is so vividly portrayed here. Nevertheless, we cannot be certain who authored these carefully crafted poems or who is responsible for putting them together into a single scroll. Lamentations poignantly expresses the people’s overwhelming sense of loss that accompanied the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple as well as the exile of Judah’s inhabitants from the land Yahweh had covenanted to give Israel as a perpetual national homeland.
The earliest possible date for the book is 586 b.c., and the latest is 516 (when the rebuilt Jerusalem temple was dedicated). The graphic immediacy of Lamentations argues for an earlier date, probably before 575.
The entire book is poetic. The first, second, fourth and fifth laments all contain 22 verses, reflecting the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet. In the first and second laments each verse contains three poetic lines; in the fourth each verse contains two lines; and in the fifth each verse contains but one line. The first four laments are alphabetic acrostics (see NIV text notes on 1:1; 2:1; 3:1; 4:1). In the first, second and fourth, each numbered verse begins with the letter of the Hebrew alphabet dictated by the traditional order of that alphabet. The third (middle) lament is distinctive in that while it too is made up of 22 three-line units (like laments 1 and 2), in it the three lines of each unit all begin with the sequenced order of the letters of the alphabet (thus three aleph lines followed by three beth lines, etc.)—after the manner of Ps 119. The fifth lament continues to reflect the alphabetic pattern in its 22-line structure, but the initial letters of these lines do not follow the alphebetic sequence (see note on 5:1–22). Use of the alphabet as a formal structuring element indicates that, however passionate these laments, they were composed with studied care.
Themes and Theology
Lamentations is not the only OT book that contains individual or community laments. (A large number of the Psalms are lament poems, and every prophetic book except Haggai includes one or more examples of the lament genre.) Lamentations is the only book, however, that consists solely of laments.
As a series of laments over the destruction of Jerusalem (the royal city of the Lord’s kingdom) in 586 b.c., it stands in a tradition with such ancient non-Biblical writings as the Sumerian “Lamentation over the Destruction of Ur,” “Lamentation over the Destruction of Sumer and Ur,” and “Lamentation over the Destruction of Nippur.” Orthodox Jews customarily read it aloud in its entirety on the ninth day of Ab, the traditional date of the destruction of Solomon’s temple in 586 as well as the date of the destruction of Herod’s temple in a.d. 70. Many also read it each week at the Western Wall (the “Wailing Wall”) in the Old City of Jerusalem. In addition, the book is important in traditional Roman Catholic liturgy, where it is customarily read during the last three days of Holy Week.
This Christian practice reminds us that the book of Lamentations not only bemoans Jerusalem’s destruction but also contains profound theological insights. The horrors accompanying the Babylonian destruction of Judah are recited in some detail:
- Wholesale devastation and slaughter engulfed kings (2:6,9; 4:20), princes (1:6; 2:2,9; 4:7–8; 5:12), elders (1:19; 2:10; 4:16; 5:12), priests (1:4,19; 2:6,20; 4:16), prophets (2:9,20) and commoners (2:10–12; 3:48; 4:6) alike.
- Starving mothers were reduced to cannibalism (2:20; 4:10).
- The flower of Judah’s inhabitants were dragged off into ignominious exile (1:3,18).
- An elaborate system of ceremony and worship came to an end (1:4,10).
But this recital is integrally woven into the fabric of a poetic wrestling with the ways of God who, as the Lord of history, was dealing with his wayward people.
The author of these laments and those who preserved them understood clearly that the Babylonians were merely the human agents of divine judgment. It was God himself who had destroyed the city and temple (1:12–15; 2:1–8,17,22; 4:11). This was not a merely arbitrary act on the Lord’s part; blatant, God-defying sin and covenant-breaking rebellion were at the root of his people’s woes (1:5,8–9; 4:13; 5:7,16). Although weeping (1:16; 2:11,18; 3:48–51) is to be expected and cries for redress against the enemy (1:22; 3:59–66) are understandable (see note on Ps 5:10), the proper response to judgment is acknowledgment of sin (1:5,8,14,22; 2:14; 3:39; 4:13; 5:7,16) and heartfelt contrition (3:40–42). Trust in God’s mercies and faithfulness must not falter. The book that begins with lament (1:1–2) rightly ends with an appeal to the Lord for restoration (5:21–22).
In the middle of the book, the theology of Lamentations reaches its apex as it focuses on the goodness of God. He is the Lord of hope (3:21,24–25), of love (3:22), of faithfulness (3:23), of salvation and restoration (3:26). In spite of all evidence to the contrary, “his compassions never fail. / They are new every morning; / great is your faithfulness” (3:22–23).
Near the end of the book, faith rises from Jerusaem’s lamentable condition to acknowlege Yahweh’s eternal reign: “You, O Lord, reign forever; / your throne endures from generation to generation” (5:19; see introductions to Ps 47; 93; see also note on Ps 102:12).
- Jerusalem’s Misery and Desolation (ch. 1)
- The Lord’s Anger against His People (ch. 2)
- Judah’s Complaint—and Basis for Consolation (ch. 3)
- The Contrast between Zion’s Past and Present (ch. 4)
- Judah’s Appeal to the Lord for Forgiveness and Restoration (ch. 5)
© Zondervan. From the Zondervan NIV Study Bible. Used with Permission.
/* LEAVE FOR VISUAL DESIGN