Understanding the Old Testament - Lesson 28


We now come to the Book of Lamentations, a poignant exploration of mourning and hope amidst destruction and exile. Lamentations, nestled in the writings of the Hebrew Bible, comprises five funeral songs lamenting the fall of Jerusalem and the exile of its people. The acrostic structure provides stability to the text, contrasting with its themes of chaos and suffering, highlighting God's sovereignty even in calamity. Chapter three parallels the suffering of the afflicted man with Job, offering insights into enduring exile with hope and trust in God's faithfulness. The book concludes with a communal lament, confessing sins and expressing trust in God's restoration. 

Miles Van Pelt
Understanding the Old Testament
Lesson 28
Watching Now

I. Introduction to Lamentations

A. Placement within the Hebrew Bible

B. Meaning and Style

II. Structure of Lamentations

A. Literary Form: Acrostic Poems

1. Overview of Acrostic Structure

2. Specifics of Each Chapter's Structure

B. Significance of the Acrostic Structure

III. Themes and Messages

A. Mourning and Lamentation

1. Description of Jerusalem's Fall

2. Theological Implications of Destruction

B. Divine Wrath and Sovereignty

1. Role of Babylon as Instrument of God

2. Theological Interpretation of Calamity

C. Hope Amid Exile

1. Reflections on Living in Exile

2. Theological Response to Exile

IV. Comparison with Job

A. Parallels between the Suffering Man and Job

1. Similarities in Experience and Response

2. Implications for Understanding Suffering

B. Theological Connections and Reflections

V. Theological Implications and Application

A. Exilic Experience and Future Hope

1. Earthly Jerusalem vs. Heavenly Jerusalem

2. Embracing Our Fallen World

B. God's Faithfulness and Restoration

1. Punishment and Grace

2. Renewal and Hope for the Future

  • Engage with the Old Testament to grasp its Gospel-centered nature. From Genesis to Ecclesiastes and Psalms, discover foundational truths, wisdom, and insights on suffering. Strengthen your faith and find enduring hope in God's Word.
  • Gain insight into the Old Testament's theological core, centering on Jesus Christ. Explore its diverse genres, languages, and authors, unified by Jesus as its focal point. Understand how biblical evidence supports Jesus as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, shaping interpretation.
  • In this lesson, Dr. Miles Van Pelt provides the thematic framework for the Old Testament. The Old Testament's thematic core is the Kingdom of God. Through this lesson, you'll understand its covenantal nature, from pre-temporal arrangements to various administrations like redemption, works, and grace, unveiling God's salvation plan in Christ.
  • Discover the intricate covenantal structure of the Bible, revealing its theological depth and unity, from the division of the Hebrew Bible to its mirroring in the New Testament, all centered around Jesus Christ.
  • Gain insight into the Pentateuch's covenantal structure, Moses' authorship debate, and evidence supporting it. Understand its significance as the foundation of Israel's relationship with God and its relevance for biblical theology.
  • Through this lesson, you will understand the theological, structural, and thematic intricacies of the book of Genesis. You'll grasp its role as a foundational text in both the Old and New Testaments, exploring themes of covenant, creation, fall, redemption, and the fulfillment of promises. You'll gain insights into the genealogical structure of Genesis, its portrayal of key biblical figures like Adam, Noah, and Abraham, and its connection to the overarching narrative of the gospel.
  • Exodus reveals Yahweh's promise—"I will be with you"—unfolding divine presence and covenant. It anticipates Jesus as fulfillment—a better Moses and Tabernacle—ushering in God's eternal presence among humanity.
  • Studying Leviticus unveils the intricate system of laws and rituals at Mount Sinai. It explains sacrificial atonement, priestly consecration, purity laws, and the theme of holiness, prefiguring Jesus as the ultimate priest, sacrifice, and source of holiness.
  • Discover the Book of Numbers' insights on Israel's journey, God's faithfulness, consequences of disobedience, and parallels to Christ, cautioning against questioning God's holiness and emphasizing His desire to dwell among His people through the Holy Spirit.
  • Gain insight into Deuteronomy's covenant renewal for Israel entering Canaan, emphasizing obedience, typology, and its relevance for Christian living.
  • Gain deep insight into the former prophets, exploring themes of Yahweh's faithfulness, Israel's unfaithfulness, and the typological significance of the Mosaic covenant. Understand its relation to the Abrahamic covenant and its fulfillment in the New Covenant under Jesus, revealing God's plan for restoration.
  • Joshua unveils Joshua's leadership, divine promise fulfillment in Canaan, obedience's significance, and Jesus as the ultimate fulfiller of God's promises.
  • Discover the Book of Judges, detailing Israel's history and faith journey. Learn about judges as deliverers from oppression and idolatry, portraying parallels with Christ's ministry. Uncover a pattern of uncreation due to idolatry, emphasizing the need for an eternal judge—Jesus Christ—to save from corruption.
  • In this lesson, Dr. Miles Van Pelt provides insights into the book of Samuel, exploring its characters, themes, and the transition from judgeship to kingship in Israel. Learn of the significance of the Davidic covenant, culminating in Jesus as the ultimate King of Kings.
  • Gain insights into the Book of Kings, revealing its historical and theological significance. Discover the fulfillment of Davidic covenant, reasons for Israel's exile, and anticipation of the new covenant. Recognize Jesus as the ultimate fulfillment of its promises.
  • This lesson reviews latter prophets' insights into Israel's exile for breaking the Mosaic Covenant, the prophetic office's nature, diverse prophecy genres, and the execution of covenant lawsuits, all pointing to God's judgment and hope for restoration.
  • Explore Isaiah's profound prophetic themes, from redemption to impending judgment. Unravel his life and ministry's context, review the debate around authorship, and learn essential tools for study.
  • Enjoy this lesson on Jeremiah, a second Moses figure, and his prophetic message of repentance, redemption, and a new covenant. Explore the book's chiastic structure, historical context, and theological significance, offering hope amidst Judah's fall.
  • Studying Ezekiel reveals its focus on the glory of the Lord and the temple. You learn of Ezekiel's exile, his visions, and themes like covenant theology, creation, and apocalyptic elements, offering profound insights into hope amidst crisis.
  • Discover insights into the minor prophets' diverse genres and themes, from covenant infidelity to divine restoration. Witness Jonah's repentance narrative and prophetic visions culminating in Christ's fulfillment. Embrace Yahweh's justice and compassion, urging Israel's return, leading to Jesus as the ultimate authority.
  • Understand the structure and themes of the Hebrew Bible's writings section. Explore diverse literary forms, intentional divisions mirroring prophets, and the overarching theme of exile and return, illuminating Israel's covenant journey.
  • Discover the depth of the Book of Psalms: 150 songs divided into 5 books, expressing diverse emotions and worship forms. Explore themes, structure, and practical applications for personal devotion and prayer.
  • Gain insights into human suffering and theodicy through Job's trials. Explore themes of faith, resilience, and God's sovereignty amidst adversity. Discover hope in God's incomprehensible sovereignty amid life's trials.
  • Proverbs is a book of timeless wisdom from Solomon, who was gifted by God. By studying this book, you can learn to navigate life with righteousness and discernment, rooted in the fear of the Lord.
  • Journey through Ruth, where redemption, loyalty, and divine providence intertwine. Ruth, a symbol of strength, aligns with Boaz, embodying ancient customs. Their union shapes history, reflecting the enduring legacy of faith amidst life's complexities.
  • Explore the Song of Songs for insights into marriage and intimacy. It navigates the tension between true love and temptation, advocating for unwavering commitment and passionate intimacy, reflecting God's desired relationship. Discover timeless wisdom for modern-day love and marriage.
  • Ecclesiastes reveals life's futility without God, emphasizing the necessity of fearing Him. Through Solomon's wisdom, it prompts reflection on divine purpose amid existential questions.
  • In Lamentations, mourn the fall of Jerusalem and exile, finding hope in God's sovereignty.
  • The book of Esthers contains themes of providence, hiddenness of God, and faithfulness in exile. You will uncover the intricacies of Esther and Mordecai's roles in the deliverance of the Jewish people, as well as the establishment of the festival of Purim. This study will equip you with insights into how God's providence operates amidst human events, even when His presence may seem concealed, and how faithfulness in exile can lead to unexpected outcomes of deliverance and restoration.
  • Through this lesson on the book of Daniel, you'll gain insights into its structure, themes of faithfulness in exile, comparisons with Joseph, and its significance for understanding apocalyptic literature, providing a comprehensive understanding of God's sovereignty and care for His people.
  • Explore Ezra and Nehemiah for insights into post-exilic restoration, intertwining faith, governance, and cultural renewal. These books point towards a deeper longing for true and lasting restoration and echo themes found in apocalyptic literature such as the book of Revelation.
  • The Book of Chronicles traces Israel's history, emphasizing kingship, priesthood, and divine selection. It anticipates restoration, pointing to Jesus as the ultimate priest-king who fulfills God's promises.

Understanding the Old Testament 
Dr. Miles Van Pelt
Lesson Transcript

We now come to our lecture on the Book of Lamentations. It occurs in the writings, the third section of the Hebrew Bible, and you'll recall that we've described the writings as having two main sections, 12 books. The first six, Life in the Land, Psalms to the Book of Ecclesiastes, and now Life in Exile, which is Lamentations through Chronicles.

Now, the English name for this book derives from the content of the book. It's full of laments, and so we call it Lamentations. It's a funeral song, or it's five funeral songs. The Book of Lamentations is written in the style of what's called a qinah meter, and a qinah meter is just the Hebrew word for a funeral dirge, a funeral dirge. The Hebrew name for the book is the question, how, which is the first word in chapters one, two, and four. How, or better, how could this have happened to us? Because the Book of Lamentations describes the fall and destruction of Jerusalem, the city of God. It describes the end of the theocracy, the destruction of the temple, and the exile of the people. All the promises of God from Abraham through Moses seem to be done, and so there's great mourning and lamentation, great mourning and lamentation. In some sense, you can think of it as the song of the funeral of the city of God.

In terms of authorship, the book, this book of five poems is anonymous, like so many other books in the Old Testament, though tradition suggests that Jeremiah the prophet was the author. Remember, they call him the weeping prophet, and this would be a book that he could have composed. This is apparent from his position in the English Bible, because in your English Bibles, Lamentations appears after Jeremiah, and they've kind of grouped it by authorship, as you know, in the English Bible. We also know, though, that Jeremiah, during his life, composed funeral songs in ministry as a prophet. For example, 2 Chronicles 35:25, says, "Jeremiah composed laments, the same word here, for Josiah, and to this day all men and women singers commemorate Josiah in the laments. These became a tradition in Israel and are written in the laments." So three times here, we hear that Jeremiah is reading or writing these laments, and it's become a tradition in Israel. 

The book of Lamentations, as I've alluded to earlier, consists of five chapters or poems, each of which begins with a subsequent verse of the Hebrew alphabet. So this is the acrostic poem style that we saw in, for example, Proverbs 31, where the first line begins with the first word of the Hebrew alphabet, the second line begins with the second word of the Hebrew alphabet, or you could say the first line begins with A, then B, then C, then D, then E, then F in English.

Of the five poems, the first four are full-blown acrostic poems. The last one is not an acrostic poem. Let me just give you a summary of their kind of poetic structure. Chapter one consists of a 22-verse acrostic poem, each having three lines. So the first line and the first word begin with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and there are three lines total. Chapter two consists of the same thing. Each verse is three lines and the first word begins with the subsequent letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Chapter three, which is the central poem in the book, contains a triple acrostic poem. It's got 66 poetic lines and each line begins with a subsequent letter of the Hebrew alphabet. I've got a display here to show you. This is just an example. This is from Lamentations chapter three, and you can see Hebrew starts on the right, so you can see verses one, two, and three all begin with the same letter. Verses four, five, and six all begin with the same letter. Verses seven, eight, and nine all begin with the same letter. That's how that's working. This is a literary device that has a couple of different functions that I'll mention to you later. Chapter four is another acrostic poem. However, there are only two lines in each verse, so it's a little bit shorter than the rest. Chapter five, interestingly, it's the final book in the poem, and it's the shortest of the five chapters, and it does not appear in the form of an acrostic. It does not appear in the form of an acrostic. There are 22 verses in this chapter, one for each letter of the alphabet, but they're not an acrostic poem, meaning at this point for the author, really all chaos has arrived. All chaos has arrived. Some people say all hell is broken loose in Israel at this point. 

So what is the point of all this structure? Peter Lee suggests that it provides literary stability to the book as a whole. This is unexpected since the message is one of instability, disorder, chaos, destruction, and suffering. The acrostic structure is the opposite. It is stable, fluid, and elegant. Well, why? Barry Webb observes this contrast between the theological message and the literary form when he says that it is, quote, "startling to discover that a book that portrays such radical disorientation should be one of the most ordered works in the Old Testament. With all the chaos, shame, and obliteration described within the book, a sense of order, control, and precision is sustained at a literary level." Well, why? Because what God is doing here through the prophet or the author is that he's showing you that even though there is chaos, destruction, and calamity, he still is in charge, and there's still order, and it's okay, and you can, in some sense, relax. He's giving you order so that the very poetic beauty of the song is ballasting the soul amid chaos. That's the function of it.

As noted earlier, the poems of Lamentations are written in the Funeral Dirge style, so they're five funeral songs. Let me give you a brief overview of these five songs and talk about some things related to them. Chapter one deals with the shame and mourning of the city. The shame and mourning of the city. For example, Lamentations 1:3 says this, "Judah has gone into exile because of affliction and hard servitude. She dwells now among the nations but finds no resting place. Her pursuers have all overtaken her amid her distress." So chapter one just focuses on the raw fact that Jerusalem has been destroyed and Judah has been exiled. That's the message of chapter one.

Chapter two focuses on this, that the wrath and the destruction of chapter one come at the hands of the Lord. It's not Babylon that's doing this, even though they're the instrument. That Yahweh is the agent of destruction. I want that to be clear to you. Babylon is the instrument of destruction, just like the judge was the instrument of God's deliverance, but God himself was the agent of deliverance. Remember, Babylon is just a tool in the hand of God. And so we have something like this when the Lord is the primary agent of wrath. Lamentations 2:17, here we go. "The Lord has done what he purposed. He has carried out his word, which he commanded long ago. He has thrown down without pity. He has made the enemy rejoice over you and exalted the might of your foes. It's important to understand that calamity, that the calamity of the destruction of Jerusalem and exile comes from the Lord." It's not the result of the fact that the Lord was not able to save his people. In the ancient world, if Babylon beat Israel, it was that their gods were better than Israel's gods. That's not the case here. The Lord is defeating Israel because of their disobedience. 

I also want to focus on this part of Lamentations 2:17 to connect it earlier to what we've talked about in our lectures. It says, "The Lord has done what he purposed. He has carried out his word, which he commanded long ago." Now remember, when we covered Deuteronomy and we looked at Deuteronomy 29 to 31, and we read that in light of Joshua to Kings, Deuteronomy 29 to 31 states that Israel will inevitably go into exile and be destroyed because of their disobedience. And so one of the things I like about the book of Isaiah is the Lord says, I never do anything without telling you first. And when I do it, I always tell you I've done it. I declare the end from the beginning. Apart from me, there is no other. And so this is that very thing. One of the things that sets Yahweh apart or promotes the incomparability of Yahweh among all other gods is that he tells you what he's going to do before it. And then he does it and he tells you, hey, I've done it, and explains it. This destruction, you know, is the will of the Lord from the beginning, just like sending Jesus to the cross and experiencing that destruction. That was the will of the Lord. He said he was going to do it long ago. So there's a tremendous theological implication for how we read this material. 

Chapter three constitutes the lament of the afflicted man and his community. The lament of the afflicted man and his community. That is, there's this person who maybe embodies Israel. And the song is talking about this afflicted person, but like Judah and his community. This third poem shifts from the female voice of Lamentations one and two, because of the fallen city and the city is conceived of as a woman, to a man who has seen affliction under the rod of his wrath. The suffering of the man is strikingly brutal. The description of the man also makes many allusions to the biblical Job, which gives the sense that he specifically represents the righteous remnant of the exiles, because they're still part of Israel.

Now what's interesting is this connection between the suffering man in Lamentations three and the book of Job presented in the book of Job as this sufferer who will one day be vindicated. Peter Lee, in his treatment of Lamentations, notes that there are at least 13 parallels between the man in Lamentations three and the suffering of Job. 13 parallels.You can see on your screens the comparison between the amount of affliction and Job and how they are parallel. There are so many explicit parallels that you can't but ignore the fact, you can't ignore the fact that Lamentations three was written as someone was reflecting on the book of Job. And that's what you're supposed to get. For example, both men, the suffering man, and Job, are called the gever or the man. It's a very rare word for man. It's not the standard Hebrew word for man. Both men experience crooked paths. Both are devoured by animals.Both are targeted by God's arrows. Both are mocked by the nations. Both are full of bitterness. Both conclude that it is good to bear God's chastisement. Both are sitting in silence. Both have their face in the dust. Both trust that there is healing in the future. Both know that God will not pervert justice, the confession of trust. Both good and bad come from God for these men and both are blocked from access to God at some point.

So it's an amazing thing. So again, perhaps when you're reading Lamentations three or studying it together, you can go back and consider the life of Job and how that works and then ask yourself the question, why would the author of Lamentations use the book of Job to understand suffering because of this? We know that in the book of Job, Job's suffering was not because of his wickedness, but because of his righteousness. But in Lamentations, the suffering of the city is explicitly due to the wickedness of the people of Israel at the time. And so wisdom will cause you to try to think about these two things and it's worth looking after. 

Chapter three is a wonderful thing in terms of another part of it, which is it teaches us how to live life in exile. Now, one of the things we mentioned earlier in our earlier introductory lectures is that in the writings, there's this kind of thing going on in terms of the arrangements of the books. You've got exposition then illustration. So Psalms talks a lot about lamenting and Job is the paradigm lamenter, comes right after. Proverbs 31 talks about a virtuous woman and Ruth comes right after and she's a virtuous woman. Well, Lamentations is about exile and then it's followed by Esther and Daniel, which are two people who live a life of faith in exile. And the question then is, how do you live life amid exile? How do you live amid exile? We also know that Christians as believers, are aliens and strangers in this world until we go home. And so there's going to be some application here. So one of the things I like about this is Lamentations chapter three teaches both the original audience and us what it is to live a life of faith in exile. And here it is in Lamentations three, 21 to 25 says this, "But this I call to mind and therefore I have hope amid suffering. The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases. Never. His mercies never come to an end. (They are what?) New every morning. Great is your faithfulness. The Lord is my portion, says my soul, therefore I will hope in him. The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to those who seek him." 

Now, what I like about this is that because of God's steadfast love and faithfulness, here's what we can have in this world, hope and waiting, as we seek him. How you endure exile in this world is that you wait, hope, and seek, wait, hope, and seek. The life of exile is a life of waiting, hoping, and seeking God to make all things right. You don't take vengeance on your own. You don't try and grasp it on your own. You wait for God to do. It is a life of seeking his faithfulness and steadfast love as aliens and strangers in this world. So one of the wonderful things about Lamentations three is that there's this theology built in there to help us understand how you live a life in exile. 

And you recall that one of the major themes that runs throughout the Old Testament is God's people living in exile because of their sins. Genesis chapter three, Adam and Eve are kicked out. At the end of the book of Genesis, all of the patriarchs are heading back down into Egypt because of the famine, they're in exile. At the end of the book of Deuteronomy, God's people are still not in the promised land. They're living in exile. At the end of the Book of Kings, all of God's people are again in exile. At the end of the Book of Chronicles, the last book of the Hebrew Bible, where it was all said and done, God's people are still in exile. God's people are people waiting to go home. And that new home will be the new heavens and earth. And we wait, and we wait, and we wait. We hope, and we wait, and we seek God. 

Chapter four of the book is another acrostic poem. Chapter four shares characteristics with the poem in chapter three that both graphically depict the physical effects of the exile upon the inhabitants of the city. The siege theme is strong in chapter four, the siege and its immediate impact upon the city is displayed using disturbing, disturbing images. Suppose you were to play out a lot of the scenes in Lamentations or think in the book of Judges or Ezekiel, you know, you would have rated R movies. Consider, for example, Lamentations 4:10, which says, "With their own hands, compassionate women have cooked their own children who became their food when my people were destroyed." It does not get any worse than that. I couldn't imagine a more grievous thing to do. 

In chapter five, we encounter the final communal lament. The inhabitants of the city, men, women, and children are all mentioned as experiencing physical suffering from their enemies. They are sick and emotionally exhausted. Yet the poem ends with a glimmer of hope as the people acknowledge their past faithlessness to the Lord and the forsaking of the covenant, which reminds us of the prayer of Daniel at the end of Daniel, where he confesses the sins of Israel amid exile. 

So a few verses here to bring these chapters to a conclusion. Lamentations 5:1 instructs us this way, "Remember, O Lord, what has happened to us. Look and see our disgrace." Think of Hagar kicked out into the wilderness by Sarah, and God sees her and has compassion for her. And then the place is named the God who sees. The same thing is happening here. "Look and see our disgrace, and in that way, you'll act." Verse seven of chapter five, "Our fathers have sinned and are no more. And yes, or indeed, we bear their punishment." Confession. Verse 16, "The crown has fallen from our head. Woe to us, for we also have sinned." Lamentations 5:19, you, "O Lord, reign forever. Your throne endures from generation to generation." A confession of trust that even though they're experiencing tremendous catastrophe and pain and suffering, the Lord is still enthroned. The Lord is still enthroned.And finally, in verse 21, "Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may return, renew our days as of old, the hope of return from exile." Again, hoping and waiting and trusting in God's faithfulness. 

So Lamentations and the gospel, how do we do this because it's such a sad book? Here are a couple of things to remind us about. Number one, perhaps one lesson of Lamentations to remind us that there is a coming glorified city of God whose foundations and whose designer and builder is God. Not one that can be lost like Jerusalem. The fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple remind us that this earth is not our home. And that we live now here as aliens and strangers. The earthly Jerusalem, although magnificent in its architecture and extravagant in wealth, was ultimately frail and limited due to its corrupt and sinful inhabitants. As the writer of the book of Hebrews states, here we have no lasting city. But we seek the city that is to come.

Also, this book helps us to live in a fallen world that mourns the devastation brought about by sin. We must embrace we are sinners. We live among sinners. This world groans under our sin. And so we are going to end up suffering even with our best efforts to live in a particular way that avoids it. There will be no such need in the New Jerusalem for this type of life. For in that eschatological city, he will, quote, wipe away every tear from their eyes and death shall be no more. Neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore. That is the funeral that's going on in Lamentations and the suffering will one day never, ever, ever exist again. 

The book of Lamentations tells us that God is faithful to his word, that he punishes sin and sinners, but that he will restore and renew his people by his grace.