Book of Lamentations

LAMENTATIONS, BOOK OF lam’ ən tā’ shənz (אֵיכָ֣ה, LXX Θρη̂νοι, Heb. title, the first word of book, means “how!” and may express a deep sense of lament over the tragic reversal of events. The LXX title meaning “funeral songs, dirges, laments” retains the title קִינֹ֨ות, found in the Talmud, designating a formal composition of grief that could be taught (Jer 9:20), or written (2 Chron 35:25), and that arose from the tragic reversal (2 Sam 1:17-27; Amos 5:1). Later VSS enlarged the title to “The Lamentations of Jeremiah.”

This OT book is normally third among the Megilloth when the canon is arranged in twenty-four books. Josephus (Contra Apionem, I:8) gives evidence of a twenty-two book canon apparently including Ruth with Judges and Lamentations with Jeremiah.




The usual critical view is that three or more authors over a period of perhaps two centuries produced these elegies (cf. R. H. Pfeiffer, Introduction of the OT [1948], 723).

But Gottwald argued for the book’s unity thus: “...the affinities, linguistic and ideological, are considerable. Diversities within the same poem as great as those between poems can be singled out, and yet few would ignore the acrostic unity of each of the poems and argue for composite authorship for any one chapter. Several literary types and images have been freely appropriated but not wholly assimilated, yet a single mood pervades the collection. All the poems are rooted in the same historical era—i.e., the period of the Palestinian ‘exile’ (586-538 b.c.). Probably the first four poems, and possibly all five, come from the same poet” (IDB, III, 62).

Author and date.

Most scholars argue that the dramatic descriptions of the horrors of the siege were written by an eyewitness of those dreadful events, but by one who did not see the rebuilding of the second Temple (538 b.c.). Now if the book is a unity, it follows that its author wrote these poems between 586 b.c.-538 b.c. More precisely, the traditional author is Jeremiah. The LXX preface said: “And it came to pass, after Israel was led into captivity and Jerusalem laid waste, that Jeremiah sat weeping and lamented with this lamentation over Jerusalem...,” to which the Vul. added the qualifications “...with a bitter spirit sighing and wailing....” This tradition was followed also by the Talmud, the Targum at Jeremiah 1:1, the Old Lat. and Syr. VSS.

Against this tradition N. K. Gottwald offered these objections: “One wonders if so adamant a prophet could have closely and sympathetically identified himself with the city’s reliance on foreign help and facile trust in the king (4:16, 19). It is difficult to imagine the prophet, who remained in Pal. only a few weeks after Jerusalem’s capture, writing the fifth poem, with its ennui and lassitude induced by years of foreign occupation. It is unlikely that Jeremiah, who in the whole of his identified writings never resorts to extensive poetic formalities, should have undertaken the construction of acrostic poems. And finally, if the poems are by the prophet, it is difficult to know why they were not included in the Book of Jeremiah, esp. when we consider how many oracles of much later origin have been collected under his name” (IDB, III, 62).


The first four poems are acrostic; i.e. the twenty-two letters of the Heb. alphabet are given in succession throughout each poem. Poems 1-3 have three lines to a stanza (except for four lines in 1:7; 2:19), whereas the fourth poem has but two lines to a stanza. In chapter 3, the central poem, each line begins with the appropriate letter (thus there are three aleph lines, three beth lines, etc.). The final poem is not acrostic, but is alphabetic in the sense that it contains twenty-two lines. Concerning the exceptions to this arrangement (e.g. the shifting of ע, with ף, in chs. 2, 3, 4) Gottwald observed: “Like a great cathedral, its unity is broken in innumerable pleasing ways, never distracting but always contributing to the total impression” (SBL, 23).

The apparent contradiction between this artificial literary form and spontaneity of emotion can be harmonized by understanding the purpose of the acrostic construction. De Wette, Keil, and others suggested that it furnished a form for exhaustive completeness to the lamentation. Gottwald quoted Jeremiah thus: “When a person says the alphabet, he has thereby embraced all possibilities of words” (cf. SBL, 28-30). By proceeding from aleph to taw the author achieved an emotional catharsis, a complete statement of grief and a complete cleansing of conscience through a total confession of sin. Second, it obviously aided the memory. Finally, the acrostic enforced the most judicious economy upon the poet. The poet’s self-imposed restraint led to the obvious compactness and concentration of emotion.

The acrostic is combined with the clipped Qinah metre 3 + 2 (with ample exceptions 2 + 2, 2 + 3 and 3 + 3). The two together left the impression of deep feeling that is disciplined and restrained. The fifth poem is chiefly 3 + 3.


As to literary form, the poems are composite. The setting in life is that of communal lament. Moreover, these poems exhibit common motifs with communal lament psalms: direct address to Yahweh, assigning Yahweh responsibility for the national calamity and the resulting humiliation, a motivation, appealing to Yahweh to act, and a supplication addressing Yahweh in the imperative. To achieve his purpose, the author draws upon motifs from other types of lit. as well, particularly the funeral song and the individual lament.

The motif as it appears in Lamentations is very complex. There is the primary and fundamental contrast between the former glory of Zion and her present ignominy, but there are variations of the theme. First, the central subject of the lament is not dead. Second, the contrast is between the expected future of Israel and the expected future of the nations. Gottwald referred to this latter variation as “the tragic reversal in reverse” (SBL, 55, 60). He concluded: “it is not overestimating the centrality of the category of tragic reversal to assert that nearly all of the other motifs are only related to it in one way or another, but that they actually find their mode of expression in its framework” (SBL, 61f.).

M. Löhr pointed out that two individual laments are found in 3:1-24 and 3:52-66 and are interrupted by a long passage in which Jeremiah is presented as the counselor of submissions and hope. In the lament psalms Jeremiah functions as the archetypal sufferer (M. Löhr, “Threni III. und die jeremianische Autorschaft des Buches der Klagelieder,” ZAW, XXIV [1904], 1-6). According to Gottwald the author is not thinking in terms of an individual at all but is simply giving expression to the corporate personality. He said: “Jeremiah is the individual sufferer without equal, but by virtue of his representative position as the great prophet...he is Israel” (SBL, 40).

C. Westerman classified the fifth poem as a lament of the people manifesting the typical introductory address, lament, confession of trust, and petition (Praises of God in the Psalms [1965], 52-60).

Purpose and theology.

For H. Wiesmann the chief task of the poem is to effect a development and improvement in the conduct of men in the face of suffering. Wiesmann sees various types of suffering: expiatory suffering, conversion suffering, purifying suffering, humbling suffering, and serviceable suffering (“Das Leid im Buche der Klagelieder,” Zeitschrift für Aszese und Mystik, IV [1929], 109). For Gottwald the situational key to the theology of lamentations is the tension between Deuteronomic faith and historic adversity. The Deuteronomist doctrine of retribution and reward is clear and simple: if the people of Israel obey the law of God and do His will they will enjoy peace and blessing; if, on the other hand, they fail to keep God’s commandments and laws, they will be visited by curses and misfortunes. But, according to Gottwald, the historical reality is that Judah suffered defeat after the Josianic reformation.

Yet Gottwald’s thesis should be rejected because this tension cannot be sustained in the book itself. On the contrary, the poet insists that it is precisely because of the people’s sins that they have been struck by God’s judgment (1:5, 8, 9, passim). In reality he is in complete harmony with the theology of the Deuteronomist.

In addition to providing the people with an emotional catharsis through an exhaustive expression of grief and confession, the author was also determined to inculcate an attitude of submission and a prospect of hope. Gottwald said: “By intimately binding together the themes of sin, suffering, submission and hope, he intended to implant the conviction of trust and confidence in the goodness and imminent intervention of Yahweh. That this is the case is evident in the third poem where the acrostic form is intensified at precisely the point where hope becomes the strongest” (SBL, 30).

Christian interpretation has rightly seen in these poems an apt expression of Christ’s lament when God vented His wrath on Him as He was made the sin of the world.


The primary points of the poems are these: Jerusalem’s lamentable state (ch. 1); God’s wrath against the city (ch. 2); God’s faithfulness acknowledged (ch. 3); God’s faithfulness seen in discipline (ch. 4); God’s faithfulness trusted (ch. 5).


In addition to the classic commentaries: M. Löhr, “Threni III. und die jeremianische Autorschaft des Buches des Klagelieder,” ZAW, XXIV (1904), 1-16; W. W. Cannon “The Authorship of Lamentations,” B. S., LXXXI (1924), 42-58; N. K. Gottwald, Studies in the Book of Lamentations (1954); B. Albrektson, Studies in the Text and Theology of the Book of Lamentations (1963); B. O. Long, “The Divine Funeral Lament,” JBL, LXXXV (1966), 85, 86; T. F. McDaniel, “Philological Studies in Lamentations,” unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, The John Hopkins University (1966); N. Habel, Jeremiah, Lamentations (1968); D. Letellier, “The Argument of Lamentations,” unpublished Th.M Thesis, Dallas Theological Seminary (1970).

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

lam-en-ta’-shunz,--The nodetitle:

1. Name:

This is a collective name which tradition has given to 5 elegies found in the Hebrew Canon that lament the fate of destroyed Jerusalem. The rabbis call this little book ’Ekhah ("how"), according to the word of lament with which it begins, or qinoth. On the basis of the latter term the Septuagint calls it threnoi, or Latin Threni, or "Lamentations."

2. Form:

The little book consists of 5 lamentations, each one forming the contents of a chapter. The first 4 are marked by the acrostic use of the alphabet. In addition, the qinah ("elegy") meter is found in these hymns, in which a longer line (3 or 4 accents) is followed by a shorter (2 or 3 accents). In La 1 and 2 the acrostic letters begin three such double lines; in La 4, however, two double lines. In La 3 a letter controls three pairs, but is repeated at the beginning of each line. In La 5 the alphabet is wanting; but in this case too the number of pairs of lines agrees with the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet, i.e. 22. In La 2; 3 and 4, the letter `ayin (`) follows pe (p), as is the case in Ps 34. Lamentations 1, however, follows the usual order.

3. Contents:

These 5 hymns all refer to the great national catastrophe that overtook the Jews and in particular the capital city, Jerusalem, through the Chaldeans, 587-586 BC. The sufferings and the anxieties of the city, the destruction of the sanctuary, the cruelty and taunts of the enemies of Israel, especially the Edomites, the disgrace that befell the king and his nobles, priests and prophets, and that, too, not without their own guilt, the devastation and ruin of the country--all this is described, and appeal is made to the mercy of God. A careful sequence of thought cannot be expected in the lyrical feeling and in the alphabetical form. Repetitions are found in large numbers, but each one of these hymns emphasizes some special feature of the calamity. Lamentations 3 is unique, as in it one person describes his own peculiar sufferings in connection with the general calamity, and then too in the name of the others begins a psalm of repentance. This person did not suffer so severely because he was an exceptional sinner, but because of the unrighteousness of his people. These hymns were not written during the siege, but later, at a time when the people still vividly remembered the sufferings and the anxieties of that time and when the impression made on them by the fall of Jerusalem was still as powerful as ever.

4. Author:

Who is the author of these hymns? Jewish tradition is unanimous in saying that it was Jeremiah. The hymns themselves are found anonymously in the Hebrew text, while the Septuagint has in one an additional statement, the Hebrew style of which would lead us to conclude that it was found in the original from which the version was made. This statement reads: "And it came to pass, after Israel had been taken away captive and Jerusalem had been laid waste, that Jeremiah sat weeping, and uttered this lamentation over Jerusalem and said." The Targum also states that Jeremiah was the author. The rabbis and the church Fathers have no doubts on the subject. Jerome (compare on Zec 12:11) thinks that 2Ch 35:25 refers to these hymns. The same is said by Josephus (Ant., X, v, 1). If this were the case, then the writer of Chronicles would have regarded La as having been written because of the death of Josiah. But this misunderstanding is not to be ascribed to him. It was easily possible that he was acquainted with lamentations of such a nature, but which afterward were lost. At all events, Jeremiah was by nature adapted to the composition of such elegies, as is proved by his book of prophecies.

This little book must accordingly be closely connected with the person of Jeremiah. If he himself is the author, he must have composed it in his old age, when he had time and opportunity to live over again all the sufferings of his people and of himself. It is, however, more probable, especially because of the language of the poems, that his disciples put this book in the present shape of uniform sentential utterances, basing this on the manner of lamentations common to Jeremiah. In this way the origin of Lamentaions 3 can be understood, which cannot artificially be shaped as his sayings, as in this case the personal feature would be more distinctly expressed. It was probably compiled. from a number of his utterances.

In the Hebrew Canon this book is found in the third division, called kethabhim, or Sacred Writings, together with the Psalms. However, the Septuagint adds this book to Jeremiah, or rather, to the Book of Baruch, found next after Jerusalem. The Hebrews count it among the 5 meghilloth, or Rolls, which were read on prominent anniversary days. The day for the Lamentation was the 9th of Abib, the day of the burning of the temple. In the Roman Catholic church it is read on the last three days of Holy Week.


Comms. of Thenius, Ewald, Nagelsbach, Gerlach, Keil, Cheyne, Oettli, Lohr, Budde; article by Robertson Smith on "Lamentations" in EB.

C. von Orelli