Lamentations

LAMENTATIONS. This book, entitled in most English versions The Lamentations of Jeremiah, is placed between Jeremiah and Ezekiel in the LXX, Vulgate, and the English Bible. In the Hebrew text, however, it occurred in the Sacred Writings as one of the Megilloth or “five scrolls,” of which it is the third. Its Hebrew title êkhâh (“Oh, how”) is derived from the word with which the book commences. The Talmud renamed the book Qinoth (“Lamentations” or “elegies”) as a more accurate designation of its true contents. This approach was adopted in the LXX title Thrēnoi (“Elegies”) and the Threni (“Lamentations”) of the Latin versions. The latter introduced the ascription of the work to Jeremiah, and this was followed by most English versions. Because of its position in the Megilloth, the Book of Lamentations is read in synagogue worship on the fast of the ninth of Ab, during the evening and morning services. This particular occasion commemorates the destruction of Jerusalem by Babylonian forces in 586 b.c., and again by the Roman armies under Titus in a.d. 70.

The book comprises five poems lamenting the desolation that had overtaken the Holy City in 586 b.c. The first four compositions are highly artificial in structure, consisting of acrostics based on the Hebrew alphabet. Each verse of Lam.1.1-Lam.1.22 and Lam.2.1-Lam.2.22 commences with a word whose initial consonant is successively one of the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet. A slight variation of the regular order occurs in Lam.2.16-Lam.2.17; Lam.3.47-Lam.3.48; and Lam.4.16-Lam.4.17. The third chapter is peculiar in that a triple alphabetical arrangement is followed, so that all three lines in each stanza commence with the same letter. The fifth chapter is not an acrostic, although like the others it contains twenty-two stanzas, and is a prayer rather than an elegy. Alphabetical forms of this kind probably served as a useful stimulus to memory at a time when manuscripts were rare and costly.

Some writers have regarded the mechanical structure of most of the book as incompatible with the grief and sincere penitence of the writer. These two ideas need not be inconsistent, however, particularly if the book was composed with a view to consistent liturgical usage. Judging from the manner in which it has survived among the Jews we may well believe that this was the intention of the author. The elegiac meter that characterizes the poems was occasionally employed in the writings of the eighth-century b.c. prophets in Jeremiah (9:19f.), Ezekiel (Ezek.19.1-Ezek.19.14), and some Psalms (e.g., Ps.84.1-Ps.84.12, Ps.119.1-Ps.119.176).

Although in the Hebrew no name was attached to the book, the authorship was uniformly ascribed by ancient authorities to Jeremiah. The LXX added an introductory note stating that “Jeremiah lamented this lamentation over Jerusalem,” but the traditional view of the authorship appears to be rooted in the elegy composed for the mourning period of the deceased Josiah (c. 609 b.c.). Many modern critics have envisaged several authors at work in the book, or else have assumed that Baruch, Jeremiah’s secretary, was responsible for the work in its final form. The reasons adduced include the fact that the physical circumstances of the prophet would make the work of composition rather difficult, that there are certain implicit contradictions between the prophecy of Jeremiah and the Book of Lamentations, and that some literary expressions characteristic of Jeremiah are lacking in Lamentations. Thus the thought of Lam.2.9 that God no longer reveals himself in his prophets is held to be inconsistent with the thought of Jeremiah. Similarly the reference in Lam.4.17 to the possibility of Egypt as a deliverer ill accords with the patriotism expressed by the prophet (Jer.42.15-Jer.42.17; Jer.43.12-Jer.43.13).

On the other hand, most of the poems appear intimately connected with the calamity of the Exile. Jer.2.1-Jer.2.37 and Jer.4.1-Jer.4.31 indicate that the author personally witnessed the tragedy of 586 b.c., while the remainder of the book may have been written in Babylonia in the early captivity. It seems improbable that the final chapter was written in Jerusalem after the return from Exile, perhaps about 525 b.c., as has been suggested by some writers. The arguments for diversity of authorship do not seem particularly strong, though the possibility that the poems were recast in mnemonic form at a time subsequent to their original composition must not be overlooked. Until more decisive evidence is forthcoming, there seems little reason for questioning the substantial unity and traditional authorship of Lamentations.

The book bewails the siege and destruction of Jerusalem and sorrows over the sufferings of the inhabitants during this time. It makes poignant confession of sin on behalf of the people and their leaders, acknowledges complete submission to the divine will, and prays that God will once again favor and restore his people.

Analysis:

1. The fallen city admits its sin and the justice of divine judgment (Jer.1.1-Jer.1.19-Jer.2.1-Jer.2.37).

2. Lamentation; reassertion of divine mercy and judgment; prayer for divine intervention (Jer.3.1-Jer.3.25-Jer.4.1-Jer.4.31).

3. Further confession and prayers for mercy (Jer.5.1-Jer.5.31).

Bibliography: N. K. Gottwald, Studies in the Book of Lamentations, 1954; J. M. Meyers, Ezra, Nehemiah (AB), 1965; D. R. Hillers, Lamentations (AB), 1974.——WB