Authorship and date
Since the time of the Greek Old Testament, or Septuagint (lxx; written in the century or so before Christ), the book of Lamentations has been attributed to Jeremiah. Our English versions follow the lxx and place the book together with that of the prophet. Jeremiah certainly composed laments, as we know from his prophetic book (e.g. Je. 11:18–20; 20:7–13). There are also some similarities of expression between the two books (cf. Je. 14:17 and La. 3:48–51). Furthermore we are told in 2 Ch. 35:25 that Jeremiah composed a lament for King Josiah.
Although this evidence is not conclusive, the two books do belong together in important ways. Jeremiah deals with events in Judah up to and after the fall of Jerusalem and the temple to the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar in 586 bc; and the setting of Lamentations too seems to be in the period just following those dreadful events, because of its references to exile, loss of the kings and destruction of the temple (e.g. 1:3, 10; 2:2, 7).
Form and structure
The five chapters of the book are five separate poems. Their form is commonly known as a lament (some of the psalms are laments). These contain expressions of protest or complaint about misfortune, as well as confession and prayers for deliverance. Because the authors of the laments knew that God was faithful, they often expressed their belief that he would save them in the end. An example of a lament is Ps. 74, which (like Lamentations) was apparently occasioned by the exile. Lamentations has, in one place or another, all the characteristics just mentioned.
The book has certain stylistic features also. Its meter (that is, its poetic line-form), is the qinah, which is typical of the lament. Each poem (except ch. 5) is in the form of an acrostic. That is, each verse begins with a different letter in alphabetical order. Many OT acrostics have twenty-two verses or lines (e.g. La. 1, 2, 4; Ps. 34) as the Hebrew alphabet has twenty-two letters. Ch. 3 varies slightly from this, since each letter of the alphabet is represented by three consecutive verses, resulting in sixty-six verses in all.
The careful artistry of the acrostic form seems to contrast with the intense feeling that is expressed by the poems. However, all poetry is in some way artistic and need not stifle true emotion. Rather, the poet’s care may be seen as an act of devotion to the Lord. It is a tribute to the restraint and discipline needed, no doubt, to approach such a theme at all. It has the further effect of suggesting a thorough, complete treatment of a theme (i.e. in its use of the whole alphabet).
It is difficult to sum up the purpose of Lamentations. Theologically, there is acceptance that disaster is a justified judgment because of the people’s sinfulness. This is based on the ancient covenant, which provided that the people’s disobedience or unfaithfulness to God would result in ‘curses’ (Dt. 28:15–68). These were in contrast to the ‘blessings’ which would follow faithful obedience (Dt. 28:1–14). The prophets’ preaching of judgment had had this basis also. In one sense, therefore, the book actually justifies God’s action and shows that it was not because of his weakness compared to other gods that the exile had taken place. On the contrary, the triumph of Judah’s enemies had actually been brought about by the Lord himself.
Nevertheless, the book also expresses the tremendous difficulty which the people had in coming to terms with the terrible suffering that followed the destruction of Jerusalem, the killing of many people and the exile of most of the rest. That suffering was scarcely easier to accept for the knowledge that it was just. Was the punishment not, after all, savage and excessive (2:20–22)? Could it be right for God to behave like an enemy to his own people (2:4–5)? The poems freely express agony and bewilderment, and it is this which gives them a force still, in any situation where people feel distressed and abandoned.
The most dramatic thing about the poems, however, is that in the midst of this most appalling suffering there can be an expression of hope in God (3:22–26), who is above all else a God of love and compassion. The position of these verses at the heart of the book seems to say that this is the most important thing which can be said about God. It is thus a very remarkable statement of faith, in the midst of great distress. Other passages too reflect the belief that an end to suffering will come (4:22).
Lamentations goes even further than this, for it speaks of a suffering that is borne by one on behalf of the many (see on 3:49–66). Most profoundly, then, the suffering of the Jews in the exile foreshadowed that of Jesus Christ in atonement for all people—the greatest demonstration both of God’s judgment and of his saving love. This interpretation should make us wary of finding specific examples of God’s judgment in the suffering of nations or individuals around us.
How to benefit from Lamentations today
Lamentations may seem a particularly difficult book for the modern Christian reader to use, whether because of the special events which occasioned it (events which occurred under the ‘old covenant’) or simply because it speaks so much of judgment. How may such a book speak to those who know the salvation of Jesus Christ?
There are several possible answers. First, the book can speak to any, including Christians, who feel alone or even abandoned by God. In this respect it is like those Psalms which we have called ‘laments’. It is good to give honest expression to such feelings and to know the reassurance of God’s grace in the midst of them.
Secondly, Lamentations can enable the reader to identify with those who are currently experiencing great adversity. In a world in which disasters, wars and famines are constantly brought before our eyes by the media, it is natural that we should ask where God is in these events. Perhaps we wonder all the more when our Christian brothers and sisters are caught up in terrible events. And we do not merely question why; we identify with their pain. The book of Lamentations enables us to express our grief, not only on our own behalf, but also on behalf of others.
The discipline which we have observed in the writing of the book can also help us. It implies that the use of the book should also be a disciplined act, a decision which we make in all seriousness, in order to face problems which are otherwise hard to face. The word of God can work in this way, not merely teaching our minds, but giving us the means of expressing that which is too deep for us, and tutoring mind and heart in the process.
The element of confession of sin is not easy to fit into this pattern. The people of Judah knew that their exile was due to their disobedience to the covenant made by their ancestors with God. We cannot treat all suffering in the same way. Nevertheless, here too we can identify with our ancestors in faith, by simply recognizing that human sin—in which each of us has a part—is the root cause of the world’s grief. The questioning and protest, therefore, can be at the same time confession. It can even be praise, because we address a God who is just. His justice does not finally issue only in judgment, but also, and decisively, in mercy. Our use of this book, therefore, must be in the light of our knowledge of Jesus Christ, who has revealed by his death and resurrection that God is redeeming his world and will one day wipe away every tear.
(See the booklist on Jeremiah)
D. R. Hillers, Lamentations (Doubleday, 1972).
I. W. Provan, Lamentations, NCB (Eerdmans/Marshall Pickering, 1991)
lxx Septuagint (Gk. version of OT)
OT Old Testament
NCB New Century Bible
Carson, D. A. (1994). New Bible commentary : 21st century edition. Rev. ed. of: The new Bible commentary. 3rd ed. / edited by D. Guthrie, J.A. Motyer. 1970. (4th ed.) (Lm 1.1). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill., USA: Inter-Varsity Press.