How to read Lamentation


Lamentations consists of five laments written in response to the fall of Jerusalem in 586 s.c. The laments, which correspond to the five chapters, are carefully composed pieces of literature, similar in form and content to Psalms 74 and 79 (cf. Ps 89). Together they express deep

anguish over Zion's desolation and Israel's exile-recognized to be well deserved-and mourn the sorry plight of those who were left in the now desolate and dangerous city, while raising some larger questions about justice and the future. The whole is written basically from the perspective

of those who have been left behind.

At least three voices can be identified: the narrator-author, Zion (personified Jerusalem), and the people of Zion (Yahweh himself never speaks). In the first two (closely related) poems, the narrator and Zion are the speakers; they mourn over the fall of the city itself, recognizing that it happened because of her sins, so that Yahweh himself had become her enemy. In the final two (again closely related) poems, the speakers are the narrator and the people of Zion, who agonize for the people in occupied Jerusalem. In the central poem (ch. 3) Jerusalem is essentially personified, that is, the only identifiable speaker is the author, whose personal agony is so closely tied to that of Jerusalem that in various ways they become one; here you also find the single expression of hope, as well as a brief discussion of the meaning of suffering.


In order to read Lamentations well, you need to be aware of its basic literary features, as well as its historical background and theological perspective. The most striking literary feature of these poems is that they are a series of acrostics (cf. Pss 34; 119), where the first letter of each verse starts with a succeeding letter of the (twenty-two-letter) Hebrew alphabet. The first two poems thus have twenty-two stanzas of three lines each, the first line in each case being the acrostic. The third poem also has twenty-two stanzas, but in this case all three lines in each stanza begin with the same letter. The fourth poem returns to the form of the first two, but now with stanzas of two lines each, while the fifth' although not an acrostic, is nonetheless composed of twenty-two lines. Thus the pattern builds to the agonizing climactic descriptions of chapter 3, then diminishes somewhat in chapter 4,and ends with a whimper in chapter 5 , a pattern that mirrors the- city's destruction and its aftermath. while not all these features can be carried over into English, the acrostic pattern does affect verse numbering (22,22, 66,22,22) and to some degree explains why these poems contain some abrupt shifts of topic (the alphabet often controls what may be said at any point)' But throughout the whole, the lament form itself implicitly encourages hope-though nothing is guaranteed in the midst of suffering.

As to its historical and theological perspective, it is hard for us at our 0point in history to appreciate the utter devastation of the fall of Jerusalem for the people of Judah. First, there was the terrible suffering of the historical event itself, narrated in 2Kings 25.The siege lasted for two years, as tens of thousands huddled in Jerusalem, hoping that Yahweh would intervene. Instead the Babylonian troops finally breached her walls, raped her women, and slaughtered many of her inhabitants' In light of subsequent conditions in Jerusalem, our author wonders rhetorically whether death might not have been the better option. All of these horrible realities-famine, thirst, cannibalism, rape, slaughter-are echoed in these Poems.

But beyond that there was the larger question of Israel's calling and role as the people of God. Here was a people whose history was singularly bound up with the God who had redeemed them from slavery in Egypt, created them as a people for his Name, made covenant with them at Sinai, and eventually fulfilled his promise that Abraham's offspring would inherit the land. At the heart of their self-understanding was the fact that their God-who was God alone, the living God and Creator of all that is-had chosen to dwell personally in their midst, first in the tabernacle in the desert and finally in the place he chose "as a dwelling for his Name" (Deut 12:11; Neh 1:9), Jerusalem itself. Thus both the land and the city held a significance for Israel in terms of identity unlike most other peoples in history. Indeed because of this, many wrongly thought Zion inviolable (cf. Jer 7; 26; 28; Ezek 13- 14). It is this total identification of the people with their city as God's own dwelling place that lies behind the utter anguish of these poems and that makes the appeals over the present plight of her people so poignant. And even though the author is fully aware that their punishment is just, his agonized descriptions indicate how hard it was to handle the reality and enormity of the desolation and suffering (e.g. , Lam 2:20-22).

At the same time, however, the author wrestles with the issues also raised by Habakkuk and Obadiah, for example. What about Israel's enemies, who were equally deserving of God's anger? This is what lies behind the frequent imprecations (Lam 1:21-22; 3:61-66; 4:21-22). And in the end, even though Moses and the prophets foretold such disaster as a result of unfaithfulness to the covenant, our author struggles with it right up to the last words, where the promised future is only a distant shadow. But in the crucial central poem he also holds out the one all-important ray of hope-the character of Yahweh himself who has revealed himself to Moses on Sinai as full of love and faithfulness (Exod 34:5-7; cf. the appeal in Ps 89).



First Lament: Zion Laments over Her Destruction

In the first part of this poem (vv. 1-11b), the narrator sets out the basic matters, which are repeated throughout: Zion and her temple have been laid waste, her people taken into exile; during the siege her friends deserted her, while her enemies mocked and her foes are now her masters. Those who remain, both priests and people , are in dire straits, the pilgrimage feasts a thing of the past; for them there is only weeping and groaning. And all of this is because of Judah's many sins.

Toward the end of this first part, Zion herself calls out to Yahweh to look on her affliction (v. 9c), which is then repeated at the beginning of her own lament (vv. 11c-22). Calling out to any "who pass by" (v. 12), she basically repeats the matters from verses 1- 11, but now in more detail and with increased pain and distress, concluding with an imprecation against her enemies (vv. 21-22). Note especially the role that Yahweh played in her destruction; note also that her lament is momentarily relieved halfway through by the poet's own voice (v. 17).


Second Lament: Zion's Lament and Appeal

With still further intensification, the poet speaks again,spelling out in great detail the ultimate cause of Jerusalem's destruction, namely, Yahweh's anger. The Divine Warrior, who in the past had fought for Israel, had now become their enemy-city, land, leaders, and people alike (vv.1-9). The poet then concentrates on those left behind (w- 10-17). Note here how he speaks in the first person (w.11, 13), and finally calls on Zion herself to call out to Yahweh (w. 18-19), which she does in the poignant words of verses 20- 22, reminding Yahweh of both the famine and the subsequent slaughter (of priest and prophet, young and old together).


Third Lament: Despair, Hope, and Imprecation

In this central poem, the author makes Jerusalem's despair his own and vice versa (w. 1-18, already alluded to in 2:11). What seems to be at issue here is that the fall of Jerusalem meant the suffering of many who were faithful to Yahweh and innocent of her corporate crimes, but who yet felt relentlessly pursued by Yahweh. In the end, his only hope lies in the covenant faithfulness of Yahweh, whose love and faithfulness (echoing the words of Exo 34:6) are new every morning (vv. 19-24). These then are followed by a kind of personal dialogue about the meaning of suffering and its relationship to Yahweh, concluding with a call to repentance (vv. 25-42). Note that at the end the lament is then renewed (w. 43-51), focusing finally on his enemies who are responsible for his suffering (w. 52-62) and concluding with an imprecation against them (vv. 63-66).


Fourth Lament: Groping in the Streets

With this lament the author turns his attention to the present horrible conditions in Jerusalem, comparing them with the years of the siege and offering his belief that the dead are the lucky ones (w. 1-11). He then focuses on the plight-and guilt-of the prophets and priests (vv. 12-16). Note that verse 17 begins the lament of the people themselves, in this case looking back to the last bitter days of the siege (including the flight and capture of the king, Jer 52:7 -11), while the author himself concludes with an imprecation against Edom (Lam 4:21-22).


Fifth Lament: The Remnant of Zion Weeps

In this final poem, only the people speak, calling out to Yahweh to look on their present affliction, reflecting especially that occupied Judah is an unhappy and dangerous place in which to live (vv. 1-18). The poem and book then conclude with a prayer for restoration, which begins with an affirmation of Yahweh's eternal reign but is concerned in characteristic lament fashion, with whether or not they have been forgotten (w. 19-22).

The book of Lamentations reflects a significant turning point in the biblical story - the fall of Jerusalem - thus reminding us that God is true to his word about standing in judgment against unfaithfulness, while still holding out the hope for the future based on his character.