Title and Holy Writer
The Hebrew title for the book is “ekah,” which is taken from the Hebrew word which begins chapters one, two, and four - “How?” The English title with which we are familiar is taken from the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible (Septuagint) from which we have the translation, Lamentations. The full title in the Septuagint is The Lamentations of Jeremiah.
This title very accurately describes the thoughts recorded for us within the book. In this book the holy writer laments or mourns the destruction of the city of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, and the terrible things which happened to the people following the conquest.
The holy writer of the book of Lamentations does not name himself directly in the book, but we are given many clues about the identity of the holy writer throughout these five short chapters. First, it seems evident from the book that the writer was an eyewitness of what is being described because the verses show a fresh and vivid memory of the horrible things which were taking place. The writer often speaks often of the famine and lack of food within the city during and after the siege of the city, “All her people sigh, they seek bread; they have given their valuables for food to restore life” (1:11 - cf. 1:19; 2:11-12, 20; 4:4-5, 9-10).
The utter desolation and result of the destruction is also vividly pictured, “Young and old lie On the ground in the streets; My virgins and my young men Have fallen by the sword” (2:21), and “Our pursuers were swifter than the eagles of the heavens. They pursued us on the mountains and lay in wait for us in the wilderness” (4:19 - cf. 2:8-10, 12, 20; 5:9-16). This would fit well in the life of the prophet Jeremiah, who was in Jerusalem during the siege and the destruction of Jerusalem, and even remained in the land of Judah for a short while following, until the murder of the governor Gedaliah at Mizpah (cf. Jeremiah chapters 38-42).
There are also many similarities between the books of Jeremiah and Lamentations both in vocabulary and style. Both of these books point to the cause of this devastation – the sins of the people of Judah. Time and again the book of Lamentations points to the sins of the people: “For the LORD has afflicted her Because of the multitude of her transgressions” (1:5) as does the prophet Jeremiah, “Why do you cry about your affliction? Your sorrow is incurable. Because of the multitude of your iniquities, Because your sins have increased, I have done these things to you” (Jeremiah 30:15). Lamentations compares the current sins to those of Sodom, “The punishment of the iniquity of the daughter of my people Is greater than the punishment of the sin of Sodom” (4:6) and so does the prophet Jeremiah, “Also I have seen a horrible thing in the prophets of Jerusalem: They commit adultery and walk in lies; They also strengthen the hands of evildoers, So that no one turns back from his wickedness. All of them are like Sodom to Me, And her inhabitants like Gomorrah” (Jeremiah 23:14). For more similarities compare the following: Lamentations 1:8-9 with Jeremiah 13:22-26; Lamentations 3:42 with Jeremiah 5:7-9; Lamentations 4:13 with Jeremiah 5:31; and Lamentations 5:7 with Jeremiah 14:20.
There are many other similarities between these two books as well, even in the poetic style. In the book of Chronicles we read “Jeremiah also lamented for Josiah. And to this day all the singing men and the singing women speak of Josiah in their lamentations. They made it a custom in Israel; and indeed they are written in the Laments” (2 Chronicles 35:25). For these reasons ancient Jewish and Christian tradition both have held Jeremiah as the writer of the book. The writers of the Septuagint (written in the third century B.C.) even prefaced the book of Lamentations with this introduction: “And it came to pass, after Israel was taken captive, and Jerusalem made desolate, that Jeremias sat weeping, and lamented with this lamentation over Jerusalem, and said...”.
The book of Lamentations can be broken down into five separate lamentations which are linked together by the deep sorrow expressed over the destruction of the city of Jerusalem and the captivity of the people of Judah. These poems are written in a style of Hebrew poetry similar to that of some of the Psalms, a style called acrostic. This poetic style cannot be seen in our English translations, but was a style somewhat common in Old Testament times (Psalms 9, 10, 25, 34, 37, 111, 112, 119, and 145 were all written in an acrostic style - see our study on the Poetry of the Psalms).
The first three chapters of Lamentations are all equal in length, each verse being made up of three lines.
• Chapters one and two are written in a basic acrostic style, with the first line of each verse of the poem beginning with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet (there are 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet, and so our chapters have been divided up into 22 verses to show the division in the Hebrew).
Example: A little lamb had Mary
one that was white,
one that was kind;
Boy blue had a horn
all gold and clean,
making lots of noise;
Cows were jumping over the moon
a dog watched on
enjoying the sight
• The third chapter deviates from this style in that it uses each letter of the alphabet to begin each of the three lines before moving on to the next (thus it has 66 verses instead of 22).
Example: A little lamb had Mary;
artistic she was;
angered very seldom.
Boy blue had a horn
bugged the neighbors constantly
blowing it all the time;
Cows were jumping over the moon,
“Come and see” said a little dog,
catching the eye of all.
• The fourth chapter has the same acrostic style as the first two chapters, but is shorter, having only two lines for every verse.
Example: A little lamb had Mary;
one that was kind and white.
Boy blue had a horn;
it made a lot of noise!
Cows were jumping over the moon;
quite the sight to see.
• The final chapter is the shortest and does not follow the acrostic style at all, but it is still divided into 22 one line verses.
Lamentations is not the only Old Testament book which contains laments. Almost all of the prophets and many of the Psalms use a lamenting style. But Lamentations is unique since it is the only book which consists solely of laments. Since before the time of Jesus the Jews have read the entire book of Lamentations yearly on Tisha Be’av, the ninth day of the month Av; which commemorates the destruction of the temple on that day in 586 B.C. Orthodox Jews keep this festival still today.
The Book of Lamentations is not just about the destruction of the city of Jerusalem and the temple, but also points to many other lessons that we can learn from as well.
Following the destruction of Jerusalem the prophet encouraged the people to continue to trust in the LORD. Jeremiah pointed out to the people that the destruction which was coming upon them was deserved because of their sins and they were without excuse. As a nation they had forsaken the LORD and had no reason to complain - even about this! “Why should a living man complain, A man for the punishment of his sins?” (3:39). They had been given opportunity after opportunity to repent, but they had chosen the path of sin, which had brought about their current distress. Jeremiah even points out that the Babylonians were simply the human agents whom the LORD used to chastise His people, “He hath made my strength to fall, the Lord hath delivered me into their hands, from whom I am not able to rise up” (1:14 - cf. 2:1-8,17, 4:11).
The people of Judah were not able to deliver themselves, and they should not depend on others to deliver them either. “Still our eyes failed us, Watching vainly for our help; In our watching we watched For a nation that could not save us” (4:17). They had to place their trust in the LORD, for He was the only one who could deliver them. Jeremiah calls upon the people to repent of their sins and return to the LORD, “Let us search out and examine our ways, And turn back to the LORD; Let us lift our hearts and hands To God in heaven” (3:40-41).
God’s Grace in Lamentations
The structure of the book highlights the Grace of God. While the first two and last two chapters point to the devastation which was deserved, the book climaxes at the middle chapter which focuses on the goodness of God. He is the LORD of mercy, of faithfulness, of hope and of salvation: “Through the LORD’S mercies we are not consumed, Because His compassions fail not. They are new every morning; Great is Your faithfulness. ‘The LORD is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘Therefore I hope in Him!’ The LORD is good to those who wait for Him, To the soul who seeks Him. It is good that one should hope and wait quietly For the salvation of the LORD” (3:22-26).
I. The Captivity of the People and the Pitiful Fate of the City (1)
II. The Horrors of the Destruction (2)
III. The Sorrows of Believers and their Hope of Deliverance (3)
IV. The Destruction Demonstrates the Justice of God (4)
V. A Prayer for Help and Deliverance (5)
Note: This study was prepared for the Bible Class at Zion Lutheran Church, Lawrenceville, GA by Pastor Nathanael Mayhew.