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Introduction to the Book of the Lamentations of Jeremiah

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General Info

After the fall and destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC, as prophesized by Jeremiah in the book bearing his name, the prophet recorded a collection of poems offering an eyewitness account of the destruction of Jerusalem, and expressing his intense grief and distress over the events.  In this book of laments, Jeremiah discloses his most intimate and agonizing thoughts, yet at the same time, declares God's holiness, righteous justice and sovereignty in sending Judah into exile.

The book of Lamentations, like several other Old Testament books, originally took its title from its first word: ekhah (“alas” or “how”).  Incidentally, the second and fourth laments also begin with the same Hebrew word.  Some early Jewish Talmudic and rabbinic writers called it Qinot (“dirges”).  Jewish rabbis later gave the book the title qinoth ("Laments").  The Greek translators of the Septuagint in the third or second century BC thus followed with the similar title Threnoi ("Lamentations"), and added an ascription of authorship to Jeremiah at the beginning.  In the late fourth century AD, Jerome added the subtitle Id est Lamentationes Jeremiae Prophetae (“that is, Lamentations of Jeremiah the Prophet”) to his Latin Vulgate.  Today we find a split among the numerous modern English versions, with the KJV and NASB among those entitling the book as “The Lamentations of Jeremiah” while the NIV and many others simply call it “Lamentations”.

By the early second century AD, most placed the Lamentations in the the kethubhim (Writings), the third section of the Hebrew Bible.  Incidentally, in the Hebrew Canon, Jeremiah, along with Isaiah, Ezekiel and the twelve minor prophets are located in the Nevi’im Aharonim (“Latter Prophets”) section, but the book of the prophet Daniel is located in the Writings along with Lamentations.  In almost all English translations, Lamentations is included in the “Major Prophets” section, likely due to the book’s association with Jeremiah.  Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel each took up an entire scroll, while Lamentations shared a single scroll with the Twelve Minor Prophets.

Despite its short length, the book of Lamentations maintains a great significance in modern times.  Although it was originally written to express the Jewish people’s anguish over the sixth century BC destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, it subsequently provided a national voice to lament and remember another great judgment that later fell on the Jewish people and nation.   In 70 AD, the Romans, led by the General and future Emperor Titus, conquered and ransacked Jerusalem, destroying and burning the rebuilt temple.  At some point, the two ceremonies of remembrance were united as an annual one-day event.  So today, the Jewish people read the book of Lamentations in public ceremonies of mourning each year on the Tisha b'Av (ninth of Ab - late July or August).  Lamentations is also one of the Megillot (“Five Scrolls”) that is read in synagogues on various Jewish holy days.

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Brief Survey

The first lament (chapter 1) describes the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians and resulting despair of the people.  It also explains that the desolation was God’s righteous judgment for the nation’s sin.  Jerusalem is personified as a princess among the nations who has now become a wounded slave.  To her credit, the woman acknowledges that her distress is justly deserved, and she prays that the Lord will send relief for her self-afflicted misery.

The second lament (chapter 2) continues the truthful narrative that it was God Himself who punished His people for their disobedience despite His continuous warnings - the Babylonians were simply his agent.  The entire city then cried out to the Lord in anguish, but there is no mention of confession at this point.

In the third lament (chapter 3), the prophet gives a very emotional first-person account of the sufferings, identifying with the people in their sorrows, and counseling them to turn back to God in repentance.  Yet, even in this seemingly hopeless state, he declares his confident hope that, due to God’s faithfulness and His unwavering love for His people, He will surely grant mercy in the future (v 21-24).

In the fourth lament (chapter 4), the prophet utilizes a series of images to vividly capture the horrors of the siege and fall of Jerusalem, and contrasts the city’s current plight with her former glory.  He again reintegrates the righteousness of God, and specifically calls out the sins of the city’s immoral prophets and priests.  Finally, he notes that God will punish the nation of Edom for celebrating the fall of Jerusalem.

The fifth and final lament (chapter 5) is somewhat of a parallel to the third, except that we now see the entire community rather than just the prophet crying out to the Lord.  It may be that the people as a whole has only now accepted what the prophet declared in the third lament as truth.  In any case, we find the people confessing their sins, and appealing to God’s mercy.  The book ends with an earnest prayer for restoration.

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Key Verses

How deserted lies the city, once so full of people!  How like a widow is she, who once was great among the nations!  She who was queen among the provinces has now become a slave.  Bitterly she weeps at night, tears are on her cheeks.  Among all her lovers there is no one to comfort her.  All her friends have betrayed her; they have become her enemies. (1:1-3)

The Lord is righteous, yet I rebelled against his command.  Listen, all you peoples; look on my suffering.  My young men and young women have gone into exile. (1:18)

The visions of your prophets were false and worthless; they did not expose your sin to ward off your captivity.  The prophecies they gave you were false and misleading. (2:14)

Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail.  They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. (3:22-23)

For no one is cast off by the Lord forever.  Though he brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love.  For he does not willingly bring affliction or grief to anyone. (3:31-33)

Who can speak and have it happen if the Lord has not decreed it?  Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that both calamities and good things come?  Why should the living complain when punished for their sins?  Let us examine our ways and test them, and let us return to the Lord. (3:37-40)

The kings of the earth did not believe, nor did any of the peoples of the world, that enemies and foes could enter the gates of Jerusalem.  But it happened because of the sins of her prophets and the iniquities of her priests, who shed within her the blood of the righteous. (4:12-13)

You, Lord, reign forever; your throne endures from generation to generation. (5:19)

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Author and Date

The book of Lamentations does not directly name its author, but from ancient times, the prophet Jeremiah has been widely recognized as the author.  At the beginning of Folio 15a of the Jewish Babylonian Talmud: Tractate Baba Bathra, we read that “Jeremiah wrote the book which bears his name, the Book of Kings, and Lamentations”.  In the Alexandrian Septuagint, the initial Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), the book of Lamentations begins with the words, “And it came to pass, after Israel had been carried away captive, and Jerusalem became desolate, that Jeremiah sat weeping, and lamented with this lamentation over Jerusalem.”  In addition, the Chronicler wrote in the Scriptures that Jeremiah composed laments upon the death of Judah’s righteous King Josiah (2Chr 35:25).

The internal evidence of the book also strongly suggests Jeremiah as the author, with possible assistance from his scribe Baruch.  The graphical descriptions would almost require firsthand knowledge of the events leading up to, and including Jerusalem’s destruction, and Jeremiah was an eyewitness to all.  Some modern critics reject Jeremiah authorship due to a few minor distinctions between the books of Jeremiah and Lamentations, but there are actually many more similarities than differences.  In addition to similar phrases and themes (righteousness of God, false prophets, weeping people, grieving widows, punishment for sin, etc), Jeremiah’s highly emotional tone permeates both books.

The raw emotional content of Lamentations tends to argue that the laments were composed shortly after the fall of Jerusalem in 596 BC.  It is highly doubtful that any were written any later than the release of the former Jewish King Jehoiachin from prison in Babylon (2Kg 25:27-30) in 561 BC, since this event would have raised hope and even some anticipation that Jeremiah’s prophecies of restoration would be fulfilled.

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Historical Background and Timeline

See the Historical Background of the OT History Books and the Historical Background of the OT Prophets for additional information.  See the Historical Background of Jeremiah for a historical expansion on the kings and events during Jeremiah's ministry.

Although God promised possession of the Holy Land to the descendants of Abraham (Ge 15:18-20 - repeated to Jacob/Israel in Ge 28:12-15), the Jewish people’s continuous presence in this Promised Land was conditioned upon their fulfilling the terms of the covenant that God had established with Moses at Sinai (see Dt 28, in particular Dt 28:63-65).  In spite of repeated acts of rebellion, idolatry and immorality, the Lord remained faithful, urging them to repent return to the covenantal relationship.  Finally, as described in the Historical Background of Ezekiel, a contemporary of Jeremiah, the nation divided (~931 BC) and God’s long patience finally came to an end,  The Northern Kingdom of Israel was defeated and the people taken captive into Assyria (722 BC), and the Southern Kingdom of Judah fell to the Babylonians and finally exiled in 586 BC.

This destruction of Judah is considered the largest national catastrophe (see also Psalm 137) in Israel’s history in Bible times.  During the final months of the siege, many people were killed while others were forced into cannibalism in order to survive.  Afterward, most of the survivors were taken captive into exile, and their city lay in ruin.  The people were had to wonder if the Lord had abandoned them.  Did the covenant promises still apply?  Were they still the chosen people?  Would they ever return to the Land?  These questions and more, along with the conditions of their captivity provide the backdrop for the poems of lament found in the Book of Lamentations.

For a timeline of surrounding events, see the Timeline for the Book of Jeremiah.

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Themes, Purpose and Theology

Two prominent themes, the judgment and the faithfulness of God, intertwine and run throughout the book.  Even though God’s justice requires Him to bring righteous judgment on the people for their disobedience, He tempers this judgment with the promise of future restoration of His covenant people because of His faithfulness.

The primary purpose of the book is to express the people’s grief and despair over the fall and resulting desolation of the holy city of Jerusalem.  The laments also make clear that the constant rebellion and iniquity of the city’s residents were to blame.  The people had be warned of the consequences of disobedience even before they entered the land (for example, see Lv 26 and Dt 28), and continually by many prophets throughout the centuries in which they occupied the Land.  Now, these consequences had come to pass and were recorded in the laments.  Yet, the prophet also asks God to preserve the people for future restoration, and to punish the evil nation that destroyed the city.

While the fall of Jerusalem, destruction of the Temple, and resulting exile to Babylon constituted by far, the greatest political and humanitarian crisis that had occurred in the history of Israel.  Yet, even more devastating for the Jewish people was the theological aspect of the crisis.  A prevailing belief in military combat during these times was that, the relative strength of a nation’s god or gods was a much larger factor than the strength of each army.  Thus some Jews may have begun to wonder if the Babylonian gods were more powerful than the God of Israel.  The prophet makes it clear however, that the true sovereign, all-powerful God was in control over everything that had happened.

This left only two possibilities.  Some undoubtedly began to wonder if God had abandoned His covenant promises to His chosen people.  Was the reign of the line of David at an end, and what about the promised Messiah who was to come through this royal line? Many others however, began to understand the prophets’ announcements that a purged remnant would be spared to return and rebuild the city and nation (Jer 24:5–6; 29:10, 14; Ezek 6:8–9; 11:17).  Indeed, in 538 BC, the first group of Jewish exiles returned to their homeland.  They were led by Zerubbabel, from the tribe of Judah, grandson of King Jehoiachin who was deported to Babylon.  So the royal line of David that would lead to the birth of Jesus the Messiah over five centuries later had not been broken (Mt 1:6-16).  Thus, the ultimate theological crisis was avoided by the sovereign grace of God.

Theologically, God’s dealings with Israel also serve as a serious reminder to us today.  If God allowed His chosen people, the apple of His eye, to come under judgment for her sins, we dare not make the mistake of thinking that we will escape if we continue to ignore his warnings today (Jer 25:15-38; 1Pe 4:12-19).  America has been a blessed nation since her founding, but as a whole, we have abandoned our Christian foundations for many decades.  God is patient and loving, but we are already seeing signs of His righteous judgment, and must wonder how much longer He will stay his hand.

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Interpretation Hints and Challenges

See Interpretation Hints and Challenges for the Major and Minor Prophets for additional info including links to supplementary articles on the prophets, the various literary genres utilized, and applications for new covenant Christians.

One aspect of Lamentations that often troubles modern readers is the extensive presence of God’s anger and wrath.  Assigning human emotions to the one true divine God involves a technique known as anthropopathism, from the Greek anthropos (human) and pathos (suffering).  In addition, His actions are commonly described in very graphic terms such as “tearing like a bear with claws” etc.  It is understood however, that God’s anger was rightfully triggered by the continuous rebellion by His people.  God’s anger (and other emotions) is always under control, and never a spontaneous outburst as with humans.  Furthermore, His anger and wrath must also be understood in conjunction with His other attributes such as His love, justice, mercy, goodness etc.  God’s attributes are always in perfect harmony.  Scripture is clear that God takes no pleasure in the punishment and/or death of the wicked (Lam 3:32-33, see also Ez 33:11 and Mic 7:19-20).

Turning to a different topic, Lamentations contains a literary feature that, although it hasn't caused disagreements regarding the text itself, it has triggered some interesting questions and discussions.  The first four laments (corresponding to the first four chapters) were each written as an acrostic, based on the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet.  So, the first verse begins with the first letter (Alef), verse 2 with the second letter (Bet), verse 3 with the third letter (Gimel), and so on through the twenty-second and last letter (Tav).  The third lament (chapter 3) is actually a triple acrostic, with the first three verses beginning with Alef, the next three with Bet, and so on through the Hebrew alphabet.

Scholars have debated the purposes and functions of acrostics.  No doubt that the authors utilized acrostics as a memory device, but opinions vary as to their other perceived functions, such as denoting completeness of description or organization, but it could be argued that Lamentations is filled with chaos and disorder.

Finally, the fifth lament (chapter 5) contains 22 verses but is not an acrostic, leading interpreters to wonder why.  Some have proposed that verses 19-20 might be a mini-acrostic.  Others have attempted to re-arrange the order of some of the words to create an acrostic.  These are interesting theories, but with the passion and brevity of the prayer in the final lament, it is likely that the inspired prophet felt that retaining the acoustic would hinder the message that he was attempting to communicate.

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Outline

The book of Lamentations consists of five poems of lament.  When chapters were later added to the bible scrolls, it was natural to divide the book such that each chapter was comprised of one of the laments.

1:1 – 1:22 Lament One:  Misery of Jerusalem because of her Sin
2:1 – 2:22 Lament Two:  God’s Punishment of Jerusalem
3:1 – 3:66 Lament Three:  Jeremiah’s Personal and Prayerful Appeal
4:1 – 4:22 Lament Four:  Impact and Causes of God’s Wrath
5:1 – 5:22 Lament Five:  The Remnant’s Prayer for Mercy and Restoration

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