In the Hebrew Bible, Lamentations is called Ekah (Hebrew for “how”), after the first word in the book, which has been referred to as either a groan or a cry of grief – therefore, a lament. The word begins the first two sentences in chapter one. It also begins chapter 2, and is used twice in the first sentence of chapter 4. The statements that these sentences make accentuate the fallen state of Jerusalem and its people, as well as the anger the Lord has for them at the time (Lamentations 2:1). The book is sometimes also referred to by use of the Hebrew word “kinnoth,” which is “lamentations,” which ultimately comes from the verb “konen” for “lament.”
Most scholars attribute the writing of the book to Jeremiah and (notwithstanding some pretty feeble arguments by a few) there really is no reason to dispute that. The book served to solidify for the prophet the title of “the weeping prophet.” There are some that suggest that the prophet was writing about events that had not yet occurred, but that really does not seem likely, as the descriptions of the dire circumstances, despair, and suffering of the people are very personal and passionate, and highly suggestive of an eyewitness account, especially in chapter 4.
The chapters of the book are usually referred to as 5 poems – an assessment that seems very accurate when one reads them. The Book of Lamentations is an expression of immense grief in a very poetic literary style. However, each lament moves rapidly from one tragic point to another, demonstrating the utter despair and turmoil in Jeremiah’s soul. The poems in Lamentations express profound loss, recalling bygone days of glory, while lamenting in the enumeration of what is now gone forever, trying to find some measure of consolation in his sorrows, as well as some hope for the future. At the center of it all, of course, is the destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar.
The entire book (with the exception of the last chapter) has an acrostic pattern that is unique. Chapters 1, 2 and 4 each have 22 verses – one for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet. And each verse begins with a different letter. Chapter 3 has 66 verses, and each letter is represented by three verses in succession, repeating the alphabet three times. Each verse of chapters 1 and 2 consist of three dual clauses (except for 1:7 and 2:19, which have four). Each verse of chapter 4 consists of two dual clauses. But there are two aspects of the book’s composition that are even more puzzling. The first is that in chapters 2, 3, and 4 the 17th letter (“pey” or “phey”) occurs before the 16th (“ayin”). Secondly, although the 5th chapter is not an acrostic, it contains exactly 22 verses.
The first chapter begins the observations of the prophet concerning the despair of hunger and the deaths from the “war,” as well as the desecration and plundering of the sanctuary. It describes the fall of Judah from God’s favor because of its unfaithfulness, just as an adulteress. It concludes with the plea that God will punish Babylon in the end.
The second poem describes the suffering of the people with more vivid passion, but makes it clear throughout the chapter that it was God who brought this fate upon the people, and that the reason He did it was because of their sins. In the third poem, the prophet spells out the fact that what has happened is for the best, where the believers – especially those yet to be born – are concerned, and that even this tragedy shows that God keeps His promises. The hymn “Great is Thy Faithfulness” by Thomas Chisholm has its roots in Lamentations 3:19-24. It also expresses Jeremiah’s certain knowledge that God will redeem His people, and that His enemies will be punished.
Chapter 4 contains the graphic eyewitness account of the prophet concerning the desperate plight of the people. Young children were dying from lack of food or water (Lamentations 4:4). The noblemen and even the wealthy were starving in the streets (Lamentations 4:7-8). The most disturbing account is that of mothers who boiled and ate their own children to keep from starving to death (Lamentations 4:10). Verse 9 makes a good summary statement: “Happier were the victims of the sword…”
The fifth and final poem continues this account with the description of the slavery that had become their lot, the rape of the women (Lamentations 5:11), and the public display of the executed nobles (Lamentations 5:13). But it also contains the prophet’s prayer that God will restore the people and take away their shame and disgrace. He also prays for their repentance, and for God to restore them. Verse 21 sums it up: “Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored! Renew our days as of old…”
image © V. Gilbert & Arlisle F. Beers
Please note: I did not design the reading plan that I am following in my blog. All of my comments in this blog, however, are solely my responsibility. When reading ANY commentary, you should ALWAYS refer first to the scripture, which is God’s unchanging and unfailing word. Reading schedules, as well as a link to the site where you can get the reading plan that I’m currently following for yourself can be found on the “Bible Reading Schedules” page of my website at http://graceofourlord.com.