Discovering Lamentations

Like the Song of Solomon, Lamentations is uncomfortable to read, but it is uncomfortable for a very different reason. Whereas Song of Solomon is awkward and uncomfortable due to its openly romantic material, Lamentations is jolting and uncomfortable due to its openly anguished and grief-stricken material. What is this book lamenting and what can we learn from this dramatically sorrowful message today?

Background Information

Though this book never names or identifies an author, this book has traditionally been credited to the prophet Jeremiah. This is why our English Bibles usually place this book after the prophetic book called “Jeremiah.” Here are some reasons for attributing this book to Jeremiah the prophet:

  • We commonly call Jeremiah “the weeping prophet” because he experienced an extremely sad, sorrowful life and ministry and prophesied many terrible things to people who refused to listen.

“But if you will not hear it, my soul will weep in secret for your pride; my eyes will weep bitterly and run down with tears, because the LORD’s flock has been taken captive.” (Jer 13:17)

  • Jeremiah ministered during the reigns of the final kings of Judah, before the Southern Kingdom of Israel was decimated and taken into captivity by Babylon. These are the tragic circumstances and experiences which Lamentations grieves about.

“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.” (Jer 35:25).

  • Josephus, a reputable Jewish historian from the first century after Christ, recorded this claim about the book of Lamentations: “Jeremiah the prophet composed an elegy to lament him [Josiah], which is extant till this time also” (Antiquities 10.5, § 1). Other sources, such as reputable rabbis and church fathers alike, also attributed this book to Jeremiah.

Altogether, Jeremiah’s message of coming doom and judgment on Israel caused Jewish kings, priests, so-called prophets, other political leaders, and the people of Israel in general to despise him and reject his message. He had no wife and children and was at one point imprisoned in a muddy pit (cistern) below ground, accessed only by rope and with no food or water (Jer 38:1-13). False prophets, whom people respected over him, accused him of being dishonest and of not being sanctioned by God (Jer 29:24; 43:1-3).

When Babylon invaded Judah, just as Jeremiah had prophesied, he remained in the land but was eventually deported to Egypt against his will. Both his life and the experiences of the nation of Israel were lamentable indeed.

In particular, Lamentations expresses in a deeply mournful and dramatic way a response to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Southern Kingdom by Babylon, so it would have been written shortly after 586 BC. The way that it is written indicates that it was written by an eyewitness, someone like Jeremiah who was left behind in the Land after it had been ravaged and the majority of its inhabitants had been taken away to Babylon.

The original Hebrew title for this book is ekah, which means an expression of consternation and grief such as, “Alas!” or “How?” In modern lingo, we might say, “What in the world?” or “I’m speechless!” The book is written as a collection of melancholy, mournful funeral dirges for a nation which has been utterly ruined.

Outline and Content

One commentator on Lamentations, Barry G. Webb, makes the fascinating observation that though Lamentations describes and responds to the most chaotic circumstances imaginable, of all the Old Testament (OT) books, it is written in the most orderly way. He says this due to the meticulous arrangement of this book as an acrostic.

By “acrostic,” I mean that this book is written as Hebrew poetry. And as Hebrew poetry occasionally does, the content is presented as a sequence in which the initial letters follow the order of the Hebrew alphabet. While some OT psalms (such as Psa 25, 34, 37, and 119, for instance) follow an acrostic pattern, Lamentations is the only OT example in which the entire book follows some kind of acrostic pattern, and it does so as follows:

  • Poem 1 has 22 verses, each beginning with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet.
  • Poem 2 has 22 verses, each beginning with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet.
  • Poem 3 has 66 verses, all 3 verses within each set beginning with the same next letter of the Hebrew alphabet.
  • Poem 4 has 22 verses, each beginning with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet.
  • Poem 5 has 22 verses, though it does not follow an alphabetical sequence.

Reasons for this extensive use of acrostic artistry have been offered. Some notable possibilities include:

  • From a practical standpoint, this pattern would have made the book much easier to memorize and retain in heart for God’s people away in captivity.
  • From a theological standpoint, this such organization may convey a sense of God’s sovereign order and control in the midst of heart-wrenching chaos. By employing the entire alphabet, it may also convey a sense of completeness, whether the complete cycle of God’s judgment (implying eventual resolution and restoration in the end) or the complete cycle of human grief in the wake of tragic circumstances (implying the need to grieve fully but also to bring an end to grieving, rather than grieve endlessly).

In addition to the acrostic pattern which permeates this book, another poetic device – called qinah or “limping meter” – is used frequently throughout. This stylistic method presents poetic lines in an imbalanced way, giving the first line in each pair of lines one or more words than the second.
Using the fivefold poetic sections as a guide, John MacArthur suggests the following thematic outline for the book:

  • The First Lament: Jerusalem’s Devastation (1:1–22)
  • The Second Lament: The Lord’s Anger Explained (2:1–22)
  • The Third Lament: Jeremiah’s Griefs Expressed (3:1–66)
  • The Fourth Lament: God’s Wrath Detailed (4:1–22)
  • The Fifth Lament: The Remnant’s Prayers (5:1–22)

Additionally, Chuck Swindoll offers these insightful observations about each lament:

 Lament 1Lament 2Lament 3Lament 4Lament 5
Primary FocusJerusalem’s DesolationThe Lord’s AngerJeremiah’s GriefThe Lord’s AngerJeremiah’s Prayer
Underlying EmotionLonely, groaningAngry, exhortingBroken, weepingDesperate, anguishedWeary, pleading
Short PrayerSee us! (1:20-22)Look at us! (2:20-22)Judge them! (3:55-66)Avenge us! (4:21-22)Restore us! (5:21)
Key Verses1:1, 52:14, 173:16, 244:11-135:5, 19-22

As you read the book, you will notice the following nature of each chapter and poem:

  • Poem 1 provides an emotional outcry of misery upon viewing Jerusalem in is decimated and desolate condition left behind from the Babylonian invasion. No specific audience is mentioned.
  • Poem 2 continues to evaluate the excruciating and horrible aftereffects of the Babylonian invasion. It envisions God as the audience this time and acknowledges the invasion as ultimately due to the hand of God (Lam 2:1).
  • Poem 3 portrays a tone of personal grief and repentance, which looks forward to a future restoration (Lam 3:21-33) and judgment upon the Babylonian invaders (Lam 3:64-66).
  • Poem 4 cycles back to evaluating the deplorable present condition of Jerusalem and the nation, a once glorious and world-renowned city and people, acknowledging though that such destruction was justified due to Israel’s sins. The situation was so dire that loving mothers had resorted to cooking their own children for food (Lam 4:10).
  • Poem 5 concludes this collection of laments and funeral dirges for Israel by summarizing Israel’s sins against God and pleading for restoration and renewal (Lam 5:21).

From beginning to end, this book is emotionally intense and mostly unsettling, with occasional notes of personal repentance and hope in God mixed in, esp. as the lamenting wears on. Even so, the book ends with a sense of anticipation and hope, though without a statement of final and total certainty.

Key Takeaways

As we read this book, we can acknowledge the following takeaways.

Willful, persistent sin can lead to devastating consequences. Though God “gracious and full of compassion, slow to anger and great in mercy” (Psa 145:8), he is also just and holy, bringing consequences and justice to those who persist in their sin. When tragic circumstances unfold as a consequence of sin, they are always just, no matter how catastrophic or painful they may be.
God accomplishes his purposes, even through tragic circumstances. Statements made in Jer 1:15, 2:17, 3:37-38, and elsewhere remind us that God’s plans and purposes are accomplished through the catastrophic situations that he both allows and sends our way, even when the instruments of judgement and tragedy are ungodly people.

God’s faithful nature and promises give hope in any circumstance. Though his book mostly portrays soul-stricken grief over God’s catastrophic judgment of sin, it also provides clear glimmers of hope in the darkness. Nestled near the middle of this book, for instance, are some the most comforting verses in all of Scripture (Lam 3:22-27).

Heartfelt grief grounded in faith leads to hope and confidence in God. First, we must recognize the importance of expressing grief and sorrow. Though we all will express ourselves differently and to varying degrees, it is natural and needful that we process and work through our feelings of loss and pain whenever we suffer. Yet doing so as followers of Christ should be much different than nonbelievers, as Paul says, “Lest you sorrow as others who have no hope” (1 Thess 4:13).

It is appropriate to grieve over the sins and consequences of others. Though Jeremiah was a sinner like every other person in Israel – and in the history of humanity – he was not necessarily responsible for contributing to the sins which led to Israel’s devastation. After all, he was the one person who did everything possible to call for repentance and prevent this tragedy from happening. Even so, he (and others, like Daniel in Dan 9:1-19 and Moses in Exo 32:9-14) prayed on behalf of the people, a practice we call intercession – someone who “goes between” God and the people.

We should grieve over the sins of Israel. Just as Jeremiah lamented and wept over the sins of Israel (Lam 3:48-49), Christ himself lamented and wept over the sins of Israel as well (Matt 23:37-39; Luke 19:41-44), even though he would also be the source of their judgment. We can display the same heart of grief for Israel’s sins today.

No matter what happens and who’s in charge on earth at the moment, God is always reigning from his heavenly throne. “You, O LORD, remain forever; tour throne from generation to generation” (Lam 5:19). This will never change.

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