The first word of the book of Lamentations in Hebrew is Хekah, “how!” This word is used in the Hebrew Bible as the name of the book. The Talmud indicates that the ancient Jews also knew the book by the name Qinoth, “Lamentations,” and this title was translated by the LXX as Threμnoi. The Latin Vulgate took over the Greek title and amplified it with a statement of the traditional authorship of the book, Threni, id est Lamentationes Jeremiae Prophetae, “Threni, that is the Lamentations of Jeremiah the Prophet.” Thus was developed the title of the book as it stands in the English Bible, “The Lamentations of Jeremiah.”
Both Jews and Christians from ancient times have considered the Lamentations to be the work of the prophet Jeremiah. The earliest testimony to this is contained in the opening words of the book as it stands in the LXX: “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, …” Although there is no evidence that this statement ever stood in the Hebrew text, it does indicate the belief of a segment of the Jews at least as early as the 2d century b.c. Later testimonies to Jeremiah’s authorship are found in the Talmud, the Targums, and the writings of the great Christian Hebrew scholar Jerome, who translated the Bible into Latin about a.d. 400.
In modern times critical scholars have doubted that Jeremiah was the author. Their arguments have been based on the fact that nowhere does the Hebrew Bible specifically state that Jeremiah wrote Lamentations, and that although the prophecy bearing his name is found in the second section of the Hebrew Bible, known as the Prophets, Lamentations is separated from it and appears in the third section, the Writings (see Vol. I, p. 37). Critics have also pointed to certain passages which they feel do not fit the character of Jeremiah as revealed in his other writings (Lam. 1:21; 2:9; 3:59–66; 4:17, 20).
However, none of these arguments are conclusive. Scholars, both critical and conservative, are united in the belief that Lamentations was written in the days of Jeremiah. There are, moreover, several striking parallels of phraseology and subject matter between Jeremiah’s prophecy and the Lamentations, which point to him as author. In view of the lack of definitive evidence that he was not the author, there is no reason to disregard the ancient belief of the Jews that Jeremiah wrote the Lamentations (see PK 461–463).
3. Historical setting.
The historical setting of the book of Lamentations is in the final days of the kingdom of Judah, particularly the destruction of Jerusalem, with all its attendant evils, both during and after the final siege of the city. After the death of good king Josiah the political, social, and religious situation deteriorated rapidly under the successive reigns of Jehoahaz, Jehoiakim, Jehoiachin, and Zedekiah (for a complete discussion of this period, see pp. 346–348). The people of Jerusalem suffered the most intense hardships during the final siege of the city, 588–586 b.c. Practically the whole population of Judah was swept away by successive waves of Babylonian conquest and captivity (for the three principal stages of the Captivity, 605–586 b.c., see Vol. III, pp. 90, 91). Only the poorest of the land were left, scattered throughout the near-empty cities and countryside. Little wonder that the book of Lamentations pours forth the mournful tones of distress and sorrow.
4. Theme. More than a century before the fall of Jerusalem the prophet Micah had foretold its destruction, because the leaders of Judah “build up Zion with blood, and Jerusalem with iniquity” (Micah 3:10). For 40 years Jeremiah urged the people of Judah to repent; he sought to strengthen the hands of Josiah and his sons toward just government at home and a wise and honest policy abroad; and above all, he warned Judah of the certainty of destruction to come if she persisted in her evil ways. The Lamentations are the climax of these prophecies. They testify to the sure fulfillment of God’s promised judgments. Yet their message is not without hope. Through the picture of desolation runs a thread of expectation that the Lord will forgive and relieve the sufferings of His people. In the final chapter this hope swells into a prayer:
“Turn thou us unto thee, O Lord, and we shall be turned; renew our days as of old” (Lam. 5:21).
The literary structure of Lamentations reflects its theme. The book is made up of five poems, corresponding to the five chapters in our modern printed Bibles. The first four of these are written in a meter typical of the Hebrew qinah, or elegy (see Vol. III, p. 27). While the elegiac meter is often lost in translation, it does show through frequently in the English of Lamentations, as in the following example: “Judah is gone into captivity because of affliction, and because of great servitude: She dwelleth among the heathen, she findeth no rest: All her persecutors overtook her between the straits” (Lam. 1:3). The fifth poem, which is a prayer rather than an elegy, is written in the usual Hebrew poetic meter, each of the two halves of a verse having four stress accents. See also Vol. III pp. 19, 27.
5. Outline. 1. The Sad Condition of Once-proud Jerusalem, 1:1–22. A. The lamentable state of the city, 1:1–11. B. The wail of the city over her own condition, 1:12–17. C. The confession and prayer of the city, 1:18–22. II. The Judgments of God Upon Wicked Jerusalem, 2:1–22.
A. War, siege, and destruction, 2:1–13.
B. Captivity and distress, 2:14–22. III. Hope Amid Afflictions, 3:1–66.
A. The people despair because of their afflictions, 3:1–20.
B. The people turn in hope to God, 3:21–41.
C. A further description of God’s judgments, 3:42–54.
D. A prayer recognizing God’s mercies, 3:55–63.
E. A prayer for God to punish the enemies of His people, 3:64–66. IV. Judgments Upon the People of Judah as a Result of Their Sins, 4:1–22. A. The appalling calamities that have come upon the people, 4:1–12. B. The iniquity of prophets and priests, 4:13–16. C. The downfall of the kingdom of Judah, 4:17–20. D. Judgment prophesied on Edom, Lam 4:21, 22. V. A Prayer for Restoration to God’s Favor, 5:1–22.
A. The pitiful plight of the people after the fall of Jerusalem, 5:1–18. B. Recognition that only God can restore, 5:19–22.