Introduction to Lamentations

As a natural progression to completing the book of Jeremiah, we will take a quick journey through the book of Lamentations.

The book of Lamentations is a collection of five poems, written after the fall of Jerusalem (586 BC).  The book’s primary themes are laments over the destruction of Judah and Jerusalem, and the distress of the Jewish people (mainly, those left behind, not those exiled to Babylon).

While some scholars attribute authorship to Jeremiah, most do not.  Most historians believe that there was more than one author for the book of Lamentations.  Like many other books of the Old Testament, the authors of Lamentations are not identified.

While the book of Jeremiah was prophetic, the book of Lamentations is not.  In the Hebrew Bible, the book of Lamentations is grouped into a section called “The Writings”.  Other books in this section include Ruth, Song of Songs, Esther, and Ecclesiastes.

Like other books in the Writings section of the Hebrew Bible, the book of Lamentations was used in public worship services to commemorate an event.  Eventually, the book of Lamentations became associated with the  9th day of the Hebrew calendar month of Ab (which generally falls in July or August).  This date reflects the lament over the two destructions of the Jerusalem temples (the first in 586 BC, and the second in 70 AD).

The form of the Hebrew poetry is worth noting as we look at the overall book of Lamentations.Chapters 1, 2, and 4 are written in the form of a Hebrew acrostic, with each verse starting with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet.  If these poems had been drafted in English, verse 1 would start with an “A”, verse 2 would start with a “B”, etc.  Since there are 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet, these chapters have 22 verses.

Chapter 3 is also a Hebrew alphabet acrostic but contains 66 verses.  Each three-verse group starts with the same letter of the Hebrew alphabet.  Chapter 5 has 22 verses but is not an acrostic.  Chapter 5 has the same feel as an acrostic and conveys completeness.  If chapter 5 were written in English, we would say the chapter covers everything from A to Z.

Chapters 1 and 2 are a funeral song.   Each verse contains three sets of two-line thoughts.  Chapter 4 is a funeral song, with each verse containing two sets of two-line thoughts.  Chapter 3 is not a funeral song but is much more personal than corporate in its use of pronouns (“I” vs. “we”).   Both chapters 3 and 5 contain one set of two-line thoughts in each verse.

In order to understand the significance and role of the book of Lamentations in ancient culture, we need to take a slight detour and learn how the people of Jeremiah’s day processed grief.  In our modern cultures (especially Western cultures), we handle grief using psychological methods, with an introspective focus.  This processing takes place on an individual or one-on-one basis, or in small groups.

In ancient cultures, grief was processed through community rituals, ceremonies, symbols, and/or commemorations.  This processing was a collective and community process, rather than focused on an individual or small group.  The community, as well as the individual, felt the weight of the grief being observed.  These observations were made through readings, songs, and prayers.   These rituals provided a defined time to grieve as well as a sense of closure for the community.

Likewise, the themes of the book of Lamentations are primarily corporate in nature.   These griefs being observed were for the entire country, not just certain individuals.  The topics covered included the consequences and confession of sin, recognition of God’s judgment, and the pain involved for all.

As you read each chapter, you will soon notice that there is not a request for restoration of that which was lost, but rather an entreaty for the Lord to return to His people and land.  The Jewish people remembered God’s promises to them, and they longed for a restored relationship with Him, to feel His love and compassion once again.  In a word, the Lamentations expressed a sincere desire for hope.

So what faith lessons should we look for as we read and study the book of Lamentations?  Here are a few thoughts to consider:

  • We live in a broken world, and feel the effects of sin every day, both our sins of commission and omission as well as the sins of others.
  • Sin causes pain and loss, and we experience grief over that loss in one or more ways.
  • It is important to come to terms with our grief, and not ignore it, “stuff” it inside, or make it our mantra for living.
  • Coming to terms with our grief involves denouncing all self-righteousness, taking responsibility for our thoughts, words, and actions, and remembering that no one can escape God’s searchlight of holiness, righteousness, and judgment.
  • Processing our grief must involve the community around us, whether a few close friends or the larger circles of people we engage with on a regular basis.
  • By processing our grief, we set the stage for healing and growth.

Chapter 3 expresses this need to process our hurts, and the healing that can result:

19 I remember my affliction and my wandering,
    the bitterness and the gall.
20 I well remember them,
    and my soul is downcast within me.
21 Yet this I call to mind
    and therefore I have hope:

22 Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
    for his compassions never fail.
23 They are new every morning;
    great is your faithfulness.
24 I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion;
    therefore I will wait for him.”
(Lamentations 3:19-24 NIV)