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Introduction to

Lamentations
Old Testament History

Background

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Exodus

The background to the book of Lamentations
c.1400
Entry to the Promised Land
is the Fall of Jerusalem in 587 BC. (See Ezekiel c. 1010-970 David
33:21-22 and 2 Chronicles 36:15-20.) This
c. 931
Division of the Kingdom
destruction of the city is graphically
c. 722
Israel is destroyed by Assyria
portrayed at the very beginning of the book
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Deportation to Babylon
in one of the most haunting of all poetical
587/6
Fall of Jerusalem
images, “How deserted lies the city, once so
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The return from exile begins
full of people. How like a widow is she, who
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Rebuilding of Temple begins
once was great among the nations. She who
445
Nehemiah travels to Jerusalem
was queen among the provinces has now
become a slave” (Lamentations 1:1). This
image illustrates something of the religious and political earthquake that the Fall of
Jerusalem and the Exile was to the people of Judah. As we find in Ezekiel and Jeremiah
(and elsewhere) the Exile raises all sorts of questions concerning the nature and
meaning of the Covenant, and the very nature of God himself.
Traditionally, Lamentations has been associated with the prophet Jeremiah, and
translations of the Hebrew Bible since the Greek translation (Septuagint) have placed
the book after that prophet’s work. The context and nature of Lamentations makes this
a reasonable choice, though our obsessions with which individual wrote what is not one
which the more community-oriented Jews shared. The book comes out of a shared
experience of loss and desolation, the experience of a whole people, so the identity of
the writer (or writers) is of little or no importance. In the Hebrew Bible, Lamentations
comes in the third section, called “The Writings” and is situated between Ecclesiastes
and Esther. It also has a different title, our title is a translation from the Greek, the
Hebrew name comes from the first word of the book, “How”. It forms one of the five
books called the megilloth1 which are read at various festivals in the Jewish liturgical
calendar; Lamentations is read at the fast on ninth of Ab, the remembrance of the fall of
Jerusalem.

Structure
Lamentations is made up of five poems; each is a distinct poem in and of itself, but
together they form a book where similar ideas and themes are explored and developed.
Poetry is a perfect literary medium for exploring issues of suffering, loss, despair, and
hope (all of which are part of Lamentations). In content, the poems are ‘laments’, a form
of poem we see in the Psalms such as 44 and 74 (indeed it is the most common form of
psalm). Laments allow us to bring our fears, grief and complaints into the open before
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The other four books are, Song of Songs, Ruth, Ecclesiastes and Esther.

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both God and the community of faith. They arise out of a “profound disorientation to
life”2 where what we see happening appears to be in contrast to what we have thought
ought to happen. If God is a God of faithfulness and mercy and compassion, how can
these things happen to us?
However, laments are not just a series of complaints. They are always uttered within the
context of Yahweh as the God of the Covenant, and the community understanding of
Yahweh’s character as one of faithfulness. This theological understanding gives a depth
to the lament which would otherwise be lacking; it forces us to see God’s punishment of
his people as a sign of his faithfulness, just as God’s blessing his people would be.3
There are many poetical techniques and forms available to a poet, and the writer of
Lamentations makes use of one which is not common in English poetry, and which does
not easily translate: the acrostic. In an acrostic, each line, or each section, begins with
succeeding letters of the alphabet (the most famous example of this is Psalm 119). As
Hebrew has 22 letters in the alphabet, this is the guiding number for the poems in
Lamentations. However, Lamentations is not simply five basic acrostic poems; chapters 3
and 5 depart from the structure in one way or another. The table below may help to
show this:4
Chapter 1 - acrostic
22 verses each of three lines where each
verse begins with a different letter of the
alphabet.

Chapter 3 - acrostic
22 stanzas of three lines (66 verses) where
each stanza begins with a different letter
of the alphabet but each verse verse
within the stanza begins with the same
letter.

a ........................
...........................
...........................
b .........................
...........................
...........................

a .........................
a .........................
a .........................
b .........................
b .........................
b .........................

Chapter 2 - acrostic
22 verses each of three lines where each
verse begins with a different letter of the
alphabet.
a .........................

Chapter 4 - acrostic
22 verses of two lines where each verse
begins with a different letter of the
alphabet.

...........................
...........................
b .........................
...........................
...........................

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a .........................
...........................
b .........................
...........................

Chapter 5 - not an acrostic
22 verses of one line each, with no
discernible pattern.


O’Connor, 2002, 9

3

See McConville, 2002, 75

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Adapted from O’Connor, 2002, 12

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The form of the poems is an important part of the message. Writing an acrostic is a
time-consuming, complicated process, showing us that the writer’s expressions of
sorrow and grief are not mere emotional outbursts but are instead carefully thoughtthrough and structured emotional and theological reflections on their situation and the
situation of the city. “The endless patience for … paying attention to the suffering is
emphasised”5 in the acrostic form and in its repetition. It also reminds us that there is no
easy or quick answer to suffering.
The strict pattern of an acrostic emphasises and heightens the emotional turmoil of the
situation. The discipline of writing and listening to an acrostic, where the poetic
technique is so obvious, plays in counterpoint to the emotional and spiritual disorder of
the city and the people. The fact that we expect another acrostic in chapter five, and
that the chapter is set up with 22 verses as though for an acrostic, jolts us out of any
expectation of easy answers. It emphasises that hope may be delayed, that suffering
may continue, and that ultimately the God of the covenant cannot be controlled and
contained. This incongruity of knowing God as faithful and sovereign, and experiencing
the dislocation that comes with suffering is epitomised in the final verses of chapter 5,
which conclude the book with a statement of unresolved tension, “Restore us to
yourself, Lord, that we may return; renew our days as of old unless you have utterly
rejected us and are angry with us beyond measure.”
The poems also use a number of different voices, from the narrator (e.g. chapter 1:1), to
the city of Jerusalem (e.g. 1:12), to an unnamed man (e.g. chapter 3:1), to the whole
people of God (e.g. 5:1). These various voices need to be taken into account as we read
the books and their differing perspectives and attitudes are an important part of our
being able to understand the message of the poems.

Themes
Lamentations is an exploration of the meaning of God’s covenantal faithfulness in the
context of punishment and suffering. It explores the uncomfortable but necessary truth
that God’s faithfulness to his covenant and his people means that when they depart
from the covenant, God has to act. He has promised this (Lamentations 2:17) and he has
acted. Thus, the bringing of the covenantal curses (Deuteronomy 28:15-68) on the
people is as much a sign of God’s faithfulness as is the bringing of his blessing.
This fundamentally important understanding only comes about as a result of God’s
people’s clear admission of sin (e.g. Lamentations 1:8), and their refusal to blame anyone
else. An important lesson which the book asks us to contemplate and learn is that sin
needs to be acknowledged and confessed, and that it is necessary for the time of
punishment to come before the time of mercy can arrive.6
In the midst of all of this, though, there is hope. This hope is based, seemingly
incongruously, within the punishment itself. If God is faithful in his bringing about
punishment for the covenant unfaithfulness of his people, then he will also show himself
faithful in bringing about blessing to a repentant people. Punishment is only for a
season, and that season will pass (Lamentations 3:25-26). And so, this book with all of its
5

Petersen, 1980, 119

6

See McConville, 2002, 78-79

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complaint and lament is the one which “contains one of the greatest confessions of
God’s love”7 (Lamentations 3:22-24).

New Testament
The New Testament does not include anything which corresponds to the lament in the
Old. This does not mean that we, as God’s covenant people, do not go through times of
trial and suffering, and times when we wish to cry “How?”, or “Why?”. The book of
Lamentations and the psalms of lament give us a vocabulary for doing just that. What it
does mean, though, is that our perspective, post-Golgotha has changed (or should have
changed). Jesus’ cry on the cross of “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
helps us to move beyond suffering and any sense we may have of abandonment to the
reality of the victory which is ours in Christ. It is in Jesus that all our desires for comfort
and justice are to be found. Ultimately, he is the one that Lamentations points us
forward to.

Recommended Books
There are not an enormous number of commentaries available on Lamentations, the
books here are all very accessible, but with the majority of them Lamentations only
forms a part of their content.
Two excellent introductions to all of the prophetic books, including Lamentations:
Chisholm RB Jr, 2002, Handbook on the Prophets, Grand Rapids: Baker Academics
McConville G, 2002, Exploring the Old Testament Volume 4 The Prophets, London:
SPCK
This book is an excellent one on the megilloth and how they help us in understanding
the purpose and content of pastoral care:
Peterson EG, 1980, Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work, Grand Rapids: William B.
Eerdmans
This brief commentary on Lamentations explores the relevance of the book for today.
O’Connor KM, 2002, Lamentations and the Tears of the World, New York: Orbis Books

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McConville, 2002, 79

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