Bible Commentaries

The Biblical Illustrator


Book Overview - Lamentations

by Joseph Exell



The title of the Book

We are so familiar with the title which implies Jeremiah’s authorship that it would surprise most readers of the English Bible to learn that, as the Book stands in the Hebrew text, it is absolutely anonymous. Its only title there is, as with Genesis and Exodus, the opening word of the Book (Echah). (Dean Plumptre.)

The title in the versions is taken from the general nature of the contents; thus the LXX called these poems θρῆνοι, Threni, i.e. Dirges, and the Syr. and Vulg., Lamentations. In the Hebrew Bible the Lamentations are arranged among the Cethubim, or holy writings, because of the nature of their contents: the Lamentations as being lyrical poetry are classed not with prophecies, but with the Psalms and Proverbs. This classification is probably later than the translation of the LXX, who have appended the Lamentations to Jeremiah’s prophecy, inserting between them the apocryphal book of Baruch, and in fast counting the three as only one book. (Dean Payne Smith.)

The fuller title, Lamentations of Jeremiah, is found in the Syriac and in some MSS. of the LXX, but is not so old as the shorter form. (Chamberss Encyclopedia.)

The authorship of the book

The tradition which attributes the authorship to Jeremiah can be traced to a note prefixed to the LXX translation [“and it same to pus, after Israel was led into captivity, and Jerusalem laid waste, that Jeremiah eat weeping, and lamented with this lamentation over Jerusalem, and said . . . ”]. Perhaps, indeed, this tradition is already implied in 2 Chronicles 35:25, in which ease the supposed reference to Josiah must be sought in Lamentations 4:20. The internal evidence is rather against the attribution of the Book of Lamentations to the prophet. Nagelsbach, following Ewald, has shown how completely different is its style from that of Jeremiah; some of the indications that were at one time supposed to make for his authorship disappear on closer examination, and the anticipated restoration of Israel is somewhat dissimilar in the two works. (Chamberss Encyclopaedia.)

It is admitted generally that the elegies must have been written by one or more persons in or near the times in which Jeremiah lived. The situation is indicated, e.g., in Lamentations 2:9; Lamentations 4:20; the city in ruins and the king in captivity; and the whole burden of the Book is the outpouring of grief under a crushing present calamity. The “ninth of Ab” is a dark day in the Jewish calendar; and no book in the Old Testament Canon exhibits more pathetically than this the patriotic attachment of the race to their city and land, and the intense emotion which was excited by the ruin that came upon the people through their unfaithfulness. (James Robertson, D. D.)

The form and contents of the Book

The Book consists of five elegies or lamentations, each occupying a chapter, and all referring to one subject, the destruction of Jerusalem, which it dwells upon and presents from different sides.

1. The “lament” or elegy was a well-known form of composition (see Amos 5:1-2; Isaiah 14:4-21; 2 Samuel 1:17-27; 2 Samuel 3:33-34; Jeremiah 9:10; Jeremiah 9:17-21; Ezekiel 26:17-18, and observe the frequency and impressiveness of the How!)

2. The different aspects of the great common theme are in a manner indicated in the opening verse of each chapter, thus: (Lamentations 1:1) “How doth the city sit solitary!”--the desolation of Jerusalem; (Lamentations 2:1) “How hath the Lord covered the daughter of Zion with a cloud in His anger!”--the cause of the calamity, God’s anger (Lamentations 3:1) “I am the man that hath seen affliction by the rod of His wrath”--the nation personified takes the affliction to heart; (Lamentations 4:1) “How is the gold become dim!”--contrast between the present and the past; (Lamentations 5:1) “Remember, O Lord, what is come upon us,”--the nation’s appeal to the nation’s God.

3. The literary form of these five elegies has been artistically constructed. It will be observed that each of the chapters, except 3, consists of twenty-two verses, and that chap. 3 contains three times twenty-two, or sixty-six verses. Now, there are twenty-two letters in the Hebrew alphabet; and all the chapters, except the last, are alphabetical--i.e., the verses are made to begin in succession with the successive letters, one verse being given to each letter in chaps, 1, 2, and 4., and three successive verses to one letter in chap.

3. Chap. 5, though not alphabetical, is made to consist of twenty-two verses. The length of the line and of the verse (what in an English poem we should call the metre) varies also in the different chapters, as may be perceived in the arrangement of the R.V. (James Robertson, D. D.)

Our estimate of the excellence of the poems thus written will depend on our insight into the working of strong emotions on the poetic temperament, on our power of throwing ourselves into mental sympathy with such a one as Jeremiah. A superficial and pedantic criticism finds it easy to look down on the alphabetic structure as indicating a genius of an inferior order, and the taste of a degenerate age (so De Wette, Comment. uber die Psalm., p. 56, and even Ewald, Poet. Buch., 1. p. 140), or to show condescendingly that they are “not without a certain in degree of merit in their way” (De Wette, as above). A wider induction from the literature of all nations and ages leads, however, to a different conclusion. The man in whom the poetic gift is found fears, it would seem, to trust himself to an unregulated freedom. He accepts the discipline of a self-imposed law just in proportion to the vehemence of his emotions. The metrical systems of Greek and Latin poetry, with all their endless complications, hexameters, elegiacs, lyrics, the alliterative verse of Anglo-Saxon writers, the rhymes of medieval Latin and of modem European poetry in general, the rigid structure of the sonnet, as seen in the great Italian poets and their imitators, the terza rima of the “Divina Commedia,” and the yet more artificial structure of the canzoni and ballate of Dante, the stanzas of the “Faerie Queen,” are all instances of the working of the same general law of which we find a representative example in the Lamentations. There are, of course, instances enough in all literature of the form without the spirit, but enough has been said to show that the choice of an artificial method of versification such as this does not necessarily imply anything weak or artificial in the genius of the writer. In the absence of rhyme and of definite metrical laws in Hebrew poetry it was natural that it should be chosen as supplying at once the restraint and the support which the prophet needed. The alphabetic structure had also another advantage as a guide to memory. If, as seems probable, the Lamentations were intended to be sung, as in fact they were sung by those who mourned then, or in later times, for the destruction of Jerusalem, then it is obvious that the task of the learner would be much, easier with this mnemonic help than without it. (Dean Plumptre.)

The unity of the Book

While there is comparative agreement amongst modern critics that Jeremiah is not the author, there has been much diversity of opinion as to the number of authors whose work is to be traced in the Book. W.R. Smith argued strongly that the Book is a unity, but the prevailing tendency at present is decidedly adverse to this opinion. It is pretty generally agreed that at least chap. 3 is by a different and later hand than the rest. (J. A. Selbie, M. A.)

Liturgical use

The Book of Lamentations has always been much used in liturgical services as giving the spiritual aspect of sorrow. It is recited in the Jewish synagogues on the 9th of Ab, the day on which the temple was destroyed. In the Church of England the whole of chap. 3 and portions of chaps, 1, 2, and 4 are read in Holy Week. For this choice two chief reasons may be given: the first, that in the wasted city and homeless wanderings of the chosen people we see an image of the desolation and ruin of the soul cast away because of sin from God’s presence into the outer darkness; the second and chief, because the mournful words of the prophet set Him before us who has borne the chastisement due to human sin, and of whom we think instinctively as we pronounce the words of Lamentations 1:12. (Dean Payne Smith)