The book of Lamentations (Lamentations 1)

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Lamentations is anonymous, although Jewish tradition attributes it to Jeremiah, partly on the basis of 2 Corinthians 35:25. “Jeremiah composed laments for Josiah, and to this day all the men and women singers commemorate Josiah in the laments.” Most scholars agree that the laments referred to in the above verse are not those of Lamentations, but the Septuagint version of Lamentations does begin “Now it came about after the captivity of Israel and the desolation of Jerusalem, Jeremiah sat down weeping and he made this lament over Jerusalem”. Despite this seemingly clear statement, it is impossible to determine whether or not this ancient tradition is correct.

Lamentations 1-4 comprises a series of cleverly executed acrostic poems (see Acrostics and other techniques of ancient poetry, also under Lamentations 1). This highly structured poetry seems out of character with what we know of Jeremiah, as seen in the book by his name. On the other hand, it is not impossible that the prophet would have composed a series of laments in this fashion for liturgical purposes, using a structure that would neither have been needed nor appropriate for his book of prophecy.

The book appears to have been written from Jerusalem by someone for whom the memory of the city’s fall was fresh and poignant; there is no indication that Jerusalem had already been reinhabited by the Jews. Thus, a date after 586 B.C. but before 538 seems reasonable-

Lamentations was written as an expression for the exiled Jewish people of their pain, grief and horror at the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple.

Lamentations had a liturgical function: to give the exiles a formal ritual for grieving over the calamity that had befallen them and by reflecting upon the meaning of Jerusalem’s destruction (see Ancient Near Eastern laments under Lamentations 3).

Whoever did write these stirring words, despite his poetic discipline, was clearly wrestling with the ways in which God, the Lord of history, was dealing with His wayward people. The author clearly understood that the Babylonians were merely human agents of the divine judgement – that God Himself had destroyed His own city and temple (Lamentations 1:12-15, 2:1-8, 17, 22, 4:11).

The book stands in the tradition of other ancient Near Eastern works of the same genre, including Lamentations over the destruction of Ur, Lamentation over the destruction of Sumer and Ur, and Lamentation over the destruction of Nippur.

Traditions related to this book continue into the present day:

  • Orthodox Jews customarily read aloud the entire book on the ninth day of the month Ab, the traditional date of the destruction of Solomon’s temple (in 586 B.C.)
  • Many Jews read it each week at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City.
  • In the Roman Catholic tradition Lamentations is traditionally read during the final three days of the Holy Week, just prior to Easter.

From chapter 3 the author seems to vacillate randomly between despair and hope, but be alert to the developing threads of his theology as he presents his case before the Lord. Pay particular attention to passages such as 3:21-27, 30-33, as well as to the book’s closing verses (5:19-22). What do you think of the author’s reflection that “it is good for man to bear the yoke while he is young” (3:27)? Does the final verse of the book leave you feeling as though the author were trailing off on an afterthought too horrible to imagine? Now does your perspective as a New Testament Christian likely differ from that of the book’s early readers with regard to those questions?

Did you know that ramparts were sloping, wall-like fortifications of earth or stone that were used as a protective barrier against invaders (2:8)? Did you know that the Hebrews divided the night into three watches: (1) sunset – 10:00 P.M., (2) 10:00 P.M. – 2:00 A.M. and 2:00 A.M. – sunrise (2:19)? Did you know that the treat of starvation during the siege of Jerusalem had compelled some mothers to cook and eat their own children (2:20)?


 

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