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by John Dummelow
Introduction to Lamentations of Jeremiah
1. Name, Place in Canon, and Subject. To the Hebrews this book is known by its initial word,’ Ekhah, ’How’; by the ancient Jews of Alexandria it was called Threnoi, ’Dirges’; by St. Jerome, Lamentationes, whence our English title. Its position in the English and other versions is due to the influence of the Greek or LXX version, which placed it immediately after the prophecies of Jeremiah; but in the Hebrew canon it is usually found among the Hagiographa, or ’Writings,’ constituting, along with Canticles, Ruth, Ecclesiastes, and Esther, a small collection known as the five Megilloth, or ’Rolls.’ The great theme of the book is the siege, capture, and destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar. Josephus, on the basis of 2 Chronicles 35:25, erroneously supposed that it was written as an elegy over the death of king Josiah. For vividness and pathos the book is unsurpassed in all literature.
Lamentations 1. Zion’s desolation and sorrow.
Lamentations 2. Zion’s sorrows due to Jehovah’s anger.
Lamentations 3. Zion’s hope in God’s mercy.
Lamentations 4. Zion’s former glory contrasted with her present humiliation.
Lamentations 5. Zion’s earnest petition for deliverance.
3. Structure. Of the five lyric poems of which the book consists, the first four, in Hebrew, are acrostics; each poem consisting of 22 portions or verses, corresponding to the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet, except the third, in which each letter is used thrice, and in which, consequently, there are 3 times 22, or 66 verses. The fifth poem, though not an acrostic, has 22 verses. The metre is known as Kinah rhythm or elegiac, sometimes spoken of as ’limping verse,’ because the second line is usually considerably shorter than the first. No book shows greater art or more technical skill in composition. Isaiah 14:4-21 is written in the same metre.
4. Author. In the original these poems are anonymous, but tradition has long since asscribed them to Jeremiah. The LXX prefaces the book with these words: ’And it came to pass, after Israel had been carried into captivity and Jerusalem had been laid waste that Jeremiah sat weeping and lamented with this lamentation over Jerusalem and said’; and this ancient tradition is confirmed by the Syriac, the Latin Vulgate, the Targum of Jonathan, the Talmud, and by modern Jews and Christians, who point to the very cave or grotto, near the Damascus gate on the N. side of the Holy City, in which Jeremiah is supposed to have written them. Various allusions in the poems themselves look in the same direction; especially the vivid descriptions of Jerusalem in Lamentations 2, 4, which are evidently the penpictures of an eye-witness; likewise the strongly sympathetic temper and prophetic spirit of the poems throughout, as well as their style, phraseology, and thought, which are all so characteristic of Jeremiah.
On the other hand, it is possible, of course, that they were written by a contemporary of Jeremiah, perhaps Baruch; for, as has been suggested by Professor McFadyen, being anonymous, it is easier to think that the traditional title has been added by the Greek version than that a genuine one has been lost from the Hebrew. Besides, the allusion to the prophets in Lamentations 2:9, bearing the iniquities of the fathers in Lamentations 5:7, and the expectation of help from Egypt in Lamentations 4:17, are unlike Jeremiah. But notwithstanding all the objections to the contrary, the balance of evidence, both internal and external, is probably in favour of Jeremiah.
5. Unity and Date. As may be seen from the outline given above, the unity of the book is not logical, but emotional; hence the question of its literary unity is largely dependent upon one’s attitude toward its authorship and date. As to its date, it is very generally agreed that it was composed soon after the downfall of Jerusalem in 586 b.c. How soon, it is difficult to state: the author’s vivid langaage points to a time immediately subsequent, whereas the highly artificial and acrostic character of the composition would indicate that the bitterness of the siege had passed, and that the poet had had time for calm reflection.
6. Permanent Religious Value. The richest portion of the book is doubtless the section contained in Lamentations 3:19-39, in which Lamentations 3:22-27 are particularly precious. But the entire book is of value to teach not only patriotism, and patience, and prayer, and confession of sin, but the divine character of chastisement, the disciplinary value of yoke-bearing, how God pities those whom He is compelled to afflict; and, what is deepest and most important of all, how ideal Zion, in suffering for the sins of the nation, is typical of the Messiah who ’bore our sins and carried our sorrows.’ The book is also of liturgical value, being read by pious Israelites every Friday afternoon at the Jews’ wailing place, within the city of Jerusalem, but just outside the Temple area, and in Jewish synagogues the world over on the 9th of Ab (August), the day on which the Temple was burned.
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29