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Bible Commentaries

Dr. Constable's Expository Notes

Lamentations

- Lamentations

by Thomas Constable

Introduction

TITLE AND POSITION

The English title of this book comes from the Talmud, [Note: Baba Bathra 15a.] which called it "Lamentations" (Heb. qinoth). The Hebrew Bible has the title "Ah, how" or "Alas" (Heb. ’ekah), the first word in the first, second, and fourth chapters. The title in the Septuagint is "Wailings" (Gr. Threnoi).

The position of Lamentations after Jeremiah in the English Bible follows the tradition of the Septuagint and Vulgate versions. They placed it there because of its connection with the destruction of Jerusalem, which Jeremiah recorded, and the Jewish tradition that Jeremiah wrote both books.

In the Hebrew Bible, Lamentations occurs between Ruth and Ecclesiastes as the third book of the "Megilloth" or "Scrolls," within the third and last major division of the Old Testament, namely: the "Hagiographa" or "Writings." The Megilloth consists of The Song of Solomon, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther. The Jews read each of these books on a special feast or fast day each year: Passover, Pentecost, the anniversary of the destruction of Jerusalem, Tabernacles, and Purim respectively. The Megilloth followed three books of poetry (Job, Proverbs, and Psalms) and preceded three other books (Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah, and Chronicles) in the Hagiographa.

WRITER AND DATE

This book does not identify its writer. The common view that Jeremiah wrote it rests on a preface in the Greek Septuagint, which the Latin Vulgate adopted and elaborated on. The Septuagint version of Lamentations begins, "And it came to pass after Israel had been taken away into captivity and Jerusalem had been laid waste that Jeremiah sat weeping and lamented this lamentation over Jerusalem and said." The Vulgate added, "with a bitter spirit sighing and wailing." The translators of these ancient versions may have deduced Jeremiah’s authorship of Lamentations from 2Ch_35:25 : "Then Jeremiah chanted a lament for Josiah. And all the male and female singers speak about Josiah in their lamentations to this day. And they made them an ordinance in Israel; behold, they are also written in the Lamentations." The Book of Lamentations does not record a lament for Josiah, but this reference in Chronicles connects Jeremiah with written lamentations. Some scholars believed that the Septuagint and Vulgate translators erroneously deduced from this verse in Chronicles that Jeremiah wrote Lamentations. [Note: E.g., E. J. Young, Introduction to the Old Testament, p. 342; and R. K. Harrison, Introduction to the Old Testament, p. 1069.]

Moderate scholars, both conservative and liberal, who reject the Septuagint tradition, divide fairly equally over the question of Jeremiah’s authorship of the book. Those who favor him as the writer do so because of the theological similarities between this book and the Book of Jeremiah, the stylistic similarities with other writings of the same period, and for sentimental reasons. I think probably Jeremiah wrote these lamentations in view of the similarities in style and subject matter between the books of Jeremiah and Lamentations (cf. Lam_1:2 with Jer_30:14; Lam_1:16; Lam_2:11 with Jer_9:1; Jer_9:18; Lam_2:20; Lam_4:10 with Jer_19:9; and Lam_4:21 with Jer_49:12). [Note: For additional similarities, see Ross Price, "Lamentations," in The Wycliffe Bible Commentary, p. 696; and Young, p. 363.] Also, an eyewitness of Jerusalem’s destruction must have written both books. [Note: See Gleason L. Archer Jr., A Survey of Old Testament Introduction, pp. 365-67; and Walter C. Kaiser Jr., A Biblical Approach to Personal Suffering, pp. 24-30, for refutations of arguments against Jeremiah’s authorship.]

"Although probably written by Jeremiah, the book is very likely intentionally anonymous in order to allow anyone to identify with the grief of the ’I am the man who has seen affliction’ (Lam_3:1)." [Note: Bruce K. Waltke, An Old Testament Theology, p. 162.]

Almost all Lamentations scholars believe the date of composition fell between 586 and 538 B.C., namely: during the Babylonian Captivity. Most believe that they were written before 561 B.C., when Evilmerodach, King of Babylon, released Jehoiachin from prison (2Ki_25:27-30; Jeremiah 31-34). The basis for this view is the absence of national hope in the book. The hope expressed in chapter 3 is personal rather than national. We do not know when Jeremiah died, but if he was born about 643 B.C., as seems probable, the earlier years of the Captivity seem to be a more likely time of composition. The vivid accounts of Jerusalem’s destruction also argue for a time of composition not far removed from 586 B.C., probably only a few months or years later.

Some scholars have suggested that the chronological order of the five laments that make up the five chapters is 2, 4, 5, and 1, with 3 unknown. [Note: E.g., H. L. Ellison, "Lamentations," in Isaiah-Ezekiel, vol. 6 of The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, p. 696.] It is now impossible to discover in what order the writer composed each of the five laments. Their order in the canonical text may not necessarily reflect the order in which the writer wrote them.

The condition of the Hebrew text of Lamentations is very good. That is, there are not many discrepancies between the ancient copies of the book that we have.

PLACE OF COMPOSITION

Assuming that Jeremiah wrote the book, he probably did so in Judah following the destruction of Jerusalem, or in Egypt shortly thereafter, or both.

PURPOSE

Since the Jews read Lamentations on the annual fast that celebrated Jerusalem’s destruction as far back as tradition reaches (cf. Zec_7:3; Zec_7:5; Zec_8:19), it may be that the writer wrote this book to be read then. Its purpose then would have been to memorialize God’s faithfulness in bringing covenant punishment on His people for their unfaithfulness to the Mosaic Covenant. The book would then have taught later generations the importance of covenant faithfulness and God’s faithfulness.

"The author of the Book of Lamentations was attempting to show the fulfillment of the curses presented in Deuteronomy 28." [Note: John A. Martin, "The Contribution of the Book of Lamentations to Salvation History" (Th.M. thesis, Dallas Theological Seminary, 1975), p. 44. See The Bible Knowledge Commentary: Old Testament, p. 1209, for a chart of the many parallels between Lamentations and Deuteronomy.]

"It [Lamentations] is a mute reminder that sin, in spite of all its allurement and excitement, carries with it heavy weights of sorrow, grief, misery, barrenness, and pain. It is the other side of the ’eat, drink, and be merry’ coin." [Note: Charles R. Swindoll, The Lamentations of Jeremiah, "Introduction."]

"This is one of the most tragic books in the Bible." [Note: Young, p. 365.]

STRUCTURE AND GENRE

The book consists of five communal (or corporate) laments (funeral or mourning songs, elegies). All but the third of these describe the Babylonians’ destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. and its aftermath. Each chapter exhibits its own special qualities of form and content, and each of the five laments looks at the destruction of Jerusalem from a different point of view. [Note: See C. F. Keil, "The Lamentations of Jeremiah," in The Prophecies of Jeremiah , 2:336.] Yet the basic structure of the book is chiastic.

A    The misery of Jerusalem’s citizens ch. 1

    B    God’s punishment of Jerusalem ch. 2

        C    Jeremiah’s personal reactions ch. 3

    B’    God’s severity toward Jerusalem ch. 4

A’    The response of the godly ch. 5

The whole book is poetry. Chapters 1-4 are in the common meter in which most laments appear in the Hebrew Bible: the so-called qinah meter, with a few verses being exceptions. In the qinah meter, the second line is one beat shorter than the first line, giving an incomplete or limping impression to the reader of the Hebrew text. Chapter 5 has the same number of beats in each line and is more like a prayer poem.

The first four chapters are acrostic poems. Chapters 1, 2, and 4 each contain 22 verses, and each verse begins with the succeeding consonant of the Hebrew alphabet. In chapters 2, 3, and 4, however, the Hebrew letter pe comes before the Hebrew letter ’ayin, contrary to the usual order. Deviations of this sort also exist in other acrostic poems (cf. Psalms 25; Psalms 36; Psalms 37; Psalms 145).

"Several Hebrew abecedaries (alphabets scratched on pieces of broken pottery by Hebrew children learning to write) have been found by archeologists. Some of these alphabetical lists are in the normal order for the Hebrew letters but others are in the reverse pe-’ayin order. Evidently both arrangements of the alphabet were acceptable. Thus the writer of Lamentations was merely employing two forms of the Hebrew alphabet, both of which were used in his time." [Note: Charles H. Dyer, "Lamentations," in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: Old Testament, pp. 1210-11.]

Chapter 3 contains 66 verses. In this chapter, the first three verses begin with the first consonant of the Hebrew alphabet, the second three with the second consonant, and so on. In Psalms 119, there are 176 verses with 22 sections of eight verses, each section beginning with the succeeding consonant of the Hebrew alphabet, and each verse in that section beginning with the same consonant. The acrostic form may have helped the Jews remember these laments, but it definitely expressed the completeness of their sorrow, controlled their emotions, provided variety of expression, and demonstrated the writer’s virtuosity.

Chapter 5 also contains 22 verses, but it is not an acrostic poem, perhaps because the writer could not express all that he wanted to say in this chapter in that form. The writers evidently followed the alphabetical order only if they could fit their thoughts into that order. Content took precedence over an artificial arrangement. [Note: See Keil, 2:338. For further analysis of the structure of these chapters, see Harrison, pp. 10:65-67; and Homer Heater Jr., "Structure and Meaning in Lamentations," Bibliotheca Sacra 149:595 (July-September 1992):304-15.]

"Dirge poetry of the kind exemplified by Lamentations was by no means uncommon in Near Eastern antiquity. The Sumerians were the first to write sombre [sic] works commemorating the fall of some of their great cities to enemy invaders, one of the most celebrated being the lament over the destruction of Ur. The author of Lamentations stood therefore in a long and respected literary tradition when he bewailed the destruction of Jerusalem and the desolation of Judah in 587 B.C." [Note: R. K. Harrison, Jeremiah and Lamentations: An Introduction and Commentary, p. 195.]

Dirges lamenting national tragedies have obvious connections with dirges lamenting personal tragedies (cf. 2Sa_1:17-27; 2Sa_3:33-34; 2Ch_35:25; Jer_7:29; Jer_9:10; Jer_9:17-21; Ezekiel 19; Eze_26:17; Eze_27:2; Amo_5:1-2). This connection is also evident in the communal and individual lament psalms. These laments became a part of Israel’s sacred writings the same way many of the Psalms did.

Walter Kaiser Jr. has diagramed the literary structure of Lamentations as follows. [Note: Kaiser, p. 24.]

CLIMAX
Ch. 3
The compassions of God
Ch. 2Ch. 4
The wrath of GodThe sins of all classes
Ch. 1Ch. 5
The cityThe prayer
Outside viewUpward viewFuture view
Inside viewOverall view

W. F. Lanahan identified five personae that speak in the book: (1) the city of Jerusalem (as a woman; Lam_1:9 c, Lam_1:11-22; Lam_2:20-22), (2) an objective reporter (Lam_1:1-11 b [excepting Lam_1:9 c], Lam_1:15, Lam_1:17; Lam_2:1-19), a first person male sufferer ("soldier;" ch. 3), the bourgeois (ch. 4), and the choral voices of Jerusalem (ch. 5). [Note: W. F. Lanahan, "The Speaking Voice in the Book of Lamentations," Journal of Biblical Literature 93 (1974):41-49.]

THEOLOGY

There are two poetical books in the Old Testament that deal primarily with the problem of suffering. Job treats the problem of personal suffering, and Lamentations deals with the problem of national suffering. Habakkuk also deals with the problem of national suffering, but it is two-thirds prose (chs. 1-2) and one-third poetry (ch. 3). These three books present the problem of God’s justice and His love, or divine sovereignty and human responsibility, though they fall short of solving it. Indeed, this antinomy is insoluble this side of heaven (cf. Mar_15:34). An antinomy is two apparently correct and reasonable statements or facts that do not agree and therefore produce a contradictory and illogical conclusion. These books also present sovereign Yahweh rather than man as the central figure in human history.

The writer viewed the devastation of Jerusalem and the punishment of the Judahites as divine judgment, not primarily the result of the Babylonian invader from the north. This added a depth to the tragedy that it would not have had if viewed as simply a loss in war.

"It [the book] is a reminder that sin carries with it the consequences of sorrow, grief, misery, and pain." [Note: Charles H. Dyer, in The Old Testament Explorer, p. 645.]

The lack of hope in these laments is due in part to the writer’s view of the tragedy as divine punishment. The destruction had been so great that the people could not see, or had perhaps forgotten, God’s promises of a future beyond the conquest. Similarly, Jesus’ disciples did not remember the promises of His resurrection because the tragedy of His death so overwhelmed them initially.

Nevertheless, the laments are full of prayer (Lam_1:20-22; Lam_2:20-22; Lam_3:55-66), especially the lament in chapter 5, which is entirely prayer. The writer cried out to God, again like Job, in view of the present tragedy. His prayers sound a note of hope in a situation that would otherwise have been completely devoid of hope.

"His prayers provide the faithful of all ages with a model of how God’s people should approach the Lord after they have experienced His discipline." [Note: Robert B. Chisholm Jr., "A Theology of Jeremiah and Lamentations," in A Biblical Theology of the Old Testament, p. 359.]

There are no messianic predictions in Lamentations as such. Nevertheless, what is true of Yahweh is, of course, true of Jesus Christ. Thus, much of the theology of the book is applicable to Christ, if not directly revelatory of Him (cf. Lam_3:22; Jud_1:21). Many expositors have seen foreshadows of Christ’s passion in some of the dark sayings of Lamentations.

". . . the theological message of Lamentations is not purely negative. There is also hope, but it is of minimal significance in the book. In the heart of the book (Lam_3:22-33) the poet expresses his assurance that God does not abandon those who turn to him for help." [Note: Tremper Longman III and Raymond B. Dillard, An Introduction to the Old Testament, p. 353.]

"Protestant Christians, one regrets to say, have too often neglected the reading of these solemn poems. Yet in these days of personal, national, and international crises (and disaster) the message of this book is a challenge to repent of sins personal, national, and international, and to commit ourselves afresh to God’s steadfast love. Though this love is ever present and outgoing, a holy and just God must surely judge unrepentant sinners." [Note: Price, p. 696.]

OUTLINE

I.    The destruction and misery of Jerusalem (the first lament) ch. 1

A.    An observer’s sorrow over Jerusalem’s condition Lam_1:1-11

1.    The extent of the devastation Lam_1:1-7

2.    The cause of the desolation Lam_1:8-11

B.    Jerusalem’s sorrow over her own condition Lam_1:12-22

1.    Jerusalem’s call to onlookers Lam_1:12-19

2.    Jerusalem’s call to the Lord Lam_1:20-22

II.    The divine punishment of Jerusalem (the second lament) ch. 2

A.    God’s anger Lam_2:1-10

B.    Jeremiah’s grief Lam_2:11-19

C.    Jerusalem’s plea Lam_2:20-22

III.    The prophet’s response to divine judgment (the third lament) ch. 3

A.    Jeremiah’s sorrows Lam_3:1-18

B.    Jeremiah’s hope Lam_3:19-40

C.    Jeremiah’s prayer Lam_3:41-66

1.    A recollection of past sins Lam_3:41-47

2.    A recollection of past deliverance Lam_3:48-66

IV.    The anger of Yahweh (the fourth lament) ch. 4

A.    Conditions during the siege Lam_4:1-11

1.    The first description of siege conditions Lam_4:1-6

2.    The second description of siege conditions Lam_4:7-11

B.    Causes of the siege Lam_4:12-20

C.    Hope following the siege Lam_4:21-22

V.    The response of the godly (the fifth lament) ch. 5

A.    A plea for remembrance Lam_5:1-18

B.    A plea for restoration Lam_5:19-22

 

Bibliography

Archer, Gleason L., Jr. A Survey of Old Testament Introduction. Revised ed. Chicago: Moody Press, 1974.

Bright, John. A History of Israel. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1959.

Chisholm, Robert B., Jr. Handbook on the Prophets. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 2002.

_____. "A Theology of Jeremiah and Lamentations." In A Biblical Theology of the Old Testament, pp. 341-63. Edited by Roy B. Zuck. Chicago: Moody Press, 1991.

Dyer, Charles H. "Lamentations." In The Bible Knowledge Commentary: Old Testament, pp. 1207-23. Edited by John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck. Wheaton: Scripture Press Publications, Victor Books, 1985.

Dyer, Charles H., and Eugene H. Merrill. The Old Testament Explorer. Nashville: Word Publishing, 2001. Reissued as Nelson’s Old Testament Survey. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2001.

Ellison, H. L. "Lamentations." In Isaiah-Ezekiel. Vol. 6 of The Expositor’s Bible Commentary. 12 vols. Edited by Frank E. Gaebelein and Richard P. Polcyn. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1986.

Gaebelein, Arno C. "Lamentations." In Ezra to Malachi. Vol. 2 of The Annotated Bible: The Holy Scriptures Analyzed and Annotated. 4 vols. N.c.: Moody Press and Loizeaux Brothers, 1970.

Harrison, R. K. Introduction to the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1969.

_____. Jeremiah and Lamentations: An Introduction and Commentary. Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries series. Leicester, Eng. and Downers Grove, Ill.: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973.

Heater, Homer, Jr. "Structure and Meaning in Lamentations." Bibliotheca Sacra 149:595 (July-September 1992):304-15.

Jamieson, Robert; A. R. Fausset; and David Brown. Commentary Practical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible. Reprint ed. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1961.

Jensen, Irving L. Jeremiah and Lamentations. Everyman’s Bible Commentary series. Chicago: Moody Press, 1966 (Jeremiah), 1972 (Lamentations).

Kaiser, Walter C., Jr. A Biblical Approach to Personal Suffering. Chicago: Moody Press, 1982.

Keil, Carl Friedrich. "The Lamentations of Jeremiah." In The Prophecies of Jeremiah, 2:333-455. Translated by David Patrick. Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament. Reprint ed. 2 vols. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1960.

Lanahan, W. F. "The Speaking Voice in the Book of Lamentations." Journal of Biblical Literature 93 (1974):41-49.

Longman, Tremper, III and Raymond B. Dillard. An Introduction to the Old Testament. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006.

Martin, John A. "The Contribution of the Book of Lamentations to Salvation History." Th.M. thesis, Dallas Theological Seminary, 1975.

Morgan, G. Campbell. Living Messages of the Books of the Bible. 2 vols. New York: Fleming H. Revell Co., 1912.

_____. The Unfolding Message of the Bible. Westwood, N.J.: Fleming H. Revell Co., 1961.

Price, Ross. "Lamentations." In The Wycliffe Bible Commentary, pp. 695-701. Edited by Charles F. Pfeiffer and Everett F. Harrison. Chicago: Moody Press, 1962.

Schaeffer, Francis A. Death in the City. Chicago: Inter-Varsity Press, 1969.

Swindoll, Charles R. The Lamentations of Jeremiah. Bible Study Guide. Fullerton, Calif.: Insight for Living, 1977.

Waltke, Bruce K., with Charles Yu. An Old Testament Theology: an exegetical, canonical, and thematic approach. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007.

Wiersbe, Warren W. "Lamentations." In The Bible Exposition Commentary/Prophets, pp. 151-62. Colorado Springs, Colo.: Cook Communications Ministries; and Eastbourne, England: Kingsway Communications Ltd., 2002.

Young, Edward J. An Introduction to the Old Testament. Revised ed. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1960.