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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers


- Lamentations

by Charles John Ellicott






I.—Title.—We are so familiar with the title which implies Jeremiah’s authorship of this book 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 (B’reshith) and Exodus (V’elle Shemoth), the opening word of the book (Echah). For this the LXX. translators substituted, after their manner, as in Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, and the like, a title descriptive of the character and contents of the book, and found it in Threnoi, the equivalent of the Hebrew word rendered Lamentations in Jeremiah 7:29; Jeremiah 9:10; Jeremiah 9:20; 2 Chronicles 24:25. The Vulgate simply reproduced the LXX. in Threni, Luther translated it by Klag-lieder, and the English versions followed in his footsteps in the rendering Lamentations.

II.—Authorship.—The LXX., however, did something more than give a new and descriptive title to the book. They prefixed a short note by way of introduction: “And it came to pass after Israel had been led into captivity and Jerusalem had been laid waste, Jeremiah sat weeping, and he lamented with this lamentation over Jerusalem, and said—How doth the city,” &c.

It would, in the nature of the case, have been natural to recognise in such a note a tradition entitled to respect. Josephus (Ant. x. 5, § 1) repeats the statement, but apparently identifies the book now extant with the “lamentations” which the prophet wrote for the funeral of Josiah (2 Chronicles 35:25); and the authorship has been received by most critics and commentators without question. A consensus so striking rests, as might be expected, on strong internal evidence. The very fact that Jeremiah began his career as a writer with a work of this kind makes it probable that he would not leave the downfall and the miseries of his people without the same kind of tribute that he had paid to the memory of the reforming king; and there is absolutely no other writer living at the time (and the fact of the book being contemporaneous with the sufferings it describes is transparently evident) to whom it can be ascribed with the slightest shadow of probability. The character of the book shows the same emotional temperament, the same sensitiveness to sorrow, the same glowing and consuming patriotism that are conspicuous in the prophecies that bear Jeremiah’s name. A closer comparison brings out striking coincidences in detail. In both we have the picture of the “Virgin daughter of Zion” sitting on the ground in her shame and misery (Lamentations 1:15; Lamentations 2:13; Jeremiah 14:17. In both the prophet’s eyes flow down with tears (Lamentations 1:16; Lamentations 2:11; Lamentations 3:48-49; Jeremiah 9:1; Jeremiah 13:17; Jeremiah 14:17). There is the same haunting dread as of a man encompassed with “fear round about” on every side (Lamentations 2:22; Lamentations 3:48-49; Jeremiah 6:25; Jeremiah 46:5). In both, the worst of all the evils of the nation is represented as being the wickedness of the priests and of the false prophets (Lamentations 2:14; Lamentations 4:13; Jeremiah 5:30-31; Jeremiah 14:13-14). The sufferer appeals for vengeance to the righteous Judge (Lamentations 3:64-66; Jeremiah 11:20). The rival nations, Edom and the rest, which exulted in the fall of Jerusalem, are bidden in each case to prepare for a like judgment (Lamentations 4:21; Jeremiah 49:12). Even in the absence of any external testimony from tradition or otherwise, it would have been perfectly natural for the compilers of the Old Testament, at or after the Return from Babylon, or for any later critic, to assign it to Jeremiah as its author. For the most part, as stated above, this conclusion has been adopted by recent critics. Some, however, among whom we may name Ewald, Bunsen, and Nägelsbach, have been led by real or supposed differences of vocabulary and style to assign it to some other writer of the same period, the first two fixing on Jeremiah’s disciple, Baruch, as the probable author. The most exhaustive discussion of the question is to be found in the Introduction to Lamentations, in Dr. Schaff’s edition of Lange’s Commentary, the case against the authorship being stated by Nägelsbach, and that in favour of it by Dr. W. H. Hornblower.

III.—Date and Purpose.—Assuming authorship, there can be little doubt that the prefatory note of the LXX. gives a true account of the origin of the Lamentations. Josephus, it is true, says that the elegiac lamentations on the death of Josiah were extant in his time, and as there is no trace of any other book bearing that title besides that which now remains to us, he apparently thought that the latter “lamentations,” at least, included the former. In this view he has been followed by Jerome, and by some modern critics. The internal evidence is, however, altogether on the other side. From first to last the picture that meets us is not of foreseen but of completed desolation. Famine has done its work (Lamentations 2:19-20; Lamentations 4:3-4). Judah is gone into captivity (Lamentations 1:3). The strong holds and palaces are destroyed (Lamentations 2:5). The anointed of the Lord has been taken in the pits (Lamentations 4:20). The daughter of Edom rejoices in the overthrow of her hereditary enemy (Lamentations 4:21). It can scarcely therefore be questioned that Josephus was in this instance, as in many others, inaccurate and superficial, and that the book belongs to the latest period of Jeremiah’s life, that it was written either in Palestine, before the migration to Egypt, or more probably, at Tahpanhes, after that migration. Attempts to connect each chapter with some definite event in the prophet’s life are, for the most part, simply a fruitless waste of ingenuity.[1]

[1] Thus we have a classification given by De Wette :—

Chap. I. During the siege of Jerusalem (Jeremiah 37:5).

II. After the destruction of the Temple.
III. At the time of Jeremiah’s imprisonment.
IV. After the capture of Zedekiah.

After the destruction of the city.

It has to be remembered, however, that the five chapters are distinct and separate poems, each complete in itself, with no link binding them to each other, except the unity of subject and of feeling.[2] They are the outpourings of a man’s heart, full to overflowing with bitter sorrows, as he contemplates now the miseries of his people, and now, as in chap 3, those that concern himself. The language throughout is that of a sufferer rather than a teacher, guided by the Spirit that gave him the power to express thoughts that would otherwise have been unable to clothe themselves in words, but with no direct “Word of Jehovah” to be delivered to the people. It was, one may believe, in consequence of this characteristic feature that the book was placed by the compiler of the Hebrew of the Old Testament among the Hagiographa, the poetical and sapiential writings, and not among the prophets; and that Rabbinic writers (e.g., Kimchi, Prœf. in Psalm.) spoke of them, and of the other books of that group, as written indeed by the help of the Holy Spirit, but not with the special gift of prophecy.

[2] The following passage from Lowth’s Prælections de Sacra Poesi Hebrœorum is worth giving in his own exquisite Latinity (Prœl. 22) :—

“Qui itaque artificiosam totius argumenti dispositionem. aptam partium collocationem, rerum juncturam et seriem, et in his omnibus singularem aliquam elegantiam requirit, id postulat a vate quod erat a proposito ejus alienum. Patriæ perditee et extinctæ luctuoso carmine quodammodo parentans, et veluti in exequiis ejus lugentis personam gerens, quicquid ejus animo in tot tantisque miseriis primum obversatur, quicquid maxime calamitosum videtur et miserabile, quicquid ei præcipit instans dolor, id subito quasi in re præsenti exprimit et effundit. In iisdem rebus hæret plerumque et immoratur diutius; eadem novis vocibus, imaginibus, figuris, variat et amplificat; ita ut flat potius rerum prope similium coacervatio quædam ac cumulus quam plurium et diversarum subtilis aliqua connexio atque per gradus ordinate facta deductio.”
I subjoin a translation for those who are not scholars :—

“He who looks for an elaborate arrangement of the whole subject, with a due arrangement of parts, a connected order of events, and a certain peculiar refinement in dealing with each of them, expects that which is altogether foreign to the poet’s nature. As if he were, in a manner, attending the funeral obsequies of his ruined and fallen country and sustaining in his mournful dirge the character of chief mourner, he expresses and pours forth at once, as if the thing passed before his eyes, whatever in its many and great miseries first meets his mental vision, whatever seems most calamitous and wretched, whatever the urgency of his grief suggests to him. He dwells, with lingering iteration, on the self-same themes; varies and expands the same facts in ever-fresh words and images and metaphors, so that we have rather an accumulation, heaped up high, of things all but identical, than a subtly arranged series of many different things, and an orderly treatment of them according to the rules of art.”
Other differences between the two books that bear Jeremiah’s name grew naturally out of this. The Lamentations are more distinctly a work of art than the prophecies. The rhythm is more elaborate and uniform. The whole book, with the exception of the last chapter, which has apparently reached us in an unfinished state, is characterised by the alphabetic arrangement,[3] of which Psalms 119:0. is the most familiar example, but which is found also in more or less completeness in Psalms 25, 34, 37, 111, 112, 145, and in the singularly beautiful poem on the excellence of an ideal womanhood, which finds a place in Proverbs 31:10-31. Traces of it, as if the work had been left half-finished, appear also in Psalms 9:10. In the Lamentations it is found with some noticeable peculiarities. Lamentations 1:2, , Lamentations 1:4 contain twenty-two verses each in alphabetic order, each verse falling into three evenly balanced clauses (Ewald, Introd. to Lam.). Lamentations 2:19 forms an exception, as having a fourth clause, as if the writer had for the moment, impulsively or deliberately, shaken off the restrictions of his own self-imposed law. In Lamentations 2:3, Lamentations 2:4 the two letters Ayin and Pi appear in the inverted order of that in which they are found in Lamentations 1:0, and in the received Hebrew alphabet. The variation has been explained (as, e.g., by Grotius) on the assumption that Jeremiah followed here the order of the Chaldæan alphabet; but there is no evidence that that order was different from that of the Hebrew, and the exception may be regarded as one of those variations which resulted either from oversight or from the inevitable difficulties of the task which had been undertaken. Similar variations meet us, we may note, in the alphabetic order of Psalms 37:0

[3] Ewald (Poet Buch. 1 p. 140) looks on the tendency to the alphabetic structure as first showing itself in the seventh century B.C. It may be noticed that this writer has succeeded with singular skill in maintaining the alphabetic arrangement m his German version of the Lamentations, even in the triple complications of chap. 3

Lamentations 3:0 contains three short verses under each letter of the alphabet, the initial letter being three times repeated.

Lamentations 5:0 contains the same number of verses as the first two and the fourth chapters, but with no alphabetical arrangement. The thought suggests itself, either that the writer found himself too overwhelmed by emotion to keep within the limits of the artificial plan he had before prescribed to himself, or that it was his plan to write his thoughts freely at first and then to reduce them into the alphabetic structure.

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 (so De Wette, Comment, über die Psalm., p. 56, and even Ewald, Poet. Buch. 1 p. 140), or to allow condescendingly that they are “not without a certain 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 mediæval Latin and of modern 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 “Faërie Queen,” are all instances of the working of the same general law of which we find a representative example in the Lamentations.[4]

[4] A singular example of the extreme application of this straining after the freedom which moves easily in fetters is found in the Latin poetry of Aldhelm, Abbot of Malmesbury, one of whose poems is a double acrostic, the first and last letters of every line forming the hexameter, “Aldhelmus eccinit millenis versibus odas. (Behnsch, Englische Sprache, p. 34.)

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.

The words of Zechariah at the close of the Captivity give a striking illustration of the way in which the Lamentations had impressed themselves on the minds of the exiles. He appeals to the words of the prophets who had gone before him as having taken hold of their fathers, “and they returned and said, Like as the Lord of hosts thought to do unto us, according to our ways and according to our doings, so hath He done with us” (Zechariah 1:6), thus putting into their lips the very words which we find in Lamentations 1:13; Lamentations 2:17. When the exiles returned to Jerusalem this was their book of remembrance. At a later period, probably not till after the destruction of the second Temple, it was read on the ninth day of the month Ab in every year with fasting and prayer, as commemorating the destruction of the Temple, and the day and the practice still retain their place in the ritual of the Jewish calendar. It is said to be used often by the pilgrims who still gather at “the place of wailing” in Jerusalem. It enters largely into the order of the services of the Latin Church in Holy Week,[5] and at the last revision of the Lectionary was admitted to a like position in that of the Church of England. Men have felt that the words of the suffering poet, flowing from the deep fountain of the heart, met the wants of other sufferers, however unlike in their outward conditions, and that therefore they found their fulfilment in the Sufferer who gathered up into His own experience the infinite sorrows of humanity.

[5] Three lessons are assigned to each of the three last days of the week, each ending with the versicle, Jerusalem, Jerusalem Convertere ad Dominum Deum tuum.

A few facts in the external history of the book remain to be stated. It has not always occupied the same position in the arrangement of the Old Testament Canon. In the received Hebrew order it is placed, as stated above, among the Kethûbîm or Hagiographa, between Ruth and Koheleth (Ecclesiastes). In that adopted for synagogue use, and reproduced in some printed editions and in the Bomberg Hebrew Bible of A.D. 1521, it stands among the five Megilloth or Rolls (see General Introduction in Vol. I. of this Commentary), after the Books of Moses. The LXX. groups the writings connected with the name of Jeremiah together; but the Book of Baruch comes between the prophecies and the Lamentations.