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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 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)

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.

V. After the destruction of the city.

“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.”

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

Lamentations 5 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.

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.

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.