Book Overview - Lamentations
by Arthur Peake
BY PROFESSOR ARCHIBALD DUFF
To read this book without consideration of its date is to receive the strong impression that it is too trivial to be a portion of the revered and sacred writings either of Christians or of Jews. Here and there, indeed, fine utterances of faith and devotion occur, but in all the five Laments the verses or stanzas are carefully arranged so as to number exactly twenty-two, that being the number of the letters in the Heb. alphabet, and in chs. 1-4 the initial words of the stanzas are chosen so as to begin with those twenty-two letters successively. The first stanza has Aleph—the Heb. "A"—for initial, the second has Beth, and so on. One cannot help asking whether the lamenting poet was really in earnest in his lamentations: how could any deep passion confine itself to such formalities? And there are more of these than we have indicated.
We are driven to question whether there is any good reason for having the book in our Bible, or in any collection of sacred writings. So we turn to read it, and we find that all the Laments concern a siege and sack of Jerusalem. What siege was that? There were sieges by Nebuchadrezzar, in 599-588 B.C.; also one by Antiochus Epiphanes in 170-168; and one by Pompey, the Roman general, in 63. The choice lies between the first and third of these, since there was no Jewish king in 170 B.C. Which of those two is the date for our book? We can see at once that if the later time is right, then the book must be a series of, so to speak, autobiographic pictures of the society into which Jesus was born; and the Lamentations will show us the audiences to which He preached, and among whom He died. Surely this light on Him is very desirable. The present writer confesses an anticipatory leaning towards the late date, so eagerly does he seek for more and more exact visions of the actual historical Jesus.
It is impossible to give the arguments in the whole case within the limits of space allowable in this commentary; but a full account will be found in the Interpreter for April 1916. A mere outline is the following: (a) The writer cannot have been Jeremiah, and surely lived long after Nebuchadrezzar's siege (see against this Peake, Cent.B). (b) The exiled Hebrews in Babylon and the people left in Judah were very unlike the society pictured by our book. (c) The scholastic and rather petty construction of serious utterances in alphabetic acrostics is not like the literature of the sixth century B.C., but it is very much the way of the scribal age just before Jesus. (d) The deeds of the besiegers, bewailed in our book, were exactly those of the Roman invaders, with some added colouring taken from the cruelties of Antiochus (167); but Nebuchadrezzar and his armies behaved quite differently and generously. (e) The picture of the fallen king suits Aristobulus far better than Jehoiachin or Zedekiah. (f) The language of our book has many late touches: (i.) The Prince was not commonly called "Mashiach" until late; (ii.) Ritual terms like "Mo'edh" came into use with P (450 B.C.); (iii.) "Zion" was not a sanctuary name until after the Exile; (iv.) "Medinah" (Lamentations 1:1) is decidedly a late governmental term (Ezra 2:1-2 a*). In view of this and much more which will emerge in our commentary we may perhaps conclude that Lamentations is a product of the sorrows and the faith of 200 or 100 B.C. onwards. With deep interest, therefore, we turn to the Laments. We shall look at their curious metrical forms as we read each chant. In general literary quality Lamentations 3 may be called the most skilful, but Lamentations 2 and Lamentations 4 have a finer spirituality; Lamentations 1 looks like an early effort, of less ability; Lamentations 5 is probably an unfinished work, and is not alphabetical.
[A date in the first century B.C. seems incredibly late; nor is it favoured by the actual phenomena. In the Cent.B. the view that the writer "surely lived long after Nebuchadnezzar's siege" was not taken. The book was there regarded as the work of at least three writers. It was allowed that Lamentations 3 was probably post-exilic, that Lamentations 5 was little earlier than the close of the Exile, and that Lamentations 1 might belong to much the same period. But Lamentations 2, 4 were regarded as the work of an eye-witness, who had observed the horrors of the siege and capture of Jerusalem in 586 B.C., not composed, indeed, immediately after the event, since they exhibit the influence of Ezekiel, but not necessarily later than 580 B.C. There seems to be no valid reason for abandoning this conclusion.—A. S. P.]
Literature.—Commentaries: (a) Peake (Cent.B), Streane (CB2), Adeney (Ex.B); (c) Löhr (HK), good stanzaic trans., Budde (KHC), metrics valuable, Thenius (KEH), Ewald, now old-fashioned, Oettli. Other Literature: G. B. Gray, The Forms of Heb. Poetry, pp. 87-120); Löhr (ZATW). Introductions: Bennett, Cornill, Driver, Wellhausen's Bleek, Gray. All good, save on date. Articles in HDB (J. A. Selbie), EBi (Cheyne), EB11 (Ball), Jewish Encyclopedia (Löhr). All good.
the Second Week of Lent