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by Thomas Coke
THE LAMENTATIONS OF JEREMIAH.
DR. SOUTH says of this book, "One would think that every letter was wrote with a tear, every word the sound of a breaking heart; that the author was a man compacted of sorrows, disciplined to grief from his infancy; one who never breathed but in sighs, nor spoke but in a groan." Sermons, vol. 4: p. 31. Bishop Lowth, in agreement with the general opinion, says, that the subject of the book of Lamentations is, the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, the catastrophe of the king, and the massacre of his subjects; and he observes, that all these topics are treated of, not as events predicted as future, but as events which were past. The prophet deplores the miseries of his country with so much elegance and pathos, that he may be said to have done justice to the melancholy subject; and it may be added, that there is no poem extant, which can afford so happy, so uncommon, so elegant a variety of circumstances and images within so short a compass. What can be more elegant and poetical than the image of the city, which was formerly the pride of nations, sitting by herself, absorbed in grief, and a widow; deserted by her friends, betrayed by her relations, stretching out her hands in vain, and finding no one to comfort her? What can be more elegant than the image of the ways of Zion, which are represented as grieving, and demanding the celebration of their solemn festivals? But if we should produce all the beautiful passages, we should be obliged to transcribe the whole poem. It may be proper just to observe, that there is another opinion concerning the subject of this poem, defended at large by Michaelis, in his notes upon Bishop Lowth's Prelections, p. 116, &c.; namely, that it was composed upon the death of king Josiah. See the note on ch. Lam 3:27 and Lamentations 5:7.
Concerning the plan of this book, the reader will observe, that it is composed after the manner of the funeral odes already spoken of in the notes on Jeremiah 9:17. The elegant writer above quoted remarks, that these funeral odes were uttered upon different occasions, and at last placed in the same collection: whoever, therefore, expects to find an artificial disposition of parts, a connection between these different sacred rhapsodies, and a peculiar elegance of composition, is mistaken in the intention of the writer. Singing the funeral ode of his ruined country, and as it were in the character of a person who grieves at the obsequies of a dear relation the author pours out whatever presents itself and arises in his mind on so deplorable an occasion: he dwells upon the same ideas; varies and amplifies the same things by new expressions, images, and figures; so that his work seems rather a composition or accumulation of things almost similar, than an artful connection of various ones, growing upon the mind by a continual gradation. I would not be understood as excluding from this work all regard for order, or as insinuating that there is not frequently an elegant or easy transition from one thing or, image, or person, or figure, to another; all that I mean is, that the nature and design of this poem is such; it being a collection of distinct and unconnected sentences, in each of which it imitates the form of funeral odes or dirges: it neither stands in need of, nor can admit, all that excellence of order and distribution which appear to so much advantage in other compositions.
This work is divided into five parts. In the first, second, and fourth, the prophet speaks himself, or introduces Jerusalem as speaking; in the third, the chorus of the Jews speaks as a single person, agreeably to the Greek custom: in the fifth, which may be termed the epilogue of this work, the whole body of the Jews pour out their groans and supplications to God in their captivity. This last part is divided into twenty-two periods, according to the number of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet; but all the rest begin with a different letter, according to their alphabetical order. The design of these acrostic or alphabetical poems was, to assist the memory in retaining sentences or ideas which seemed to want connection; a custom formerly adopted by the Syrians, Arabians, and Persians, and practised by them to this very day. Each of the five parts into which this work is divided, is subdivided into two and twenty stanzas or strophes. Each of these stanzas, in the three first parts, consists of three verses; except, that in each of the first parts there is one stanza consisting of four verses. In the first four parts, the first letter of each stanza follows the order of the alphabet; but in the third, each of the verses of the same stanza begins with the same letter. In the fourth part, all the stanzas are distichs, or consist of two verses, as likewise in the fifth, which is not alphabetical or acrostic; and it is remarkable, that the verses in this last part are very short, but long in all the others. It is also observable, that the verses in this book are longer than usual; they consist, upon a medium, of twelve feet, there being some shorter, and others two or three syllables longer. This peculiar measure should not be looked upon as an affair of no moment; for it is probable, that the prophet made use of it as being more flowing, copious, soft, and better adapted to grief and complaint than any other. To which we may add, that the dirges sung at funerals were in the same measure; since all the lamentations which occur in the prophets, composed in imitation of those dirges, are, if I mistake not, in the same kind of verse. We may just remark further, that this book was most likely composed by Jeremiah in the land of Egypt, where, it is thought, he ended his days; for we never hear of his return thence. See Bishop Lowth's 22nd Prelection.
the Second Week of Advent