Tired of seeing ads while studying? Now you can enjoy an "Ads Free" version of the site for as little as 10¢ a day.

Bible Commentaries

The Pulpit Commentaries


- Lamentations

by Joseph Exell


THE Book of Lamentations has no author's name attached to it in the Hebrew Bible, which, indeed, places it far away from Jeremiah in the so-called K'thubhim or Hagiographa, between Ruth and Koheleth (Ecclesiastes). It is the Septuagint which, in some manuscripts, appends "of Jeremiah" to the descriptive title "Lamentations," at the same time grouping it with the prophecies of Jeremiah and the (apocryphal) Book of Baruch. But before we can form an opinion as to the justice of this view of the authorship, and the romantic tradition connected with it (see below), we must first of all take a general survey of the book and gather up all its internal evidence as to date and origin; and also we must illuminate this by the results of a critical study of the Old Testament.

One of the most interesting of these results is the discovery of a great lyric movement among the conquered Jews, as well those in Babylon as those who remained in their much loved home. "If I forget thee, O Jerusalem," was their dominant thought, even when surrounded by the wonders of Babylonian art; and it naturally expressed itself in lyric verse. Ewald has done much to enable modern students to realize the vast debt which we owe to the Captivity and the subsequent period for much of the most precious part of the Psalms, and, by including his translation of the Lamentations in the same volume with the Psalter (he even inserts the former as a portion of the sacred hymn book), he has brought vividly before us the essential unity of the great lyric movement referred to. We have spoken of these psalms and lamentations as expressions of a mood; they are this most truly; but they are something more. Nursed up on the writings of the prophets, the authors of these lyric poems were in a sense prophets, just as the prophetic writings addressed to the later Jews may to a certain extent be classed with the lyric literature. The truths which the lyric or elegiac poets had imbibed from the prophets gave a colour even to the expressions of grief, and so, monotonous as the Book of Lamentations may be, it has justly been admitted as a sacred Scripture into the Old Testament canon. The authorship of Jeremiah may be doubtful, and yet we cannot fail to recognize in this short elegiac book that peculiar quality which, in all its degrees of manifestation, the Jewish doctors agree with us in describing as inspiration.
The common theme of the Lamentations is the terrible fate which befell Jerusalem when the Chaldeans captured the city and carried away its inhabitants (less fortunate in one sense than those of the country districts) to Babylon. That they were all written at the same time is, however, to say the least, improbable; the third, and in a still higher degree the fifth, will be found to present some striking points of dissimilarity to the rest. Let us first of all endeavour to characterize the three which have most in common, and each of which begins with the word echah, how! viz. the first, the second, and the fourth. Even in this narrower group, indeed, some divergences will strike the reader, but they are not sufficient to compel us to assume a diversity of authorship. Each elegy is in the strictest sense alphabetical, but with this differencc that whereas in the first the initial letters come in their usual order, in the second and fourth the letter פ (pe) precedes the letter ע(ayin).[1] Another unimportant technical divergence is that the verses of ch. 1 and 2 are in the original, as a rule, composed of three lines, and those of ch. 4. of four. It may seem strange, at first sight, that so artificial a form as the alphabetic should have been selected for elegies. But further consideration will show that it was really both natural and appropriate. These elegies were probably not so much intended for private use as for a liturgical purpose, for which the alphabetic form, so convenient for the memory, would be a great recommendation. It has for ages been the custom to read the Lamentations in the synagogues on the ninth day of Ab, the anniversary of the burning of the temple, and, as this is a very ancient fast day (Zechariah 7:3), it is reasonable to conjecture that the Lamentations, or some of them, were from the first designed for this solemn occasion. The didactic element which now and then appears in the poems gives an additional appropriateness to the alphabetic form, as a reference to the alphabetic psalms will at once show.

The contents of these three elegies, in spite of their monotony, incdicate a certain difference in the point of view of the writer or writers. The first directs the attention to the sorrow-laden Mater Dolorosa, the widowed city, Zion. The cause of the catastrophe is but lightly touched upon, and the description cannot be said to maintain itself at the height of the opening verse. The second points out the true author of Zion's calamity; it is Jehovah, who has fulfilled his threats of old, and turned against his people like an angry warrior. The fourth has more touches than the rest which reveal (so far as picturesqueness of detail can be accepted as evidence) the hand of an eyewitness of the tragic events. The sufferings of various classes, due to God's anger at their sins, are affectingly described, and the malignant joy of the Edomites represented, not merely as a recollection, but as a present fact. The second and the fourth are generally considered the most striking of the elegies from a poetical point of view.
Before introducing the question of authorship, we have still to examine briefly the two remaining poems — the third and the fifth. The former agrees with the three elegies already considered in the technical respect of its alphabetic structure, and more particularly with the second and fourth (in the order of the chapters), inasmuch as the same two initial letters are transposed. It is, again, connected with the first and second by the subdivision of each of its verses into three lines. It differs, however, from all the other elegies in its peculiar exaggeration of the alphabetic form, since it not merely distinguishes a single verse by one of the Hebrew letters, but a whole triplet of verses. This evidently hampers the poet in the expression of his thoughts; — the third is the least rhythmical and the least poetical of all the Lamentations. In contents, too, it differs to a remarkable degree from the other elegies. Instead of describing the calamities of the nation, the writer points, or seems to point, to himself. "I am the man that hath seen affliction," he begins, and he continues to speak of himself as the great sufferer except in vers. 22-47, where he passes into a description of the circumstances of the nation, and only refers to himself as a member of the community ("Let us search and try our ways," etc.). His account of his own sufferings reminds us, by its highly coloured phraseology, of certain of the psalms which purport to be the utterances of an individual, but which contain many phrases which are hyperbolical in the mouth of an individual Israelite. In the case of this third Lamentation, as well as in that of this important group of psalms, we seem irresistibly driven to the inference that the writer (whether Jeremiah or another) adopts the role of a poetical representative of the Israelitish people, or at any rate of the pious believers who formed the kernel of that people. This accounts for the curious alternation in ch. 3. of expressions which point to an individual Israelite with those which distinctly refer to the people, and for the seemingly extravagant character of the former, and also for the fondness which the author betrays for the great poem of Job, the hero of which is, in the intention of the writer (to be carefully distinguished from the intention of the traditional narrative), obviously a type of the righteous man in affliction. Compare, for instance, Lamentations 3:4 with Job 16:9, Job 16:10; Lamentations 3:7, Lamentations 3:9 with Job 19:8; Lamentations 3:8 with Job 30:20; Lamentations 3:10 with Job 10:16; Lamentations 3:12, Lamentations 3:13 with Job 7:20 and 16:12, 13; Lamentations 3:14, Lamentations 3:63 with Job 30:9.

And if the writer of Lamentations 3:0. at one point does fall out of his assumed role, this too has to some extent a parallel in Job, for both Job and his friends now and then "fall into language which implies that Job is not an individual, but plurality of persons." Neither poet was able to keep up the personification, or representative symbol, with entire consistency.

Before passing on to the second of the elegies reserved, we may, it would seem, draw one definite inference from the preceding data, viz. that the third chapter of Lamentations is not by the author of Lamentations 1:2, Lamentations 1:4. A similar result is obtained by an examination of the elegy which forms the fifth chapter. Turning to the Hebrew text, we are at once met by the fact that, unlike the companion elegies, it is not alphabetical, i.e. it does not make each of its verses begin with one of the Hebrew letters. Still, there is an approximation to the alphabetic form; the number of its verses (which are two lined) is the same as that of the Hebrew letters, viz. twenty-two It seems as if the close observance of the canons of alphabetic versification were too great a restriction for the writer of this elegy, just as some of the greatest English sonneteers bare felt the laws of the Italian sonnet confine their freedom of thought and expression unduly. The treatment of the subject is slightly varied in this elegy, which is little more than an enumeration of the insults heaped upon the Jews by their enemies. The poet speaks near the end of the elegy (ver. 20) as if this sad state of things had already continued a long time, from which it has generally been inferred that the poem was composed rather later than the rest of the collection. We must remember, however, that, as J.H. Newman says —

"... time is not a common property;
But what is long is short, and swift is slow,
And near is distant, as received and grasped
By this mind and by that, and every one
Is standard of his own chronology.'

To extreme grief, a few years might appear an age, and the short, simple sentences of which the poem consists have the ring of such genuine feeling, neither diluted by reflection nor overlaid by rhetoric, that we may well be reluctant to assume a very late date. They may conceivably have been improvised in the midst of persecution by one of the scanty remnant which remained in Judah even after the third deportation of exiles. Some of the winter's friends have sought refuge in Egypt (i.e. on the northeast frontier of Egypt, whither Jeremiah himself was carried by force, see Jeremiah 42, 44.); others have submitted to Assyria (a conventional term for the great Mesopotamian empire); the remainder of them are tyrannized over by upstarts of servile origin, such as many a modern Turkish pasha, placed over the land of Judah by the Babylonian suzerain. Yet so much relaxed are the bands of order, that savage, nomad tribes can venture to plunder them of their crusts of bread. Worse than all, Jerusalem is in ruins and uninhabited, and seems to have been so for an age, by the "pathetic fallacy" explained above.

We have seen that the fifth elegy in the collection can hardly be the work of the Prophet Jeremiah, who was probably already in Egypt when the poem was written. But we have also seen that, both in form and in contents, it differs from the other elegies, and we may now add that, linguistically, there is almost as little to connect it with its companions as with the Book of Jeremiah. The question, however, still remains whether at least some part of the Book of Lamentations (viz. either Lamentations 1:2, Lamentations 1:4, or ch. 3. alone) may not be the composition of that gifted prophet.

Let us first of all consider the internal evidence, and let us test the theory of Jeremiah's authorship by its applicability to the third chapter of the book, as the part which, upon the face of it, can most easily be claimed as Jeremiah's. It will be readily admitted that, if we take the poem literally, it points to Jeremiah more distinctly than to any other known individual. The deep affection which the writer betrays for his people, his sensitive nature, and the bitter sufferings which he (apparently) describes himself to have undergone, correspond to peculiarities which we have already had to notice in the character and life of Jeremiah. Some of the characteristic expressions, thoughts, or images of Jeremiah's have also been pointed out in this chapter; compare, for instance, Lamentations 3:47, Lamentations 3:48 with Jeremiah 4:6, Jeremiah 4:20, Jeremiah 4:6:1, Jeremiah 4:14 ("breach" equivalent to "destruction"), 9:1, 13:17, 14:17 (incessant tears); Lamentations 3:64-66 with Jeremiah 11:20 (appeal for vengeance). This comparison of expressions and ideas, however, is of very little worth. The parallels are but few in number, and, so far as they are valid (the last-quoted breaks down on examination), are easily accounted for on the theory of the writer's acquaintance with Jeremiah's prophecies, and they are altogether outweighed by the numerous expressions never found in the Book of Jeremiah (such will be found in all but three verses of the third chapter of Lamentations). As to the general suitability of this prolonged monologue to the character and life of the prophet, we need only refer to what has been said already in the Introduction to the Book of Jeremiah. Considering what a large body of literature there is, in which the spirit and even the expressions of Jeremiah may be recognized (e.g., besides Lamentations, Deuteronomy, Kings, Job, Isaiah 40-66., and certain of the psalms), it would be rash in the extreme to refer any part of it to that much-imitated prophet. There is certainly no direct statement in this elegy which compels as to regard either Jeremiah or any other prophet as the author.

The case for ascribing the remaining elegies to Jeremiah is proportionally weaker. There are, no doubt, expressions and ideas familiar to us in Jeremiah. Compare e.g. Lamentations 1:2, Lamentations 1:19 with Jeremiah 30:14; Lamentations 1:11 with Jeremiah 15:19; Lamentations 1:16 and 2:11 with Jeremiah 9:1, etc.; Lamentations 1:15 with Jeremiah 14:17 and 46:11; Lamentations 2:14 and 4:13-15 with Jeremiah 5:30, Jeremiah 5:31 and 14:13, 14; Lamentations 2:11, Lamentations 2:13, Lamentations 2:3:47, 48, and 4:10 with Jeremiah 4:6, Jeremiah 4:20 and 14:17, etc. But these, again, are far outweighed by the expressions unknown to Jeremiah, which occur in almost every verse of these elegies (see the lists in Naegelsbach's 'Jeremiah,' Introduction, § 3), and at least three passages militate rather strongly against the authorship of that prophet, viz. Lamentations 2:9 (where the writer regards the cessation of prophetic visions as a misfortune, contrast Jeremiah's denunciations in Jeremiah 23:0.); 4:17 (where the writer speaks of having formerly expected help from Egypt, contrast Jeremiah 2:18, Jeremiah 2:36); and 4:20 (where Zedekiah is spoken of respectfully and hopefully as Jeremiah can hardly be supposed to have done).

The external evidence for the authorship of Jeremiah consists of a tradition, accepted, perhaps, by Josephus ('Antiquities,' 10:5, 1), and certainly by the Talmud ('Baba Bathra,' fol. 15, Colossians 1:0) and the later Jewish and Christian scholars. The earliest authority for it is a statement prefixed to the Septuagint (and repeated with a few additional words in the Vulgate) in the following terms: — "And it came to pass, after Israel was taken captive, and Jerusalem made desolate, that Jeremias sat weeping, and lamented with this lamentation over Jerusalem, and said." This cannot, however, have formed part of the Hebrew text of Lamentations, else the Massoretic editors of the text (who beyond reasonable doubt believed Jeremiah to be the author of the book) would certainly have handed it on to us. It has, indeed, been suggested that the compiler of Chronicles attributed the book to Jeremiah, because he reports that "Jeremiah lamented for Josiah," and that his words (apparently) "are written in the Lamentations" (2 Chronicles 35:25) If this view is correct, the compiler of Chronicles interpreted the words, "the breath of our nostrils, the anointed of the Lord" (Lamentations 4:20), which really refer to Zedekiah, of Josiah. The view is not to be hastily rejected, although it is also possible that the statement in the Septuagint is due to a misinterpretation of the passage in Chronicles. In any ease, the tradition cannot be traced up to the time of Jeremiah, and is too evidently fictitious — first, because Jeremiah was not an eyewitness of the sad circumstances described in the Lamentations; and secondly, because, even if he had been so, such a tender-hearted man (whose prophetic utterance is almost stifled by tears) cannot be imagined as amusing himself, amid the ruins of Jerusalem, with inditing these highly artificial, not to say rhetorical, compositions in a style absolutely new to him. No; poems like these cannot have been produced till the worst misery of conquest had been partly mitigated by time. They are (from a literary point of view) the efforts of highly educated men to relieve their feelings by the help of art. They are more than this, no doubt; they are an evidence of the working of the Spirit of God on the minds of the more spiritually minded Jews, leading them to contrition and repentance. But we must before all things adopt a purely literary point of view in an inquiry as to date and authorship, and then we cannot but recognize that the first four Lamentations (which are alone now in question) are too elaborately artificial to have been the work of "Jeremiah sitting amid the ruins of Jerusalem." There is genuine feeling in them, however, only it has already Been softened by time. To assert, with Dean Plumptre, that the born poet "accepts the discipline of a self-imposed law just in proportion to the vehemence of his emotions," is incapable of proof from modern European poetry, and, if possible, still more opposed to the facts of Hebrew literature Some of the examples which the dean adduces are merely the rhetorical exercises of poets learning their craft; others merely concessions to the taste which every now and then prevails for superfine elaboration in every branch of art; others, again (and these few examples are alone in point), the attempts of the artists to help Nature to recover her balance, when the recovery has already begun and emotion has already lost its overwhelming vehemence. Members of the much-suffering Jewish race have many a time, since the Lamentations were written, had recourse for comfort to similar styles of composition, and verified the words of a great French critic, "When the passion is sincere, even the most artificial form assumes something of beauty."

Before we conclude, let us briefly review our position. The first, second, and fourth chapters of Lamentations may conceivably be by the same author; and though that author is certainly not Jeremiah, yet he is probably acquainted, whether by the ear or by the eye, with the prophecies of Jeremiah. He was contemporary with the fall of Jerusalem, and indited these elegies not long after for a liturgical purpose. It is, however, equally possible that they are the work of different authors, belonging to the same circle or school of literary craftsmen. About the same time, or a little later, the fifth and last seems to have been written, and very certainly not by the author of any of the foregoing Lamentations. The date of the third elegy may have been as early as that of the others, or it may have been written at some later time; — the personification of the people is thought by many critics to be a characteristic of those quiet literary men among the Jewish exiles in Babylon, to one of whom they attribute most if not all of the second part of the Book of Isaiah. In any case the author of the third Lamentation must have been acquainted with the other elegies (except the fifth), as there is a general similarity in the diction of the first four chapters of the book. There seems, in fact, to have been a peculiar and fixed vocabulary, traditional in this school of elegiac poets, just as there has been in other schools of writers. Jeremiah was probably the favourite book of these poets (next to the Psalter, so far as this book was in existence); and so, if a title must be given By way of defining the authorship, we might, perhaps, style the entire book, on the enalogy of a portion of the Psalter, "The Book of the Lamentations of the sons of Jeremiah."
The elegies on which we have been engaged were the forerunners of a largo Body of synagogue poetry; many of the kinoth (as one large class of the post-canonical as well as the five canonical elegies were called) were suggested By passages of the Book of Lamentations. Most of them, indeed, were specially written for that very fast day which we have already conjectured to have occasioned the composition of the canonical Lamentations. The most beautiful of the kinoth is probably that of Yehuda ben Samuel Halevi (twelfth century A.D.), which may be known even to some general readers by Heinrich Heine's poem in the 'Romanzero,' and which has been critically illustrated by A. von Oettingen, 'Die synagogale Elegik des Volkes Israel u.s.w.', with which may be compared Delitzsch's delightful and instructive work, 'Zur Geschichte der judischen Poesie.' Lastly, for a comprehensive article on the Hebrew elegy (in its Biblical forms) see a paper by Professor C. Budde, of Bonn, which opens the second volume of Stade's Zeitschrift for Old Testament studies.

For the exegetical and critical literature on Lamentations, we need only refer to the list of works on Jeremiah in Vol. 1, adding, however, Bickell, 'Carmina Veteris Testamenti Metrice,' Innsbruck, 1882 (a critically revised text of the chief poetical passages in the Old Testament, more to be trusted in the Lamentations than in the Psalms); Plumptre, 'Jeremiah and Lamentations,' in vol. 4. of Bishop Ellicott's 'Commentary,' London, 1884 (a truly popular and interesting work by a many-sided scholar).