Bible Commentaries

Whedon's Commentary on the Bible


Book Overview - Lamentations

by Daniel Whedon



1. Name.

LIKE most of the books of the Pentateuch, this book is called in the Hebrew by its first word — איכה — How? “Three prophets have used the word איכה with reference to Israel: Moses, Isaiah, and Jeremiah. To what are these to be likened? To three bridesmen who have seen the afterward widowed wife in three stages. The first has seen her in her opulence and her pride, and he said: ‘O how shall I bear alone your overbearing and your strife?’ Deuteronomy 1:12. The second has seen her in her dissipation and her dissoluteness, and he said: ‘O how is she become a harlot!’ Isaiah 1:21. And the third has seen her in her desolation, and he said: ‘O how does she sit solitary!’ Lamentations 1:1.” — Introduction to Echah Rabbathi.

The Rabbins use the name קינת (Kinoth) — Elegies or Lamentations; a term which is applied to David’s lament over Saul and Jonathan, and is repeatedly used in the Old Testament. (See Jeremiah 7:29; Jeremiah 9:10; Jeremiah 9:20, etc.) In 2 Chronicles 35:25, it is applied to the dirge composed by the prophet in memory of King Josiah, which some have conjectured to be identical with the fourth chapter of this book, though without sufficient reason.

In the Septuagint the title is Θρηνοι Ιερεμιου — Lamentations of Jeremiah; which title is expanded in the Vulgate to Θρηνοι, that is, Lamentationes Jeremiae Prophets. But both in the English and German Versions the title is simply “Lamentations.”

2. Position.

In the Septuagint, followed by the leading subsequent Versions, this book stands in close connexion with that of the prophecies of Jeremiah. Bleek regards this as the original arrangement, while that of the Masoretes, which places it in the third division of the Old Testament — the Hagiographa — must, in his opinion, be held as of later origin. This is in harmony with the tradition plainly stated in the Septuagint, that Jeremiah was its author. But it is better to consider the Masoretic arrangement as the original one. The Jews kept the LAW by itself as the first division of their Scriptures, and the vital germ out of which the whole Jewish culture was developed. Then came the PROPHETS, into which division they admitted the earlier histories written by the seers, which set forth the straight, ongoing development of the Hebrew life as it went forward toward its divinely appointed goal — the spiritual kingdom of the Messiah; and also the writings which were strictly prophetical in the narrow and special sense of the term. Then came all the rest of the books, under the general name of WRITINGS, embracing those books which bore a less manifest and direct relation to the visible theocracy; all lyrical, philosophical, subjective, episodical, and supplementary books. On this principle of arrangement this book should stand where we now find it in the Hebrew Bible, in the third division, by the side of the other poetical books. At a later time it was arranged as one of the five Megilloth — Ruth, Esther, Ecclesiastes, Canticles, and Lamentations.

3. Its Authorship.

Like many others of the biblical books it bears the name of no author, and so the inquiry as to its authorship is a legitimate and necessary one.

1. External testimony is practically unanimous in ascribing the book to Jeremiah. To the Septuagint Version the following words are prefixed: “And it came to pass after Israel had been carried away captive, and Jerusalem made desolate, Jeremiah sat weeping and lamented this lamentation over Jerusalem, and said.” This is copied with slight change into the Vulgate, and also into the Arabic Version. Josephus speaks of Jeremiah’s having composed “a dirge for Josiah’s funeral which remains unto this day;” words which probably identify the book though they misrepresent its subject. The Targum of Jonathan and the Talmud ascribe the book to Jeremiah, as does also the Syriac Version. When we add that such Christian Fathers as Origen and Jerome assume the authorship of Jeremiah as certain, and that the Jewish and Christian tradition to this effect is clear and unanimous down to the eighteenth century, it will appear that the external evidence for Jeremiah’s authorship is unusually full and perfect, and hence as nearly conclusive as external evidence in its nature can be.

2. Internal evidence is also in harmony with this view. The book must have proceeded from one occupying such a position as Jeremiah — an eye witness of the downfall of Judah and Jerusalem. The spirit and tone of the book accords perfectly with the character of Jeremiah, the tenderness, pathos, sorrow, severity, spirituality, and sense of isolation in whose writings constitute very marked and distinguishing peculiarities. The general style of these poems answers well to what we see in the prose writings of Jeremiah, in that it is simple almost to negligence, repetitious, and at the same time full of allusions to the earlier Hebrew literature. And if we look for the particular words and turns of expression which most characterize Jeremiah, we find not a few of them in these poems. For a specimen list of these consult Keil’s Introduction to the Old Testament, and also Keil’s Introduction to this book in his commentary.

The two most weighty objections to this view are: 1. That there are contradictions of sentiment between Lamentations and Jeremiah, 2. That some things in this book were taken from Ezekiel. For specifications under this last head consult the Introduction of Nagelsbach in his commentary, and also Keil. The one contradiction which has been pointed out and insisted on is between Lamentations 5:7, and Jeremiah 31:29-30. In the former it is said, “We have borne the iniquities” of the fathers; and in the latter it is said, “In those days they shall say no more, The fathers have eaten a sour grape, and the children’s teeth are set on edge. But every one shall die for his own iniquity,” etc. But here is no contradiction, but, on the contrary, perfect harmony. The things which are stated are different, indeed, but perfectly congruous, for both are true. And as to correspondences in language with Ezekiel which have been pointed out, they are all adequately explained by the simple fact that Jeremiah and Ezekiel shared a common life, and may even have known one another’s writings.

We see in these criticisms nothing conclusive, and, indeed, nothing of considerable weight in the considerations urged against the traditional view as to the authorship of this book, and hence do not hesitate to ascribe it to Jeremiah.

4. Its Form and Structure.

The book consists of five lyric poems, answering to the different chapters of the English Version. The first four of these are highly artificial in their structure, each one being arranged in twenty-two portions, answering to the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. The verses or divisions of the first three of these consist each of three double clauses, which clauses in the third chapter all begin with the same letter of the alphabet, as א, א, א, ב, ב, ב, etc., etc. In chapter four the verses consist of two clauses. In chapter five the alphabetical feature is not presented, but there is the same number of verses. Probably the departure from the alphabetic peculiarity is due to the fact that the character of the thought, being rather a prayer than an elegy, calls for less artificiality of structure.

There is one striking fact, however, as to the order of the letters in these alphabetic poems. In the first, the established order of the Hebrew alphabet is observed; but in the three others the verse beginning with pe ( ‹פ precedes that beginning with ayin, (ע.) This cannot be attributed to the mistake of the copyist, for the relations of the thought forbid this theory, as well as the fact that the same order is observed in three chapters successively. Michaelis, Ewald, and others conclude that there has been a change in the order of the letters; but of this there is no proof, and it is opposed to the testimony of the alphabetic psalms, most if not all of which are certainly older than this book. While, therefore, we are unable to explain this irregularity satisfactorily, we yet find that it stands not alone. Similar irregularities appear in the alphabetic psalms. The only thing really remarkable and exceptional is, the repetition of the same peculiarity in three poems successively.

5. Subject-Matter.

The general theme of these elegiac poems is the destruction of Jerusalem, the overthrow of the kingdom of Judah by the Chaldeans, and the consequent misery which had befallen the covenant people. But beneath all is the theocracy itself, apart from the fortunes of individuals, which had seemed to come into overthrow and ruin before the powers of this world. So that this saddest wail in all literature is born, not of sorrow and disappointment as to merely human and earthly interests, but of that deeper agony of soul which comes of the prostration of spiritual hopes.

These five poems bring to view different aspects of the common calamity. In the first, the sufferings of the people are dwelt upon; in the second, these are more distinctly referred to God, and counted as evidences of his displeasure in view of their sins; in the third, the spiritual sorrow and disappointment is made more prominent; in the fourth, all is referred to the sins of the people and the leaders; and finally, in the fifth, the prophet prays that Jehovah will remove the reproach of his people, and restore to them his favour.

6. Date.

The manifest organic relation of these poems necessitates the conclusion that they were written at or about the same time. The only possible exception is as to the last, and this is neither probable nor important. They must follow immediately the downfall of Jerusalem and Judah, for their vivid expressions of grief betoken the freshness and fearfulness of the calamity. It is possible, then, that the book originated in the interval between the destruction of Jerusalem and Jeremiah’s departure for Egypt. Or, with even greater probability may the book be referred to the month which elapsed between the capture of Jerusalem and its destruction. (Bleek.)

7. Liturgical Use.

“The Book of Lamentations has always been much used in liturgical services as giving the spiritual aspect of sorrow. It is recited in the Jewish synagogues on the ninth of Ab, the day on which the temple was destroyed. In the Roman Catholic Church it is sung at Vespers in Holy Week. In our own Church (the Church of England) the first, second, and third chapters were appointed in the first book of Edward VI. to be read on the Wednesday and Thursday before Easter. This having been discontinued in the second book of Edward VI., and in all subsequent revisions of the Prayer Book, was restored in 1871, when the whole of chap. iii, and portions of chaps. i, ii, and iv, were ordered to be read on the Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday in Holy Week. For this choice two chief reasons may be given: the first, that in the wasted city and homeless wanderings of the chosen people we see an image of the desolation and ruin of the soul cast away from God’s presence into the outer darkness because of sin; the second and chief, because the mournful words of the prophet set Him before us who has borne the chastisement due to human sin, and of whom instinctively we think as we pronounce the words: —


Is it nothing to you, all ye that pass by?

Behold and see

If there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow

Which is done unto me,

Wherewith Jehovah hath afflicted me

In the day of his fierce anger?”

Speaker’s Commentary.