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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary
Lamentations

Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4
Chapter 5

Book Overview - Lamentations

by William Nicoll

HEBREW ELEGIES

THE book which is known by the title "The Lamentations of Jeremiah" is a collection of five separate poems, very similar in style, and all treating of the same subject-the desolation of Jerusalem and the sufferings of the Jews after the overthrow of their city by Nebuchadnezzar. In our English Bible it is placed among the prophetical works of the Old Testament, standing next to the acknowledged writings of the man whose name it bears. This arrangement follows the order in the Septuagint, from which it was accepted by Josephus and the Christian Fathers. And yet the natural place for such a book would seem to be in association with the Psalms and other poetical compositions of a kindred character. So thought the Rabbis who compiled the Jewish canon. In the Hebrew Bible the Book of Lamentations is assigned to the third collection, that designated "Hagiographa," not to the part known as the "Prophets."

In form as well as in substance this book is a remarkable specimen of a specific order of poetry. The difficulty of recovering the original pronunciation of the language has left our conception of Hebrew metres in a state of obscurity. It has been generally supposed that the rhythm was more of sight than of sound, but that it consisted essentially in neither, depending mainly on the balance of ideas. The metre, it has been stated, might strike the eye in the external aspect of the sentences; it was designed much more to charm the mind by the harmony and music of the thoughts. But while these general principles are still acknowledged, some further progress has been made in the examination of the structure of the verses, with the result that both more regularity of law and more variety of metre have been discovered. The elegy in particular is found to be shaped on special lines of its own. It has been pointed out that a peculiar metre is reserved for poems of mournful reflection.

The first feature of this metre to be noted is the unusual length of the line. In Hebrew poetry, according to the generally accepted pronunciation, the lines vary from about six syllables to about twelve. In the elegy the line most frequently runs to the extreme limit, and so acquires a slow, solemn movement.

A second feature of elegiac poetry is the breaking of the lengthy line into two unequal parts-the first part being about as long as a whole line in an average Hebrew lyric, and the second much shorter, reading like another line abbreviated, and seeming to suggest that the weary thought is waking up and hurrying to its conclusion. Sometimes this short section is a thin echo of the fuller conception that precedes, sometimes the completion of that conception. In the English version, of course, the effect is frequently lost; still occasionally it is very marked, even after passing through this foreign medium. Take, for example, the lines,

"Her princes are become like harts-that find no pasture,

And they are gone without strength-before the pursuer; "{Lamentations 1:6}

or again the very long line,

"It is of the Lord’s mercies that we are not consumed-because His compassions fail not." [Lamentations 3:22]

Now although this is only a structural feature it points to inferences of deeper significance. It shews that the Hebrew poets paid special attention to the elegy as a species of verse to be treated apart, and therefore that they attached a peculiar significance to the ideas and feelings it expresses. The ease with which the transition to the elegiac form of verse is made whenever an occasion for using it occurs is a hint that this must have been familiar to the Jews. Possibly it was in common use at funerals in the dirge. We meet with an early specimen of this verse in Amos, when, just after announcing that he is about to utter a lamentation over the house of Israel, the herdsman of Tekoa breaks into elegiacs with the words,

"The virgin daughter of Israel is fallen-she shall no more rise:

She is cast down upon her land-there is none to raise her up." [Amos 5:2]

Similarly constructed elegiac pieces are scattered over the Old Testament scriptures from the eighth century B.C. onwards. Several illustrations of this peculiar kind of metre are to be found in the Psalms. It is employed ironically with terrible effect in the Book of Isaiah, where the mock lament over the death of the king of Babylon is constructed in the form of a true elegy. When the prophet made a sudden transition from his normal style to sombre funereal measures his purpose would be at once recognised, for his words would sound like the tolling bell and the muffled drums that announce the march of death; and yet it would be known that this solemn pomp was not really a demonstration of mourning or a symbol of respect, but only the pageantry of scorn and hatred and vengeance. The sarcasm would strike home with the more force since it fell on men’s ears in the heavy, lingering lines of the elegy, as the exultant patriot exclaimed,

How hath the oppressor ceased-the golden city ceased!

The Lord hath broken the staff of the wicked-"the sceptre of the rulers," etc. {Isaiah 14:4 ff.}

A special characteristic of the five elegies that make up the Book of Lamentations is their alphabetical arrangement. Each elegy consists of twenty-two verses, the same number as that of the letters in the Hebrew alphabet. All but the last are acrostics, the initial letter of each verse following the order of the alphabet. In the third elegy every line in the verse begins with the same letter. According to another way of reckoning, this poem consists of sixty-six verses arranged in triplets, each of which not only follows the order of the alphabet with its first letter, but also has this initial letter repeated at the beginning of each of its three verses. Alphabetical acrostics are not unknown elsewhere in the Old Testament; there are several instances of them in the Psalms. {e.g., Psalms 9:1-20; Psalms 10:1-18; Psalms 25:1-22; Psalms 34:1-22; Psalms 37:1-40; Psalms 119:1-176; Psalms 145:1-21} The method is generally thought to have been adopted as an expedient to assist the memory. Clearly it is a somewhat artificial arrangement, cramping the imagination of the poet; and it is regarded by some as a sign of literary decadence. Whatever view we may take of it from the standpoint of purely artistic criticism, we can derive one important conclusion concerning the mental attitude of the writer from a consideration of the elaborate structure of the verse. Although this poetry is evidently inspired by deep emotion-emotion so profound that it cannot even be restrained by the stiffest vesture-still the author is quite self-possessed: he is not at all over-mastered by his feelings; what he says is the outcome of deliberation and reflection.

Passing from the form to the substance of the elegy, our attention is arrested on the threshold of the more serious enquiry by another link of connection between the two. In accordance with the custom of which we have other instances in the Hebrew Bible, the first word in the text is taken as the title of the book. The haphazard name is more appropriate in this case than it sometimes proves to be, for the first word of the first chapter - the original Hebrew for which is the Jewish title of the book - is"how." Now this is a characteristic word for the commencement of an elegy. Three out of the five elegies in Lamentations begin with it; so does the mock elegy in Isaiah. Moreover, it is not only suggestive of the form of a certain kind of poetry; it is a hint of the spirit in which that poetry is conceived; it strikes the key-note for all that follows. Therefore it may not be superfluous for us to consider the significance of this little word in the present connection.

In the first place, it is a sort of note of exclamation prefixed to the sentence it introduces. Thus it infuses an emotional element into the statements which follow it. The word is a relic of the most primitive form of language. Judging from the sounds produced by animals and the cries of little children, we should conclude that the first approach to speech would be a simple expression of excitement-a scream of pain, a shout of delight, a yell of rage, a shriek of surprise. Next to the mere venting of feeling comes the utterance of desire-a request, either for the possession of some coveted boon, or for deliverance from something objectionable. Thus the dog barks for his bone, or barks again to be freed from his chain; and the child cries for a toy, or for protection from a terror. If this is correct it will be only at the third stage of speech that we shall reach statements of fact pure and simple. Conversely, it may be argued that as the progress of cultivation develops the perceptive and reasoning faculties and corresponding forms of speech, the primitive emotional and volitional types of language must recede. Our phlegmatic English temperament predisposes us to take this view. It is not easy for us to sympathise with the expressiveness of an excitable Oriental people. What to them is perfectly natural and not at all inconsistent with true manliness strikes us as a childish weakness. Is not this a trifle insular? The emotions constitute as essential a part of human nature as the observing and reasoning faculties, and it cannot be proved that to stifle them beneath a calm exterior is more right and proper than to give them a certain adequate expression. That this expression may be found even among ourselves is apparent from the singular fact that the English, who are the most prosaic people in their conduct, have given the world more good poetry than any other nation of modern times; a fact which, perhaps, may be explained on the principle that the highest poetry is not the rank outgrowth of irregulated passions, but the cultivated fruit of deep-rooted ideas. Still these ideas must be warmed with feeling before they will germinate. Much more, when we are not merely interested in poetic literature, when we are in earnest about practical actions, an artificial restraint of the emotions must be mischievous. No doubt the unimpassioned style has its mission-in allaying a panic, for example. But it will not inspire men to attempt a forlorn hope. Society will never be saved by hysterics; but neither will it ever be saved by statistics. It may be that the exclamation how is a feeble survival of the savage howl. Nevertheless the emotional expression, when regulated as the taming of the sound suggests, will always play a very real part in the life of mankind, even at the most highly developed stage of civilisation.

In the second place, it is to be observed that this word introduces a tone of vagueness into the sentences which it opens. A description beginning as these elegies begin would not serve the purpose of an inventory of the ruins of Jerusalem such as an insurance society would demand in the present day. The facts are viewed through an atmosphere of feeling, so that their chronological order is confused and their details melt one into another. That is not to say that they are robbed of all value. Pure impressionism may reveal truths which no hard, exact picture can render clear to us. These elegies make us see the desolation of Jerusalem more vividly than the most accurate photographs of the scenes referred to could have done, because they help us to enter into the passion of the event.

With this idea of vagueness, however, there is joined a sense of vastness. The note of exclamation is also a note of admiration. The language is indefinite in part for the very reason that the scene beggars description. The cynical spirit which would reduce all life to the level of a Dutch landscape is here excluded by the overwhelming mass of the troubles bewailed. The cataract of sorrow awes us with the greatness of its volume and the thunder of its fall.

From suggestions thus rising out of a consideration of the opening word of the elegy we may be led on to a perception of similar traits in the body of this poetry. It is emotional in character; it is vague in description; and it sets before us visions of vast woe.

But now it is quite clear that poetry such as this must be something else than the wild expression of grief. It is a product of reflection. The acute stage of suffering is over. The writer is musing upon a sad past; or if at times he is reflecting on a present state of distress, still he is regarding this as the result of more violent scenes, in the midst of which the last thing a man would think of doing would be to sit down and compose a poem. This reflective poetry will give us emotion, still warm, but shot with thought.

The reflectiveness of the elegy does not take the direction of philosophy. It does not speculate on the mystery of suffering. It does not ask such obstinate questions, or engage in such vexatious dialects, as circle about the problem of evil in the Book of Job. Leaving those difficult matters to the theologians who care to wrestle with them, the elegist is satisfied to dwell on his theme in a quiet, meditative mood, and to permit his ideas to flow on spontaneously as in a reverie. Thus it happens that, artificial as is the form of his verse, the underlying thought seems to be natural and unforced. In this way he represents to us the afterglow of sunset which follows the day of storm and terror.

The afterglow is beautiful-that is what the elegy makes evident. It paints the beauty of sorrow. It is able to do so only because it contemplates the scene indirectly, as portrayed in the mirror of thought. An immediate vision of pain is itself wholly painful. If the agony is intense, and if no relief can be offered, we instinctively turn aside from the sickening sight. Only a brutalised people could find amusement in the ghastly spectacle of the Roman amphitheatre. It is cited as a proof of Domitian’s diabolical cruelty that the emperor would have dying slaves brought before him in order that he might watch the facial expression of their last agonies. Such scenes are not fit subjects for art. The famous group of the Laocoon is considered by many to have passed the boundaries of legitimate representation in the terror and torment of its subject; and Ecce Homos and pictures of the crucifixion can only be defended from a similar condemnation when the profound spiritual significance of the subjects is made to dominate the bare torture. Faced squarely, in the glare of day, pain and death are grim ogres, the ugliness of which no amount of sentiment can disguise. You can no more find poetry in a present Inferno than flowers in the red vomit of a live volcano. Men who have seen war tell us they have discovered nothing attractive in its dreadful scenes of blood and anguish and fury. What could be more revolting to contemplate than the sack of a city, -fire and sword in every street, public buildings razed to the ground, honoured monuments defaced, homes ravaged, children torn from the arms of their parents, young girls dragged away to a horrible fate, lust, robbery, slaughter rampant without shame or restraint, the wild beast in the conquerors let loose, and a whole army, suddenly freed from all rules of discipline, behaving like a swarm of demons just escaped from hell. To think of cultivating art or poetry in the presence of such scenes would be as absurd as to attempt a musical entertainment among the shrieks of lost souls.

The case assumes another aspect when we pass from the region of personal observation to that of reflection. There is no beauty in the sight of a captured castle immediately after the siege which ended in its fall, its battlements shattered, its walls seamed with cracks, here and there a breach, rough and ragged, and strewn with stones and dust. And yet, by slow degrees and in imperceptible ways, time and nature will transform the scene until moss-grown walls and ivy-covered towers acquire a new beauty only seen among ruins. Nature heals and time softens, and between them they throw a mantle of grace over the scars of what were once ugly, gaping wounds. Pain as it recedes into memory is transmuted into pathos: and pathos always fascinates us with some approach to beauty. If it is true that

"Poets learn in sorrow what they teach in song,"

must it not be also the fact that sorrow while inspiring song is itself glorified thereby? To use suffering merely as the food of aestheticism would be to degrade it immeasurably. We should rather put the case the other way. Poetry saves sorrow from becoming sordid by revealing its beauty, and in epic heroism even its sublimity. It helps us to perceive how much more depth there is in life than was apparent under the glare and glamour of prosperity. Some of us may recollect how shallow and shadowy our own lives were felt to be in the simple days before we had tasted the bitter cup. There was a hunger then for some deeper experience which seemed to lie beyond our reach. While we naturally shrank from entering the via dolorosa, we were dimly conscious that the pilgrims who trod its rough stones had discovered a secret that remained hidden from us, and we coveted their attainment, although we did not envy the bitter experience by which it had been acquired. This feeling may have been due in part to the foolish sentimentality that is sometimes indulged in by extreme youth; but that is not the whole explanation of it, for when our path conducts us from the flat, monotonous plain of ease and comfort into a region of chasms and torrents, we do indeed discover an unsuspected depth in life. Now it is the mission of the poetry of sorrow to interpret this discovery to us. At least it should enable us to read the lessons of experience in the purest light. It is not the task of the poet to supply a categorical answer to the riddle of the universe; stupendous as that task would be, it must be regarded as quite a prosaic one. Poetry will not fit exact answers to set questions, for poetry is not science; but poetry will open deaf ears and anoint blind eyes to receive the voices and visions that haunt the depths of experience. Thus it leads on to

"That blessed mood,

In which the burden of the mystery,

In which the heavy and the weary weight

Of all this unintelligible world Is lightened."

It may not be obvious to the reader of an elegy that this function is discharged by such a poem, for elegiac poetry seems to aim at nothing more than the thoughtful expression of grief. Certainly it is neither didactic nor metaphysical. Nevertheless in weaving a wreath of imagination round the sufferings it bewails it cannot but clothe them with a rich significance. It would seem to be the mission of the five inspired elegies contained in the Book of Lamentations thus to interpret the sorrows of the Jews, and through them the sorrows of mankind.

THE ORIGIN OF THE POEMS

As we pass out of Jerusalem by the Damascus Gate, and follow the main north road, our attention is immediately arrested by a low hill of grey rock sprinkled with wild flowers, which is now attracting peculiar notice because it has been recently identified with the "Golgotha" on which our Lord was crucified. In the face of this hill a dark recess-faintly suggestive of the eye-socket, if we may suppose the title "Place of a skull" to have arisen from a fancied resemblance to a goat’s skull is popularly known as "Jeremiah’s grotto," and held by current tradition to be the retreat where the prophet composed the five elegies that constitute our Book of Lamentations. Clambering with difficulty over the loose stones that mark the passage of winter torrents, and reaching the floor of the cave, we are at once struck by the suspicious aptness of the "sacred site." In a solitude singularly retired, considering the proximity of a great centre of population, the spectator commands a full view of the whole city, its embattled walls immediately confronting him, with clustered roofs and domes in the rear. What place could have been more suitable for a poetic lament over the ruins of fallen Jerusalem? Moreover, when we take into account the dread associations derived from the later history of the Crucifixion, what could be more fitting than that the mourning patriot’s tears for the woes of his city should have been shed so near to the very spot where her rejected Saviour was to suffer? But unfortunately history cannot be constructed on the lines of harmonious sentiments. When we endeavour to trace the legend that attributes the Lamentations to Jeremiah back to its source we lose the stream some centuries before we arrive at the time of the great prophet. No doubt for ages the tradition was undisputed; it is found both in Jewish and in Christian literature-in the Talmud and in the Fathers. Jerome popularised it in the Church by transferring it to the Vulgate, and before this Josephus set it down as an accepted fact. It is pretty evident that each of these parallel currents of opinion may have been derived from the Septuagint, which introduces the book with the sentence, "And it came to pass, after Israel had been carried away captive, and Jerusalem had become desolate, that Jeremiah sat weeping, and lamented with this lamentation over Jerusalem, and said," etc. Here our upward progress in tracking the tradition is stayed; no more ancient authority is to be found. Yet we are still three hundred years from the time of Jeremiah! Of course it is only reasonable to suppose that the translators of the Greek version did not make their addition to the Hebrew text at random, or without what they deemed sufficient grounds. Possibly they were following some documentary authority, or, at least, some venerable tradition. Of this we know nothing. Meanwhile, it must be observed that no such statement exists in the Hebrew Bible; and it would never have been omitted if it had been there originally.

One other witness has been adduced, but only to furnish testimony of an obscure and ambiguous character. In 2 Chronicles 35:25 we read, "And Jeremiah lamented for Josiah; and all the singing men and singing women spake of Josiah in their lamentations, unto this day; and they made them an ordinance in Israel; and, behold, they are written in the lamentations." Josephus, and Jerome after him, appear to assume that the chronicler is here referring to our Book of Lamentations. That is very questionable; for the words describe an elegy on Josiah, and our book contains no such elegy. Can we suppose that the chronicler assumed that inasmuch as Jeremiah was believed to have written a lament for the mourners to chant in commemoration of Josiah, this would be one of the poems preserved in the collection of Jerusalem elegies familiar to readers of his day? Be that as it may, the chronicler wrote in the Grecian period, and therefore his statements come some long time after the date of the prophet.

In this dearth of external testimony we turn to the book itself for indications of origin and authorship. The poems make no claim to have been the utterances of Jeremiah; they do not supply us with their author’s name. Therefore there can be no question of genuineness, no room for an ugly charge of "forgery," or a delicate ascription of "pseudonymity." The case is not comparable to that of 2 Peter, or even to that of Ecclesiastes-the one of which directly claims apostolic authority, and the other a "literary" association with the name of Solomon. It is rather to be paralleled with the case of the Epistle to the Hebrews, a purely anonymous work. Still there is much which seems to point to Jeremiah as the author of these intensely pathetic elegies. They are not like MacPherson’s "Ossian"; nobody can question their antiquity. If they were not quite contemporaneous with the scenes they describe so graphically they cannot have originated much later; for they are like the low wailings with which the storm sinks to rest, reminding us how recently the thunder was rolling and the besom of destruction sweeping over the land. Among the prophets of Israel Jeremiah was the voice crying in the wilderness of national ruin; it is natural to suppose that he too was the poet who poured out sad thoughts of memory in song at a later time when sorrow had leisure for reflection. His prophecies would lead us to conclude that no Jew of those dark days could have experienced keener pangs of grief at the incomparable woes of his nation. He was the very incarnation of patriotic mourning. Who then would be more likely to have produced the national lament? Here we seem to meet again none other than the man who exclaimed, "Oh that I could comfort myself against sorrow! my heart is faint within me," [Jeremiah 8:18] and again, "Oh that my head were waters, and mine eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night for the slain of the daughter of my people." [Jeremiah 9:1] Many points of resemblance between the known writings of Jeremiah and these poems may be detected. Thus Jeremiah’s "Virgin Daughter" of God’s people reappears as the "Virgin daughter of Judah." In both the writer is oppressed with fear as well as grief; in both he especially denounces clerical vices, the sins of the two rival lines of religious leaders, the priests and the prophets; in both he appeals to God for retribution. There is a remarkable likeness in tone and temper throughout between the two series of writings. It would be possible to adduce many purely verbal marks of similarity; the commentator on Lamentations most frequently illustrates the meaning of a word by referring to a parallel usage in Jeremiah.

On the other hand, several facts raise difficulties in the way of our accepting of the hypothesis of a common authorship. The verbal argument is precarious at best; it can only be fully appreciated by the specialist, and if accepted by the general reader, it must be taken on faith. Of course this last point is no valid objection to the real worth of the argument in itself; it cannot be maintained that nothing is true which may not be reduced to the level of the "meanest intelligence," or the "differential calculus" would be a baseless fable. But when the specialists disagree, even the uninitiated have some excuse for holding the case to be not proved for either side: and it is thus with the resemblances and the differences between Jeremiah and Lamentations, long lists of phrases used in common being balanced with equally long lists of peculiarities found in one only of the two books in question. The strongest objection to the theory that Jeremiah was the author of the Lamentations, however, is one that can be more readily grasped. These poems are most elaborately artistic in form, not to say artificial. Now the objection which is roused by that fact is not simply due to the loose and less shapely construction of the prophecies; for it may justly be urged that the literary designs entertained by the prophet in the leisure of his later years may have led him to cultivate a style which would have been quite unsuitable for his practical preaching or for the political pamphlets he used to fling off in the heat of conflict. It originates in deeper psychological contradictions. Is it possible that the man who had shed bitterest tears, as from his very heart, in the dismal reality of misery, could play with his troubles in fanciful acrostics? Can we imagine a leading actor in the tragedy turning the events through which he had passed into materials for aesthetic treatment? Can we credit this of so intense a soul as Jeremiah? The composition of "In Memoriam" may be cited as an instance of the production of highly artistic poetry under the influence of keen personal sorrow. But the case is not parallel; for Tennyson was a passive mourner over the loss of a friend under circumstances with which he had no connection, while Jeremiah had contended strenuously for years on the field of action. Could a man with such a history have set himself to work up its most doleful experiences into the embroidery of a peculiarly artificial form of versification? That is the gravest difficulty. Other objections of minor weight follow. In the third elegy Jeremiah would seem to be giving more prominence to his own personality than we should have expected of the brave, unselfish prophet. In the fourth the writer appears to associate himself with those Jews who were disappointed in expecting deliverance from an Egyptian alliance, when he complains-

"Our eyes do yet fail in looking for our vain help:

In watching we have watched for a nation that could not save." [Lamentations 4:17]

Would Jeremiah, who bade the Jews bow to the scourge of Jehovah’s chastisement and look for no earthly deliverer, thus confess participation in the worldly policy which he, in common with all the true prophets, had denounced as faithless and disobedient? Then, while sharing Jeremiah’s condemnation of the priests and prophets, the writer appears to have only commiseration for the fate of the poor weak king Zedekiah. [Lamentations 4:20] This is very different from Jeremiah’s treatment of Jeremiah 3:2-3.

It is not a serious objection that our poet says of Zion,

"Yea, her prophets find no vision from the Lord," [Lamentations 2:9]

while we know that Jeremiah had visions after the destruction of Jerusalem, {e.g. Jeremiah 42:7} because the general condition may still have been one characterised by the silencing of the many prophets with whose oracles the Jews had been accustomed to solace themselves in view of threatened calamities; nor that he exclaims,

"Shall the priest and the prophet be slain in the sanctuary of the Lord?" [Lamentations 2:20]

although Jeremiah makes no mention of this twofold assassination, because we have no justification for the assumption that he recorded every horror of the great tragedy; nor, again, that the author is evidently familiar with the Book of Deuteronomy, and refers frequently to the "Song of Moses" in particular, for this is just what we might have expected of Jeremiah; and yet these and other similar but even less conclusive points have been brought forward as difficulties. Perhaps it is a more perplexing fact, in view of the traditional hypothesis, that the poet appears to have made use of the writings of Ezekiel. Thus the allusion to the prophets who have "seen visions of vanity and foolishness," [Lamentations 2:14] points to the fuller description of these men in the writings of the prophet of the exile, where the completeness of the picture shews that the priority is with Ezekiel. {e.g. Ezekiel 12:24; Ezekiel 13:6-7; Ezekiel 22:28} Similarly the "perfection of beauty" ascribed to the daughter of Jerusalem in the second elegy, (Lamentations 2:15) reminds us of the similar phrase that occurs more than once in Ezekiel. [Ezekiel 27:3; Ezekiel 28:12] Still, that prophet wrote before the time to which the Lamentations introduce us, and it cannot be affirmed that Jeremiah could not have seen his writings, or would not have condescended to echo a phrase from them. A difficulty of a broader character must be felt in the fact that the poems themselves give us no hint of Jeremiah. The appearance of the five elegies in the "Hagiographa" without any introductory notice is a grave objection to the theory of a Jeremiah authorship. If so famous a prophet had composed them, would not this have been recorded? Even in the Septuagint, where they are associated with Jeremiah, they are not translated by the same hand as the version of the prophet’s acknowledged works. It may be that none of the objections which have been adduced against the later tradition can be called final; nor when regarded in their total force do they absolutely forbid the possibility that Jeremiah was the author of the Lamentations. But then the question is not so much one of possibility as one of probability. We must remember that we are dealing with anonymous poems that make no claim upon any particular author, and that we have no pleas whatever, special or more general, on which to defend the guesses of a much later and quite uncritical age, when people cultivated a habit of attaching every shred of literature that had come down from their ancestors to some famous name.

Failing Jeremiah, it is not possible to hit upon any other known person with the least assurance. Some have followed Bunsen in his conjecture that Baruch the scribe may have been the author of the poems. Others have suggested a member of the family of Shaphan, in which Jeremiah found his most loyal friends. {See Jeremiah 26:24; Jeremiah 29:3 ff, Jeremiah 40:5}

It is much questioned whether the five elegies are the work of one man. The second, the third, and the fourth follow a slightly different alphabetical arrangement from that which is employed in the first-in reversing the order of two letters while the internal structure of the verses in the third shews another variation-the threefold repetition of the acrostic. Then the personality of the poet emerges more distinctly in the third elegy as the centre of interest-a marked contrast to the method of the other poems. Lastly, the fifth differs from its predecessors in several respects. Its lines are shorter; it is not an acrostic; it is chiefly devoted to the insults heaped upon the Jews by their enemies; and it seems to belong to a later time, for while the four previous poems treat of the siege of Jerusalem and its accompanying troubles, this one is concerned with the subsequent state of servitude, and reflects on the ruin of the nation across some interval of time. Thus the poet cries-

"Wherefore doest thou forget us forever,

And forsake us so long time?" [Lamentations 5:20]

A recent attempt to assign the last two elegies to the age of the Maccabees has entirely broken down. The points of agreement with that age which have been adduced will fit the Babylonian period equally well, and the most significant marks of the later time are entirely absent. Is it conceivable that a description of the persecution by Antiochus Epiphanes would contain no hint of the martyr fidelity of the devout Jews to their law which was so gloriously maintained under the Maccabees? The fourth and fifth elegies are as completely silent on this subject as the earlier elegies.

The evidence that points to any diversity of authorship is very feeble. The fifth elegy may have been written years later than the rest of the book, and yet it may have come from the same source, for the example of Tennyson shews that the gift of poetry is not always confined to but a brief interval in the poet life. The other distinctions are not nearly so marked as some that may be observed in the recognised poems of a single author-for example, the amazing differences between the smooth style of the "Idylls of the King" and the quaint dialect of the "Northern Farmer." Though some differences of vocabulary have been discovered, the resemblances between all the five poems are much more striking. In motive and spirit and feeling they are perfectly agreed. While therefore in our ignorance of the origin of the Lamentations, and in recognition of the variations that have been indicated, we cannot deny that they may have been collected from the utterances of two or even three inspired souls, neither are we by any means forced to assent to this opinion; and under these circumstances it will be justifiable as well as convenient to refer to the authorship of Lamentations in terms expressive of a single individual. One thing is fairly certain. The author was a contemporary, an eye-witness of the frightful calamities he bewailed. With all their artificiality of structure these elegies are the outpourings of a heart moved by a near vision of the scenes of the Babylonian invasion. The swift, vivid pictures of the siege and its accompanying miseries force upon our minds the conclusion that the poet must have moved in the thick of the events he narrates so graphically, although, unlike Jeremiah, he does not seem to have been a leading actor in them. Children cry to their mothers for bread, and faint with hunger at every street corner; the ghastly rumour goes forth that a mother has boiled her baby; elders sit on the ground in silence; young maidens hang their heads despairing; princes tremble in their helplessness; the enemy break through the walls, carry havoc into the city, insolently trample the sacred courts of the temple; even the priest and the prophet do not escape in the indiscriminate carnage; wounded people are seen, with blood upon their garments, wandering aimlessly like blind men; the temple is destroyed, its rich gold bedimmed with smoke, and the city herself left waste and desolate, while the exultant victors pour ridicule over the misery of their prey. A later generation would have blurred the outline of these scenes, regarding them through the shifting mists of rumour, with more or less indistinctness. Besides, the motive for the composition of such elegies would vanish with the lapse of time. Still some few years must be allowed for the patriot’s brooding over the scenes he had witnessed, until the memory of them had mellowed sufficiently for them to become the subjects of song. The fifth elegy, at all events, implies a considerable interval. Jerusalem was destroyed in the year B.C. 587; therefore we may safely date the poems from about B.C 550 onwards-i.e., at some time during the second half of the sixth century. What is of more moment for us to know is that we have here no falsetto notes, such as we may sometimes detect in Virgil’s exquisite descriptions of the siege of Troy, for the poet has witnessed the fiery ordeal the recollection of which now inspires his song.

Thus out of the unequalled woes of Jerusalem destroyed he has provided for all ages the typical, divinely inspired expression of sorrow-primarily the expression of sorrow-and then associated with this some pregnant hints both of its dark relationship to sin and of its higher connection with the purposes of God.

THE THEME

No more pathetic subject ever inspired a poet than that which became the theme of the Lamentations. Wave after wave of invasion had swept over Jerusalem, until at length the miserable city had been reduced to a heap of ruins. After the decisive defeat of the Egyptians at the great battle of Carchemish during the reign of Jehoiakim, Nebuchadnezzar broke into Jerusalem and carried off some of the sacred vessels from the temple, leaving a disorganised country at the mercy of the wild tribes of Bedouin from beyond the Jordan. Three months after the accession of Jehoiakin, the son of Jehoiakim, the Chaldaeans again visited the city, pillaged the temple and the royal palace, and sent the first band of captives, consisting of the very elite of the citizens, with Ezekiel among them, into captivity at Babylon. This was only the beginning of troubles. Zedekiah, who was set up as a mere vassal king, intrigued with Pharaoh Hophra, a piece of folly which called down upon himself and his people the savage vengeance of Nebuchadnezzar. Jerusalem now suffered all the horrors of a siege, which lasted for a year and a half. Famine and pestilence preyed upon the inhabitants: and yet the Jews were holding out with a stubborn resistance, when the invaders effected an entrance by night, and were encamped in the temple court before the astonished king was aware of their presence. Zedekiah then imitated the secrecy of his enemies. With a band of followers he crept out of the eastern gates, and fled down the defile towards the Jordan; but he was overtaken near Jericho, and conveyed a prisoner to Riblah; his sons were killed in his very presence, his eyes were burnt out, and the wretched man sent in chains to Babylon. The outrages perpetrated against the citizens at Jerusalem as well as the sufferings of the fugitives were such as are only possible in babarous warfare. Finally the city was razed to the ground and her famous temple burnt.

The Lamentations bewail the fall of a city. In this respect they are unlike the normal type of elegaic poetry. As a rule, the elegy is personal in character and individualistic, mourning the untimely death of some one beloved friend of the writer. It is the revelation of a private grief, although with a poet’s privilege its author calls upon his readers to share his sorrow. In the classic model of this order of verse Milton justifies the intrusion of his distress upon the peace of nature by exclaiming-

"For Lycidas is dead, dead ere his prime,

Young Lycidas and hath not left his peer.

Who would not sing for Lycidas?"

And Shelley, while treating his theme in an ethereal, fantastic way, still represents Alastor, the Spirit of Solitude, in the person of one who has just died, when he cries-

"But thou art fled,

Like some frail exhalation which the dawn

Robes in its golden beams, -ah! thou hast fled!

The brave the gentle, and the beautiful

The child of grace and genius."

Gray’s well-known elegy, it is true, is not confined to the fate of a single individual; the churchyard suggests the pathetic reflections of the poet on the imaginary lives and characters of many past inhabitants of the village. Nevertheless these cross the stage one by one; the village itself has not been destroyed, like Goldsmith’s "Sweet Auburn." Jeremiah’s lamentation on the death of Josiah must have been a personal elegy; so was the scornful lament over the king of Babylon in Isaiah. But now we have a different kind of subject in the Book of Lamentations. Here it is the fate of Jerusalem, the fate of the city itself as well as that of its citizens, that is deplored. To rouse the imagination and awaken the sympathy of the reader Zion is personified, and thus the poetry is assimilated in form to the normal elegy. Still it is important for us to take note of this distinguishing trait of the Lamentations; they bewail the ruin of a city.

Poetry inspired with this intention must acquire a certain breadth not found in more personal effusions. Too much indulgence in private grief cannot but produce a narrowing effect upon the mind. Intense pain is as selfish as intense pleasure. We may mourn our dead until we have no room left in our sympathies for the great ocean of troubles among the living that surges round the little island of our personal interests.

This misfortune is escaped in the Lamentations. Close as is the poet’s relations with the home of his childhood, there is still some approach to altruism in his lament over the desolation of Jerusalem viewed as a whole, rather than over the death of his immediate friends alone. There is a largeness, too, in it. We find it difficult to recover the ancient feeling for the city. Our more important towns are so huge and shapeless that the inhabitants fail to grasp the unity, the wholeness of the wilderness of streets and houses; and yet they so effectually overshadow the smaller towns that these places do not venture to assume much civic pride. Besides, the general tendency of modern life is individualistic. Even the more recent attempts to rouse interest in comprehensive social questions are conceived in a spirit of sympathy for the individual rights and needs of the people, and do not spring from any great concern for the prosperity of the corporation as such. No doubt this is an indication of a movement in a right direction. The old civic idea was too abstract; it sacrificed the citizens to the city, beautifying the public buildings in the most costly manner, while the people were crowded in miserable dens to rot and die unseen and unpitied. We substitute sanitation for splendour. This is more sensible, more practical, more humane, if it is more prosaic; for life is something else than poetry. Still it may be worth while asking whether in aiming at a useful, homely object it is so essential to abandon the old ideal altogether, because it cannot be denied that the price we pay is seen in a certain dinginess and commonness of living. Is it necessary that philanthropy should always remain Philistine?

The largeness of view which breaks upon us when we begin to think of the city as a whole rather than only of a number of isolated individuals is more than a perception of mass and magnitude. The city is an organism; and not like an animal of the lower orders, such as the anelids or centipedes, in which every segment is simply a replica of its neighbour, it is an organism maintained in efficiency by means of a great variety of mutual ministries. Thus it is a unit in itself more elaborately differentiated, and therefore in a sense higher in the scale of being than its constituent elements, the individual inhabitants. The destruction of a city constituted in this way is a serious loss to the world. Even if no one inhabitant is killed, and quite apart from the waste of property and the ruin of commerce, the dissolution of the organism leaves a tremendous gap. The scattered people may acquire a new prosperity in the land of their exile, but still the city will have vanished. The Jews survived the destruction of Jerusalem; yet who shall estimate the loss that this destruction of their national capital involved?

Then the city being a definite organic unit has its own history, a history which is immensely more than the sum of the biographies of its inhabitants - stretching down from the remote ages, and joining the distant past with present days. Here, then, time adds to the largeness of the city idea. The brevity of life seems to assign a petty part to the individual. But that brevity vanishes in the long, continuous story of an ancient city. A man may well be proud of his connection with such a record, unless it be one of wickedness and shame; and even in that case his relations to a great city deepen and widen his life, though the result may be, as it was with the devout Jew, to induce grief and humiliation. But Jerusalem had her records of glory as well as her tales of shame. The city of David and Solomon held garnered stores of legend and history, in the rich memories of which each of her children had a heritage. The overthrow of Jerusalem was the dissipation of a great inheritance.

And this is not all. The city has its own peculiar character-a character which is not only more than a summary of the morals and manners of the men and women who live in it, but also unique when compared with other cities. Every city that can boast of real civic life has its distinctive individuality; and often this is as striking as the individuality of any private person. Birmingham is very unlike Manchester; nobody could mistake Glasgow for Edinburgh. London, Paris, Berlin, Rome, Melbourne, New York-each of these cities is unique. The particular city may be said to be the only specimen of its kind. If one is blotted out the type is lost; there is no duplicate. Athens and Sparta, Rome and Carthage, Florence and Venice, were rivals which could never take the place of one another. Most assuredly Jerusalem stood alone, stamped with a character which no other place in the world approached, and charged with a perfectly unique mission. For such a city to vanish off the face of the earth was the impoverishment of the world in the loss of what no nation in all the four continents could ever supply.

In saying this we must be careful to avoid the anachronism of reading into the present situation the after history of the sacred city and the character therein evolved. In the days before the Exile Jerusalem was not the holy place that Ezra and Nehemiah subsequently laboured to make of it. Still looking back across the centuries we can see what perhaps the contemporaries could not discover, that the peculiar destiny of Jerusalem was already shaping itself in history. At the time, to the patriotic devotion of the mourning Jews, she was their old home, the happy dwelling-place of their childhood, the shrine of their fathers’ sepulchres-Nehemiah’s thought about the city even at a later date; [Nehemiah 2:3] in a word, the ancient centre of national life and union, strength and glory. But another and a higher meaning was beginning to gather about the word Jerusalem, a meaning which has come in course of time to give this city a place quite solitary and unrivalled in all history. Jerusalem is now revered as the religious centre of the world’s life. Even in this early age she was beginning to earn her lofty character. Josiah’s reformation had so far succeeded that the Temple of Solomon had been pronounced the centre of the worship of Jehovah. Then these elegies bear witness to the importance of the national festivals, which were all held at the capital, and which were all of a religious nature. It is impossible to conjecture what would have been the course of the religious history of the world if Jerusalem had been blotted out forever at this period of the life of the city. More than five centuries later Jesus Christ declared that the time had come when neither at the Samaritan mountain nor at Jerusalem should men worship the Father, because God is Spirit and can only be worshipped in spirit and in truth. Thus the possibility of this spiritual worship which was independent of the sanctity of any place was a question of time. The time for it had only just arrived when our Lord made His great declaration. Of course the calendar could not rule this matter; it was not essentially a matter of dates. But the world required all those intervening ages to ripen into fitness for the lofty act of purely spiritual worship; and even then the great advance was not made by a process of simple development. It was necessary for Christ to come, both to reveal the higher nature of worship by revealing the higher nature of Him who was the object of worship, and also to bestow the spiritual grace through which men and women could practise the true worship. Therefore these very words of our Lord which proclaim the absolute spirituality of worship for those who have attained to His teaching most plainly imply that such worship must have been beyond the reach of average people, at all events, in earlier ages. Jerusalem, then, was needed to serve as the cradle of the religion revealed through her prophets. When her wings had grown religion could dispense with the nest; but in her unfledged condition the destruction of the local shelter threatened the death of the broodling.

There is a hopeful side to these reflections. A city with such a character may be said to bear the seeds of her own revival. Her individuality has that within it which fights against extinction. To put it another way, the idea of the city is too marked and too attractive for its privileged custodians to let it fade out of their minds, or to rest satisfied without attempting once more to have it realised in visible form. Carthage might perish; for Carthage had few graces wherewith to stir the enthusiasm of her citizens. Rome, on the other hand, had developed a character and a corresponding destiny of her own; and therefore she could not be blotted out by savage Huns or Vandal hosts. The genius for government, un-approached by any other city, could not be suppressed by the worst ravages of the invader. Even when political supremacy had passed away in consequence of the vices and weakness of the degenerate citizens, the power that had ruled the world simply took another shape and ruled the Church, the supremacy of Rome in the papacy succeeding to the supremacy of Rome in the empire. So was it with Jerusalem. There was immortality in this wonderful city.

We may look at the subject from two points of view. First, faith in God encourages the hope that such a destiny as is here foreshadowed should not be allowed to fail. So felt the prophets who were permitted to read the counsels of God by inspired insight into the eternal principles of His nature. These men were sure that Jerusalem must rise again from her ashes because they knew for a certainty that her Lord would not let His purposes concerning her be frustrated.

Then, even with the limited vision which is all that can be attained from the lower platform of historical criticism, we may see that Jerusalem had acquired such an immortal place in the estimation of the Jews, that the people must have clung to the idea of a restoration till it was realised. To say this is to shew that the realisation could not but be accomplished. Such passionate regrets as those of the Lamentations are seeds of hope.

May we go one step further? Is not every true and deep regret a prophecy of restoration? There is an irrecoverable past, it must be owned. That is to say, the days that are gone cannot return, nor can deeds once done ever be undone; the future will never be an exact repetition of the past. But all this does not forbid the assurance that there may be genuine restoration. Jerusalem restored was very unlike the city whose fate the elegist bewailed; nevertheless she was restored, and that with her essential characteristics more pronounced than ever. Henceforth she was to be most completely what her earlier history had only faintly adumbrated-the typical seat of religion. Thus, though the Lamentations are not at all cheering or prophetic in tone, or even in intention, but the very reverse, wholly mournful and despondent, we may still detect, in the very intensity and persistence of the sorrow they portray, gleams of hope for better days. There is no hope in stolid indifference; it is in the penitent’s tears that we discover the prospect of his amendment. Repentance weeps for the past, but at the same time it looks forward with a changed mind that is the promise of better things to come. Why should not we apply these ideas that spring from a consideration of the five Hebrew elegies to other elegies-to the dirges that mourn the loved and dead? If we could willingly let the departed drop out of thought we might have little ground for believing we should ever see them again. But sorrow for the dead immortalises them in memory. In a materialistic view of the universe that might mean nothing but the perpetuity of a sentiment. But then it may by itself help us to perceive the superficiality, the utter falseness of such a view. Thus Tennyson sees the answer to the crushing doubts of materialism and the assurance of immortality for the departed in the strength of the love with which they are cherished:

"What is it all if we all of us end but in being our own corpse coffins at last,

Swallowed in Vastness, lost in Silence, drowned in the deeps of a meaningless Past!

What but a murmur of gnats in the gloom, or a moment’s anger of bees in their hive?

Peace, let it be! for I loved him, and love him forever. The dead are not dead, but alive."

Lectionary Calendar
Thursday, November 21st, 2019
the Week of Proper 28 / Ordinary 33
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