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Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible

Lamentations, Book of

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LAMENTATIONS, BOOK OF

1. Occasion . In b.c. 586 Nebuchadnezzar captured Jerusalem, put out the eyes of Zedekiah, slew the princes, burned the Temple and palaces, razed the walls, and deported the inhabitants (save some of the poorest sort) to forced labour in Babylon ( 2 Kings 25:1-30 ). These events and their religious meaning are the theme of the five complete hymns in the Book of Lamentations. The poet looked on these calamities as the death of the Jewish people; and he prepares an elegy for the national funeral.

2. Date . It need not be supposed that Jeremiah went about composing acrostics while Jerusalem was burning; on the other hand, the language of the poems is not that of some Rabbinical versifier after Nehemiah’s time. Between the desolation of b.c. 586 and the restoration of b.c. 536 is the time limit for the production of this book.

3. Form . The form of these elegies has been recognized to be the type of Hebrew poetry which is peculiar to threnody. Its metrical character depends on the structure of the single line. The line has not the exact measure of a Latin hexameter or pentameter, but consists of five to seven words, making on an average eleven syllables. The line is divided by sense and grammar into two unequal parts, as 6:5 or Lamentations 4:3 ; the first part being more emphatic in sense, and the second forming an antiphonal supplement to the first. Thus Lamentations 1:1

‘Ah now! she sits alone the populous city,

Husbandless doomed to be the foremost of peoples.

Once the princess over states a serf in a gang.’

Such is the qînâh -metre, found also in parts of Amos, Isaiah, and Ezekiel.

4. Arrangement . These Hebrew elegiacs may stand singly, as in Lamentations 3:1-66 , or in two-lined stanzas, as in ch. 4, or in three-lined stanzas, as in chs. 1 and 2. But there is also in Lam. a more artificial embellishment. The 22 stanzas of chs. 1, 2, and 4 are introduced by the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet in regular order, except that 2 and 4 place the letter Pe before the letter Ayin . This inexplicable variation in the order of the letters has been held to imply a difference in authorship. Again ch. 3 has 66 verses, the lines beginning aaa; bbb, etc. Ch. 5 has 22 verses, but no acrostic; and its lines are of a slightly different structure. As this chapter is a prayer, these external marks may have been felt to be inappropriate. The poetic form of Lam. is thus the result of elaborate effort; but this need not imply the absence of genuine feeling. The calamity in remembrance seemed to call for an adequate form of expression, and to invite the resources of technical skill.

5. Contents . The contents of the five hymns are not pervaded by clear lines of thought; but the nature of the subject forbids us to look for the consistency of a geometrical theorem. The cruel scenes, the pity and horror they occasioned, the religious perplexity at the course of events, are depicted sometimes by the poet himself, again by Jerusalem, or by the personified community. Ch. 1 describes the ruin of Jerusalem and the humiliation of the exiles Lamentations 1:1-11 in the words of the poet, while the city itself speaks in Lamentations 1:12-22 . The second hymn finds the sting of their sufferings in the fact that they are inflicted by Jehovah, their ancient defender. Ch. 3, ‘the triumph song of ethical optimism,’ recounts the national misery ( Lamentations 3:1-18 ), perceives the purpose of Jehovah in their calamities ( Lamentations 3:19-47 ), and calls the people to penitence ( Lamentations 3:48-66 ). Ch. 4 contrasts the past history of Zion with its present condition, and ch. 5 is a prayer for mercy and renewal of ancient blessings. The hope for Judah was the compassion of the Lord; ‘therefore let us search and try our ways and turn again to the Lord’ ( Lamentations 3:40 ). It forms a curious contrast to the consolation offered to Athens in her decline and fall through the comedies of Aristophanes.

6. Authorship . No author is named in Lam. itself. In 2 Chronicles 35:25 we read that ‘ Jeremiah lamented for Josiah, and all the singing men and singing women spake of Josiah unto this day; and they made them an ordinance in Israel: and behold they are written in the lamentations.’ This statement is 300 years later than the fall of Jerusalem; and Lam. has nothing to do with Josiah. But it ascribes standard elegies to Jeremiah. The LXX [Note: Septuagint.] , followed by the Vulgate and other versions, names Jeremiah the prophet as the author of Lam.; and this view prevailed universally till recent times. Internal evidence has been considered unfavourable to Jeremiah’s authorship. The alphabetic form, a few peculiar words, an affinity in chs. 2 and 4 with Ezekiel, in chs. 1 and 5 with the younger Isaiah, and in ch. 3 with late Psalms, the accumulation of pictorial metaphors, the denial of vision to prophets, the reliance on Egypt ( Lamentations 4:17 ), are given (Löhr, Com .) as conclusive objections to Jeremiah’s being the writer. But the acrostic form would then have the charm of novelty, and would be useful as a mnemonic for professional mourners; and it is not prophecy to which it is here attached. The affinities with later books are not very marked, and may he due to derivation from the elegies. And there is avowedly much resemblance in vocabulary and thought between Jeremiah and Lamentations. Both trace disaster to the sin of the nation, both deprecate trust in alliances, and both inculcate penitence and hope. Probably the internal evidence originated the traditional view that Jeremiah was the author; and the newer scrutiny of the evidence seems hardly sufficient to disprove the verdict of the ancients.

Again it is asked, Would one author make five independent poems on one and the same subject? If several authors treated the theme independently, it is not likely that their work would hear juxtaposition so well as the collection in Lamentations. Jeremiah’s life ended some 6 or 7 years after the Captivity began; and Lamentations 5:20 implies a longer interval since the devastation. If we assign, with Thenius, chs. 2 and 4 to Jeremiah, and suppose that some disciples of the prophet imitated his model in 1, 3, and 5, then perhaps the differences and similarities in the several hymns may be accounted for. When Jerusalem was destroyed by Titus in a.d. 70, there was no new qînâh ; the elegies seem to presuppose a personality of Jeremiah’s type as their originator.

7. Names . The Hebrew name of Lam. is ’Ekhâh (‘Howl’), the first word in the book. It is also called Qînôth or ‘Elegies.’ The LXX [Note: Septuagint.] has Threnoi ( Ieremiou ); Vulg. [Note: Vulgate.] , Threni, id est lamentationes Jeremiœ prophetœ , and this is the source of the English title.

8. Position in the Canon . In Hebrew Bibles Lam. is placed in the third division of the OT Canon. Its place is generally in the middle of the five Megilloth , between Ruth and Ecclesiastes. The Jews recite the book on the Black Fast (9th of Ab) the anniversary of the destruction of Jerusalem. In the Greek OT and the other versions Lam. is attached to the prophecies of Jeremiah, in accordance with the current belief in his authorship.

D. M. Kay.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Lamentations, Book of'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdb/l/lamentations-book-of.html. 1909.


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