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International Standard Bible Encyclopedia
Lamentations, Book of
This is a collective name which tradition has given to 5 elegies found in the Hebrew Canon that lament the fate of destroyed Jerusalem. The rabbis call this little book
The little book consists of 5 lamentations, each one forming the contents of a chapter. The first 4 are marked by the acrostic use of the alphabet. In addition, the
These 5 hymns all refer to the great national catastrophe that overtook the Jews and in particular the capital city, Jerusalem, through the Chaldeans, 587-586 BC. The sufferings and the anxieties of the city, the destruction of the sanctuary, the cruelty and taunts of the enemies of Israel, especially the Edomites, the disgrace that befell the king and his nobles, priests and prophets, and that, too, not without their own guilt, the devastation and ruin of the country - all this is described, and appeal is made to the mercy of God. A careful sequence of thought cannot be expected in the lyrical feeling and in the alphabetical form. Repetitions are found in large numbers, but each one of these hymns emphasizes some special feature of the calamity. Lamentations 3 is unique, as in it one person describes his own peculiar sufferings in connection with the general calamity, and then too in the name of the others begins a psalm of repentance. This person did not suffer so severely because he was an exceptional sinner, but because of the unrighteousness of his people. These hymns were not written during the siege, but later, at a time when the people still vividly remembered the sufferings and the anxieties of that time and when the impression made on them by the fall of Jerusalem was still as powerful as ever.
Who is the author of these hymns? Jewish tradition is unanimous in saying that it was Jeremiah. The hymns themselves are found anonymously in the Hebrew text, while the Septuagint has in one an additional statement, the Hebrew style of which would lead us to conclude that it was found in the original from which the version was made. This statement reads: "And it came to pass, after Israel had been taken away captive and Jerusalem had been laid waste, that Jeremiah sat weeping, and uttered this lamentation over Jerusalem and said." The Targum also states that Jeremiah was the author. The rabbis and the church Fathers have no doubts on the subject. Jerome (compare on Zechariah 12:11 ) thinks that 2 Chronicles 35:25 refers to these hymns. The same is said by Josephus ( Ant. , X, v, 1). If this were the case, then the writer of Chronicles would have regarded Lam as having been written because of the death of Josiah. But this misunderstanding is not to be ascribed to him. It was easily possible that he was acquainted with lamentations of such a nature, but which afterward were lost. At all events, Jeremiah was by nature adapted to the composition of such elegies, as is proved by his book of prophecies.
Only in modern times has the authorship of these hymns by Jeremiah been seriously called into question; and it is now denied by most critics. For this they give formal and material reasons: The language of these lamentations shows many similarities to the discourses of Jeremiah, but at the same time also many differences. The claim that the alphabetical scheme is not worthy of Jeremiah is a prejudice caused by the taste of our times. Hebrew poets had evidently been making use of such methods for a long time, as it helps materially in memorizing. At the time of the first acute suffering on account of the destruction of Jerusalem, in fact, he would probably not have made use of it. But. we have in this book a collection of lamentations' written some time after this great catastrophe. The claim has also been made that the views of Jeremiah and those of the composer or the composers of these poems differ materially. It is said that Jeremiah emphasizes much more strongly the guilt of the people as the cause of the calamity than is done in these hymns, which lament the fate of the people and find the cause of it in the sins of the fathers (Lamentations 5:7 ), something that Jeremiah is said not to accept (Jeremiah 31:29 f). However, the guilt of the people and the resultant wrath of God are often brought out in these hymns; and Jeremiah does not deny ( Jeremiah 31:29 f) that there is anything like inherited guilt. He declares rather that in the blessed future things would be different in this respect. Then, too, we are not to forget that if Jeremiah is the author of these patriotic hymns, he does not speak in them as the prophet and the appointed accuser of his people, but that he is at last permitted to speak as he humanly feels, although there is no lack of prophetical reminiscences (of Lamentations 4:21 f). In these hymns he speaks out of the heart that loves his Jerusalem and his people, and he utters the priestly prayer of intercession, which he was not allowed to do when announcing the judgment over Israel. The fact that he also evinces great reverence for the unfortunate king and his Divinely given hereditary dignity ( Lamentations 4:20 ), although as a prophet he had been compelled to pronounce judgment over him, would not be unthinkable in Jeremiah, who had shown warm sympathies also for Jehoiachim (Jeremiah 22:24 , Jeremiah 22:28 ). A radical difference of sentiment between the two authors is not to be found. On the other hand, a serious difficulty arises if we claim that Jeremiah was not the author of Lamentations in the denunciations of Lamentations over the prophets of Jerusalem (Lamentations 2:14; Lamentations 4:13 ). How could the great prophet of the Destruction be so ignored if he himself were not the author of these sentiments? If he was himself the author we can easily understand this omission. In his book of prophecies he has spoken exactly the same way about the prophets. To this must be added, that Lam 3 forces us to regard Jeremiah as the author, because of the personal sufferings that are here described. Compare especially Lamentations 3:14 , Lamentations 3:37 f, 53 ff, 61, 63. What other person was during the period of this catastrophe the cynosure of all eyes as was the prophet, especially, too, because he was guiltless? The claim that here, not an individual, but the personified nation is introduced as speaking, is altogether improbable, and in some passages absolutely impossible ( Lamentations 3:14 , Lamentations 3:48 ).
This little book must accordingly be closely connected with the person of Jeremiah. If he himself is the author, he must have composed it in his old age, when he had time and opportunity to live over again all the sufferings of his people and of himself. It is, however, more probable, especially because of the language of the poems, that his disciples put this book in the present shape of uniform sentential utterances, basing this on the manner of lamentations common to Jeremiah. In this way the origin of Lamentaions 3 can be understood, which cannot artificially be shaped as his sayings, as in this case the personal feature would be more distinctly expressed. It was probably compiled. from a number of his utterances.
In the Hebrew Canon this book is found in the third division, called
Comms. of Thenius, Ewald, Nagelsbach, Gerlach, Keil, Cheyne, Oettli, Lohr, Budde; article by Robertson Smith on "Lamentations" in
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Orr, James, M.A., D.D. General Editor. Entry for 'Lamentations, Book of'. International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/isb/l/lamentations-book-of.html. 1915.