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The Catholic Study Bible A special version of the New American Bible, with a wealth of background information useful to Catholics.

Historical Background

In the two centuries before the Lamentations were composed, Israel was in political decline, and its religious and national traditions in crisis. For those two centuries (from ca. 738 to 539 BC), with the exception of a brief resurgence under King Josiah during 627–609, the people lived under the control of two great empires, Assyria and then Babylon. The early sixth century, when Lamentations was written, was particularly difficult. That period witnessed Babylonian pressure, uncertain Judean leadership, and ultimately the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple and large deportations to Babylonia. The countryside was devastated, and the economy destroyed. Such dismal conditions called into question the national traditions that had provided earlier generations with meaning and helped them make sense of everyday life. The traditions proclaimed that Israel's God was supreme over all gods and nations and had liberated Israel from the Egyptians and given them the land of Canaan; the Lord made the land fertile and protected the people from their enemies. For most of the two centuries prior to Lamentations, the nation's experience had been otherwise. The nation's brilliant traditions seemed to mock the nation's bitter experience. The people were not liberated; their land belonged to others; many of them had been shipped off to servitude in Babylon. Where was the Lord in all this? What could the people hope for? Though the immediate cause of the composition of Lamentations was the destruction of the city and Temple in 586, the poems actually mourn a much longer period of divine absence and national humiliation.

Destruction of the Temple dealt a terrible blow to the ordinary way in which public prayer was carried out. Public prayer texts such as the psalms presupposed that the Lord chose to dwell on Zion (Jerusalem) and there receive the praise and petitions of Israel. Zion was the privileged place of encounter between Yahweh and the holy people. Through its elaborate ceremonies the Lord received the honor due the sovereign of the entire universe. The reform measures of King Josiah (622–609; see 2 Kgs 22–23 and 2 Chr 34–35 ) served to reinforce the position of Jerusalem as the center of Israelite worship. Among the hopes connected to Zion was that the nations would make pilgrimages to Zion to hear the Lord's word and offer their gifts to the supreme God (Is 2, 1–4; 60–61; 66, 18–21 ). The Temple deeply influenced the prayer of Israelites no matter where they lived. Even exiles customarily prayed in the direction of the Temple (1 Kgs 8, 35; Dn 6, 10; 1 Esd 4, 58 ) in order to enter into its prayer rhythms. Texts such as the psalms allowed individual Israelites to align their own prayer to the worship conducted in the Temple.

Moderns might assume that the Lord can appear equally at any time and any place, but ancients thought otherwise. Though Yahweh, the God of Israel, might appear and act in other places, Zion was his preeminent place of disclosure and encounter with Israel; only here was Israel fully “before the Lord.” Here the Lord was enthroned upon the cherubim (Pss 80, 1; 99, 1 ) and “judged,” that is, governed Israel and the nations. Zion was the goal of the three annual feasts of pilgrimage. Though the universe might totter, Zion, it was believed, would remain unshaken and secure (Pss 46, 2–3; 48, 4–8; 76, 3 ). The “Songs of Zion” (Pss 46, 48, 76, 84, 87, 121, 122 ) celebrated the city as the site of the victory over primordial enemies and the residence of Yahweh, patron of the Davidic dynasty. But with the Temple lying in ruins, Israelite worship changed profoundly. Lamentations attempted to find new modes of prayer—prayer in time of destruction.

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