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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.

Authorship and Place in the Bible

The irregularity of the book shows up in still other ways. Despite later tradition, quite a few signs point to someone other than Jeremiah as the author. Lamentations speaks favorably of the Davidic kings ( 4, 20 , “The anointed one of the Lord, our breath of life, was caught in their snares, he in whose shadow we thought we could live on among the nations”), whereas Jeremiah suffered severely from them (Jer 22, 13–19; 37 ) and did not center his hopes for the future on them. The vocabulary and religious perspective of the two books are quite different. The most ancient manuscripts of Lamentations do not mention Jeremiah as the author. Moreover, the two books are found in different parts of the Hebrew Bible, Jeremiah among the Prophets, and Lamentations among the Writings. The ascription of the book to Jeremiah came much later, an instance of the ancient practice of ascribing originally anonymous works to a famous hero. The statement in 2 Chronicles 35, 25 that Jeremiah composed a lamentation over King Josiah, “which can be found written in the Lamentations,” does not refer to the present book of Lamentations. In the Septuagint, the second‐century BC Greek translation, this book and that of Baruch (see Jer 36 ) are found immediately after the prophecy of Jeremiah. A Christian tradition points to a hillside cave north of the walled city of Jerusalem as the place where Jeremiah wept over the city and composed these laments. So common was the ascription to Jeremiah that the Council of Trent's enumeration of the inspired books of the Old Testament does not name Lamentations, but only “Jeremiah with Baruch” (Session IV, April 8, 1546). Lamentations became a part of the tradition of Jeremiah in reflecting upon suffering as a way of expiating sin.

Lamentations has a special affinity with the prophecies in the second and third parts of Isaiah (Is 40–55 and 56–66 ). Each deals with the horrendous problem of the destruction of Jerusalem, the Babylonian exile, and the return to a miserable postexilic Jerusalem. Both books have common images: the tongue parched with thirst (Lam 4, 4; Is 41, 17 ); the pouring out of wrath (Lam 2, 4; 4, 11; Is 42, 25 ); the call to the mind or heart (Lam 3, 21; Is 44, 19 ). The almost hopeless agony and strong pleading of Lamentations still resound for us today:

Our holy and glorious temple in which our fathers praised you Has been burned with fire; all that was dear to us is laid waste. Can you hold back, O Lord, after all this? Can you remain silent, and afflict us so severely? (Is 64, 10f )

Prayer linked the disciples of Isaiah in exile with those of Jeremiah among the ruins of Jerusalem. In addition to these shared traditions, Lamentations seems to receive and develop traditions found in Deuteronomy and Hosea. These books, with their stress on sensitivity, compassion, and fidelity, nourished the authors of Lamentations as they lamented their national catastrophe before God.

Was there a single author of Lamentations? Even though the five poems of Lamentations have much in common, it is difficult to decide upon a single author. They are better explained by traditions of prayer amid Israelites struggling to survive in the rubble of Jerusalem.

Praying with the Book

The five chapters are not intended to solve the problem of suffering; rather, they let us remain, sorrowing in God's presence. Prayer, like friendship, is not meant to accomplish something, only to be aware of the one we love. Nonetheless, we may find help in a few markers along the way.

The first lamentation begins with the sorrow of the author at the sight of the ruined city (vv. 1–11). Then Jerusalem herself confesses her sins, her hopes and her anger against the enemy (vv. 12–22).

The second lamentation lays the devastated city before God (vv. 1–10). Technically this is the style of a lament: simply to present the situation as it is in its pain and horror. After revealing personal sorrow (vv. 11f), the poet addresses the city from the depths of compassion (vv. 13–22), beginning: “To what can I liken or compare you, O daughter Jerusalem?”

The third lamentation turns into an individual cry of sorrow. It begins with an assertiveness that startles us at a time when people's spirits, like their homes, are broken apart:

I am a man who knows affliction from the rod of his [God's] anger. One whom he has led and forced to walk in darkness, not in the light.

While the poet speaks in his or her own name during most of the poem, in verses 25–47 other voices speak from a group of sages or wise persons and other friends, baffled by the tragedy (vv. 40–47). This poem is the most complex of all.

The fourth lamentation returns to the style and mood of the first two. The opening verses tell the end of nobles and children (vv. 1–10), followed by a meditation on Jerusalem (vv. 11f). After the responsibility is placed upon the religious leaders (vv. 13–20), the poem ends with a curse upon the enemy (vv. 21f).

The fifth and last lamentation was titled by the Latin Vulgate “The Prayer of Jeremiah.” This liturgical prayer sustains its beauty and serenity despite its topic of rejection and tragedy. It asks very little, only that the Lord remember.

Prayer beyond Theology

Lamentations allows us to remain with grief and tragedy long enough to mourn beauty and goodness as they deserve. If we do not mourn adequately, we may assume that nothing too precious was lost. We remain with God, even if events seemingly destroyed God's promises and, in the case of Lamentations, God's presence with us in the Temple. If our sorrow extends beyond the limits of our reasoning, then we plunge into a moment of time not for arguing theology but for allowing emotions to rush forward. Lamentations gushes from the dark, subterranean wellsprings of faith and sears the highest heavens in an outcry of anguish.

Without ever giving a reason, the book of Lamentations allows us to absorb a good purpose even in meaningless suffering. God, compassionate enough to bear our human outrage, walks us through dark gullies to a plateau of peace. This book is a triumph of faith over theology, at least theology in the days of the prophet Jeremiah. Because the Davidic dynasty and the holy city of Jerusalem received promises of God's eternal protection (Pss 46; 89; 132 ), priests and other prophets wanted Jeremiah killed for threatening the city with destruction (Jer 26 ). National laments, other than Lamentations, had already plunged beyond the limits of theology. In its second part of lament and reflection (vv. 10–23 ), Psalm 44 reverses the theological statements of the introduction (vv. 2–9 ) and introduces its final section almost blasphemously: “Awake! Why do you sleep, O Lord?” Blasphemous, because Psalm 121 declares: “The Lord, the maker of heaven and earth … never slumbers nor sleeps. The Lord is your guardian” (vv. 2 and 4 ). It is not that theology is false, only that it has its limits. At such times contemplative prayer does what nothing else can do for us; it sustains us in God's presence with our agony and outrage.

Israelites prayed to God in the place which God had abandoned (Ez 10, 18–23 ). They gathered in the Temple ruins (Jer 41, 4–7 ), a dead place that paradoxically comes alive to address the assembly:

Come, all you who pass by the way, look and see Whether there is any suffering like my suffering… When the Lord afflicted me on the day of his blazing wrath (Lam 1, 12 ).

Other prayers besides Lamentations were being composed: for instance, Isaiah 63, 7–64, 11; Pss 79 and 80 . Israel seemed to survive less by theological tradition, more within a community at prayer before a compassionate God. This same God admits publicly in Second Isaiah that Israel has received double for all her sins (Is 40, 2 ), that is, too much. There are instances, again beyond the limits of theology, where God regrets divine anger and punishment (Ex 32, 14; 2 Sm 24, 16; Jer 42, 10 ).

Influence of Lamentations in Judaism and Christianity

Later Jewish tradition counted Lamentations as one of the five festival scrolls (the Megilloth), with Song of Songs, Ruth, Ecclesiastes, and Esther. Lamentations was read in the liturgy on the “ninth of Ab,” sorrowfully remembering the two destructions of Jerusalem, by the Babylonians in 587 BC and by the Romans in ad 70.

The Christian church has used Lamentations in reference to Christ's Passion. In the Latin church, Lamentations played an important and memorable role in the Holy Week services prior the reforms of Vatican II. They were sung during the ceremony of Tenebrae (“darkness”), probably named from the custom of extinguishing one candle after each psalm until the church was left in darkness. Several of the Tenebrae texts (though not Lamentations) have survived in the revised morning offices for Good Friday and Holy Saturday. In general, the Lamentations are used sparingly in the Roman Catholic lectionary; there are only three selections among the many Old Testament selections for masses for the dead and only one in the readings for masses “for any need.” It remains a challenge for the church to learn how to incorporate laments into its public prayer so that the pains and difficulties of Christian discipleship are represented as fully as the peace and joy of faith.

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