The book of Lamentations, also commonly known as the Lamentations of Jeremiah, consists of five poems occasioned by the siege and fall of Jerusalem in 587/586 BCE. Beginning with very early times, perhaps not long after the events (see Jer. 41.5; Zech. 7.3–5; 8.19), these laments have been used in Jewish, and later in Christian worship, as an expression of grief at the destruction of the city and also for more generalized sorrow, as in Christian liturgies of Good Friday, as well as an appeal for divine mercy. The book has attracted special interest among biblical scholars because of its relatively strict poetic form, all the chapters being alphabetic acrostics or related in some way to the alphabet.
The title “Lamentations” of the English Bible comes from the Vulgate's threni or Greek thrēnoi, translating a Hebrew title qînoôt, “laments.” In Jewish tradition the book is most often called after its first word 'êkâ, “How!”
Contents and Plan.
The contents and plan of the book are difficult to summarize, since the form of the poems is dictated more by the alphabetic acrostics than by a narrative or logical sequence. In the first two poems, there is an alternation between the viewpoint of an observer of the calamity and the personified city itself. The third chapter, formally the most elaborate, also reaches heights of poignancy. The anonymous speaker is “one who has seen affliction”; through this persona the causes of the fall of the city are explored, and then the poem moves to a tentative expression of patient hope. Chap. 4 is mostly taken up with recollection of the horrors of the final days before the collapse of the city, and chap. 5 is a kind of liturgical close to the book, ending in an appeal to God for help.
Authorship and Date.
One ancient tradition ascribes the book of Lamentations to the prophet Jeremiah, and this has even affected the traditional depiction of Jeremiah in western art as the “weeping prophet.” Another ancient tradition, however, is silent as to the authorship of the book, thus implying that the author was unknown, and this is also the commonly held modern critical opinion.
The Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, groups Lamentations with the book of Jeremiah, and prefaces the book with these words: “…Jeremiah sat weeping and composed this lament over Jerusalem and said…” Other ancient versions, as well as rabbinic sources, make the same ascription to the prophet. Although there is no explicit warrant for this in the Bible, there is a kind of basis for it in the comment in 2 Chronicles 35.25 that Jeremiah produced a “lament” or “laments” for King Josiah.
In the Hebrew scriptures themselves, Lamentations is not placed with Jeremiah. It is always placed not among the Prophets but with the Writings, the third division of the Jewish canon. Within this division its position varies, though it is usually placed somwehre with the five short books known as the five “scrolls” (see Megillot). This position is significant testimony to the original anonymity of Lamentations, for it is difficult to see why the book was separated from that of Jeremiah if from the beginning it was understood to have been composed by the prophet. In modern times, scholars have pointed out elements in Lamentations that seem so much at odds with the views and personality of the prophet Jeremiah that it becomes very difficult to think of him as their author. Lamentations 1.10 refers to the enemies' entry into the Temple as a thing forbidden by God, whereas Jeremiah (7.14) had predicted it. Jeremiah foresaw the failure of foreign alliances (2.18; 37.5–10), but the author of Lamentations 4.17 shared with his people a frustrated longing for help from “a nation that could not save.” Still further evidence of this sort may be pointed out, leading to the common opinion that the book's author—or authors, since the work is not strongly unified—is best regarded as unknown.
It is clear that Lamentations was written after the fall of Jerusalem in 587/586 BCE, but otherwise the date is uncertain. Since it expresses no clear hope for relief from conditions of bondage and humiliation, it probably dates to a time well before 538, when Cyrus permitted the Jews to return from exile. The book may have been written in Judah (rather than Babylon or Egypt), since it displays no interest in any other locale.
Chaps. 1 and 2 are made up of three‐line stanzas, with the first line of the first stanza beginning with the first letter of the alphabet (ʾālep), the second with the second (bêt), and so on through the twenty‐two letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Chap. 4 follows the same scheme, but with two‐line stanzas. Chap. 3 is a tour de force, having three‐line stanzas with each of the three lines beginning with the proper letter. Chap. 5 is not an acrostic, but has twenty‐two lines, so the alphabet still to some extent determines the form.
The purpose of this alphabetic and acrostic form is unknown. It is unlikely to have been merely a mnemonic device, but no definite meaning or symbolism can confidently be attached to this formal feature, and it is safest to say that the author seems to have aimed at some aesthetic effect. In any case, the acrostics make it possible to be relatively sure where the lines of the poems begin and end, a situation unusual in Hebrew verse, which was ordinarily copied just like prose, without regard for lines of verse (see Poetry, Biblical Hebrew). With this foundation, scholars have found in most of Lamentations a special “lament meter,” in which the second of two parallel lines is shorter than the first. Although the complete aptness of this designation may be questioned, Lamentations continues to occupy a prominent place in the study of ancient Hebrew metrics.
Lamentations and Sumerian Laments.
The Sumerians, authors of the world's oldest written literature, cultivated a genre of composition known today as “lament over the ruined city and temple.” Laments over the ancient southern Mesopotamian cities Ur, Sumer and Ur (together), Nippur, Eridu, and Uruk were composed in the early second millennium BCE and were copied in the scribal schools. These texts have survived in whole or in part, and most have been edited and translated. As a result, it is possible to trace parallels in conception and expression between this body of laments and the biblical book of Lamentations.
The subject matter in the two cases is very similar—a holy city is destroyed by the god of that city—and could be expected to produce similarities in diction quite apart from any literary contact, so that some scholars prefer to minimize the significance of parallels between the biblical book and Sumerian laments and their Akkadian descendants. Such a view likely underestimates the force of the evidence, and it is preferable to posit that Lamentations is a representative of an Israelite city‐lament genre. This genre is reflected also in the prophetic books, and is related as a genre to the Mesopotamian works, though details of this process are only conjectural.
Delbert R. Hillers