The book familiarly known as the Lamentations consists of four elegies[1] (i., ii., iii., iv.) and a prayer (v.). The general theme of the elegies is the sorrow and desolation created by the destruction of Jerusalem[2] in 586 B.C.: the last poem (v.) is a prayer for deliverance from the long continued distress. The elegies are all alphabetic, and like most alphabetic poems (cf. Ps. cxix.) are marked by little continuity of thought. The first poem is a lament over Jerusalem, bereft, by the siege, of her glory and her sanctuary, i.1-11, though the bitter and comfortless doom which she bewails in i.12-22, is regarded as the divine penalty for her sin, i.5, 8. Similarly in ii.1-10 her sorrow and suffering are admitted to be a divine judgment. Her shame and distress are inconsolable, ii.11-17, and she appeals to her God to look upon her in her agony, ii.18-22. The third poem, probably the latest in the book, represents the city, after a bitter lament, iii.1-21, as being inspired, by the thought of the love of God, to submission and hope, iii.22-36. A prayer of penitence and confession, iii.37-54, is followed by a petition for vengeance upon the adversaries, iii.55-66. The fourth poem, like the second, offers a very vivid picture of the sorrows and horrors of the siege: it laments, in detail, the fate of the people, iv.1-6, the princes, iv.7-11, the priests and the prophets, iv.12-16, and the king, iv.17-20, and ends with a prophecy of doom upon the Edomites, iv.21, 22, who behaved so cruelly after the siege (Ps, cxxxvii.7). In the last poem the city, after piteously lamenting her manifold sorrows, v.1-18, beseeches the everlasting God for deliverance therefrom, v.19-22.
[Footnote 1: In the Hebrew elegiac metre, as in the Greek and Latin, the second line is shorter than the first -- usually three beats followed by two.]
[Footnote 2: An unconvincing attempt has been made to refer the last two chapters to the Maccabean age -- about 170 B.C.]

A very old and by no means unreasonable tradition assigns the authorship of the book to Jeremiah. In the Greek version it is introduced by the words -- which appear to go back to a Hebrew original -- "And it came to pass, after Israel had been led captive and Jerusalem made desolate, that Jeremiah sat down weeping, and lifted up this lament over Jerusalem and said." This view of the authorship is as old as the Chronicler, who in 2 Chronicles xxxv.25 seems to refer the book to Jeremiah, probably regarding iv.20, which refers to Zedekiah, as an allusion to Josiah. Chs. ii. and iv. especially are so graphic that they must have been written by an eye-witness who had seen the temple desecrated and who had himself tasted the horrors of a siege, in which the mothers had eaten their own children for very hunger. The passionate love, too, for the people, which breathes through the elegies might well be Jeremiah's; and the ascription of the calamity to the sin of the people, i.5, 8, is in the spirit of the prophet.

Nevertheless, it is not certain, or even very probable, that Jeremiah is the author. Unlike the Greek and the English Bible, the Hebrew Bible does not place the Lamentations immediately after Jeremiah but in the third division, among the Writings, so that there is really no initial presumption in favour of the Jeremianic authorship. Again, Jeremiah could hardly have said that "the prophets find no vision from Jehovah," ii.8, nor described the vacillating Zedekiah as "the breath of our nostrils," iv.20, nor attributed the national calamities to the sins of the fathers, v.7 Other features in the situation presupposed by ch. v. appear to imply a time later than Jeremiah's, v.18,20, and it is very unlikely that one who was so sorely smitten as Jeremiah by the inconsolable sorrow of Jerusalem would have expressed his grief in alphabetic elegies: men do not write acrostics when their hearts are breaking. When we add to this that chs. ii. and iv. which stand nearest to the calamity appear to betray dependence on Ezekiel (ii.14, iv.20, Ezek. xxii.28, xix, 24, etc.) there is little probability that the poems are by Jeremiah.

It is not even certain that they are all from the same hand, as, unless we transpose two verses, the alphabetic order of the first poem differs from that of the other three, and the number of elegiacs -- three -- in each verse of the first two poems, differs from the number -- one -- in the third, and two in the fourth. In the third poem each letter has three verses to itself; in the other three poems, only one.

Ch. iii. with its highly artificial structure and its tendency to sink into the gnomic style, iii.26ff., is probably remotest of all from the calamity.[1] Considering the general hopelessness of the outlook, chs. ii. and iv. at any rate, which are apparently the earliest, were probably composed before the pardon of Jehoiachin in 561 B.C. (2 Kings xxv.27) when new possibilities began to dawn for the exiles.580-570 may be accepted as a probable date. The calamity is near enough to be powerfully felt, yet remote enough to be an object of poetic contemplation. The other poems are no doubt later: ch. v. may as well express the sorrow of the returned exiles as the sorrow of the exile itself. More than this we cannot say. [Footnote 1: The intensely personal words at the beginning of ch. iii. are, no doubt, to be interpreted collectively. The "man who has seen affliction" is not Jeremiah, but the community, Cf. v.14, "I am become the laughing stock of all nations" (emended text). Cf. also v.45.]

The older parts of the book, whether written in Egypt, Babylon, or more probably in Judah, are of great historic value, as offering minute and practically contemporary evidence for the siege of Jerusalem (cf. ii.9-12) and as reflecting the hopelessness which followed it. Yet the hopelessness is by no means unrelieved. Besides the prayer to God who abideth for ever, v.19, is the general teaching that good may be won from calamity, in.24-27, and, above all, the beautiful utterance that "the love of Jehovah never ceases[1] and His pity never fails," iii.22.
[Footnote 1: Grammar and parallelism alike suggest the emendation on which the above translation rests.]

Top of Page
Top of Page