Introduction to Lamentations
The author of Lamentations is not named in the book, but it is traditionally attributed to the prophet Jeremiah. "In fact, some copies of the ancient Greek Septuagint translation begin the book with these words: 'And it came to pass, after Israel [i.e., the remnant of Israel—Judah] had been carried captive, and Jerusalem became desolate, that Jeremiah sat weeping, and lamented this lamentation over Jerusalem.' Crediting Lamentations to Jeremiah is based on the following considerations: (1) Jeremiah was known as a composer of laments (see 2 Chronicles 35:25). (2) Jeremiah was the prophet who mourned, 'Oh, that my head were waters, and my eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night for the slain of the daughter of my people!' (see Jeremiah 9:1). (3) In [Lamentations] 3:1, the author seems to identify himself with Jeremiah when he says, 'I am the man who has seen affliction by the rod of His wrath.' (4) There are many linguistic similarities between Lamentations and Jeremiah" (The Nelson Study Bible,introductory notes on Lamentations.)
"In the Talmud (Baba Bathra 15a), this book is called qinot ('Lamentations')... The name commonly used in Hebrew, however, is ekah ('How'), the first word of the first, second, and fourth laments [that is, chapters 1, 2 and 4]. In the Hebrew canon it stands in the Writings as the third of the Megilloth, or Scrolls, between Ruth and Ecclesiastes" (Expositor's Bible Commentary, introductory notes on Lamentations). We are reading it now to keep it in the context of its writing in the wake of the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple.
"The five chapters of Lamentations are five poems with ch[apter] 3 as the midpoint or climax. Accordingly, the first two chapters build an 'ascent,' or crescendo, to the climax, the grand confession of Lamentations 3:23-24: 'Great is your faithfulness. The Lord is my portion.' The last two chapters are a 'descent,' or decrescendo, from the pinnacle of ch[apter] 3... The poetry of the book enhances its purpose and structure. Chapters 1 through 4 are composed as acrostics of the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Each verse or group of verses begins with a word whose initial letter carries on the sequence of letters in the Hebrew alphabet. This would be similar to an English poem in which the first line begins with A; the second begins with B, and so on. One purpose of this device was probably to aid in memorization of the passage. The acrostic also suggests that the writer has thought things through and is giving a complete account of the subject" (Nelson Study Bible, introductory notes on Lamentations).
While chapter 1 is a perfect acrostic, chapters 2-4 are slightly imperfect, and oddly enough for the same reason. In each case the 16th and 17th letters of the Hebrew alphabet (ayin and pe) are swapped—for what significance we don't know. The acrostic in chapter 3 comes in groups of three—that is, each of the first three verses begins with the first Hebrew letter aleph, each of the second three with the second letter beth, etc. (see Expositor's, introductory notes on Lamentations). And then there is the mysterious chapter 5, intriguingly not an acrostic even though it still seems to divide up into 22 verses. "That chapter 5 has twenty-two verses has caused some to suggest that the laments were first written in normal verse and then rewritten to include the acrostic. This idea is ingenious but unprovable" (same note).
Other laments are written in various books like the book of Psalms, but this is the only book solely devoted to lamenting. Orthodox Jewish custom requires that this book be read aloud on the fast of Tisha b'Av, the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Ab—the traditional day on which the temple of Solomon was destroyed in 586 B.C. and on which the second temple was destroyed by the Roman army in A.D. 70. Jeremiah was present at the destruction of Solomon's temple as Jerusalem was overrun and sacked by the Babylonian armies. He saw the horrifying imagery described in the book. And yet the terrible suffering portrayed seems to reflect even more than what occurred at that time. It evidently anticipates suffering that was, and still is, yet to come—for the judgment described here is what is to befall "all the dwelling places of Jacob...every horn of Israel" (Lamentations 2:2-3), not just Judah. The book, as we will see, calls for the coming of the Day of the Lord and the final judgment on Israel's enemies. Yet there is no question that the ancient anguish and suffering of Judah is also vividly revealed in the pages of this deeply emotional account.
In its introductory notes on the book, The Bible Reader's Companion (Lawrence Richards, 1991) states: "Lamentations does maintain a consistent theological outlook: Judah's [and later all Israel's] loss can be traced to God's sovereignty, His justice, and His commitment to a morality which His people abandoned. Yet Lamentations is primarily a book that plumbs the depths of human sorrow, not from an individual's perspective, but from the perspective of an entire people. Reading the book we experience something of the overwhelming sense of despair that can grip communities and even whole nations. Even the prayers recorded in Lamentations are desperate prayers; cries of anguish rather than affirmations of hope. It is terrible as well as wonderful to be human. It is terrible indeed if we surrender to our human bent to sin. The day must come when we will look back on our lost opportunities, and realize that the misery we endure now is a consequence of our own chronic craving for sin. If nothing else, reading the Book of Lamentations reminds us the pleasures of sin are at best momentary, the painful consequences lasting and deep."
The Desolation and Misery of Jerusalem
"The first dirge (1:1-22) focuses on the city of Jerusalem. The poet sees the city as a grieving widow, bereft of her children, dirty, poverty-stricken, and despised, bitterly remembering happier times (vv. 1-11b). The tearful city cries out to God. She describes the utter contempt others have for her, hoping desperately to awaken God's compassion (vv. 11c-16). The poet cries out too (v. 17), and then records Jerusalem's confession. It is Zion's own sin that caused God to judge her with the present distress" (Bible Reader's Companion, chapters 1-3 summary).
Jerusalem should be understood literally as the ancient city in which Jeremiah dwelt—spoiled by the Babylonian invasion. But it also represents all Judah—and even Jacob (verse 17), meaning all Israel. Again, this points to the time of the end, when Israel and Judah will be punished together during the time of "Jacob's trouble," the "great tribulation" (Jeremiah 30:7; Matthew 24:21-22).
In Lamentations 1:5 it is "recognized that Jerusalem's disasters were a result of her breach of the covenant; here [in verses 8-9] she is compared to a debased, slatternly harlot, shamelessly exposing her nakedness and indifferent to the marks of menstrual blood—'filthiness'—on her garments, while 'people shake their heads at her'... Since harlotry is repeatedly used for Israel's idolatry and Baal worship, it is obviously implied here" (Expositor's Bible Commentary, note on verses 8-9).
Verse 9 says, "She did not consider her destiny; therefore her collapse was awesome." Failing to consider her destiny could be understood in one of two ways. It might mean that she did not think about the wonderful destiny God intended for her. As Proverbs 29:18 says: "Where there is no vision, the people perish" (KJV). Or it might mean she did not consider where her actions would lead—what she had essentially destined herself for. As Moses said, "Oh, that they were wise, that...they would consider their latter end!" (Deuteronomy 32:29). The fact that the people have no comforter (Lamentations 1:9, 17, 21) is that they have cut themselves off from God, the true Comforter (see 2 Corinthians 1:3-4). They spread out their hands (verse 17), meaning they pray, but there is no response. Proverbs 1:24 and verse 28 explain that God will neither hear nor respond to the pleas for help of a people that repeatedly refuse His guidance.
The end of verse 11 through verse 16 and verses 18-22 give us the words of the people themselves as they describe their desperate plight. In verses 21-22 a glimmer of recognition is given to the glee with which the enemies of Israel attacked and destroyed. Although God did use Egypt, Assyria and Babylon as well as other nations against Israel—as He will again in the future—He neither overlooked nor forgot the pleasure they took in their task of destruction (as will be the case when He again uses them to punish end-time Israel). The call is made for God to "bring on the day You have announced, that they may become like me." This is a plea for the coming of the Day of the Lord, the end-time period during which the enemies of Israel and Judah will themselves be punished. God will avenge His people. As Isaiah wrote of that time still ahead of us: "For it is the day of the LORD's vengeance, the year of recompense for the cause of Zion" (Isaiah 34:8). No doubt the Israelites in the Great Tribulation will be crying out for this deliverance.