Book of Lamentations
Hebrew eechah called from the first word "How," etc., the formula in beginning a lamentation (2 Samuel 1:19). These "Lamentations" (we get the title from Septuagint, Greek threnoi, Hebrew kinot) or five elegies in the Hebrew Bible stand between Ruth and Ecclesiastes, among the Cherubim, or Hagiographa (holy writings), designated from the principal one, the Psalms," by our Lord (Luke 24:44). No "word of Jehovah "or divine message to the sinful and suffering people occurs in Lamentations. Jeremiah is in it the sufferer, not the prophet and teacher, but a sufferer speaking under the Holy Spirit. Josephus (c. Apion) enumerated the prophetic books as thirteen, reckoning Jeremiah and Lamentations as one book, as Judges and Ruth, Ezra and Nehemiah. Jeremiah wrote "lamentations" on the death of Josiah, and it was made "an ordinance in Israel" that "singing women" should "speak" of that king in lamentation.
So here he writes "lamentations" on the overthrow of the Jewish city and people, as Septuagint expressly state in a prefatory verse, embodying probably much of the language of his original elegy on Josiah (2 Chronicles 35:25), and passing now to the more universal calamity, of which Josiah's sad death was the presage and forerunner. Thus, the words originally applied to Josiah (Lamentations 4:20) Jeremiah now applies to the throne of Judah in general, the last representative of which, Zedekiah, had just been blinded and carried to Babylon (compare Jeremiah 39:5-7): "the breath of our nostrils, the anointed of Jehovah, was taken in their pits, of whom we said, Under his shadow we shall live among the (live securely in spite of the surrounding) pagan." The language, true of good Josiah, is too favorable to apply to Zedekiah personally; it is as royal David's representative, and type of Messiah, and Judah's head, that he is viewed.
The young children fainting for hunger (Lamentations 2:6; Lamentations 2:11-12; Lamentations 2:20-21; Lamentations 4:4; Lamentations 4:9; 2 Kings 25:3), the city stormed (Lamentations 2:7; Lamentations 4:12; 2 Chronicles 36:17; 2 Chronicles 36:19), the priests slain in the sanctuary, the citizens carried captive (Lamentations 1:5; Lamentations 2:9; 2 Kings 25:11) with the king and princes, the feasts, sabbaths, and the law no more (Lamentations 1:4; Lamentations 2:6), all point to Jerusalem's capture by Nebuchadnezzar. The subject is the Jerusalem citizens' sufferings throughout the siege, the penalty of national sin. The events probably are included under Manasseh and Josiah (2 Chronicles 33:11; 2 Chronicles 35:20-25), Jehoahaz, Jehoiakim, and Zedekiah (2 Chronicles 36:3, etc.). "Every letter is written with a tear, every word is the sound of a broken heart" (Lowth). Terse conciseness marks the style which Jeremiah suits to his theme, whereas he is diffuse in his prophecies.
The elegies are grouped in stanzas, but without artificial arrangement of the thoughts. The five are acrostic, and each elegy divided into 22 stanzas. The first three elegies have stanzas with triplets of lines, excepting elegy Lamentations 1:7 and Lamentations 2:9 containing four lines each. The 22 stanzas begin severally with the 22 Hebrew letters in alphabetical order. In three instances two letters are transposed: elegy Lamentations 2:16-17; Lamentations 3:46-51; Lamentations 4:16-17. In the third elegy each line of the three forming every stanza begins with the same letter. The fourth and fifth elegies have their stanzas of two lines each. The fifth elegy has 22 stanzas, but not beginning alphabetically, the earnestness of prayer with which the whole closes breaking through the trammels of form. Its lines are shorter than the rest, which are longer than is usual in Hebrew poems, and contain 12 syllables marked by a caesura about the middle, dividing each line into two not always equal parts.
The alphabetical arrangement suited didactic poems, to be recited or sung by great numbers; Psalm 25; Psalm 34; Psalm 37; Psalm 111; Psalm 112; Psalm 145; especially Psalm 119; Proverbs 32:10-31, are examples. It was adopted to help the memory, and is used to string together reflections not closely bound in unity, save by the general reference to a common subject. David's lament over Jonathan and Saul, also that over Abner, are the earliest specimens of sacred elegy (2 Samuel 1:17-27; 2 Samuel 3:33-34). Jeremiah in his prophecies (Jeremiah 9:9; Jeremiah 9:16; Jeremiah 9:19; Jeremiah 7:29) has much of an elegiac character. The author of Lamentations was evidently an eye witness who vividly and intensely realizes the sufferings which he mourns over. This strong feeling, combined with almost entirely uncomplaining (Lamentations 3:26-27; Lamentations 3:33-42) resignation under God's stroke, and with turning to Him that smote Jerusalem, is just what characterizes Jeremiah's acknowledged writings.
The writer's distress for "the virgin daughter of his people" is common to Jeremiah (Jeremiah 14:17; Jeremiah 8:21; Jeremiah 9:1) and Lamentations (Lamentations 1:15; Lamentations 2:13). The same pathos, his "eyes running down with water" (Lamentations 1:16; Lamentations 2:11; Lamentations 3:48-49) for Zion, appears in both (Jeremiah 13:17), and the same feeling of terror on every side (Lamentations 2:22; Jeremiah 6:25; Jeremiah 46:5). What most affects the author of each is the iniquity of her prophets and priests (Lamentations 2:14; Lamentations 4:13; Jeremiah 5:30-31; Jeremiah 14:13-14). His appeal in both is to Jehovah for judgment (Lamentations 3:64-66; Jeremiah 11:20); Edom, exulting in Zion's fall, is warned that God's winecup of wrath shall pass away from Zion and be drunk by Edom (Lamentations 4:21; Jeremiah 25:15-21; Jeremiah 49:12). As a prophet Jeremiah had foretold Zion's coming doom, and had urged submission to Babylon which was God's instrument, as the only means of mitigating judgment.
But now that the stroke has fallen, so far from exulting at the fulfillment of his predictions on the Jewish rulers who had persecuted him, all other feelings are swallowed up in intense sorrow. To express this in a form suitable for use by his fellow countrymen was a relief by affording vent to his own deep sorrow; at the same time it was edifying to them to have an inspired form for giving legitimate expression to theirs. The first elegy (Lamentations 1) strikes the keynote, the solitude of the city once so full! Her grievous sin is the cause. At one time he speaks of her, then introduces her personified, and uttering the pathetic appeal (antitypically descriptive of her Antitype Messiah), "Is it nothing to you, all ye that pass by? Behold ... if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow," etc. (Lamentations 1:12). Justifying the Lord as "righteous," she condemns herself, and looks forward to His one day making her foe like unto her.
The second elegy (Lamentations 2) dwells on the city's destruction, her breach through which like a sea the foe poured in, the famine, the women eating their little children (fulfilling Deuteronomy 28:53), the priest and prophet slain in the sanctuary, the king and princes among the Gentiles, the law no more, the past vanity of the prophets forbearing to discover Zion's iniquity, retributively punished by the present absence of vision from Jehovah (Lamentations 2:9; Lamentations 2:14). The third elegy dwells on his own affliction (Lamentations 3:1, etc.), his past derision on the part of all the people; the mercies of the Lord new every morning, his hope; his sanctified conviction that it was good for him to have borne the yoke in youth, and now to wait for Jehovah's salvation. Here he uses language typical of Messiah (Lamentations 3:8; Lamentations 3:14; Lamentations 3:30; Lamentations 3:54; Psalm 69:22; Isaiah 1:6).
He also indirectly teaches his fellow countrymen that "searching our ways and turning again to the Lord," instead of complaining against what is the punishment due for sins, is the true way of obtaining deliverance from Him who "doth not afflict willingly the children of men." The fourth elegy recapitulates the woes of Zion, contrasting the past preciousness of Zion's sons, and her pure Nazarites, with the worthlessness of their present estimation. It is "the Lord who hath accomplished His fury" in all this; for the kings of the earth regarded Zion as impregnable, but now recognize that it is because of "uncleanness" the Jews are wanderers. But Edom, now exulting in her fall, shall soon be visited in wrath, while Zion's captivity shall cease.
The fifth elegy (Lamentations 5) is prayer to Jehovah to consider "our reproach," slaves ruling His people, women ravished, young men grinding, children sinking under burdens of wood, "the crown" of the kingdom and priesthood "fallen," and Zion desolate. But one grand source of consolation is Jehovah's eternal rule (Lamentations 5:19), which, though suffering His people's affliction for a time, has endless years in store wherein to restore them, the same ground of hope as in Psalm 102:12; Psalm 102:26-27. So they pray, "turn Thou us unto Thee, O Lord, and we shall be turned," "for wouldest Thou utterly reject us?" Impossible. On the 9th of the month Ab (July) the returning Jews yearly read Lamentations with fasting and weeping in commemoration of the past miseries. The Jews still use it at "the place of wailing" at Jerusalem. In our English Bible Lamentations fitly comes after the last chapters of Jeremiah describing the calamity which is the theme of sorrow in Lamentations.
The gleams of believing and assured hope break forth at the close, so that there is a clear progress from the almost unrelieved gloom of the beginning (Lamentations 1:2; Lamentations 1:9; Lamentations 1:17; Lamentations 1:21); it recognizes Jehovah's (Lord in capitals) sovereignty in punishing, by repeating seven times the name Adonai (Lord in small letters): Lamentations 3:22-31; Lamentations 3:33; Lamentations 4:21-22; Lamentations 5:19-22. Lamentations corresponds in tone to Job and Isaiah 40:1 to Lamentations 46. "Comfort ye My people" is God's answer to Lamentations 1:21, "there is none to comfort me." Compare Lamentations 3:35-36; with Job 8:3; Job 34:12; Lamentations 3:7; Lamentations 3:14; with Job 3:23; Job 19:8; Job 30:9; Lamentations 3:10-12-30; with Job 7:20; Job 10:16.