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Lamentations

Author: Unknown

Date Written: 587-550 BC

 

Lamentations is a short poetic book of mourning over the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians.  Traditionally, Jeremiah has been considered the author of the book.  The Hebrew sources do not mention his name, but the Greek text credits him at the beginning of the book.  It is possible that this tradition arose because another biblical passage mentions that Jeremiah wrote a lament for King Josiah (2 Chr 35:25).

 

The book is a series of five poems.  The first four are acrostic, meaning they are structured alphabetically according to the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet.  Chapters 1, 2 and 4 each contain 22 lines, corresponding to the alphabet, but chapter 3 is 66 lines since it has 3 lines for each letter.  Chapter 5 is 22 lines, but it is not acrostic.  Scholars have found similarities between Lamentations and other Ancient Near Eastern poems of lament.

 

Several different voices are represented in the text.  This fact can make Lamentations a bit confusing.  The main voice that begins the book is the voice of the author, narrator or the prophet Jeremiah.  But quickly, the voice of Jerusalem chimes in (1:9, 11-16).  Then Jerusalem's enemies speak (2:15-16).  Chapter 3 presents a different voice, the voice of a strong-man (geber in Hebrew) who seems to represent the nation of Judah.  The main voice returns for the last two chapters.

 

The author truly "laments" the fate of Judah and Jerusalem.  The Babylonians have come and destroyed the Temple and the city and taken the leaders of the people into exile.  In the midst of this calamity, the author acknowledges the sins of Judah since he understands the tragic circumstances as God's just judgment upon the nation (1:8-9, 14).  Yet the book holds out hope for Judah's future, for a return from exile and for judgment upon the nation's enemies.  In the context of total desolation, prayers for vindication fill the book (1:21-22; 3:64-66).  The last half of chapter 3 and the very end of chapter 5 are the most hopeful sections of the book.  They illustrate the hope that the nation has in the Lord and in his power to redeem his people and punish their enemies.

 

The message of Lamentations is hard.  It challenges us with the fact that there are tangible and painful consequences for our sin.  Judah suffered exile because of its infidelity to its covenant relationship with the Lord.  Yet the prayer of lament does not end in despair, but looks forward to the Lord's purposes for Judah's future, for vindication and restoration.  The suffering is not permanent, but purgative.  The Lord will bring his people back.

 

Lamentations is a prayer.  It is a prayer of sorrow, a prayer of repentence, a prayer in time of suffering, a prayer for God's deliverance.  The Jewish people suffered greatly at the time of the exile.  The reader of Lamentations can try to identify with their sufferings and pray along with them.

 

The book is read in Jewish liturgy to commemorate the destruction of the first and second Temples and in Christian liturgy for the Tenebrae services of Holy Week.

 

Lamentations expresses the desperation of a suffering soul and a suffering people.  This book not only helps us to understand the plight of the Jews at the time of the exile but it shows us how to bring our own sufferings to God in prayer.

 

By Mark Giszczak

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