One of the little-known portions of the Bible is the book of Lamentations. Although frequently neglected by some students, this narrative truly contains some rich deposits of truth which will abundantly reward those who examine its contents.
In the Hebrew Old Testament the book is entitled ekah, meaning “how” or “alas,” taken from the first verse. The Septuagint calls it Threnoi ieremiou, Lamentations of Jeremiah. The term threnoi is the plural form of a
Greek term meaning “to cry aloud,” which is indicative of the anguished nature of the book. Though the Hebrew version does not declare its authorship, there is sufficient evidence to indicate that the “weeping prophet,” Jeremiah, was its inspired penman.
The style of the book is similar to the book of Jeremiah, and certainly the lamentation type of literature was characteristic of that prophet (cf. 2 Chronicles 35:25). Further, the Septuagint has a superscription which affirms: “And it came to pass, after Israel was taken captive, and Jerusalem made desolate, that Jeremias sat weeping, and lamented with this lamentation over Jerusalem, and said . . .”
If one is to appreciate the message of this holy treatise, he must understand the events which relate to its contents. After the destruction of the ten tribes of Israel by Assyria (721 B.C.), the citizens of Judah (i.e., the tribes of Benjamin and Judah—collectively known as Judah) continued to degenerate spiritually. Though there were occasional periods of reformation (such as in the days of Josiah [2 Kings 22-23]), they were both superficial and temporary. Finally, the time for punishment had come.
Jehovah, through his providence, brought Nebuchadnezzar of the Babylonians against Judah. Jehoiakin, king of Judah, “became his servant” (2 Kings 24:1). This occurred in 606/5 B.C. Eight years later, the army of Nebuchadnezzar came again to Jerusalem and besieged the city. The temple was ransacked. Its vessels of gold were confiscated and cut into pieces. Also, many Hebrews were taken captive to Babylon (2 Kings 24:10-17). Zedekiah was appointed as a puppet king over the “poorest sort of the people” who had not been transported to Babylon.
However, in the ninth year of his reign, Zedekiah rebelled, and Nebuchadnezzar came again with his army. Jerusalem was besieged for almost eighteen months. Conditions within the city were dreadful. “[F]amine was sore in the city, so that there was no bread for the people of the land” (2 Kings 25:3). Finally, a breach was made in the city. The invading army “had no compassion upon young man or virgin, old man or hoary-headed” (2 Chronicles 36:17). The remaining vessels of the temple were taken, and the Babylonians “burned the house of God, and broke down the wall of Jerusalem, and burned all the palaces thereof with fire.” Truly, it was a horrible spectacle.
The prophet Jeremiah was a witness to the spiritual death of the city of Jerusalem, and the book of Lamentations is actually a funeral dirge that depicts the suffering and sorrow which attended Jerusalem’s death. It doubtless was sung by the Jews in captivity as a reminder of their sorrow, and especially of their past sins which precipitated the destruction of the Holy City.
In this connection, the arrangement of the book is interesting. Four out of the five chapters are acrostic in form. Chapters one, two, and four contain twenty-two verses each, and each verse begins with a consecutive letter of the Hebrew alphabet (i.e., Aleph, Beth, etc.). Chapter three has sixty-six verses, and each third verse is introduced with a letter from the Hebrew alphabet. Chapter five is not arranged alphabetically.
Some have suggested that this format was to facilitate memorization, while others feel that the design was to emphasize that Judah had sinned “from Aleph to Thau,” or as we would say, from A to Z.
For study purposes Lamentations may be divided into five sections, corresponding to the chapter segments.
The Suffering of Jerusalem (Chapter 1)
The desolation of Jerusalem and the resulting sadness is the theme of this section. Jerusalem, once “great among the nations,” now sits as a weeping and solitary widow whom none can comfort. She has been greatly afflicted “for the multitude of her transgressions.” For these things, says the prophet, “I weep; my eye, my eye runs down with water.”
It is important that we note a valuable principle here: no matter how great one has been in the past, that status can be altered by a change in conduct. Great reputations have been destroyed almost overnight by apostasy. Too, heartache is frequently the companion of rebellion. Sin does have its price tag!
The Suffering of the Sanctuary (Chapter 2)
This section deals with the destruction of the temple and the heartbreak connected therewith. In the day of God’s anger, not even his “footstool” is spared. (See 1 Chronicles 28:2, where the temple is called the footstool of God.) Indeed, Jehovah had “violently taken away his tabernacle” and “destroyed his place of assembly.” (This shows that the destruction of the temple was not strictly of the Babylonians; it was God working through them!) The Lord “cast off his altar” and “abhorred his sanctuary.” When reflecting upon such, Jeremiah exclaimed, “Mine eyes do fail with tears, my heart is troubled.” Sad though it was, it fulfilled the oracle of centuries past, for “Jehovah has done that which he purposed; he has fulfilled his word that he commanded in the days of old.”
There are several truths worthy of consideration here. First, though the Old Testament was divinely designed to consist of “carnal ordinances” (cf. Hebrews 9:10), Jehovah was far more concerned with his people’s lives than the material trappings of the temple. Hence, he had his temple destroyed as a part of Judah’s punishment. Second, God can work through a wicked nation (e.g., the Babylonians [cf. Jeremiah 25:9f]) to accomplish a greater good. Third, Judah’s destruction was a fulfillment of earlier prophecy. Deuteronomy 28 is very graphic in warning of Israel’s eventual punishment.
The Suffering of Jeremiah (Chapter 3)
This chapter is the mountain peak of the book. Here Jeremiah bares his heart to the reader, as he frequently does in prophecy. His life was one long martyrdom, in which he served as both judge and intercessor for people bent on their own destruction. No prophet ever pleaded with a people in more impassioned manner, calling for a national conversion, than did he. And no one, except Jesus, was treated with more national contempt than he (Price 1969).
In spite of his numerous persecutions (vv. 1-18), Jeremiah sees a better day ahead. “Jehovah is my portion, says my soul; therefore will I hope in him.”
Every truly spiritual person will be concerned for the welfare of God’s people as a whole. The faithful Christian must never isolate himself and ignore the condition of the church as it exists everywhere. Note Paul’s empathy for the congregations of the Lord’s people wherever they were (2 Corinthians 11:28).
The Suffering of the Siege (Chapter 4)
As mentioned earlier, during the eighteen-month siege of Jerusalem, conditions became intolerable. Famine was acute. “The tongue of the sucking child cleaves to the roof of his mouth for thirst: The young children ask bread, and no man breaks it unto them.” Conditions were so horrible that “the hands of pitiful women have boiled their own children,” so that “they that are slain with the sword are better than they that are slain with hunger.” But Judah was only reaping what she had sown. Her iniquities were many; the prophets and priests had been corrupt, and the people rejoiced therein (Jeremiah 5:30).
Again, we must call attention to certain truths here. First, when children suffered, some doubtless wondered, “Where is God?” But we must remember this, in a world that is plagued with evil, sometimes even the innocent suffer. I have discussed this principle more fully in my commentary on the book of Job (1983, chapter 11). Second, apostasy sometimes begins among those who should be the safeguards against it—the religious leaders. There is great responsibility in leadership (cf. James 3:1).
Judah’s Penitent Plea (Chapter 5)
In this final section, Judah’s deplorable condition, caused by her sins, is graphically summed up. She acknowledges that she has, to use a common figure of speech, gone to the bottom of the barrel; consequently, her only hope is in the everlasting Jehovah. The prayer thus is made: “Turn unto us, O Jehovah, and we shall be turned. Renew our days as of old.”
It is a truism beyond dispute that when men turn away from God, he will turn away from them. His holy nature cannot tolerate rebellion (Habakkuk 1:13). His justice demands punishment (Psalm 89:14). Happily, though, Jehovah is a God of tender compassion, and he is anxious to forgive those who yield to his divine will.God did remember the Hebrew people. A half century later, the restoration from Babylonian captivity was begun. The people came home again and the temple was rebuilt. But preliminary to that, many hard—though-valuable lessons had to be learned by the Jews.
We too may profit by their experiences if we will but apply ourselves to the learning of these ancient events (1 Corinthians 10:6, 11; Romans 15:4). The book of Lamentations is rich indeed in divine lessons.