In one of his oracles, Jeremiah expresses the deep anguish of God for the people: “my joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick … for the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me” (8:18–22). The Lord echoes this attitude: “oh that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people” (9:1).
This weeping recurs in later chapters: in an oracle over Judah, “if you will not listen, my soul will weep in secret for your pride; my eyes will weep bitterly and run down with tears, because the Lord’s flock has been taken captive” (13:17); and in an oracle over Moab, “more than for Jazer I weep for you, O vine of Sibmah” (48:32).
This weeping is also expressed in the poems of lament found in the book of Lamentations; “for these things I weep; my eyes flow with tears”, the author mourns; “for a comforter is far from me, one to revive my courage; my children are desolate, for the enemy has prevailed” (Lam 1:16). Tradition presumes that the author, who is never identified, is the prophet Jeremiah; many scholars, however, believe that there were a number of authors whose work has been collected into this single short book.
The five chapters of Lamentations express a forlorn hope that the punishment being experienced might come to an end. However, that hope remains unfulfilled, from the opening lament, “how lonely sits the city that once was full of people! how like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations!” (1:1); to the final disconsolate prayer, “restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored; renew our days as of old—unless you have utterly rejected us, and are angry with us beyond measure” (3:22).
There is a tight numerical and alphabetical arrangement throughout this book. The first four chapters are acrostics—each new verse begins with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet, in alphabetical order. As there are 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet, there are 22 verses in chapters 1, 2, and 4. Chapter 3 has 66 verses; each letter commences three verses before moving on to the next letter. The final chapter also has 22 verses, but they are not arranged in any alphabetical order.
The first four chapters employ a strict rhythmic pattern, known as a qinah rhythm: three stresses followed by two, which F.W. Dobbs-Allsopp describes as “the rhythmic dominance of unbalanced and enjambed lines” (Lamentations, Westminster John Knox, 2002). The pattern is suggestive of the broken, disjointed existence of the people.
In these five chapters, the author reveals much of how he, and the people, are lamenting their situation in the aftermath of the savage destruction of Jerusalem and its temple in 587/586 BCE. Chapter one paints a picture of the deserted, desolate city: “the roads to Zion mourn, for no one comes to the festivals; all her gates are desolate, her priests groan; her young girls grieve, and her lot is bitter” (1:4). Chapter four provides a detailed portrayal of the destruction of the temple: “how the gold has grown dim, how the pure gold is changed! the sacred stones lie scattered at the head of every street” (4:1).
The poems describe the traumatised state of the people in the immediate aftermath of this conquest. They suffer affliction (1:7, 9; 3:1, 19) and captivity (1:18), grief (3:32, 51) and suffering (1:3, 5, 18), hunger (2:19; 4:4, 9) and thirst (4:4). They express lamentation (2:5, 8) and mourning (1:4; 2:5; 5:15), with tears (1:2, 16; 2:18; 3:48), crying (2:12, 16, 18, 19; 3:8, 56), and weeping (1:2, 16; 2:11).
Since the city lies in ruins (2:5, 8), people put on sackcloth and throw dust on their heads (2:10); they hear songs of taunting (3:14, 61) and their enemies wag their heads and clap their hand at them, as they hiss and gnash their teeth (2:15–16). We might notice the allusion to this verse in the passion narrative (Mark 15:29–30; Matt 27:39–40) and the overtones of judgement in the gnashing of teeth in apocalyptic parables of Jesus (Matt 8:12; 13:42, 50; 22:13; 24:51; 25:30).
The people are rejected (1:15; 5:22) and filled with bitterness (3:5, 15) and wormwood (3:15, 19); their flesh and skin waste away (3:4). Permeating all is the anger of the Lord (2:3, 21, 22; 3:43, 66; 4:1); his wrath is intense (2:2; 3:1; 4:11) and he sends his fire to consume (1:13; 2:3, 4; 4:11). The fiery God of vengeance that we see in Jeremiah as well as in other prophets, is alive and well in the book of Lamentations.
And yet, despite this dominance of divine wrath and fury, a beautiful fragment which praises God sits in the middle of the book: “the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (3:22). This poetic expression introduces a brief oasis of hope (3:22–33) in the midst of many lines of anguish, grief, and anger; God is praised for showing mercy, faithfulness, and compassion.
Sadly, this mood does not hold; the poems lapse back into questioning God and lamenting God’s inaction in the face of the people’s suffering. To be sure, God has been right to act in this way: “the Lord is in the right, for I have rebelled against his word” (1:18); “as he ordained long ago, he has demolished without pity” (2:17); what took place was “ for the sins of her prophets and the iniquities of her priests, who shed the blood of the righteous in the midst of her” (4:13).
In the middle poem, there is a call to repent: “let us test and examine our ways, and return to the Lord” (3:40); but then, a plea for God to intervene and change his mind: “you have taken up my cause, O Lord, you have redeemed my life; you have seen the wrong done to me, O Lord; judge my cause.” (3:58–59). However, this poem ends with a savage plea for God to deal with the Babylonian conquerors: “Pay them back for their deeds, O Lord, according to the work of their hands! Give them anguish of heart; your curse be on them! Pursue them in anger and destroy them from under the Lord’s heavens!” (3:64–66).
The final poem is an extended lament on the situation of Israel, framed with prayers of petition: “remember, O Lord, what has befallen us; look, and see our disgrace!” (5:1); “restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored” (5:21)—although the final pessimistic word laments, “unless you have utterly rejected us, and are angry with us beyond measure” (5:22). So the series of poems closes on this note of utter desolation.
These five poems bear many similarities, not only with the “confessions of Jeremiah”, but also with the “psalms of communal lament”, such as Pss 44, 60, 74, 79, 80, 85, 86, and 90, and the psalms of individual lament, such as Pss 3, 6, 13, 22, 25, 31, 71, 77, 86, and 142. In the face of God’s seeming inaction and unresponsiveness to pleading prayers, what is there to do, other than to lament?
The experience of the Shoah (Holocaust) in 1939–1945 has led many Jewish writers to reflect this attitude. It is not “giving up on God”, but resting in the pain and grief, venting about this to God, and hoping against hope that, in time, there may be a reversal of fortunes—a change of mind by God.
One writer notes that “Lament allows us to fully face and name our pain, and it creates space for future resolution and hope without glossing over our trauma. It gives us permission to protest life’s difficulties, to scream, cry, vent, plead, and complain in the presence of God and others. It lets us ask the hard questions without condemnation: Why did this have to happen? How could you allow it? Where are you in the midst of it? It allows weeping without explanation. It might be messy and uncomfortable, but it’s the first step towards healing.” (Whitney Willard, “Lamentatations: the volatile voice of grief”, https://bibleproject.com/blog/lamentations-voice-of-grief/)
These poetic expressions of lament (the psalms of laments, as well as the “confessions” of Jeremiah and Lamentations itself) also inform some elements of the way that the passion of Jesus is narrated in the canonical Gospels; although these accounts are told with a knowledge of the resurrection, there is grief, sadness, and despair at the fate of Jesus, with perhaps a note of patient lament at some moments in those narratives.
Lamentations is recited annually by Jews on the fast day of Tisha B’Av (the ninth day of the month of Av, usually in late July or early August), to mourn the destruction of both the First Temple (by the Babylonians in 586 BCE) and, on the same day (it is believed) the Second Temple (by the Romans in 70 CE). The book provides a fitting way to remember the two greatest moments of national grief and loss, many centuries later.