The Book of Lamentations

I. Title

          In Hebrew, the title of the book is 'ekah, which means "How". It is the first word in the book. In the Babylonian Talmud and other early Jewish writings, the book is referred to as qinot, which is equivalent to the English word "Lamentations". The title in the Greek Septuagint, threnoi and the Latin Vulgate threni is a translation of the Hebrew name qinot. It is not uncommon for manuscripts and printed editions to add the phrase "of Jeremiah" or "of Jeremiah the prophet".

II. Author and Setting

A. Author

          Despite the common tradition and the appendations to the title, the actual author of this short book is unknown. Certainly it is possible that Jeremiah is the author, though nowhere in the book itself is the author explicitly identified. However, the book was apparently written by an eyewitness to the destruction of the city of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586 BC, and the vocabulary is consistent with that setting and time.
          2 Chronicles 35:25 speaks of Jeremiah singing a lament over Josiah, who died in 609 BC, and that this lament was written in the book of Laments. However, there is nothing in the book of Lamentations that can be construed as referring to the death of Josiah, and so this reference in 2 Chronicles cannot refer to the biblical book of Lamentations.
          If the book actually was written by Jeremiah, it seems odd that in the Hebrew cannon it would be separated from the other book that bears his name.
          Moreover, there are certain phrases that seem out of character for Jeremiah to be uttering: for instance in 4:17 the writer laments that "Moreover, our eyes failed, looking in vain for help; from our towers we watched for a nation that could not save us." This seems contradictory to Jeremiah's rather strident hostility toward reliance on foreign help. (cf. Jeremiah 2:18 and 37:5-10).
          However, those who believe Jeremiah was the author find no incompatibility between such phrases and the prophet's authorship.

B. Setting

          Apparently it was composed shortly after the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by Nebuchadnezzar. Read 2 Kings 25:8-12 for background.

C. Literary Matters

          It is interesting to notice that the five poems that make up the book of Lamentations are acrostics -- that is, the successive verses in some way are shaped by the Hebrew alphabet. Chapters one and two are relatively simple, in which each stanza has three lines. The first word of each stanza begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Chapter four has twenty- two stanzas of two lines, each of which begins with a successive letter of the alphabet. Chapter three is more elaborate, in that the stanzas have three lines, and each line begins with the same letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Therefore, the first stanza has three lines, each beginning with aleph; the second stanza has three lines, each beginning with beth, and so forth.
          The fifth chapter of Lamentations is not an acrostic in the strict sense, but interestingly enough, it is written in twenty-two lines, which corresponds to the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet.

III. Outline of Lamentations

I. Bitter Affliction 1:1-22
II. Yahweh's Anger 2:1-22
III. Witness 3:1-66
IV. Paradise Lost 4:1-22
V. A Prayer of Remembrance 5:1-22

Questions on Lamentations

1. Who is the author of Lamentations?
2. What is the theme of Lamentations?
3. What is the cause of the grief expressed in Lamentations?