In Hebrew, the book is called Ekah, which means “How”, and this is so because the book begins with this word (Lam 1:1; 2:1; 4:1). The book is the third of the five “scrolls” or Megilloth – the others being, in the order in which they are listed therein, Song of Songs, Ruth, Ecclesiastes and Esther – which are read in the synagogue on special days. The book of Lamentations is read on the ninth day of the fifth month, the month Ab, the day of mourning over the two destructions of the Temple and the failed Bar Kochba revolt (135 AD).
Both Jewish and Christian tradition have assumed Jeremiah to be the author of the book. Lamentations is apparently written by an eyewitness to the destruction of the city. It is someone who strongly identifies himself with the fate of the city and people. Who else could this be but Jeremiah? It is plausible that he penned these Lamentations in one piece in or near the destroyed Jerusalem, under the immediate impression of the tragedy.
The five chapters the book contains are actually five separate poems. Lamentations 1, 2, 4, and 5 each have twenty-two verses. The contents of Lamentations 1, 2, and 4 are arranged alphabetically according to the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Lamentations 3 has sixty-six verses, which is three times twenty-two. That chapter is also arranged alphabetically. The first three verses each begin with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, the next three begin with the second letter, and so on. Lamentations 5 also has twenty-two verses but has no alphabetical order.
The first three poems, Lamentations 1-3, contain, except for Lam 1:7 and Lam 2:19, three lines of poetry per verse. Lamentations 4 contains two lines of poetry per verse. Lamentations 5 has one line of poetry per verse.
The Holy Spirit does not just use the alphabetical order. Therein lies a deep thought. Various interpreters have said: Just as these poems encompass all the letters of the alphabet and thus the whole of human language, so the book expresses all human suffering in its fullness, from A to Z. No aspect of it is left out. Every detail of human tragedy is accurately described and expressed.
A common reaction to suffering that someone undergoes is to cheer him up and quickly start talking about something else. The book of Lamentations is written in a structure that does not allow for such levity.
In a general sense, the use of all those letters shows the importance of each letter and word. The Lord Jesus is the Word of God. He calls Himself “the Alpha and the Omega”, the first and last letter of the Greek alphabet (Rev 1:8; 21:6; 22:13). He is the perfect revelation of God. His sufferings are also seen in this book.
The subject of the book is Jeremiah’s lament about the disasters brought by the LORD upon sinful Judah and the lamentable destruction of the city of Jerusalem and the temple by the Babylonians, in 587 BC. The city that should have been an example and guide for all nations has instead become a mockery and an object of ridicule. The book of Jeremiah contains warnings of the judgments that would come on the city if she persisted in disobedience. The book of Lamentations contains deep expressions of mourning over the judgment that had come on Jerusalem.
Embedded in the prophet’s lament is an urgent appeal to the severely chastened people. That call implies that they acknowledge that God’s judgments on them are just. This call also means, that with repentance and confession, they entrust themselves again to the mercy of God, Who will not ultimately forsake His people. At the same time, the prophet sees how bad the mind and the behavior have been of those who destroyed the city and the temple. That is why he asks that the judgment come down on them.
Jeremiah’s lament is so intense that the book of Lamentations is one of the two most tragic books of the Bible. The other book is the book of Job. That book also has suffering as its main theme. The difference is that the book of Lamentations deals with the suffering of an entire nation of people, while the book of Job deals with the suffering of one person.
Both books deal with the problem of God’s justice on the one hand and His love on the other, God’s sovereignty on the one hand and man’s responsibility on the other. God is sovereign, that is, He is above everyone and everything and governs everything. Everything is subject to Him and dependent on Him. He Himself is dependent on no one (Rom 11:33-36). At the same time, man himself is responsible for the choices he makes, the deeds he does and the words he speaks. This is a contrast or also a merging of two things, both of which are perfectly true, but which cannot be reconciled by us.
By the way, this book is more about the LORD than it is about man. In this book we see primarily His pain and His sorrow, that because of the unfaithfulness of His people, He had to act in this way. Jeremiah sees the destruction of Jerusalem and the judgment on the Judeans more as a Divine judgment and not so much as the result of the invasion of the Babylonians.
This we hear in the words
“Is it nothing to all you who pass this way?
Look and see if there is any pain like my pain
Which was severely dealt out to me,
Which the LORD inflicted on the day of His fierce anger” (Lam 1:12).
This connects to what the LORD Himself says: “I Myself will war against you with an outstretched hand and a mighty arm, even in anger and wrath and great indignation” (Jer 21:5).
The Jews read the book of Lamentations during the annual fast in remembrance of the destruction of Jerusalem (Zec 7:3,5; 8:19). Its purpose seems to be to recall that God is faithful to His covenant when He brings judgments on His people when His people are unfaithful to that same covenant (Deu 28:45-68). The book teaches later generations the importance of faithfulness to the covenant and also that God is faithful to it. The book holds the serious teaching that sin, despite all its enticements, brings with it a tremendous burden of sorrow, misery, desolation, barrenness and pain.
For us Christians, there is also a message in this book. The book also holds up to us the consequences of sin: that sin destroys our lives and causes only misery, sorrow and pain. In times of personal, national and international crises, the book is a call to repentance and confession of sins, in order to rededicate ourselves to God, Who is love. Although that love is always there and goes out to people, a holy and righteous God must always judge unrepentant sinners, for God is also light.
The book of Lamentations has a practical meaning for us.
1. The book gives place within the inspired Word of God, together with the book of Job, to the most intense human sorrow. This is of immediate practical value today to every believer, who reads these books of the Bible in his sorrow. He then discovers that he is not the first to go through thick darkness, before light breaks through again. Thus, the believer experiences that God takes note of the pain and sorrow of His own, yes, that He records their tears in His book (Psa 56:8). The detailed description of misery in this book is a remarkable proof that God sees and notices the misery of His own.
As mentioned above under the heading Form, four of the five poems are given in alphabetical order, using all the letters of the alphabet. This is to indicate that all human language is needed to express the misery in which the believer may be. In other cases, too, all the letters are sometimes used, as in some psalms. There it is mostly a matter of giving expression to worship.
All this happens under the guidance of God’s Spirit. That God expressed Himself in this way shows that He, Who is unlimited, expresses Himself in limited human language. Language has its limits. The Hebrew language is limited to twenty-two letters.
2. This book – unlike the book of Job – shows how the good suffer with the wicked. The judgment on Judah and Jerusalem is a national judgment, it affects the whole nation. The righteous must also bear the consequences of this judgment, even though they have no part in the appalling sins of Judah. As stated above, the book of Job deals with the suffering of one righteous person; the book of Lamentations deals with the suffering of a whole people.
The book of Lamentations also has a prophetic meaning.
1. Prophetically, both the book of Job and the book of Lamentations refer to the suffering of the remnant of Israel in the end time. At the first siege of Jerusalem in the future, the king of the north will take the city and largely destroy it (Zec 14:2). This destruction will again be the result of the sins of Judah. At the same time, there is a righteous remnant in the city who will suffer along with the wicked (Zep 3:12; Zec 12:8). Prophetically, this remnant will be able to unite itself with the laments expressed in this book, on the one hand by confessing the guilt of the entire populace as their guilt (cf. Dan 9:4-19), and on the other hand, by pleading with God for their own innocence.
2. The grievous question of Job in his book and of the righteous in the book of Lamentations, as to why they should suffer innocently, is not in fact answered by God. Limited man cannot fathom the ways of God. God’s love and justice are evident enough from His words and actions. However, there are times in our lives when God’s actions seem to contradict His love and justice.
In this book, as so often in the book of Psalms, the Spirit of Christ makes Himself one with the faithful remnant of Israel. Wherever the righteous express their lament, we always hear, as it were, the lament of the Righteous One resounding.
We see Christ in type most clearly in this book where the prophet speaks of his own feelings and experiences as a righteous man in the midst of an unjust people. What is worked in Jeremiah is done by the Spirit of God, although we also notice shortcomings in the expression of his feelings and experiences. This is not the case with Christ. In Lamentations 3 we see Jeremiah as a type of Christ in the expression of his feelings. See, for example, when he speaks of what the people have done to him (Lam 3:14) and when he speaks of what the LORD has done to him (Lam 3:1-13,15-18).
Jeremiah must suffer with the wicked. The wrath of the LORD (cf. Lam 3:1) also comes down on him, the innocent. See, for example, when he laments about those who are hostile to him “without cause” (Lam 3:52; cf. Psa 69:4; Jn 15:25). This clearly points to Christ, the Righteous One, Who innocently suffers on the part of His people. With Him it goes much further. He not only suffers with the people, especially with the remnant in the future, but He suffers thereupon alone and vicariously for the people.
We see this latter form of Christ’s suffering only in the three hours of darkness on the cross. Then and only there He is forsaken by God and made sin by Him. Then He undergoes the judgment for the sins of, and dies the atoning death for, all who believe.
The book is an expression of lamentation, repentance and supplication. Lamentation occurs over misery; awareness of the cause of misery brings about repentance before God for sins; this is followed by supplicating for restoration for oneself and for judgment on one’s enemies.
Division of the book
As already noted, the book consists of five poems.
1. First poem (Lamentations 1): Jerusalem is laid waste and desolate. The prophet vividly describes her wretched condition. Jerusalem weeps bitterly like a bereft widow. He recalls her former glories and laments her ruin. In Lamentations 1:11b-22 (except Lam 1:17) the I-figure is the city herself. She calls on all to pity her (Lam 1:12) and begs God for vengeance on her enemies (Lam 1:22).
2. Second poem (Lamentations 2): This poem describes the reasons for God’s anger on the city and the ruin that results (Lamb 2:1-12). The prophet argues that repentance and conversion are her only hope (Lam 2:13-19). The city responds (Lam 2:20-22).
3. Third poem (Lamentations 3): Here we hear the lament of the people as a whole through the mouth of the righteous one in that people – Jeremiah himself – about
a. the tragedy that has struck him (Lam 3:1-20);
b. his trust in God when he remembers His past mercies (Lam 3:21-39);
c. a call to the people to examine and probe their ways and return to the LORD (Lam 3:40-54).
d. After acknowledging that God has heard their cry, the nation begs Him to exercise vengeance on its enemies (Lam 3:55-66).
4. Fourth poem (Lamentations 4): Here Zion’s former glory is compared to her present misery.
1. The horrors of the siege are described (Lam 4:1-11),
2. but also the sins of the people, especially those of their priests and prophets (Lam 4:12-16).
3. All their hopes have become vain (Lam 4:17-20).
4. But it is also announced that the sin of Zion is hereby blotted out, and that the woe of Edom shall descend upon its own head (Lam 4:21-22).
5. Fifth poem (Lamentations 5): The repentant people beg the LORD to remember their misery (Lam 5:1-18) and entrust themselves to His mercy to be restored (Lam 5:19-22). The entire chapter is a prayer and therefore has no alphabetical order. In a supplication, a heart pours itself out before the LORD without regard to any particular word choice or order.