Like the books of the Pentateuch, the book of Lamentations derives its name in the Hebrew Bible from its first word, 'Ekah - "How!"
It is, however, often referred to under the descriptive title Qinoth - "Dirges," which is a fairly accurate description of its contents.
In the Hebrew Canon it is included among the "Five Rolls", where it is placed third, following Ruth and preceding Ecclesiastes.
In the Septuagint and practically all other versions it is placed immediately
after the book of Jeremiah.
This is due to the theory that Jeremiah was its
The book consists of five poems, of which the first four deal with the desolate state of Jerusalem during and after the siege of 587-6BC, while the last is a prayer which might be interpreted as referring to the same period.
The first four poems are all alphabetic acrostics, but each has its own peculiar character.
Ch.i is arranged in three-line stanzas, in metre, each stanza beginning with its own letter of the alphabet. The letters are in the usual order. The poem is a lament over the sad plight in which Jerusalem, representing the people, finds itself. (See above, pp.142 f.)
The writer contemplates now this, now that, part of the nation - the pitiable state of those left in the homeland, and the sorrow of those in exile; in each case the visitation has come upon the people because of sin (i.5). But the thought of sin and of Yahweh is only fleeting. The poet's heart is over-full with grief as he contemplates the forlorn and disconsolate city, once so proud in her glory, the envy of all, now bowed down in humiliation and sorrow; her foes triumphant within her, and her children starving. And the writer pathetically appeals for the pity of all who pass by (i.12). His main thought is not of sin, but of the present distress; and this leads him to cry out for vengeance against the enemies who have caused it (i.22).
Ch.ii resembles ch.i in form, save that in the alphabetical order the letter ט comes before ע instead of after it. In this lament the main theme is similar to that of the preceding. Very prominent in the earlier portion is the emphasis laid on the part that Yahweh has taken in the punishment of the city. Noticeable also is the contention that one cause of the great calamity is to be sought in the remissness of the prophets for not having warned the people (ii.14). As a final result of this the outlook is dark and hopeless; one thing, and one only, there is now left to do: let heartfelt supplication be made to God (ii.18-20). Striking is the fact that in this dirge there is scarcely any reference, to sin; and the cry for vengeance on the enemy is absent.
Ch.iii: This piece differs markedly from the rest of the poems. It is composed in single lines, with no true strophic arrangement. The lines, however, are grouped in threes, and each of the three in every group begins with the appropriate letter. Taken as a whole, therefore, the poem is arranged in sixty-six single-line verses, instead of being in twenty-two three-line verses as are chs.i and ii. But it seems probable that this was not its original form. It may well be that we have here a collection of four psalms; three are "individual" psalms, like the "I"-psalms in the Psalter (verses 1-24, 25-39, 52-66), and one is spoken in the name of the people (verses 40-51).
suggests a slightly different arrangement. He thinks that there were originally two psalms (verses 1-24 and 52-66) in which the compiler makes Jeremiah address the people; and he shows by a comparison with various passages in the book of Jeremiah that the author did intend to make Jeremiah the speaker. The psalm inverses 25-51 he believes to be the composition of the compiler, who finally made the whole an acrostic.
There are many points of similarity between these compositions and some of the Psalms (see especially Pss.lxxxviii and cxliii). It is quite possible that in its present form the poem was used in the Temple Liturgy.
Ch.iv resembles ch.ii closely, except that each stanza contains two lines instead of three. The lament over Jerusalem and its inhabitants is taken up again; sin is once more declared to be the cause of all that has come upon the land and the people. All, prophets, priests, and people, have sinned. According to verse 22, however, the chastisement has come to an end, and Israel is no more in captivity, while Edom, Israel's inveterate foe, will suffer for her iniquity (verses 21, 22).
Ch. v is
not a dirge, but a prayer for deliverance from tribulation.
Though it contains twenty-two verses,
the right number for an alphabetic
there is no sign of the acrostic itself.
Each verse contains a single 3 : 3 line.
Tradition assigned the whole of the book to Jeremiah. This seems to be based on a misinterpretation of ii Chron.xxxv.25.
"And Jeremiah lamented for Josiah; and all the singing men and singing women spake of Josiah in their lamentations, unto this day; and they made them an ordinance in Israel: and, behold, they are written in the lamentations."
Whatever these "lamentations" were, they cannot have been those preserved in our book, for we have here no reference to Josiah. Though the passionate feeling expressed, especially in chs.ii and iv, reminds us of the prophet, the style is entirely unlike anything that we can confidently assign to him. The artificial device of the acrostic, while it does not necessarily conflict with a high degree of genuine feeling, would be unnatural to such a poet as we know Jeremiah to have been.
Further, the thought is sometimes at variance with that which we associate with the prophet.
Finally, we may observe that it is very improbable that all five poems are the work of a single author.
Of the five chapters, ii and iv seem to be the nearest in date to the calamity which they describe, and are, possibly, the work of the same author. The writer has lived through the horrors of the siege and sack of Jerusalem, and, though some time has now elapsed, and the first poignant anguish is over, the poems are an expression of deep sorrow.
Ch.i seems to be somewhat later, it fails to reach quite the same high literary standard; moreover, the different order in the alphabet suggests a different author from the writer of chs.ii and iv.
Ch.iii is later still, and may even come from the period after the return from the Exile.
And, finally, ch.v might have come from any one of a number of periods
in the history of Israel when the people were distressed by cruel oppression.
The Hebrew text of Lamentations has been well preserved, and there are few
places where we suspect serious corruption.
The Septuagint often suggests a variation, but a fair proportion of these
instances are demonstrably due to corruption during the transmission of the
Greek text itself, and do not indicate that the translators had a Hebrew
text different from ours.