LAMENTATIONS; A Cluster of Tragic Poems

Part 26

Lamentations – A Cluster of Tragic Poems

Key Text: Chapter 3:22-23
“It is of the LORD’S mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not. They are new every morning: great is thy faithfulness.”

Lamentations is a collection of five poems where the destruction of Jerusalem by Babylon is lamented. The intensity of sorrow and pain expressed in these laments makes this one of the most tragic books, if not the most tragic book in the bible. Quoting Lowth, Faussett describes the tone of language in these poems, “Every letter is written with a tear, every word the sound of a broken heart.” In reading this book we ought to pause and think about the pathos, the pain, the agony, that we might in some way enter into the pain of the author.

The Hebrews called this book Echah or ‘How’. One can appreciate the import of these words in the light of the terrible devastation which had transpired. As we pass through our sorrows and chastenings we often lament with the question represented by the word ‘how’; ‘how and why has this tragedy happened, what is God’s purpose?’ The Septuagint ascribed the book “The Tears of Jeremiah” and Jerome followed on with the “The Lamentations of Jeremiah” when preparing the Latin Vulgate. The English title is therefore derived from the Latin.

Place in the Scriptures
The English Bible places Lamentations in its historical place following on from Jerusalem’s collapse in the days of Jeremiah. The Hebrew Scriptures, however, include this book in the Hagiographa or Writings in a subsection known as the Megilloth. The Psalms and other Poetical books are also in the Hagiographa. The Megilloth also contains The Song of Solomon, Ecclesiastes and Esther.

Nowhere does Lamentations state that Jeremiah was the author. It has generally been assumed that the great prophet composed these five poems. The Jews from early times perpetuated this tradition. Both the Greek (Septuagint) and Latin (Vulgate) versions of Scripture emphasised Jeremiah’s authorship within the title. The place which Lamentations has in the English Bible, following on from his prophecy, is based on the assumption that Jeremiah is the author. Is the assumption that Jeremiah wrote these poems credible and verifiable? While it is not verifiable, in that the evidence is inconclusive it is certainly credible in that there is circumstantial evidence leading us to Jeremiah as the author:

1. The poems were written by one who witnessed the fall of Jerusalem.

2. The author had a tender heart of sympathy consistent with Jeremiah’s reputation as the weeping prophet.

3. Jeremiah composed Lamentations at the time of Josiah’s death (2nd Chronicles 35:25). These were different Lamentations but they certainly suggest that this style of poetry was typical of the prophet.

4. There are a number of phrases employed throughout Lamentations which bear striking similarity to Jeremiah’s style in his prophecy. One example is the description of “the oppressed daughter of Zion” (1:15 and Jeremiah 8:21). Scholars have identified other peculiarities of Jeremiah’s style in these poems.

This combination of circumstantial and some forensic evidence throws us upon the conclusion that it is not unreasonable to suggest that Jeremiah was in fact the author.

While Lamentations uses literary instruments such as Parallelism and Metaphor, it is especially unique for the technique known as Alliteration. The other portion of scripture where this technique is used in Psalm 119. In the case of Lamentations, it is no accident that the translators of the Authorised Version chose to divide the book into five chapters, four containing twenty-two verses and one containing sixty-six verses (a multiple of twenty-two).

In the case of the first poem (Chapter One) there are twenty-two lines, each line begins with a different letter of the Hebrew alphabet. This pattern is followed in the second poem and the fourth poem. The third poem, however, which is central is the book, is made up of sixty-six lines. Each group of three lines begins with a different letter of the Hebrew Alphabet. The fifth poem is somewhat unique in that there is no alliteration whatsoever.

Alliteration was probably employed from the point of view of order as an aid to memorising the poems.


The First Poem; ​Chapter 1
Jeremiah begins by likening Jerusalem to a widow who has been plummeted into tragedy and grief (v1). He acknowledges, however, the sin of the nation which brought this disaster (v8) and the righteous dealings of God (v18). Jeremiah expresses his own grief of mind and soul. At times he appears as a type of the suffering Christ as the Almighty plunges his sword into his bones (v12-13). Jeremiah takes the sin of his people upon his own soul, as if it were his sin as he prays and sighs (v18-19). The picture of a man who cannot be consoled becomes more vivid as the poem reaches a climax (v21-22).

The Second Poem; Chapter 2
While this poem also describes Jeremiah’s pain (v11), the overwhelming theme is the judgement of God poured out upon his people. Jeremiah sees nothing but God’s hand which lay behind the atrocities perpetuated by Babylon. Therefore God had “cast down from heaven unto earth the beauty of Israel.” He depicted God as a warrior army burning the city (v3), as an archer bending his bow and slaying (v4) and generally swallowing Israel up as an enemy (v5). He caused the temple and the altar to be removed (v6-7), he broke down the walls (v8) and sunk the gates into the ground (v9). Jeremiah could see nothing but the hand of God in these tragic events because it correlated with his view of God as revealed in His word (v17). Jeremiah, however, in this poem pleads with his country to repent and turn from their sin. The words of v19 are especially instructive as he urges the nation to remember the plight of the young children who have been caught up in all innocence by this calamity.

The Third Poem​; Chapter Three
In v1-21 Jeremiah describes the devastating impact the fall of Jerusalem had on his own spiritual life. He had felt the rod of God (v1), all was darkness around him (v2) and his bones were broken (v4). The most difficult burden of all was that he felt shut out of heaven when in prayer (v8) and his soul was far removed from peace (v17).

V22-36 sees a change in tone as the prophet was able to see the mercy of God despite His terrible judgement. It is no accident that these verses lie at the heart of a tragic book. How often have we not quoted v22-23 in our own devotions?

“It is of the LORD’S mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not. They are new every morning: great is thy faithfulness.”

Jerusalem had fallen, many had died, hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, were in captivity. Yet the nation was not exterminated. God was still gracious. These words are a challenge to us. Even the most tragic and horrendous situation imaginable is filled with the mercy and goodness of God. Jeremiah anticipated the forgiveness of God for his people and looked by faith to a better day. He learned to trust God in his despair.

In the final part of chapter 3 Jeremiah proceeded with great hope, to urge his people to repent and turn to God (v40-41) before once again testifying to his own grief of mind and soul (v48). In v55-66 he certainly experienced great liberty in prayer as he knew that God heard him and saw him in his pains (v55-57). Therefore as he had received a vision of God’s mercy he enjoyed renewed blessing in intercession.

The Fourth Poem; Chapter Four
This poem describes the national collapse with tragic poetry of the highest order:

“How is the gold become dim! how is the most fine gold changed! the stones of the sanctuary are poured out in the top of every street. The precious sons of Zion, comparable to fine gold, how are they esteemed as earthen pitchers, the work of the hands of the potter!” (v1-2).

The gold was not merely the gold of the temple that had been desecrated and stolen. The gold of the sons of Zion had been relegated to earthen pitchers. The gold of the sanctuary was a symbol of the unfolding of a human tragedy.

Again, the image of the Nazarites, the holiest order among the Jews, being reduced to black coal depicts the impact the captivity had upon the people (v7-8).

Jeremiah, in his poem, explains the reason for the disaster. As well as speaking of God’s fury he reflects upon the wicked spiritual leadership that caused innocent blood to be shed in Jerusalem (v13-16). He was under no illusions as to where the true problem rested. So it is today. Apostate Christendom has ever so much to answer for in relation to the spiritual decline of our nation.

The Fifth Poem​; Chapter Five
This lament takes the form of a prayer which Jeremiah offers to God on behalf of his nation. He begins by calling upon Jehovah to remember the situation which they found themselves in (v1). He confesses the sin of the people acknowledging the true cause of the national upheaval. Verse 21 is especially poignant as the prophet prays, “turn thou unto us and we shall be turned.” We can and should model our prayers for our nation upon this remarkable supplication. As we turn to God the church will be turned in revival and our nation will be turned in regeneration.

Oh that God would look favourably upon us!

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