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What You Need to Know about the Book of Lamentations

Joel Ryan

In his later years, King Solomon wrote that there is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance.” (Ecclesiastes 3:1-4)

These are wise words from an old king reflecting on life’s many seasons. Like his people, King Solomon was no stranger to the goodness and glory of God; and like his people, he was also not unfamiliar with sadness and sorrow. Solomon had seen it all, a man for every season. The people of Israel, like their kings, had every reason to rejoice in the goodness and faithfulness of their eternal king, but their frequent disobedience and rebellion had also led them into seasons of darkness, desolation, and despair.

Inevitably, the glory of Solomon’s kingdom would eventually turn to grief following the destruction of Jerusalem, the desolation of the temple, and the captivity of the people of Judah at the hands of Babylon in 586 B.C. It is here we find what is arguably one the saddest book in all of Scripture, the lamentations of the prophet Jeremiah.

What Is the Book of Lamentations About?

What is the saddest song you can think of? What makes it so melancholy? Is it the lyrics, the music, the story of the artist, the memories it brings to mind when you hear it? Now imagine an entire album dedicated to the grief and melancholy of a songwriter who had just witnessed the destruction of his home and forced exile of his people. You’ve just pressed play on the book of Lamentations.

Written as a series of dirges, elegies, and laments following the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C., Lamentations attempts to put into words the heartache and despair of the prophet Jeremiah, who had survived the siege of Jerusalem and subsequent captivity at the hands of Babylon. If Jeremiah’s first book (Jeremiah) was the prophetic warning anticipating the fall of Jerusalem; its sequel (Lamentations) was Jeremiah’s reflection upon it.

For obvious reasons, Lamentations is one of the sadder books of the Old Testament, which, in the words of Delbert Hillers, “served the survivors of the catastrophe as an expression of the almost inexpressible horror and grief they felt” (16). But not unlike David or Solomon, Jeremiah turned to poetry to process his emotions and convey his confusion, frustration, loneliness, and grief, providing those “mute despair with words to speak” (Hillers).

Even in the midst of destruction, ruin, and exile, Lamentations also reminded its readers that there was still reason to trust in the promises of God and that He had not abandoned them. This was part of His plan (Jeremiah 29:11). For nestled within its melancholy lyrics one will find the glimmer of hope in the future restoration of God’s people that would culminate with the arrival of the promised Messiah, Jesus Christ.

Who Is the Author of Lamentations?

The American folk song “Man of Constant Sorrows” may have come to prominence on the eve of the Great Depression, but its title is also an appropriate moniker for the prophet Jeremiah. There’s a reason why Jeremiah is referred to as the “weeping prophet” (Jeremiah 9:1). Not many will endure as tumultuous and trying a ministry as the man chosen to minister to the people of Judah in their darkest days, not many would ever want to.

During his forty-year ministry (from 627 B.C. – 580 B.C.), Jeremiah had preached a seemingly futile message of repentance to a stubborn people seemingly destined for destruction. Mocked, ostracized, imprisoned, beaten, isolated, and ignored, Jeremiah’s ministry bore little to no fruit, at least on the surface. God, however, had called Jeremiah for such a time. “See, I have appointed you this day over the nations and over the kingdoms, to pluck up and to break down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” (Jeremiah 1:10)

Born in the city of Anathoth in a region north of Jerusalem, Jeremiah was first called to ministry as a young man in the 13th year of Josiah’s rule as king, roughly around 627 B.C. Now even though Josiah was a good king, the last of Judah’s good kings, in fact, his national reform would be short-lived as the four kings who followed were godless, corrupt, morally bankrupt rulers who led by their horrific example.

It was during this time that Jeremiah prophesied to Israel’s southern kingdom, warning them of what was to come if they refused to return their hearts fully to God. Sadly, they did not, and the more Jeremiah preached, the further God’s people drifted, and the sadder he became. After all, a prophet of doom is rarely a happy person or someone we would expect to be filled with songs of comfort and joy.

Jeremiah’s weeping, however, did not come out of weakness or complaint. Not unlike Jesus, who would endure the pain of the cross out of love for his people, Jeremiah wept under the weight of the message he shared and the burden of knowing his people were destined for ruin.

For forty years, Jeremiah knew what was coming and did everything he could to steer his people away from disaster. In contrast to the prophet Jonah, who initially held no love for the people of Nineveh, an enemy of Israel, Jeremiah always hoped his people would turn and avoid the coming storm. And for his faithfulness, he was met with rejection, opposition, and scorn from the people he hoped to save. God had even instructed Jeremiah to remain single to spare him the grief of having to see his wife and children suffer through the siege of Jerusalem (Jeremiah 16:1-13).

As expected, there were times where the burden of ministry seemed too much for Jeremiah, and he often expressed a desire to resign from his calling. But, as much as he wanted to hold back or at times walk away, the word of God had become like a “fire in his bones” (Jeremiah 20:9), which he could not contain. And through it all, even when life was most painful and lonely, Jeremiah persevered.

How Should We Read/Interpret/Study Lamentations?

Comprised of five dirges or elegies, Lamentations contains the songs of grief from a man reflecting on the destruction of his home and exile of his beloved people. Passionate, personal, and purposeful, Jeremiah’s poetry is as balanced as it is emotional. It has structure, rhythm, and core themes that contribute to its overall melancholy. Like a well-written song, that is intentional.

Students of Hebrew poetry will note that Jeremiah uses a rather unique structure in the crafting of his lament. In the original Hebrew, the first four chapters of Lamentations are written as alphabetic acrostics. What does this mean?

In Hebrew, each of the twenty-two verses of chapters 1, 2, and 4 begin with the twenty-two successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Unfortunately, this feature gets lost in its translation to English. If preserved, however, the first word of the first verse of these chapters would begin with the letter A, the second verse would begin with the letter B, the third with the letter C, and so on.

The third chapter of Lamentations actually has sixty-six verses and that’s because three verses are allocated to each Hebrew letter. Chapter 5 has twenty-two verses, but it is not acrostic. Rhythmically, Jeremiah also writes in what is known as “limping meter,” which creates a depressing and melancholy rhythm to the poem when read out loud, not unlike a songwriter using tempo, tone, or key signature to establish the mood of the song.

Make no mistake, Lamentations is written to be a sad song. But why this structure? It’s probable that limping meter and acrostic help create the mood of the lament but also aided with committing the words of these elegies to memory. Furthermore, Jeremiah’s use of acrostic can be seen as a structural tool to communicate the full range, from A to Z so to speak of Jeremiah’s suffering.

When we look at Jeremiah’s five laments, we see this theme play out.

Chapter 1 – Jerusalem Weeps
Chapter 2 – Jehovah Punishes
Chapter 3 – Hope in the Midst of the Struggle
Chapter 4 – Sin is the Cause of Punishment/ A Call to Repentance
Chapter 5 – A Prayer for Mercy and Restoration

What Should We Take Away from Lamentations?

Even to modern believers, Lamentations is not a book for the faint of heart. Some might even say it is downright depressing. Given its subject matter, it’s easy to see why.

Jeremiah didn’t have answers for everything. His grief was often too much to bear and despair was sometimes too heavy to lift him from the cloud of uncertainty that covered his life. He questioned his faith. He questioned his strength and why he had been chosen for such a task. But he also attempted to put into words the elegy of his heart. As Delbert Hillers writes, “men live on best, after calamity, not by utterly repressing their grief and shock, but by facing it, by measuring its dimensions, by finding some form of words to order and articulate their experience.”

Jeremiah may not have done much dancing or laughing in his lifetime. There are probably seasons in life where our spirits also may be troubled or we’re too tired, lonely, desperate, or discouraged to dance and sing, celebrate, or even speak. We may question, like Jeremiah, if God has abandoned us altogether? We may falter under the weight of our calling.

The future may be uncertain. The present may seem grey. Reflecting on the past may cause our “eyes to run down with streams of water” (Lamentations 3:48). But in the midst of his most passionate lament, Jeremiah held to the goodness of God, saying, “the Lord’s lovingkindnesses indeed never cease, for His compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. ‘the Lord is my portion. Therefore, I have hope in Him.’ The Lord is good to those who wait for Him, to the person who seeks Him.” (Lamentations 3:22-25)

Solomon, like his father, understood what Jeremiah would later experience. Though songs of weeping may last for the night, new songs of joy will be written in the morning (Psalms 30:5). For “the Lord will not reject forever, for if He causes grief, then He will have compassion according to His abundant lovingkindness.” (Lamentations 3:31-32)

References

Photo credit: ©SparrowStock


Joel Ryan is an LA-based children’s author, artist, professor, and speaker who is passionate about helping young writers unleash their creativity and discover the wonders of their Creator through storytelling and art. In his blog, Perspectives off the Page, he discusses all things story and the creative process.