The book of Lamentations is a collection of five poems lamenting the destruction of Judah and Jerusalem by the Babylonians at the time of the exile. They are written in a mix of third person (he/she/it/they) and first person (I/we) and recognise that the disaster they're experiencing is directly connected to their past disobedience. The poems plead with God to act to save them.
How lonely sits the city that once was full of people! How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations! She that was a princess among the provinces has become a vassal. (Lamentations 1.1)
Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by? Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow, which was brought upon me, which the Lord inflicted on the day of his fierce anger. (Lamentations 1.12)
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end. (Lamentations 3.22)
The assumption that suffering happens because of a punishment by God. It is important to recognise that this link is particular to the exile, but not necessarily to all suffering.
Traditionally both Judaism and Christianity attribute Lamentations to the prophet Jeremiah. The problem with this is that Jeremiah went to Egypt during the exile, but these poems seem to have been written by people who stayed in Judah. On the other hand the recognition of the link between the people’s behaviour and the exile would fit well with what Jeremiah said.
If the author is not Jeremiah we don't know who it was.
Jeremiah (around 626-587 BC) prophesied to the King of Judah and to the people before and at the start of the exile, warning them of the disaster to come.
The beginning of the exile, which occurred over a number of years from 597 to 587 BC, was a time of devastation and loss. It was the result of various rebellions against Babylonian rule. Judah had been in the Babylonian empire since 612 BC but at the start of the 6th century BC it attempted to rebel and withhold taxes. The response of the Babylonians was swift and harsh. It began with the first wave of exile, in which the people in the highest echelons of society (including the king) were taken from Judah to live in Babylon in captivity (597 BC). Ten years later, after another rebellion, more people were taken into exile and the temple was destroyed.
Lamentations, more than any other book in the Bible, captures what it really felt like to be someone from Judah at this point in history.
Jeremiah, Isaiah, Ezekiel
Poetry. Lamentations contains five poems of lament which capture the devastation of what it felt like for the people to lose their land.
1.1–22 There is no one to comfort them
2.1–22 There is only anger and weeping
3.1–66 God has not forgiven them
4.1–22 Utter devastation
5.1–22 Plea for restoration
There will be lots of names you will not know; don’t worry if you can’t place them all. The key ones are given below.
Assyria, Edom, Jerusalem, Judah, Mount Zion, Sodom, Zion
Exile, exilic period, priest, Tabernacle
These poems are packed with emotion. Take time to notice it and feel their force as you read.
Some people think you can sense both male and female voices speaking in these poems. See what you think – can you get any sense of the gender of those speaking?
Chapters 1, 2 and 4 are acrostic (i.e. they begin with subsequent letters of the alphabet). You won’t be able to see this in your English translation, but look out for any ways in which particular bits of style have been inserted into the poems.
Lamentations does not represent silent suffering, but angry, grieving lament. Reflect as you read on the importance of expressing deep emotion rather than bottling it up.