Lamentations is one of the shortest and yet one of the most powerful books of the Bible. It is found with four others (Qoheleth/Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Ruth, and Esther) comprising the Megilloth (‘Little scrolls’), which occur among the Writings of the Hebrew Bible. In the order found in the English Bibles used by Christians (deriving from the Greek Septuagint, which was followed by the Latin Vulgate), the book is placed among the Prophets, after Jeremiah.
The English title of the book, ‘Lamentations’, sums up very well its subject matter. As is commonly the case, the Hebrew title is taken from its first word, ’ekah, meaning ‘how!’
The book consists of a series of complaints about a disaster, which has struck the city of Jerusalem and her people. It comprises five poetic laments, in style similar to many in the Psalter. Four of the five chapters (ch. 5 being the exception) are acrostic poems; acrostics typically begin each verse with a different letter of the alphabet, in sequence. Chapters 1 and 2 personify Zion as a woman, while ch. 3 introduces a male personification (Lam 3:1, ‘I am the man who has seen affliction under the rod of God’s wrath’).
Date and authorship
The consensus view is that the book takes its starting point from the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians in the 6th century BCE. A minority of scholars have looked instead to other contexts, especially the Maccabean period. Ian W. Provan and others have adopted an agnostic view with regard to dating.
The work was probably written in Jerusalem during the months and years immediately following the destruction of the Temple in ca. 587. There is some evidence that people gathered to mourn on the site of the ruined Temple during this period (Jer 41:5); it is possible that the material was shaped by its use in worship in such a setting (see Zech 7:2-5; Joel 2:15-17).
The book was shaped not only by the immediate crisis, but also by a long tradition of laments over cities, both oral and written, which existed not only within Israel itself but also in the wider ancient Near Eastern world.
Lamentations is traditionally supposed to be the work of the prophet Jeremiah (compare 2 Chr 35:25; it also recalls the so-called ‘Confessions of Jeremiah’, e.g., Jer 12:1-4; 15:15-18). We read in the Babylonian Talmud (Baba Bathra 14b-15a) that ‘Jeremiah wrote the book that bears his name, the book of Kings and Lamentations’. This view is rarely defended today, since the style and thought are somewhat different from the book of Jeremiah.
It is clear that the work expresses many questions about the recent disaster and its meaning. There have been various attempts to interpret the book in a systematic way. Norman K. Gottwald (1962) proposed that the theological key to the work is provided by Deuteronomistic theology, which presented a ‘just deserts’ pattern; he argued that the problem in the book is that the disaster, coming so soon after the reforms of the ideal king, Josiah, is perceived as undeserved (2:20; 5:7). Bertil Albrektson (1963), on the other hand, interpreted the book in the light of the old belief in the inviolability of the city of Jerusalem, a belief apparently falsified by the present disaster (see 2:15; 4:12). He found this dilemma resolved in the Deuteronomistic view of the catastrophe as a divine judgment (Deut 28:64-65).
Both Gottwald and Albrektson gave a clear place to hope in their overall interpretations. However, it must be recognized that in this book hope is at best ambiguous and fleeting (the clearest cases are found in 3:19ff. and 4:22). Todd Linafelt (2000) argues strongly for reading the book as a primal cry of protest and has urged that the quest for an overall interpretation should be resisted. Just about every interpretation of the crisis is offered by the book itself; this prompts the question whether the book will yield a coherent overall message. This lack of theological consistency (together with variation in form, especially in chs. 3 and 5) has led some to assert that the book is the work of more than one author. Paul Joyce (1993) argued that the book’s lack of theological consistency is not surprising, drawing upon the insights of pastoral psychology to show that such lack of coherence is typical of human reaction to the perennial experience of radical loss.
This small book has made a big impact in a vast range of contexts.
In the Bible
The Hebrew Bible itself provides evidence of the reception of Lamentations, for example, in Isaiah (e.g., 40:1). Some find allusions in the New Testament, notably in Matthew’s passion narrative.
The fate of Jerusalem at the hands of the Romans drove many Jews back to the book of Lamentations, as may be seen in the Targum (see Lam 5:8, 10), Lamentations Rabbah (see, for example, on Lam 2:18; 3:20-21), and the Avot de Rabbi Natan (cf. Lam 3:16), as well as in the Jewish War of Josephus (see Lam 2:22). In Jewish Liturgy, the book has been recited through the centuries on Tisha B’Av, the annual fast day commemorating the destruction of the two Temples and subsequent Jewish disasters such as the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492. The book has had an ongoing role in the long story of Jewish response to catastrophe. Medieval Jewish rabbinic interpreters such as Ibn Ezra (see Lam 3:49-50), Yehuda Halevi (see Lam 3:22-24), and Ibn Verga (see Lam 5:7) engaged with the book in periods of dislocation and dispersion.
The Church Fathers made use of the book (see, for example, Irenaeus and Gregory the Great on Lam 3:1 and Justin Martyr and Origen on Lams 4:20). And it has played an important role in Christian liturgy down the centuries, sung as part of the liturgy of Holy Week, the days leading up to Easter, from the Middle Ages on and through to the modern era, in a range of musical settings from Allegri to Zelenka. Christian writers of the Reformation era such as Calvin and Peter Martyr Vermigli wrote on the book, as did mystical and devotional writers from St John of the Cross to John Keble. The role of Lamentations in various social contexts in Western Europe makes for a fascinating story, for example in England in response to the execution of King Charles I (especially Lam 4:20) or again to the Great Fire of London (especially Lam 2:3-5).
Responses to the Holocaust and its aftermath often interact with Lamentations, for example, Cynthia Ozick’s The Shawl. It has also been employed in response to the traumas of the Balkans in the 1990s and of South Africa in the late 20th century, and the epoch-making events of September 11th 2001.
Lamentations is powerfully represented in art in Marc Chagall’s Jeremiah’s Lamentations (1956), in which Jeremiah clutches to his bosom what seems to be a scroll, in a pose that is very evocative of mother and child – perhaps evoking the persona of Zion. In modern times the book has been much discussed by feminist critics, including Deryn Guest, Johanna Stiebert, Carleen Mandolfo, and Naomi Seidman.
Berlin, A. Lamentations: a Commentary. Old Testament Library. Louisville, KY; London: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002.
Hillers, D. R. Lamentations. Anchor Bible 7a. 2nd ed. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1992.
Joyce, P. M., and D. Lipton. Lamentations through the Centuries. Wiley-Blackwell Bible Commentaries. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013.
Linafelt, T. Surviving Lamentations: Catastrophe, Lament, and Protest in the Afterlife of a Biblical Book. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.
Provan, I. W. Lamentations. New Century Bible Commentary 29. London: Marshall Pickering; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991.
Westermann, C. Lamentations: Issues and Interpretation. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1994.
Albrektson, B. Studies in the Text and Theology of the Book of Lamentations. Studis Theologica Lundensia 21. Lund: CWK Gleerup, 1963.
Gottwald, N. K. Studies in the Book of Lamentations. Studies in Biblical Theology 14. 2nd ed. London: SCM Press, 1962.
Joyce, P. M. “Lamentations and the Grief Process: A Psychological Reading.” Biblical Interpretation 1 no.3 (1993): 304-20.