The extent of the horror can scarcely be imagined. Jerusalem was destroyed; the House of YHWH was in ruins; the people of God lay dead of disease, famine, and war; those who lived were exiled to a foreign land. The survivors must have felt unimaginable grief. Such grief was given a voice in the book of Lamentations.
Lamentations is the twenty-fifth book in most English Bibles, placed between Jeremiah and Ezekiel; in the Hebrew Bible, Lamentations is part of the Megillot, the five scrolls in the middle of the Ketuvim or “Writings.” Lamentations is written in the wake of the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of the people of Judah in 586 BCE. Jeremiah has traditionally been considered its author since he was a contemporary of the events, and the book of his prophecies frequently speaks of his agony over his prophetic role and the substance of his message; he might well be the author, but the work itself has no attributed author and is more akin to Psalms than prophecy. Lamentations is a series of five poems; the first four are acrostic, with each verse or set of three verses beginning with successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet. The book of Lamentations gives voice to the trials and grief of Israel as experienced in the destruction of Jerusalem.
The first poem, Lamentations 1:1-22, considers the tragedy from the perspective of Jerusalem. The city, once full of people, is now lonely; her people are dead or in exile, and her enemies have triumphed over her. This took place on account of the sins perpetrated in her mist, and she cries out for all to see her sorrow, yet there are none to comfort. YHWH, however, is in the right in His judgment; nevertheless, “Jerusalem” would like for YHWH to note the evil of her enemies so that they may receive recompense as well.
The second poem, Lamentations 2:1-22, considers what God has done to Jerusalem. God, in His righteous indignation, cut down Jerusalem and its people; He became an enemy to His people and disowned His heritage; He laid waste to His city. The people of the city mourn and lament; the city’s ruin is great. Many prophets spoke falsely, and all who pass by Jerusalem now deride and mock the city. All of this is the result of what YHWH purposed for Jerusalem because of their transgression; nevertheless, the author wants YHWH to see the horrors of mothers eating their children, priests and prophets being killed in the Temple, and great slaughter everywhere.
The third poem, Lamentations 3:1-66, considers the tragedy from the author’s first person viewpoint. He speaks as one lamenting his great trial and difficulties, experiencing physical agony, and being constantly pursued by attackers and enemies. The author then expresses faith in YHWH and His steadfast love and mercies. Yes, YHWH has punished them for their transgressions, but YHWH will restore them to Him and heal them. Even if enemies seek their downfall YHWH will make them stand.
The fourth poem, Lamentations 4:1-22, considers the tragedy in terms of the people of Judah. Gold lost its luster in the disaster; the wealthy are reduced to nothing; the punishment of the people is worse than that of Sodom. Those who were killed were better off than those who starved to death. This all is the venting of YHWH’s anger on account of their sins and their great defilement. Their enemies pursued them and destroyed them. Edom may rejoice now, but their time of punishment will come.
The fifth poem, Lamentations 5:1-22, is the author’s direct appeal to YHWH. It is not an acrostic but features 22 lines as well. The author appeals to YHWH to see the disgrace of the people: others rule over them; everything is turned upside down; the people have sinned, yes, but are made heart-sick to see Zion lie desolate. YHWH rules forever; why does He forsake His people and forget them? The author concludes Lamentation by appealing to YHWH to restore His people and to renew them unless He has decided to entirely reject them and remains angry with them.
While Lamentations is not exactly a happy book, it gives a necessary voice to the people of God to express their great grief and remorse over the tragedy of the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of the people. Lamentations confesses the horrors of the atrocities perpetrated on Jerusalem yet does so in its proper context: the people had sinned, YHWH was in the right to judge Judah harshly, and those who survived can now understand the severity of the consequences of disobeying YHWH their God. It is remarkable to see such raw and visceral descriptions expressed in a very structured, disciplined way in the acrostic poems of Lamentations 1:1-4:22. Such is the great lesson of Lamentations. The people of God will at times experience terrible tragedy, whether on account of their sinfulness or because of persecution for holding firm to God’s purposes. It is right and appropriate to lament those terrible tragedies, yet such laments must always be made in light of God’s loving-kindness manifest in the creation and His care for His people. Lamentation can only truly be made in faith and end in confidence in YHWH’s existence, justice, righteousness, and care for His people, as is vividly expressed in Lamentations 3:1-66. No matter how challenging life can be God continues to provide structure, hope, and a way forward for His people (Romans 8:28-39). Let us trust in God no matter what and live unto His glory and honor!
Ethan R. Longhenry