Classic Reprint: The Book of Lamentations

candles-mourningTisha B’Av begins tonight. Lamentations (Eicha in Hebrew) is read tonight in a synagogue strewn with upended chairs following a meal of lentils eaten alone. These comments on Lamentations are designed to make your reading more profitable.

David Clines, writing in the Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible says of Eicha:

Its theological position is quite subtle: it does not take just one perspective, and it does not recommend a single solution. It begins with the reality of disaster, and it concludes neither with cheap grace nor easy hope but with the bitter possibility that the people of God have now become the ex-people of God, that this time God may indeed have finally rejected Israel (5:22).

Clines does not say the book offers no hope. The hope comes primarily in the middle, in the longest of the five poems (chapter 3), the section emphasized by nature of its longer structure as well as in the synagogue by being canted the loudest. Lamentations is made up of five poems as follows:

1. An acrostic poem (each verse begins with a letter of the alphabet in sequence) of 22 verses.

2. An acrostic poem of 22 verses.

3. A triple acrostic poem of 66 verses, with a passage of hope in 3:22-33.

4. An acrostic poem of 22 verses.

5. An alphabetic but not acrostic poem of 22 verses (the number of verses is deliberate though they do not begin with the letters in sequence: deliberate movement toward chaos?).

The Setting and Authorship of Lamentations
Tradition says this poem was written by Jeremiah. This tradition is late and has some possibility, but no basis.

The poem is set in post-destruction Jerusalem, so it is from 586 B.C.E. or later (the Babylonians destroyed the Temple and the city in 586). Clines observes that the poem could have been written much later as Israel remained in a sort of exile (and still does today) waiting for God’s promises to be fulfilled. P.M. Joyce, writing in the Oxford Bible Commentary theorizes that Lamentations was written right after the disaster and used as liturgy by those who went daily to mourn on the Temple ruins.

We cannot know for sure who wrote Eicha or when. Its themes could have been liturgy for the community right after the destruction, but it could also have been a theological psalm from the centuries after, when the people were still wondering when God would appear. Its themes still ring true today as the wait has lengthened to millennia.

Theological Themes
As Clines observed, there is no singular answer in Eicha. It is a book reacting to disappointment and sorrow. People rarely have a structured or coordinated response to tragedy and Eicha is true to life as a bitter reflection.

There are three notions around which the themes of Lamentations revolve:

1. The supposed indestructability of Jerusalem, the city of God, which has turned out to be a lie.

2. The election of Israel by God and its ongoing relationship and covenantal promises, which are in question.

3. The curses of the covenant which explain the disaster but which are in tension with the ongoing covenant.

Has God chosen? Has he rejected? Have we earned these curses, as the warnings of Leviticus and Deuteronomy suggest? Or have we hope because the covenant is never-ending and larger than the retribution for failure?

Clines suggests in particular five lessons for mourners from Eicha:

1. Grief and self-reflection are legitimate and expression of bitterness is valuable and necessary. This contrasts with the well-meaning but misguided religious notion than due to our knowledge of God, we should be restrained in grief and expression of suffering.

2. God can be held responsible for tragedies. Though Jerusalem’s guilt is evident, still God had a choice of how exacting to be in vengeance.

3. Memories of God’s past kindnesses provide hope for the future, though God is not guaranteed to act favorably in the near term.

4. Repentance is not a tool for persuading God to relent as God is free to act as he chooses.

5. God is ultimately free to reject consolation and return. At least in our timing and according to our desire, God’s covenants do not obligate him. While he will be true, we do not know when or how.

Outline Adapted from Clines

Chapter 1: The Widowed Jerusalem
–The Scene (1-11)
–An Appeal (12-22)

Chapter 2: Adonai’s Anger and the Impossibility of Comfort
–The Anger (1-10)
–The Poet’s Inability to Comfort (11-17)
–A Cry for Mercy (18-22)

Chapter 3: When the Mood Changes
–A Man Who Has Seen Affliction (1-21)
–Adonai’s Mercies Never Cease (22-33)
–What of Repentance? (34-66)

Chapter 4: Casting Blame
–Jerusalem’s Inhabitants (1-11)
–Jerusalem’s Priests and Prophets (12-16)
–Jerusalem’s King (17-20)
–Jerusalem’s Enemies (21-22)

Chapter 5: Expectations of God
–A prayer to God by the community coming to a crescendo in 5:21 and sounding a dire note in 5:22. The end leaves no answer, only grief and longing.

Read some excerpts from the Midrash on Lamentations.

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2 Responses to Classic Reprint: The Book of Lamentations

  1. Herbert says:

    Some critique on the book after reflection this week :

    1) I find some voices missing,starkingly, that are typically found during a lament.

    a) when a person / community mourns, they tend to get solace by identifying with others in the world who are mourning too from loss. Thus a grieving parent derives solace by communing with other grieving parents. This identification is missing in Lamentations.

    b) in any community there are people who are treated unjustly. These people feel alienated within the community. They are already in mourning. When the oppressed community is finally at the receiving end these subversive elements are finally vindicated. There is a kind of relief that they feel , almost joyously. This subversive voice is also missing from Lamentations.

    2) I find emotions of shock, denial, hope, giving-up all present in Lamentations. The cycle of depression is quite present there. This hope however doesnt seem to indicate any kind of real answer. It is the kind of futile hope that a person in depression tends to look forward to.

    3) Jesus’ words, finally, console me and others who are in mourning : he who loses his life will find it. He who keeps his life will lose it.
    Israel possibly was a community which reluctantly lost its life rather than purposefully losing it. But in its loss it can find identity and even give an answer to a suffering world – but if only it accepts that life doesnt demand anything other than to just be. Life is created with whatever we already need. It doesnt need any add-ons. It doesnt need us to do anything more to make it happier. It is glorious as it is.

  2. Derek Leman says:


    Good thoughts. Readers might want to know that you are one of my friends. I know your experience and the causes you serve. Your experience gives you a unique voice regarding suffering. My responses:

    (1) Lamentations purpose is not to give a theology of grieving. It is a Psalm of Lament. It gives voice, not answers.

    (2) Mostly my response is the same as (1). Note that in Lamentations Rabbah (the rabbinical commentary, the Midrash on Lamentations) there is a move toward giving answers.

    (3) There is some consolation in Lamentations 3. Yes, we (Israel) reluctantly rather than willingly lost our Temple and the joy of our idealized kingdom. A Jewish theology of suffering does start to emerge in the Midrash on Lamentations).


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