Book of Lamentations

From New World Encyclopedia

Books of the

Hebrew Bible

The Book of Lamentations (Hebrew מגילת איכה) is a book of the Jewish Tanakh and the Christian Old Testament. As suggested by its title, the book recounts the tragedies and horrors experienced by the Judean people as they were exiled by the Babylonians and the first Temple of Jerusalem was destroyed. While the text is often credited to the Prophet Jeremiah, modern biblical scholarship has disproved this attribution, instead suggesting that the received version is an amalgamation of various poems by different authors. This contention is supported by the fact that the book as received consists of five separate poems, each of which exists as a discrete unit.

The text is traditionally read by Jewish people on Tisha B'Av, a feast day that bewails the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. It is also used as part of Christian Tenebrae services, which are celebrated during Lent.


Place in the Canon

Given that the book itself has no formal title in the original scrolls, it is customarily referred to by its first word, Ekhah, which is "an exclamatory particle meaning 'How!'"[1] The Septuagint, following the later Rabbinic usage, adopted the name rendered "Lamentations" (Greek threnoi / Hebrew qinoth, "dirges"), to denote the character of the book, in which the prophet mourns the desolations brought on Jerusalem and the Holy Land by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E.[1] This name has been retained throughout the various subsequent translations of the text, though some versions mistakenly append the prophet Jeremiah's name to it (a misattribution that is discussed below).


According to tradition, authorship is assigned to the Prophet Jeremiah, who was a court official during the conquest of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar, and, resultantly was a first-hand witness of the destruction of the First Temple and the capture of King Jehoiachin. Indeed, folk wisdom suggests that Jeremiah retired to a cavern outside the Damascus gate, where he wrote this book. While some scholars agree with this traditional attribution,[2] it has not been borne out by modern scholarship. Likewise, even the suggestion that book is the product of a single author, as argued by Renkema, are in the minority.[3]

The rejection of the traditional attribution is executed on numerous fronts: first (and most commonsensical) is the simple fact that this tradition, despite its evidently venerable history,[4] cannot be dated back to the canonization of the Prophets section of the Hebrew Bible—if it could, this text would have been canonized alongside the Book of Jeremiah.[5] Further, and in spite of certain similarities of tone and style, the two books emerge from considerably variant perspectives:

Jeremiah had condemned the Temple as "a den of robbers" (7:11), while throughout Lamentations, the Temple is the sacred seat of God (e.g., 2:1, 2:6 and passim), with not blot upon its escutcheon. While the prophet was vigorously opposed to any alliance with Egypt, the poet treats the invoking of aid from Egypt favorably, or at least neutrally (5:6). The adulatory references to the King as "the breath of our nostrils, the anointed of God" (4:20), stands in stark contrast to Jeremiah's condemnation of the royal house (chap. 22).[6]

This is not to mention the acrostic style adopted by the poetic author of Lamentations (discussed below), which is a literary flourish that is entirely absent from Jeremiah's output. In fact, sufficient stylistic differences exist within the text to suggest that it is, itself, a redacted volume.[7] When these structural and stylistic facts are coupled with two notable cultural issues (namely, that writing eponymous texts credited to famous authors was a common practice and that a well-established tradition of Mesopotamian "city laments" was already in existence[8]), it seems likely that the problem of authorship will remain insoluble.


While some commentators argue for an ahistorical interpretation of the text,[9] the vast majority see Lamentations as a description of events immediately following the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E.[10] Indeed, many particular episodes described in the lament are borne out by the historical narrative in 2 Kings concerning the fall of Jerusalem: Jerusalem lying in ruins (Lamentations 2:2 / 2 Kings 25:9), enemies entering the city (Lamentations 4:12 / 2 Kings 24:11), the exile of the Judean people (Lamentations 1:3 / 2 Kings 24:14) and the plundering of the holy sanctuary (Lamentations 1:10 / 2 Kings 24:13). Further, even though Babylon is never mentioned by name in Lamentations, this could simply be making the point that the judgment comes from God, which transforms the invaders into a simple instrument of His will.[11]


Given the near universal acceptance of the multiple-author hypothesis, it is not possible to provide a definitive date for the collected writings preserved in Lamentations. However, it (or at least part of it) was probably composed soon after 586 B.C.E. To this end, Kraus argues that "the whole song stands so near the events that one feels everywhere as if the terrible pictures of the destruction stand still immediately before the eyes of the one lamenting."[12] Others suggest that the different chapters (each of which can be seen as a discrete unit) can be tentatively traced to different era. One such timeline places Chapter 2 and 4, which are the "rawest" in their emotional pain, closest to the events described therein, with Chapter 1 following fairly shortly thereafter, Chapter 5 emerging some time before the temple had been rebuilt (perhaps around 530 B.C.E.), and Chapter 3 (with its personal but highly general content) being written "almost any time in the postexilic period."[13] From a completely different perspective, Houk argues, using a statistical analysis of word choices in the text, that the book was composed over an extended period of time by "temple-singers-in-training," who were building upon oral tales of the exile in a gradual manner: "Perhaps Lamentations is a collection of practice laments composed by temple singers, or other poets, each with a different assignment, adding on lines to the growing acrostics."[14] If this is the case, the possibility of definitively dating the text becomes rather bleak indeed.



"Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem" by Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn.

The book consists of five separate poems, each of which possess its own particular style, focus and content. Despite this breadth, they do share a common core, which is their united attempt to cast the dreadful events of the invasion of Jerusalem and the exile of the Judean people into a meaningful framework.

Chapter 1 approaches the material using an extended personification and speaking from the perspective of Jerusalem, here portrayed as a princess who has been brought low by the invading armies:

How deserted lies the city,
once so full of people!
How like a widow is she,
who once was great among the nations!
She who was queen among the provinces
has now become a slave.
Bitterly she weeps at night,
tears are upon her cheeks.
Among all her lovers
there is none to comfort her.
All her friends have betrayed her;
they have become her enemies.[15]

Despite these pained dirges, the text does not attempt to deny the Deuteronomistic Theology, acknowledging that these evils were ultimately the fault of Judean society and their failure to keep the covenant:

My sins have been bound into a yoke;
by his hands they were woven together.
They have come upon my neck
and the Lord has sapped my strength.
He has handed me over
to those I cannot withstand.
The Lord has rejected
all the warriors in my midst;
he has summoned an army against me
to crush my young men.
In his winepress the Lord has trampled
the Virgin Daughter of Judah.[16]

Chapter 2, which takes a more visceral approach to the conquest, makes a direct comment about divine justice by avoiding any sort of evaluative language. Instead, it uses parataxis (a poetic technique that lists related elements without subordination or explicit ordering)[17] to highlight the brutality of divine justice:[18]

The Lord is like an enemy;
he has swallowed up Israel.
He has swallowed up all her palaces
and destroyed her strongholds.
He has multiplied mourning and lamentation
for the Daughter of Judah.
He has laid waste his dwelling like a garden;
he has destroyed his place of meeting.
The Lord has made Zion forget
her appointed feasts and her Sabbaths;
in his fierce anger he has spurned
both king and priest.
The Lord has rejected his altar
and abandoned his sanctuary.
He has handed over to the enemy
the walls of her palaces;
they have raised a shout in the house of the Lord
as on the day of an appointed feast.[19]

Responding to these travesties, the chapter ends with a grim indictment of God's wrath:

Look, O Lord, and consider:
Whom have you ever treated like this?
Should women eat their offspring,
the children they have cared for?
Should priest and prophet be killed
in the sanctuary of the Lord?
Young and old lie together
in the dust of the streets;
my young men and maidens
have fallen by the sword.
You have slain them in the day of your anger;
you have slaughtered them without pity.[20]

Chapter 3 breaks the mold of the previous chapters by presenting a unitary narrative, a personal reflection on pain, suffering and loss. However, in addition to the stylistic difference, this section is also notable for offering a message of hope (however slight):

I have been deprived of peace;
I have forgotten what prosperity is.
So I say, "My splendor is gone
and all that I had hoped from the Lord."
I remember my affliction and my wandering,
the bitterness and the gall.
I well remember them,
and my soul is downcast within me.
Yet this I call to mind
and therefore I have hope:
Because of the Lord's great love we are not consumed,
for his compassions never fail.[21]

However, as Landy notes, this personal appeal (based on such works as Jeremiah, Job, and various Psalms) could be doomed to failure: "It is thus a search through old formulas for a context through which to comprehend this new catastrophe, a search that does not work because it has never worked.... The poet talks like Job one minute, and like one of Job's friends the next. He seems unaware of the contradiction—that a God who refuses to listen to prayer may be persuaded by it."[22] Conversely, the approach taken in this chapter, including the tentative statements of faith and hope, could be indicative of a renewed commitment to God (perhaps written decades after the dreadful events that the other chapters in the book describe):[13]

"This reflects the fundamental theological presupposition of Hebrew belief: the Lord is the absolute ruler over the universe and yet wishes to be the God of Israel. ... The recommendation to bear suffering patiently has, of course, nothing to do with resignation, but rests upon the unshakable theological assumption of God's benevolence and mercy. Consequently, a man of true faith must have sufficient strength and hope even when God allows his enemy to strike him mercilessly."[23]

Chapter 4 returns to the form of the first two chapters, but does so in a slightly different manner. Specifically, it uses various stylized comparisons to explore the themes addressed above, "which here [operate] as a powerful distancing device, in contrast to the metaphors of the first two chapters."[22] However, "alongside these rhetorical devices that idealize and divert is a simple account of the fall of the city."[22]

The kings of the earth did not believe,
nor did any of the world's people,
that enemies and foes could enter
the gates of Jerusalem.
But it happened because of the sins of her prophets
and the iniquities of her priests,
who shed within her
the blood of the righteous.
Now they grope through the streets
like men who are blind.
They are so defiled with blood
that no one dares to touch their garments.[24]

Finally, the book ends with a summary of the current plight of the exiles, and a prayer that Zion's suffering may be alleviated:

You, O Lord, reign forever;
your throne endures from generation to generation.
Why do you always forget us?
Why do you forsake us so long?
Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may return;
renew our days as of old
unless you have utterly rejected us
and are angry with us beyond measure.[25]


The first four poems (chapters) utilize the poetic technique of acrostics, beginning each verse with successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet (a technique that is also attested to in Psalms 25, 34, 37, and 119). As such, the first, second, and fourth chapters each have twenty-two verses, corresponding to the number of the letters in the Hebrew alphabet. The third has sixty-six verses, allowing each three successive verses begin with the same letter. Further, these initial four chapters all follow a rigid metrical structure, which is consistent enough that it has come to be known as the "Lament" (qinah) metre (regardless of where it is found).[26] The fifth chapter does not follow either the metre or structure of the previous four, though its twenty-two verses imply that it could have been an unfinished acrostic.[27]

The function of these acrostics is a topic that has not been definitively resolved. Some argue that it was "originally used because of a belief in the magic power of the acrostic, but in course of time the form had become traditional, and it also functioned as an aid to memory."[26] Others suggest that the text took that particular form because it was gradually composed by temple-singers who were learning the poetic arts.[28] Still others attribute this restrictive literary structure to the human impulse to create meaning: "Out of the dark night, in which Jerusalem's tear is on her cheek, the voice rises, turning the weeping into differentiated poems and words, human desolation into grandeur."[29] Finally, Renkma suggests that the acrostics indicate a topical unity between the various chapters:

They applied the literary form of parallel acrostics as a visualization of the responsive coherence between the (strophes of the) poems. The strophes—marked by the same letters of the alphabet—form song responsions, that is to say: in one way or another the identical letter strophes form on the same (letter) level external parallelisms, identical, additional or antithetical in content.[30]

Once again, the impassable gulf of history makes it impossible to truly gauge which of these approaches (if any) are correct.


On the ninth day (Tisha) of the Jewish month of Av, Jewish people "celebrate" a festival of remembrance, which has been called the "saddest day in Jewish history".[31] It is dedicated to the memories of the various pains and losses that the Jewish community has experienced through history (both ancient (the destruction of the Temple) and modern (the Holocaust)).

As part of the Tisha B'av service, the scroll of Eichah (Lamentations) is read in synagogue during the evening services. In addition, most of the morning is spent reading kinoth ("dirges"), most bewailing the loss of the Temples and the subsequent persecutions, but many others referring to post-exile disasters.[32]

Likewise, the High Church Tenebrae mass celebrated during Lent also uses readings from the Book of Lamentations to highlight the pain of the Passion.


  1. 1.0 1.1 Theophile J. Meek, Introduction to and Exgesis of "The Book of Lamentations" in The Interpreter's Bible (Vol. VI), edited by George Arther Buttrick, (New York: Abingdon Press, 1956), 3.
  2. Such as Wilhelm Rudolph in Die Klaglieder, referenced in Meek, 5; Dobbs-Allsopp, 5 (quoted below).
  3. Houk summarizes Renkmena's position as follows: "Lamentations is a unified literary creation from the onset, perhaps by one temple singer, but 'elaborated by more than one', a 'collective work of art'. He enumerates many inclusions and responses which link the poems as a synchronic 'product of the guild'. In an earlier work, Renkema (1988: 391) allows for multiple poets contributing to Lamentations but who 'would have done so at the same time, in careful teamwork' (113). See also F. W. Dobbs-Allsopp, who argues that "the widely observed unity of form and point of view... and general resemblance in linguistic detail throughout the sequence are broadly suggestive of the work of a single author" (5).
  4. This history, which can be definitively traced back to the Talmud (and tentatively back as far as the composition of the Book of Chronicles), is summarized in Gordis, 269.
  5. Meek, 4.
  6. Gordis, 270.
  7. Lachs, 47-48; Gordis, 271-272; Meek, 5. However, this perspective is argued against by William Lanahan, who suggests that each of these apparent voices are only personae that were deliberately adopted by the author for literary effect (42).
  8. However, it should be noted that some authors deny any parallel between the Sumerian and Israelite laments. See, for example, McDaniel, who concludes his paper with the following cogent position: "It seems best to abandon any claim of literary dependence or influence of the Sumerian lamentations on the biblical Lamentations. At most the indebtedness would be the idea of a lamentation over a beloved city. But since there is such a natural corollary to individual and collective lamentations or funeral laments, indebtedness may properly be discarded" (209).
  9. Provan, 138. See also Lachs' view on the provenance of Book V in the text.
  10. Brevard S. Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture (London: SCM, 1979), 593; Meek, 4-5; Landy, 329-332; Gordis, 272.
  11. Conversely, Landy notes that this rhetorical silence could emerge from the "political expedience" necessary among "people living under occupation" (333).
  12. Cited in Provan, 133.
  13. 13.0 13.1 Meek, 5.
  14. Houk, 123.
  15. Lamentations 1: 1-2 (NIV).
  16. Lamentations 1: 14-15 (NIV).
  17. Alter and Kermode, "Glossary," 670.
  18. Landy, 330.
  19. Lamentations 2: 5-7 (NIV).
  20. Lamentations 2: 20-21 (NIV).
  21. Lamentations 3: 17-22 (NIV).
  22. 22.0 22.1 22.2 Landy, 332.
  23. Krašovec, 231.
  24. Lamentations 4: 12-14 (NIV).
  25. Lamentations 5: 19-22 (NIV).
  26. 26.0 26.1 Meek, 3.
  27. Meek, 4; Houk, 124 (who makes a case for Chapter 5 as an implicit (or unfinished) acrostic).
  28. See Houk.
  29. Landy, 333.
  30. Renkma, 379.
  31. Joseph Telushkin, Jewish Literacy: The Most Important Things to Know About the Jewish Religion, Its People and Its History (William Morrow & Co, 1991, ISBN 0-688-08506-7), 656.
  32. Some content reproduced from

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Bandstra, Barry L. Reading the Old Testament: An Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, 2nd ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1999. ISBN 0534527272
  • Buttrick, George Arthur (Commentary Editor) et al. The Interpreter's Bible: the Holy Scriptures in the King James and Revised standard versions with general articles and introduction, exegesis, exposition for each book of the Bible. New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1951-57.
  • Childs, Brevard S. Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture. Philadelphia, PA: Augsburg Fortress Press, 1979. ISBN 0800605322
  • Dobbs-Allsopp, F. W. Lamentations. Louisville: John Knox Press, 2002. ISBN 0804231419
  • Gordis, Robert. "Commentary on the Text of Lamentations." The Jewish Quarterly Review (New Series), Vol. 58, No. 1 (July 1967), 14-33.
  • Houk, Cornelius. "Multiple Poets in Lamentations." Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 30.1 (2005), 111-125.
  • Krašovec, Jože. "The Source of Hope in the Book of Lamentations." Vetus Testamentum Vol. 42, Fasc. 2 (April 1992), 223-233.
  • Lachs, Samuel Tobias. "The Date of Lamentations V." The Jewish Quarterly Review (New Series), Vol. 57, No. 1 (July 1966), 46-56.
  • Lanahan, William F. "The Speaking Voice in the Book of Lamentations." Journal of Biblical Literature Vol. 93, No. 1 (March 1974), 41-49.
  • Landy, Francis. "Lamentations" in The Literary Guide to the Bible. Edited by Robert Alter and Frank Kermode. Cambridge, MS: The Belknap Press of Oxford University Press, 1987. ISBN 0674875303
  • McDaniel Thomas F. "The Alleged Sumerian Influence upon Lamentations." Vetus Testamentum Vol. 18, Fasc. 2 (April 1968), 198-209.
  • Provan, Iain W. "Reading Texts Against an Historical Background: The Case of Lamentations," Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament 1990 (1), 138.
  • Renkma, L. "The Meaning of the Parallel Acrostics in Lamentations." Vetus Testamentum XLV 3 (1995). 379-383.

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