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Book of Lamentations


Author and Date
Lamentations is anonymous, although ancient Jewish and early Christian traditions ascribe it to Jeremiah. These traditions are based in part on (though the "Laments" referred to there are not to be identified with the OT book of Lamentations); in part on such texts as and in part on the similarity of vocabulary and style between Lamentations and the prophecies of Jeremiah. Moreover, such an ascription gains a measure of plausibility from the fact that Jeremiah was an eyewitness to the divine judgment on Jerusalem in 586 b.c., which is so vividly portrayed here. Nevertheless, we cannot be certain who authored these carefully crafted poems or who is responsible for putting them together into a single scroll. Lamentations poignantly expresses the people's overwhelming sense of loss that accompanied the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple as well as the exile of Judah's inhabitants from the land Yahweh had covenanted to give Israel as a perpetual national homeland.

The earliest possible date for the book is 586 b.c., and the latest is 516 b.c (when the rebuilt Jerusalem temple was dedicated). The graphic immediacy of Lamentations argues for an earlier date, probably before 575.

Theological Theme and Message
Lamentations is not the only OT book that contains individual or community laments. (A large number of the Psalms are lament poems, and every prophetic book except Haggai includes one or more examples of the lament genre.) Lamentations is the only book, however, that consists solely of laments.

As a series of laments over the destruction of Jerusalem (the royal city of the Lord's kingdom) in 586 b.c., it stands in a tradition with such ancient non-Biblical writings as the Sumerian "Lamentation over the Destruction of Ur," "Lamentation over the Destruction of Sumer and Ur," and "Lamentation over the Destruction of Nippur." Orthodox Jews customarily read it aloud in its entirety on the ninth day of Ab, the traditional date of the destruction of Solomon's temple in 586 as well as the date of the destruction of Herod's temple in a.d. 70. Many also read it each week at the Western Wall (the "Wailing Wall") in the Old City of Jerusalem. In addition, the book is important in traditional Roman Catholic liturgy, where it is customarily read during the last three days of Holy Week.

This Christian practice reminds us that the book of Lamentations not only bemoans Jerusalem's destruction but also contains profound theological insights. The horrors accompanying the Babylonian destruction of Judah are recited in some detail:

  • Wholesale devastation and slaughter engulfed kings (), princes (), elders (), priests (), prophets ) and commoners ( ) alike.
  • Starving mothers were reduced to cannibalism ().
  • The flower of Judah's inhabitants were dragged off into ignominious exile ().
  • An elaborate system of ceremony and worship came to an end ().

But this recital is integrally woven into the fabric of a poetic wrestling with the ways of God who, as the Lord of history, was dealing with his wayward people.

The author of these laments and those who preserved them understood clearly that the Babylonians were merely the human agents of divine judgment. It was God himself who had destroyed the city and temple (). This was not a merely arbitrary act on the Lord's part; blatant, God-defying sin and covenant-breaking rebellion were at the root of his people's woes (). Although weeping () is to be expected and cries for redress against the enemy ( ) are understandable (), the proper response to judgment is acknowledgment of sin () and heartfelt contrition (). Trust in God's mercies and faithfulness must not falter. The book that begins with lament ( ) rightly ends with an appeal to the Lord for restoration ().

In the middle of the book, the theology of Lamentations reaches its apex as it focuses on the goodness of God. He is the Lord of hope ( ), of love ( ), of faithfulness ( ), of salvation and restoration (). In spite of all evidence to the contrary, "his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; / great is your faithfulness" ().

Near the end of the book, faith rises from Jerusalem's lamentable condition to acknowlege Yahweh's eternal reign: "You, O Lord, reign forever; / your throne endures from generation to generation" (; see ).