Lamentations is a chilling reminder of the consequences of sin and the horrors of war. Will mankind ever be totally free from the scourge and futility of war?
In the English Bible Lamentations is placed between the prophetic books of Jeremiah and Ezekiel. In the Hebrew Scriptures it appears in the third division, called the Writings, in a section called the Festival Scrolls (Megilloth) between Ruth and Ecclesiastes.
The book of Lamentations is read aloud in the synagogues on the 9th of Ab (in July or August on the Roman calendar), a Jewish national holiday that commemorates the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by the Babylonians in 587-586 B.C., as well as the subsequent destruction by the Roman armies under Titus in A.D. 70.
Main theme of Lamentations
The book consists of Jeremiah’s bitter lament and grief over the annihilation of Judah’s capital city Jerusalem and the burning of the temple. Jeremiah states categorically that God had rejected His people because of their continuing rebellion against Him.
“The book expresses with pathetic tenderness the prophet’s grief for the desolation of the city and Temple of Jerusalem, the captivity of the people, the miseries of famine, the cessation of public worship, and the other calamities with which his countrymen had been visited for their sins. The leading object was to teach the suffering Jews neither to despise ‘the chastening of the Lord,’ nor to ‘faint’ when ‘rebuked of Him,’ but to turn to God with deep repentance, to confess their sins, and humbly look to Him alone for pardon and deliverance” (Joseph Angus, The Bible Handbook, pp. 520-521).
Lamentations does not tell us who wrote the book, but the general consensus is that the author was Jeremiah the prophet. Some Bible scholars suggest that the last chapter of the book of Jeremiah should be read as an introduction to Lamentations.
Jeremiah is called the lamenting prophet because he felt deeply for his people, pouring out his innermost feelings to God. His expressions of grief are demonstrated throughout Lamentations and also in various other passages such as 2 Chronicles 35:25 and Jeremiah 9:1.
The author was present when the Babylonian armies captured Jerusalem and sacked Solomon’s temple in 586 B.C. He laments over the gruesome and horrible suffering of the inhabitants during the siege and the captivity that followed.
Jeremiah’s ministry covered a period of over 40 years and spanned the reigns of the last five kings of Judah (from Josiah to Zedekiah). After the sacking of Jerusalem, the leading Jews insisted on going to Egypt—an act that was clearly against God’s explicit command—and they forced Jeremiah to go with them (Jeremiah 42:19; 43:7).
The time and manner of Jeremiah’s death are unknown.
Contemporaries of Jeremiah were Zephaniah, Habakkuk and Ezekiel.
A Hebrew acrostic
Lamentations consists of five separate poems, four of which employ a literary form called an acrostic. Each verse begins, in alphabetical order, with a letter from the Hebrew alphabet. There are 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet, and chapters 1, 2 and 4 have 22 verses each—a verse for each of the 22 letters.
Chapter 3 is slightly different as it has 66 verses in total, with three verses for each of the 22 letters.
Chapter 5 has 22 verses, but the acrostic style of writing was not used in this chapter.
Outline of Lamentations
Halley’s Bible Handbook states: “It is not easy to give a subject to each chapter. The same ideas, in different wording, run through all the chapters: horrors of the siege; desolate ruins; all due to Zion’s sins. Jeremiah, stunned, dazed, heartbroken, weeps with grief inconsolable” (24th edition, p. 321).
Here is one possible outline of the book:
- Jerusalem’s desolation described (1:1-11).
- Jerusalem bewails her misery and cries out to God for pardon (1:12-22).
- A lament for the destruction of Jerusalem, the temple and the people (2:1-17).
- The prophet pleads in prayer for godly repentance (2:18-22).
- Despite the present horrors, there is hope in God’s love and mercy (3:1-33).
- Upon genuine repentance there will be forgiveness and deliverance (3:34-66).
- The horrors of the siege and Jerusalem’s affliction (4:1-20).
- Edom also to be punished (4:21-22; see also Obadiah 1:8-14).
- The hardship and anguish of the people (5:1-18).
- Prayer for deliverance (5:19-22).
Only grief, sadness and sorrow?
Because of Lamentation’s story of grief, suffering and tragedy, some readers of the Bible may avoid delving into this book. However, contained within its pages are meaningful lessons about God and the truths that govern our lives.
Listed below are some of these lessons.
“His compassions fail not”
Does God enjoy afflicting people and watching them suffer?
Jeremiah reflected on God’s desire to bless rather than afflict: “This I recall to my mind, therefore I have hope. Through the LORD’s mercies we are not consumed, because His compassions fail not. They are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness. ‘The LORD is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘therefore I hope in Him!’ The LORD is good to those who wait for Him, to the soul who seeks Him” (3:21-25).
The prophet continues to demonstrate God’s unfailing love and compassion.
“Though He causes grief, yet He will show compassion according to the multitude of His mercies. For He does not afflict willingly, nor [willingly] grieve the children of men” (3:32-33).
The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Revised Edition) states with reference to this verse: “The grounds of this confident expectation are the many manifestations of God’s hesed—his “loyal love”—and rahmim—“compassions”—which never expire or wear out. To the contrary, they are constantly being renewed” (p. 618).
Biblical principles of life
From Genesis to Revelation, the Bible consistently demonstrates two vital spiritual principles of life:
- When people willingly obey God and live in harmony with His commandments, they are blessed, protected and guided by His almighty power.
- When people rebel against His eternal law, they automatically suffer the penalties of disobedience.
Lamentations describes the end results of a nation deciding to reject God’s ways and follow its own humanly devised rules.
This theme is found throughout the Bible. In light of the above, consider one such passage in the earlier prophetic book of Isaiah. In chapter 63:7 Isaiah ponders:
- “The lovingkindnesses of the LORD.”
- “The praises of the LORD … bestowed on us.”
- His “great goodness.”
- “His mercies.”
- “The multitude of His lovingkindnesses.”
Isaiah then quotes God, who said: “‘Surely they are My people. …’ So He became their Savior. In all their affliction He was afflicted; … in His love and in His pity He redeemed them; and He bore them and carried them all the days of old” (verses 8-9, emphasis added throughout).
God’s desire for His people was that they would enjoy His abundant blessings rather than live lives of suffering and tribulation.
But how did God’s people respond to His kindness?
“But they rebelled and grieved His Holy Spirit; so He turned Himself against them as an enemy, and He fought against them” (verse 10).
Has humanity, and especially the people of Israel who were given God’s laws, as a general rule accepted His call to respect and obey Him?
Jesus Christ, the Son of God, gives the answer:
Sin has terrible consequences, and God wants mankind to avoid the penalty of sin and instead turn to Him with humility.“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing! See! Your house is left to you desolate” (Matthew 23:37-38).
“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved” (John 3:16-17).
The Bible is abundantly clear:
- God loves all people and does not want to harm or afflict them (2 Peter 3:9).
- God expects mankind to show Him love in return: “For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome” (1 John 5:3).
- Sadly, nations have rejected God’s desire to bless them, thinking His laws are a burden and unfair (Ezekiel 18:25, 29; 33:17).
- When the people of a nation reject God and His laws, they bring suffering and sorrow on themselves! (Deuteronomy 28:15-68). That is why it is a serious mistake to blame God for the pain and suffering experienced by humanity.
Is sin really that bad?
A fundamental biblical principle is that sin—disobeying God (1 John 3:4)—produces sorrow, suffering and pain. Sin has terrible consequences, and God wants mankind to avoid the penalty of sin and instead turn to Him with humility.
As Proverbs 8:13 states, “The fear of the LORD is to hate evil; pride and arrogance and the evil [sinful] way.” What’s more, sin results in “destruction and misery” because “there is no fear of God before their eyes” (Romans 3:16-18; see also Isaiah 59:7-8).
Even more importantly, sin cuts us off from God and the blessings that stem from a relationship with Him. “But your iniquities have separated you from your God; and your sins have hidden His face from you, so that He will not hear” (Isaiah 59:2).
Lamentations is a chronicle of a nation that rebelled against God and, as a result, was cut off from Him and His Almighty power to bless and prosper.
If you want to know more about sin and especially how to change your life for the better, download our free booklet Change Your Life! This booklet can help you transform your life and deepen your relationship with your Heavenly Father.
Lamentations and prophecy for the future
Not only is judgment declared upon “all the dwelling places of Jacob,” but “He has cut off in fierce anger every horn of Israel” (Lamentations 2:2-3). The word “horn” is a symbol of power and dominance.
Events described in Lamentations are also to befall the modern-day nations descended from Israel and Judah during the Great Tribulation immediately before the return of Christ. Lamentations also mentions “the day You have announced” (1:21), the time when Israel’s enemies will also be punished and God will intervene in the world’s affairs. This is called in many places the “Day of the Lord.”
Good news is ahead!
God in His mercy leads people to acknowledge their transgressions and helps them recognize the error of their ways.
The results of repentance from sins for the descendants of Jacob (and all peoples) will be compelling and dramatic:
- “I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. … For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more” (Jeremiah 31:33-34).
- “They shall be My people, and I will be their God; then I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear Me forever, for the good of them and their children after them. … I will put My fear in their hearts so that they will not depart from Me. Yes, I will rejoice over them to do them good” (32:38-41).
- God has the power to do what He says! “Behold, I am the LORD, the God of all flesh. Is there anything too hard for Me?” (32:27).
Count on God’s intervention
One of the marvellous lessons in the Bible is that no matter how overwhelming the problems appear to be, we can count on God. There is no situation too difficult for God to resolve.
As we witness the world around us continuing to come apart, we must “seek the LORD while He may be found, call upon Him while He is near. … Let him return to the LORD, and He will have mercy on him” (Isaiah 55:6-7).
By studying and applying the Word of God, we will learn to trust in His promises and call upon Him while there is still time.
For more on how to effectively study the Bible and practice what it teaches read the articles in the section on “The Practical and Priceless Benefits of Bible Study.”
For a quick link to all the other books of the Bible, see “Books of the Bible” on the Learning Center.