Intro Notes to Lamentations
Lamentations is the kind of letter a Jew might have written from a German concentration camp during the Holocaust.
It’s that painful.
We might think of the Holocaust of the 1940s as the worst event in Jewish history. But there’s a 2,600-year-old event that rivals it.
In 586 BC, Babylonian invaders from what is now southern Iraq erased the Jewish nation from the world map.
Jews who survived the battles suddenly became a people without a country and without a God, it seemed to some.
After all, they lost their only place to worship and offer sacrifices. Jerusalem’s magnificent Temple, built 600 years earlier by King Solomon, was demolished.
To make sure Jews didn’t resurrect their ghost towns and dead nation, Babylonians exiled leading citizens to Iraq, where they could keep an eye on them.
Babylonian soldiers leveled Jerusalem, along with many cities in Judah. They stripped Jerusalem’s Temple of its valuables—perhaps even the famous Ark of the Covenant, a gold-covered chest that held the 10 Commandments.
Horrors of exile
Lamentations tells the horrific story of what Jews suffered in exile. During Babylon’s siege of Jerusalem, Jews inside the city ran out of food.
“Tenderhearted women boil their children—
Fresh meat for the starving
In a war that ended my nation” (Lamentations 4:10).
The writer confesses sins of the nation and asks God to restore his relationship with the people. But the writer doesn’t seem hopeful God will do it.
He may fear that since the nation broke their agreement with God, an agreement inherited from the times of Abraham and Moses, that God is moving on without them.
The writer closes the letter with a pitiful question to God—one that could easily have been asked from a Nazi concentration camp:
“Are we dead to you?” (Lamentations 5:22).
A, B, C’s of the Jewish pain
Whoever wrote Lamentations came up with a creative way of saying, “We’ve suffered everything from A to Z.”
There are 22 letters in the ancient Hebrew alphabet. There are also 22 verses in every Lamentations chapter except one. Chapter 3 has three sets of 22 verses; 66 verses in all.
Each verse in Lamentations starts with a letter of the alphabet, working from first to last. Verse one begins with the first Hebrew letter, aleph. Verse two begins with the second Hebrew letter, beth, and verse three begins with the third letter, gimel. This continues through 22 verses.
If we did that in English, the A, B, C verses might read something like this.
- A disgrace has consumed our nation.
- Because of what we’ve done, we’ve lost our land, our freedom, and our Temple.
- Children who are precious as gold to us are treated like clay pots.
The songwriter who wrote Psalm 119 did the same thing, as a way of expressing his love for Jewish laws and tradition.
These two writers never bothered to explain why they went to all that trouble. But in the case of Lamentations, it seems apparent that the writer was trying to say the Jewish exiles suffered everything we could imagine, from A-Z many times over.
The writer is anonymous, as usual in the Bible. Traditional history points us to Jeremiah. Two main reasons:
- Jeremiah survived the war. Lamentations seems written by someone who survived the siege of Jerusalem. Jeremiah survived it and was spared because he tried to convince his king to surrender to Babylon (Jeremiah 39:11-12 and throughout the rest of the book).
- Jeremiah wrote poems of lament. Bible history in 2 Chronicles 35:25 reports that Jeremiah wrote songs of lament for King Josiah, and that the songs were compiled into the Book of Laments perhaps an earlier name for Lamentations.
Lamentations describes what happened to the Jews over a stretch of about 50 years. The writer describes Babylon’s two-and-a-half-year siege of Jerusalem, which ended in 586 BC. Jewish survivors were exiled to what is now Iraq. They stayed there until 538 BC, when Persians from what is now Iran defeated Babylon and freed Jews and other political prisoners to go home and rebuild their cities, under Persian rule.
The story starts in Jerusalem, capital of the last surviving Jewish kingdom: Judah. The northern Jewish kingdom of Israel and its capital of Samaria had fallen more than a century earlier, to Assyrians from what is now northern Iraq.
The story ends with the Jews complaining and asking forgiveness in a foreign land, southern Iraq.
The poem preserves a record of how the Jews suffered for an entire generation, exiled about a thousand miles (1600 km) from their homeland.
They had been the Chosen People, with a homeland inherited from Abraham, and with a Temple in Jerusalem—the only place on earth they were allowed to worship God by offering sacrifices.
In exile, Jewish refugees had lost it all.
They had no homeland. With the Temple gone, they had no way of worshiping God. With no place to sacrifice animals for forgiveness, priests were out work and sinners were out of luck.
In exile, some Jews feared they might have blown it all to pieces, forever losing their homeland and their status as God’s Chosen People.
Prophets assured them that God would take them back (Leviticus 26:44; Isaiah 11:12; Ezekiel 11:14-20). But in Lamentations, the Jews didn’t sound hopeful (Lamentations 5:17).
This short collection of poems preserves their sense of hopelessness and their deep regret for the sins that brought them to this moment in history.
Their closing thought—one last question for God:
“Are you so angry with us
You refuse to take us back?” (Lamentations 5:22).