The word ‘lamentations’, though not used as much today as in former times, is an ordinary English word that denotes expressions of sorrow, grief or distress. The biblical book of Lamentations is a collection of five poems that express the writer’s sorrow over the fall of Jerusalem to the armies of Babylon in 587 BC. (For details of the events of that time see the section ‘Historical Background’ in the introductory notes to the book of Jeremiah.)
A poet and his poems
There is no statement in the book of Lamentations to inform us who wrote it, though the popular view is that the author was Jeremiah. Whoever the author was, he must have lived in Jerusalem during the final siege and ultimate collapse of the city. He witnessed the horror of those days and had first-hand knowledge of the hardships that the survivors in Judah experienced.
Clearly the author of the book was a person of considerable literary skill and spiritual insight. His poems arouse feelings of pity and sympathy in the reader, but they also show the firmness of his faith. In the depressing circumstances about which he writes, he still took his troubles to God.
Each of the five poems represents one chapter in the English Bible. By his arrangement of the poems, the author has provided a sharp contrast between despair and hope. The central poem, which has 66 verses, deals with certain basic issues of people’s relationship with God, such as faith and doubt, punishment and salvation, justice and mercy, repentance and forgiveness. The other four poems, which have 22 verses each, deal with the sufferings of those who lived in Jerusalem and the surrounding countryside, and are arranged equally either side of the central poem.
A further feature of the poems has specifically to do with the original language and therefore is not evident in English. In the Hebrew of the poems of Chapters 1, 2 and 4, each verse begins with a different letter of the 22-letter Hebrew alphabet, the order of letters being from the first letter of the alphabet to the last. In the 66-verse poem of Chapter 3, there are 22 sets of three verses each. All three verses in each set begin with the same letter, and the initial letters of each set again follow the order of the Hebrew alphabet. The poem of Chapter 5, though having 22 verses, does not maintain the alphabetical arrangement.