Philippe R. Sterling
Jeremiah composed Lamentations to lament the destruction of Jerusalem with the hope for the future based on God’s covenantal faithfulness.
We all suffer losses in life. When we suffer a loss change occurs. Things are no longer the way they were. Loss can be acutely painful. An emotional reaction to loss is normal. Grief is the name for the reaction to loss. Mourning is the process through which we attend to the losses we have experienced.
A complete process of mourning might include these steps: We acknowledge the loss; we accept the pain of grief; we adjust to the present life situation; we advance forward in hope. The Book of Lamentations provides us with an example of biblical mourning.
Jewish tradition ascribes authorship to Jeremiah. The opposition and emotional distress the author describes parallel those in the Book of Jeremiah. The time of composition would be sometime after the fall of Jerusalem and the deportation of the captives in 586 BC.
Three themes intertwine through the book. First, there is mourning over the judgment of the nation. Second, there is acknowledgement of the sin of the nation. Third, there is hope of the restoration of the nation. God has poured out His wrath, but in His mercy He will fulfill His covenant promise (3:21-23).
Literary Structure and Content
The book is made up of five laments. A lament is a mourning song.
There are several structural and literary features to the laments:
1. The first four laments make use of the qinah meter. The second half of a verse has one less beat than the first half. This makes for a limping meter which conveys an incomplete feeling. A normal meter is 3 + 3. Pat your hands at 3 beats and then 3 beats. There is balance in repeating the pattern. Now pat your hand at 3 beats and then 2 beats. There is unbalance and awkwardness in repeating the pattern. The pattern gives a sense of sadness to the laments and heightens their intensity.
2. The first four laments follow an acrostic pattern. The verses begin with successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Laments 1, 2 and 4 have 22 verses each. Laments 2 and 4 reverse the 16th and 17th letters. Lament 3 has 66 verses with 3 verses given to each letter. The first 3 verses begin with Aleph, the next 3 verses with Beth, and so on. Lament 5 contains 22 verses but is not an acrostic. The acrostics suggest the complete nature of judgment and sorrow, literally from A to Z. The fifth lament abandons the acrostic to pray for God to remember and restore.
3. The five laments have a structural symmetry. Laments 1 and 5 focus on the people. Laments 2 and 4 focus on God. Lament 3 provides a pivot in which Jeremiah responds to affliction with hope in God’s faithfulness.
4. Laments 1, 2, and 4 each begin with a mournful “How” to suggest strong anguish.
5. The laments reference the curses and blessings of Deuteronomy 28. God had pronounced curses for covenant disobedience. Lamentations reveals the fulfillment of these curses. God had also promised blessing for repentance. The concluding prayer of the 5th lament is a call on God to fulfill this aspect of the covenant and restore the nation from captivity.
I. The City’s Lament: Jerusalem mourns her destruction because of her sin (1).
A. From the Outside Looking In: Jerusalem lies deserted and despised (1:1-11).
How lonely sits the city that was full of people! (1:1)
Jeremiah personifies Jerusalem as a widow mourning over herself. She has no one to comfort her. She has sinned gravely.
Jerusalem fell from its height to a lowly position. The nation has gone into exile. The fall came because of sin. The city calls upon God to look at its distress (1:11b).
Call to God: See, O LORD, and look, for I am despised (1:11).
B. From the Inside Looking Out: Jerusalem laments its condition (1:12-22).
Jerusalem calls out to God. She acknowledges that her judgment comes from God and that God is righteous in her punishment. She weeps and asks for mercy. She implores God to see her distress and to deal with her enemies as He has dealt with her.
Call to God: See, O LORD, for I am in distress (1:20).
II. The LORD’s Judgment: The LORD punished the nation for her sin (2).
A. Anger of God: God judged the nation in the day of His anger (2:1-10).
How the LORD has covered the daughter of Zion with a cloud in His anger! (2:1)
B. Anguish of Jeremiah: Jeremiah laments the destruction of the nation and its institutions and calls upon
the nation to cry out to God (2:11-22).
Cry to God: Arise, cry aloud . . . Pour out your heart . . . Lift up your hands (2:19).
Call to God: See, O LORD, and look! (2:20)
III. Jeremiah’s Lament and Hope: In affliction Jeremiah expresses hope (3).
A. Affliction: Jeremiah recounts his suffering (3:1-18).
God brought great affliction upon Jeremiah in using him as a prophet to the nation. God also sent Jesus as a suffering servant.
B. Hope: Jeremiah turns to God in trust and remembers that there is promise of restoration (3:19-39).
There is hope. This is the turning point. Though we are faithless, God remains faithful.
This I recall to my mind,
Therefore I have hope.
The LORD’S loving-kindnesses indeed never cease,
For His compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
Great is Your faithfulness. (3:21-23)
God’s loving-kindnesses never cease. The Hebrew word refers to God’s loyal covenantal love. God has not abrogated His covenant with His people. God preserved a remnant which He will restore to the land. Thus Jeremiah can wait in hope for God to act (3:24-29).
C. Prayer: Jeremiah exhorts the nation to turn to God in penitent prayer (3:40-51).
Let us examine and probe our ways,
And let us return to the LORD. (3:40)
D. Deliverance: Jeremiah turned to God and found deliverance (3:52-66).
You drew near when I called on You;
You said, “Do not fear!”
O Lord, You have pleaded my soul’s cause;
You have redeemed my life. (3:57-58)
During Jerusalem’s siege, Jeremiah’s enemies lowered him into a muddy cistern to die. He cried out to God and God delivered him. Jeremiah is a living example of God’s faithfulness.
IV. The LORD’s Anger: The LORD righteously punished the nation for her iniquity (4).
A. Sins of the People: The nation experienced the curses of breaking the covenant (4:1-11). The judgment
came from God (4:11).
How dark the gold has become, the pure gold has changed! (4:1)
B. Sins of the Leaders: Destruction came because of the sins of the religious leaders (4:12-16). The
judgment came from God (4:16).
C. Complete Judgment and Future Restoration: God brought about a complete judgment for covenantal
unfaithfulness and will restore the nation (4:17-22).
God completed his judgment on the nation and the exile will not last forever (4:22). God will in turn judge the nations who rejoiced at Judah’s destruction – Edom is representative of the nations.
V. The People’s Prayer: The exiles lament and pray for restoration (5).
The final lament does not follow the pattern of the earlier laments. It is not an acrostic and does not follow the qinah meter. It is more a confession of sin and a prayer for restoration than a lament.
A. Introductory Petition: Remember . . . look . . . see . . . (5:1).
Remember, O LORD, what has befallen us; look, and see our reproach.
B. Confession of Sin: The exiles lament their condition brought about because of their sin (5:2-18).
Woe to us, for we have sinned! (5:16)
C. Prayer for Restoration: The exiles ask for restoration (5:19-22).
Restore us to You, O LORD, that we may be restored;
Renew our days as of old. (5:21)
God has not rejected His people and His anger has been fully expressed. He will restore. There is hope.
Theological Reflection and Application
“We reap what we sow” is a principle of Scripture (Gal 6:7). The people of God violated their covenant with God and experienced the curses of the covenant. Yet God remains faithful (2 Tim 2:11-13). He does not forsake His people. He hears their cries and prayers and restores them.
When we suffer the consequences of our sins God does not forsake us. We can confess our sins and turn back to God. God is waiting to forgive and restore us (see Luke 15:11-52).
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted (Matt 5:4).
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling. Behold, your house is being left to you desolate! For I say to you, from now on you will not see Me until you say, ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!’” (Matthew 23:37-39)
Jesus the suffering servant laments for Jerusalem. He longed for the nation to come to Him but it was not willing. The choice brings condemnation. But He is not through with the Jewish people. He departs but at a future time they will see Him again and accept Him. The nation will say, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD” (Psalm 118:26). Jesus will return to the earth and establish the millennial kingdom. There is a present remnant which mourns and hopes in Him.