Book of Lamentations

{lam' - en - tay' - shuhnz}

General Information

The Book of Lamentations in the Old Testament of the Bible is actually five poems that lament the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC. Often called "The Lamentations of Jeremiah," it is usually placed after the Book of Jeremiah, despite its uncertain authorship. The poet vividly describes the devastation endured by Jerusalem. Although this recitation of laments faced the harsh realities of the present, the prayer - poems also stirred up continuing hope in Yahweh's promises for the future.

BELIEVE Religious Information Source - By Alphabet Our List of 2,300 Religious Subjects


Advanced Information

Lamentation, (Heb. qinah), an elegy or dirge. The first example of this form of poetry is the lament of David over Saul and Jonathan (2 Sam. 1:17-27). It was a frequent accompaniment of mourning (Amos 8:10). In 2 Sam. 3:33, 34 is recorded David's lament over Abner. Prophecy sometimes took the form of a lament when it predicted calamity (Ezek. 27:2, 32; 28:12; 32:2, 16).

(Easton Illustrated Dictionary)

Book of Lamentations

Advanced Information

Lamentations, called in the Hebrew canon 'Ekhah, meaning "How," being the formula for the commencement of a song of wailing. It is the first word of the book (see 2 Sam. 1:19-27). The LXX. adopted the name rendered "Lamentations" (Gr. threnoi = Heb. qinoth) now in common use, to denote the character of the book, in which the prophet mourns over the desolations brought on the city and the holy land by Chaldeans. In the Hebrew Bible it is placed among the Khethubim. (See BIBLE.) As to its authorship, there is no room for hesitancy in following the LXX. and the Targum in ascribing it to Jeremiah. The spirit, tone, language, and subject-matter are in accord with the testimony of tradition in assigning it to him. According to tradition, he retired after the destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar to a cavern outside the Damascus gate, where he wrote this book.

That cavern is still pointed out. "In the face of a rocky hill, on the western side of the city, the local belief has placed 'the grotto of Jeremiah.' There, in that fixed attitude of grief which Michael Angelo has immortalized, the prophet may well be supposed to have mourned the fall of his country" (Stanley, Jewish Church). The book consists of five separate poems. In chapter 1 the prophet dwells on the manifold miseries oppressed by which the city sits as a solitary widow weeping sorely. In chapter 2 these miseries are described in connection with the national sins that had caused them. Chapter 3 speaks of hope for the people of God. The chastisement would only be for their good; a better day would dawn for them. Chapter 4 laments the ruin and desolation that had come upon the city and temple, but traces it only to the people's sins. Chapter 5 is a prayer that Zion's reproach may be taken away in the repentance and recovery of the people.

The first four poems (chapters) are acrostics, like some of the Psalms (25, 34, 37, 119), i.e., each verse begins with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet taken in order. The first, second, and fourth have each twenty-two verses, the number of the letters in the Hebrew alphabet. The third has sixty-six verses, in which each three successive verses begin with the same letter. The fifth is not acrostic. Speaking of the "Wailing-place (q.v.) of the Jews" at Jerusalem, a portion of the old wall of the temple of Solomon, Schaff says: "There the Jews assemble every Friday afternoon to bewail the downfall of the holy city, kissing the stone wall and watering it with their tears. They repeat from their well-worn Hebrew Bibles and prayer-books the Lamentations of Jeremiah and suitable Psalms."

(Easton Illustrated Dictionary)


Jewish Perspective Information


-Biblical Data:

Fourth and Fifth Poems.


-Biblical Data:

In the manuscripts and printed copies of the Old Testament the book is called, after its initial word, "Ekah"; in the Talmud and among the Rabbis, after its contents, "Ḳinot" (comp. especially B. B. 15a). The Greek and Latin translations of the Old Testament, as well as the Church Fathers, call it Θρῆνοι, or Θρῆνοι Ἱερεμίον, or "Threni."

The five poems deal with the destruction of Jerusalem (586 B.C.), describing how city and country, palace and Temple, king and people, suffered under the terrible catastrophe. The several poems have markedly different characteristics. The first shows an almost utter lack of consecutive thought. Although it may be divided into two distinct sections.-verses 1-11b, in which the poet speaks, and 11c-22, in which the city continues-the sections themselves present no logical development of thought. The theme of the entire song is the distress of the city (which is personified) and of her children and inhabitants, and the haughtiness of the victors. Thus verses 1 et seq. deal, in obvious imitation of Isa. i. 21, with the misfortunes of Jerusalem; verse 5, with the arrogance of the Chaldeans; verses 6-9, again, with the misery of the inhabitants; verse 10, with the proud victors. Verses 12-16 of the second section are especially remarkable for their series of detached images representing Jerusalem's sufferings; viz., the rain of fire, the net, the yoke, the treading in the wine-press, etc. From a theological point of view, the strong sense of sin (verses 5, 8, 14, 18, 21), as well as the wish that God may punish the enemy (verse 22), is noteworthy.

The second poem, ch. ii. (comp. Jer. xiv. 15-18), is remarkable for its methodical arrangement. After the theme-the destruction of Jerusalem-has been announced in verse 1, it is treated first in its political aspect (2-5) and then from its religious side (6-7). Verse 8 is the beginning of a new section, also in two parts: (a) 8-9a, dealing with the fate of the city; and (b) 9b-12, with that of her inhabitants. Verse 13 introduces a parenetic portion: the false prophets are mostly to blame (14-17); therefore the exhortation to cry unto the Lord (18-19) and the fulfilment of the exhortation (20-22).

The third poem, ch. iii., has a character of its own, being a psalm, somewhat similar to Ps. lxxxviii. Here, too, the question arises as to whether the speaker is one person-perhaps Jeremiah (comp. K. Budde in Marti's "Kurzer Handcommentar,"xvii. 92 et seq.)-or the community (comp. R. Smend in Stade's "Zeitschrift," viii. 62, note 3). The latter opinion is preferable in view of the contents. Verses 1-18 deal with the deep affliction in consequence of which the speaker is without peace and without hope, and therefore he cries to God (19 et seq.). The following section (21-47) is most important from a religious point of view; for, according to it, God's mercy is renewed every morning, and therefore man may hope even in sorrow, which is only a divine means of discipline. If God has afflicted any one, He will also show pity, according to the abundance of His mercy. Hence, he who is afflicted must not deem himself abandoned by God, but should consider whether he has not deserved his trials because of sins. The result of this reflection is an admission of sin by the community (verse 47). This is followed by another description of the afflictions of the community (48-55). The song ends with a prayer: "Help me and avenge me on my enemies" (56-66).

Fourth and Fifth Poems.

The fourth poem, ch. iv., is similar to the second as regards its symmetrical arrangement and its contents. Verses 1-11 deal with the affliction of the "bene Ẓiyyon" and the "Nezirim"-with the famine as the greatest terror of the siege. God has poured out all His anger upon the unhappy city, which suffers because of the sins of its leaders, the priests and prophets (13-16), the king and his council (17-20). The last two verses (21-22) contain a threat of punishment against Edom.

Since ancient times the fifth poem, ch. v., has rightly been called a prayer. Verse 1 addresses God with the words "Behold our reproach"; this reproach is described with but little coherence in verses 2-18, which are followed by a second appeal to God (19-22): "Renew our days as of old."


(a) Biblical and Pre-Talmudic Data: The book gives no information as to its author. The earliest mention of it is found in II Chron. xxxv. 25: "And Jeremiah lamented for Josiah; and all the singing men and the singing women spake of Josiah in their lamentations to this day, and made them an ordinance in Israel: and, behold, they are written in the lamentations." The chronicler therefore regards Jeremiah as the author of lamentations on Josiah; and it is not improbable that he saw them in the Book of Lamentations, in view of passages like ii. 6 and iv. 20. Josephus ("Ant." x. 5, § 1) has transmitted this tradition: "But all the people mourned greatly for him [Josiah], lamenting and grieving on his account for many days: and Jeremiah the prophet composed an elegy to lament him, which is extant till this time also." This tradition has found a place in the Talmud as well as in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, and is plainly cited by Jerome, who says, on Zech. xii. 11: "Super quo [Josia] lamentationes scripsit Jeremias, quæ leguntur in ecclesia et scripsisse eum Paralipomenon testatur liber."E. G. H. M. Lö.

(b) In Rabbinical Literature: The rabbinical authorities regard Lamentations as having been written by Jeremiah (B. B. 15a). It is one of the three "Ketubim Ḳeṭannim" (Ber. 57b), and is variously designated as "Ḳinot," "Megillat Ḳinot," "Ekah," and "Megillat Ekah" (Ber. 57b; B. B. 15a; Lam. R. i. 1, ; comp. L. Blau ["Zur Einleitung in die Heilige Schrift," p. 38, note 3, Budapest, 1894], who questions the last two titles). And he who reads it utters first the benediction "'Al Miḳra Megillah" (Soferim xiv. 2; comp. ed. Müller, p. 188). Ekah was written immediately after the destruction of the First Temple and of the city of Jerusalem (Lam. R. i. 1), though R. Judah is of the opinion that it was composed during the reign of Jehoiakim, after the first deportation (ib.).

The alphabetical construction of the poems furnished suggestions of an ethical nature to the Rabbis. The seven alphabets (ch. v. was also considered alphabetical as it numbers twenty-two verses) recall the seven sins committed by Israel (ib. Introduction, xxvii.). This form also indicates that Israel violated the Law from alef to taw ( ib. i. 1, § 21), i.e., from beginning to end. The letter pe was placed before 'ayin, because Israel spake with the mouth () what the eye ("'ayin") had not seen (Lam. R. ii. 20). The influence of the Lamentations in bringing Israel to repentance was greater than that of all the other prophecies of Jeremiah (Lam. R. ix. 26). See also Jeremiah in Rabbinical Literature.


Fürst, Der Kanon des A. T. Leipsic, 1868.S. S. E. G. H.

(c) Critical View: Since the tradition of the Jeremianic authorship was current as early as the time of the chronicler, it is doubtless an ancient one, but no reference is made to it in any of the songs themselves. There are, on the contrary, weighty reasons against ascribing the authorship to Jeremiah:

(1) The position of the book among the "Ketubim" in the Hebrew canon; for though the Alexandrian canon places it beside the Book of Jeremiah, this juxtaposition did not obtain originally, since the two books were translated by different writers.

(2) The style of the songs, i.e. (a) their language and (b) their poetical form.

(a) Their language: this has been exhaustively examined by Löhr in Stade's "Zeitschrift," xiv. 31 et seq., and it shows that ii. and iv. were drawn undoubtedly from Ezek., and i. and v. probably from Deutero-Isaiah.

(b) Their poetical form: this does not refer to the elegiac verse (which Budde called the "Ḳinah-verse") of the first four songs-a verse-form which since the time of Amos is found in all the prophetic literature-but to the so-called acrostic form: that is, in ch. i., ii., and iv. each successive verse begins with a successive letter of the alphabet; in ch. iii. three verses are devoted to each letter; and the fifth song contains at least twenty-two verses, corresponding to the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet. This artificial arrangement is scarcely ever found in the Old Testament except in late Psalms and in the later literature, like Prov. xxxi. and Nahum i. 3. The decisive argument against the hypothesis of the Jeremianic authorship is found in the contents of some of the passages. For example, ii. 9 states that at that time the prophets had no vision from the Lord; iv. 17 refers to the reliance on help from Egypt; iv. 20, to the loyalty to the king; v. 7 states that Israel suffered innocently for the sins of the fathers.Indeed, it is highly improbable that Lamentations was composed by any one man, for the following reasons: (1) One writer would hardly have treated the same theme five different times; (2) the diversified character of the several songs, as shown above, is an argument against the assumption, as is also the difference in the acrostic arrangement; for in ch. i. the precedes the , while it follows in ii.-iv. In view of the characteristics mentioned above, ii. and iv. may be regarded as belonging together; the first dwelling more on the fate of the city, the second more on that of the inhabitants, and both rising to a higher poetic level than the remaining songs of the book. Ch. i. and v. might also be classed together, while iii. occupies an exceptional position, and may have been added in order to render the whole collection adaptable to religious purposes. In later times, the book was read on the Ninth of Ab, in memory of the destruction of the Solomonic and Herodian Temples; and the custom may have originated even during the time of Zerubbabel's Temple. The time and place of the composition of the book are matters of conjecture. Ch. ii. and iv. may have been written a decade after the destruction of Jerusalem; i. and v., perhaps toward the end of the Exile; and iii. seems to be of still later origin. Arguments seem to be in favor of Babylon as the place of origin of the book.

Emil G. Hirsch, Max Löhr, Solomon Schechter

Jewish Encyclopedia, published between 1901-1906.


H. Ewald, Die Dichter des Alten Bundes, 2d ed., 1866, pp. 321 et seq.; Otto Thenius, in Kurzgefasstes Exegetisches Handbuch, 1855; Nägelsbach, Keil, Payne-Smith, Cheyne, and Plumptre at the end of their commentaries on Jeremiah; W. R. Smith, Lamentations, in Encyc. Brit. 9th ed.; S. Oettli, in Strack and Zoeckler's Kurzgefasster Kommentar, etc.; M. Löhr, Die Klagelieder Jeremia's, 1891; idem, in Nowack's Handkommentar zum Alten Testament, 1893; S. Minocchi, Le Lamentazioni di Geremia, Rome, 1897; Driver, Introduction to the Literature of the Old Testament, pp. 456 et seq., New York, 1902; Einleitungen to Lamentations (Klagelieder) by Cornill, Baudissin, König, Wellhausen-Bleek; Budde, Klagelieder, in K. H. C. 1898.E. G. H. M. Lö.

The individual articles presented here were generally first published in the early 1980s. This subject presentation was first placed on the Internet in May 1997.

This page - - - - is at
This subject presentation was last updated on - -

Copyright Information

Send an e-mail question or comment to us: E-mail

The main BELIEVE web-page (and the index to subjects) is at: BELIEVE Religious Information Source - By Alphabet ../indexaz.html