Chapter 3

Lamentations: Five Poems That Lament the Fall of Jerusalem

Lamentations is a relatively short book often lost between two large books, Jeremiah and Ezekiel. While just five chapters long, the book packs an emotional punch, written as it is after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians. While placed after Jeremiah because of the tradition that Jeremiah wrote the book, we cannot be sure who wrote it (the book itself does not name the author). But like Jeremiah, the author was surely one who remained in the city after the destruction and the deportation of its leading citizens. The city was in ruins, and, most disturbing, the temple, the symbol of God’s presence with his people, was destroyed.

While just five chapters long, Lamentations packs an emotional punch

Does that mean that Judah’s God was unable to protect them from the Babylonians? The composer of Lamentations knew that the truth was even worse than that—God not only allowed the destruction of Jerusalem, he himself caused its destruction. The Babylonians are never mentioned as the cause of the destruction because they knew that ultimately God was behind the city’s fall:

How the Lord has covered Daughter Zion
with the cloud of his anger!
He has hurled down the splendor of Israel
from heaven to earth;
he has not remembered his footstool
in the day of his anger. (lamentations 2:1)

The rest of the poem in chapter 2 goes on to speak of God coming against Jerusalem as an enemy.

Indeed, the book of Lamentations contains five separate poems, one in each chapter, each of which recounts the horrors that came on Jerusalem and their present desperate state:

Even jackals offer their breasts
to nurse their young,
but my people have become heartless
like ostriches in the desert.
Because of thirst the infant’s tongue
sticks to the roof of its mouth;
the children beg for bread,
but no one gives it to them. (lamentations 4:3–4)

Each of the five poems was written with an acrostic structure (see above) in mind. The first two chapters as well as the fourth are acrostics in that the poet begins each verse with a succeeding letter of the Hebrew alphabet and moves from the first to the last (twenty-second) letter. The third chapter is three times longer because rather than one letter per verse, the poet starts the first three verses with the first letter and does the same with all twenty-two letters. This feature draws our attention to this middle chapter (see below). The final chapter has twenty-two verses so a reader of the book in English might mistakenly think that this poem too is an acrostic, but it’s not! What is the poet trying to communicate by having four acrostics followed by a broken acrostic? All we have to do is read the final verses of the book to understand:

Why do you always forget us?
Why do you forsake us so long?
Restore us to yourself,
Lord, that we may return;
renew our days of old
unless you have utterly rejected us
and are angry with us beyond measure
(lamentations 5:20–22).

With these verses, the book does not end with reconciliation with God but with a note of continuing separation and trouble.

But does that mean there is no hope in the book of Lamentations? To find it we go to the middle of that long third chapter which is the center of the book. After “the man who has seen affliction” (lamentations 3:1) who represents the people of God describes his horrific suffering he then proclaims:

Yet this I call to mind
and therefore I have hope:
Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
for his compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness (lamentations 3:21–22).

Now we can understand what is going on. The book of Lamentations, while acknowledging that their situation is their own fault because of their sin (lamentations 1:8, etc.) is now appealing to God’s pity. Enough is enough! Restore us! And there is hope. Again, “no one is cast off by the Lord forever” (lamentations 3:31).

Is this really true? Was the poet of Lamentations’ hope ever realized? Yes, far beyond what he might have imagined!

Was the poet of Lamentations’ hope ever realized? Yes, far beyond what he might have imagined!

In the first place, just a few decades after the book of Lamentations, the Persians defeated the Babylonians. Cyrus was king of Persia, a person whom Isaiah hailed as an anointed one (Messiah; see isaiah 45:1). Cyrus issued a decree that allowed the exiled Jews to return to Jerusalem. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah tell how the exiles came back and over the next century rebuilt the temple, re-established the law, and rebuilt the wall.

However, this re-establishment of the city of Jerusalem was just setting up the conditions for the full realization of God’s reconciliation with his people. That happened with the coming of Jesus: “the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (john 1:14). It is in Jesus that God fully responds to the question that ends the book of Lamentations:

Restore us to yourself,
Lord, that we may return;
renew our days as of old… (lamentations 5:21)