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Lamentations, Book of


This book appears in the Vulgate (Vulg) after Jeremiah, but in the Greek Septuagint it is usually found after ch. 5 of Baruch. In Hebrew tradition it is the fifth book of "The Writings," and is entitled "How" (the book's first word).

Author. Scholars are unanimous today in denying its authorship to Jeremiah. In the past many attributed it to him because of the lamentations he wrote for Josiah (2 Chr 35.25), but neither the style nor the contents reflect his authorship. Many differences exist between Jeremiah and Lamentations, e.g., in Jer. 37.7 the Prophet knew that Egypt could not help Israel, but the author of Lam 4.17 records his disappointed hope in Egypt's aid. The five poems were very likely not even written by the same author. They reflect the conditions in Judah during the period following the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 b.c. and received their present form before Jerusalem's restoration.

Form and Content. The first four Lamentations are studied literary creations, acrostic in form and having a peculiar rhythm characteristic of the gênâ (elegy or dirge), each line having three accented syllables followed after a pause by two more. The fifth Lamentation is a supplication with a three-plus-three meter and in the Vulg is entitled The Prayer of the Prophet Jeremiah.

The first four poems have an acrostic form, i.e., the first word of each verse begins with a consecutive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. The fifth poem has as many verses as the letters in the alphabet, but is not acrostic. The first three poems have three-line stanzas, but the fourth has two-line stanzas. Each line of each stanza in the third poem begins with the same letter, i.e., three lines with aleph in the first stanza, three with beth in the second, etc. The 16th letter (ayin ) and the 17th letter (pē ) are reversed in ch. 24. This alphabetic confusion is an indication that the poems were written independently, and when they were compiled they had already a form so fixed as to preclude any correction.

The acrostic form was used as a pedagogic device, symbolizing completeness and suggesting the totality of grief and sorrow for sin, and thus instilling hope. It may also have served a mnemonic purpose.

Following H. Gunkel's analysis of Hebrew psalmody, three literary types are found in Lamentations, the communal lament, the individual lament, and the funeral dirge. The first, second, and fourth poems are essentially funeral dirges; the fifth poem is a communal lament, while the third, while resembling a personal lament similar to Jeremiah's "Confessions" (e.g., Jer 11.1812.6), contains elements also of the communal lament. The national calamity that struck Judah in 587 b.c. required all the resources of the poet to express his emotion. He therefore sometimes used all three types in the same poem. Thus in the funeral dirges of ch. 1, 2, and 4 there are also elements of the communal and the personal lament.

The dirges express the destitution of Jerusalem and Judah after the ravages of the Babylonian conquest. The poems contrast in graphic images the present humiliation and devastation with past glory and favor. They indict the priests and Prophets for their poor leadership in failing to warn Judah of her sin and coming judgment. Suffering is shown as a purifying agent for Israel's faith and as leading the Israelites to a consciousness of their sin.

Bibliography: Commentaries. g. ricciotti (Turin 1924). m. haller (Tübingen 1940). a. f. knight (Torch Bible Comment; London 1955). e. j. crowley (Pamphlet Bible Ser. 29; New York 1962). a. gelin (Bible de Jérusalem, 43 v., each with intro. by the tr. [Paris 194854]; 23; 1951). a. gelin and a. s. herbert in Peake's Comment, on the Bible, ed. m. black and h. h. rowley (New York 1962) 563567. Literature. a. gelin, Dictionnaire de la Bible, suppl. ed. l. pirot et al. (Paris 1928) 5:237251. n. k. gottwald, Studies in the Book of Lamentations (Chicago 1954).

[c. mcgough]

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