Chapter

Lamentations

Robert Carroll and Stephen Prickett

in The Bible: Authorized King James Version

Published in print February 1998 | ISBN: 9780192835253
Published online April 2009 |

Series: Oxford World's Classics

Lamentations

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The English Bible follows the Greek in putting the Book of Lamentations with the Book of Jeremiah, but whereas the Greek Bible links the books of Jeremiah, Baruch, Lamentations, and the Epistle of Jeremiah, the English Bible only associates Lamentations with Jeremiah (Baruch appears in the Apocrypha). Traditionally known as ‘The Lamentations of Jeremiah’, with the exception of ch. 5 the book is a series of acrostic poems lamenting the destruction of Jerusalem. In later Jewish liturgical tradition it functioned as the festival scroll for the Ninth of Ab commemoration of the destruction of Jerusalem. Apart from the tradition of Jeremiah's authorship, there is a certain logic to the view that if Jeremiah were a prophet given to laments over the state of the city, and was also famous for his laments (cf. 2 Chr. 35: 25), then a collection of dirges over the fallen city ought to be attributed to him, but the genre and style of the poems in Lamentations are very different from those in the Book of Jeremiah. Lamenting to the gods over the destruction of a city was a recognized genre in the ancient world, and there are distant parallels in the ancient Sumerian poem ‘Lamentation over the Destruction of Ur’, though at least a thousand years separate the two lamentations.69 Four of the five poems in Lamentations focus on Jerusalem and its devastations, but Chapter 3 is about the man who has seen suffering: ‘I am the man that has seen affliction by the rod of his wrath’ (3: 1: the acrostic poem takes the form of three lines to each letter of the alphabet). The poems of Jerusalem's destruction depict the city in various forms: as daughter Zion, a much-favoured trope of prophetic rhetoric, and especially as the place of those who lived and worked in it. The mother (city) laments the loss of her children, who have suffered greatly in her destruction: ‘Is it nothing to you, all ye that pass by? behold, and see if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow, which is done unto me, wherewith the Lord hath afflicted me in the day of his fierce anger’ (1: 12). The identity of the crusher of Jerusalem is clearly YHWH: ‘the Lord hath trodden the virgin, the daughter of Judah, as in a winepress’ (1: 15), and the victims are from all strata of society: ‘Our skin was black like an oven because of the terrible famine. They ravished the women in Zion, and the maids in the cities of Judah. Princes are hanged up by their hand: the faces of elders were not honoured. They took the young men to grind, and the children fell under the wood’ (5: 10–13). The social transformations caused by such suffering are neatly captured: ‘They that did feed delicately are desolate in the streets: they that were brought up in scarlet embrace dunghills … The hands of the pitiful women have sodden their own children: they were their meat in the destruction of the daughter of my people’ (4: 5, 10). Throughout run the twin themes of the people's sinfulness as the cause of the destruction and YHWH's role in the punishment of city and people. The sense of destruction is so strong that the book refuses to end on a positive note: ‘Wherefore dost thou forget us for ever, and forsake us so long time? Turn thou us unto thee, O Lord, and we shall be turned; renew our days as of old. But thou hast utterly rejected us; thou art very wroth against us’ (5: 20–2).

Chapter.  683 words. 

Subjects: Religious Studies ; Biblical Studies

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