Chapter five does not keep the acrostic pattern of the rest of the book, but it does contain twenty-two verses to fit the overall structure. Lamentations closes with the people in Jerusalem crying out to God for mercy. Their situation was so desperate that they had to beg Egypt and Assyria to help provide food for them (Lamentations 5:6). Their women had been defiled, their princes humiliated, and their elders terribly mistreated (Lamentations 5:11-12). The young men had no strength even to carry wood; there was no music and no joy left in the ancient city (Lamentations 5:13-15). Yet they still believed that God had not forsaken them completely, so Lamentations ends with the hope of restoration, with God sitting on his eternal throne and his people repenting before him (Lamentations 5:19-22).
Chapter four brings Jeremiah back to describing the state of Jerusalem. Gold and jewels, which were once valuable, were worthless (Lamentations 4:1). There was no food or water or shelter; cannibalism had become normal (Lamentations 4:4-5, 9-10). Disease was rampant (Lamentations 4:8), and no one was willing to help them (Lamentations 4:14-16).
In a slight departure from chapters one and two, where Jerusalem was personified, now the inhabitants of Jerusalem spoke (Lamentations 4:17-20). 1 Recalling the fateful days when Nebuchadnezzar was at their door, they remembered looking for help that did not come and running until there was nowhere else to go. Even the one they thought could save them – their “very life breath” – their king was unable to do anything.
The last two verses of the chapter seem out-of-place in this book about Jerusalem’s ruin. Jeremiah turned his attention to Edom (Esau’s descendants), who had been mentioned only briefly in his prophecies (Jeremiah 25:21; 27:3; 49:7-22). Essentially, he said, “Laugh now, Edom, because your turn is coming!” Israel would be restored, but Edom would be annihilated forever.
- In the first two chapters, “Jerusalem” always spoke in the first person singular (I, me, my), whereas the rest of the book uses the plural (we, us, our). ↩
Chapter three is three times as long as the other chapters, giving three verses for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Jeremiah shifted the focus again, this time to his own misery and suffering (Lamentations 3:1-19). He, too, had experienced God’s wrath, even though he was not one of the rebellious Jews. Rather, he was an innocent casualty of Judah’s sin against God, as were probably many others. Jeremiah suffered physical pain, as well as emotional and spiritual anguish. He felt as if God had ambushed him and ground him into the dirt, to the point where he admitted, “I have lost all hope of deliverance from the LORD…and I am depressed” (Lamentations 3:18, 20).
Yet he refused to allow himself to remain in that state. In the first words of hope in this little book, Jeremiah exclaimed, “But this I call to mind; therefore I have hope: The LORD’s loyal kindness never ceases; his compassions never end. They are fresh every morning; your faithfulness is abundant!” (Lamentations 3:21-23). Jeremiah knew that God could never change, so he was always trustworthy, no matter the circumstance, no matter what his emotions made him feel. For the next sixteen verses, Jeremiah extolled Jehovah – his faithfulness, his promises, even his just punishments (Lamentations 3:24-39). He concluded, “Let us carefully examine our ways, and let us return to the LORD” in honest repentance (Lamentations 3:40-42).
Yes, it was true that God had hurt them terribly in his wrath against their sin, and Jeremiah wept over their destruction and his own pain (Lamentations 3:43-54). However, God also heard his cries of pain and rescued him, so Jeremiah asked that God execute judgment on those who hurt him without cause (Lamentations 3:55-66).
Chapter two shifts the focus slightly from the enemies who attacked Judah to God himself. In a series of bold statements, God’s wrath against Judah made him act almost like an enemy rather than her protector. It was Jehovah who threw
“down the splendor of Israel…destroyed mercilessly all the homes…tore down the fortified cities…destroyed the whole army of Israel…withdrew his right hand…prepared his bow…killed everyone…destroyed Israel…destroyed his temple…rejected his altar…handed over to the enemy her palace walls.” (Lamentations 2:1-8)
He also ceased communicating with the prophets, leaving the elders sitting in silence (Lamentations 2:9-10). Because of this Jeremiah could not stop weeping, to the point of making himself sick, as he watched infants and children die in the streets and in their mothers’ arms (Lamentations 2:11-12). As the surrounding nations sneered, Jeremiah begged Judah to repent of her sin and cry out to God for mercy (Lamentations 2:15-19). Jerusalem responded with a cry for mercy, but not full repentance (Lamentations 2:20-22). Verse 20 reveals just how bad it was in Jerusalem at that time: mothers were eating their own children for lack of food.
Although Jeremiah’s name is nowhere attached to the book in Hebrew, the Septuagint titled it “The Lamentations of Jeremiah,” and the Jews and early Church were all but unanimous in attributing it to him. In Hebrew, the name of the book is “How?” or “Alas!”, based on the first word of Lamentations 1:1, 2:1, and 4:1; it also appears in Lamentations 4:2. The word is used fifteen other times in the Old Testament (the shortened form 43 times), often at the beginning of exclamations or lamentation poems and songs.
Without ignoring the Holy Spirit’s inspiration of the text, it is obvious that Jeremiah thought through this series of songs deeply. Unlike the book of Jeremiah, Lamentations is neither prophecy nor historical narrative, although it includes a little of both. Rather it is carefully-constructed poetry. Chapters 1-4 are all acrostics. Built from the Hebrew alphabet of twenty-two letters, chapters 1, 2, and 4 each have twenty-two verses, which begin with successive letters. Chapter three extends this to three verses for each letter, for a total of sixty-six verses. (Although chapter five also has twenty-two verses, it does not follow the Hebrew acrostic pattern.) One cannot possibly think that this was a sporadic result of Jeremiah’s sorrow over Jerusalem.
Lamentations is the work of a thoughtful man of God who meticulously considered every word as he wept over the destruction of his beloved city and Temple. The book is structured as a back-and-forth drama between Jeremiah and a personification of Jerusalem. We can date Lamentations to no earlier than 586 B.C., when Jeremiah personally watched Jerusalem and the Temple fell at Nebuchadnezzar’s hand. On the other hand, there are hints throughout that this had been the condition for some time, so a later date within the captivity is possible.
Chapter one beings with Jeremiah describing the vacant city (Lamentations 1:1-7). It seems that enough time had passed for some of the holy festivals to have been missed (Lamentations 1:4) and the past memories were considered “days of old” (Lamentations 1:7). He was not shy about the reason for their punishment: “Jerusalem committed a terrible sin…she did not consider the consequences of her sin” (Lamentations 1:8-9).
Jerusalem is given a voice in Lamentations 1:11b-16. She wept because of her punishment. God killed her young men and placed her sin fully upon her. Jeremiah responded, acknowledging that none of her enemies felt sorry for Judah (Lamentations 1:17). The city confessed her sin, submitting to God’s punishment for her rebellion, yet she prayed that God would fulfill his promised judgment upon the nations as well, who had also sinned against him (Lamentations 1:18-22).
Psalm 40 is primarily a psalm of thanksgiving, although it does include petition toward the end as well. Additionally, Hebrews 10:5-7 quotes the Septuagint version of Psalm 40:6-8 in reference to Jesus’ incarnation. Whether this psalm is connected to any of the previous psalms where David asked for God’s deliverance is unknown, but it does say that God did deliver him at one time, and David was sure to express his gratitude in the best method he knew: a song of praise. Psalm 40:1-3 have been used by many songwriters over the years as the basis for their own praise because of its imagery of sinking helplessly into a pit of mud. 1
Psalm 40:4-6 is a celebration of God’s character. Specifically, David showed how God blesses those who serve him faithfully. He also pointed to God’s desire for a relationship with humans. Although God established the sacrificial system, David knew that it was more than that. The sacrifices meant nothing if they did not connect man to God, so David praised God for the real reason behind the sacrifices.
In Psalm 40:7-10 David shifted to himself, recounting the things that he had done for God. This was not intended to boast or simply inform but to verbalize his loyalty to God in gratitude for God’s loyalty to him. David loved nothing more than to speak and sing of God in “the great assembly.”
The psalm concludes in Psalm 40:11-17 with David’s praise for God’s protection and deliverance. As always, he had enemies who wanted him dead so they could rule. As always, David was weighed down with the knowledge of his own sinfulness. Because he did not have the indwelling Holy Spirit, he was genuinely concerned that God could finally reject him, something that Christians never have to fear, so he prayed for God’s grace and mercy to be poured out to him again.
- I wonder if Jeremiah meditated on this passage and found hope when he was literally put into a pit of mud (Jeremiah 38:1-6; Lamentations 3:55-57). ↩