Lesson 6 of 6
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Bible in the World – Lamentations

The Opening Lines of Lamentations

The 16th-century English composer Thomas Tallis set the first five verses of the first chapter of Lamentations to music. You can listen to a performance of Tallis’ The Lamentations of Jeremiah here. Tallis used the Vulgate—the fourth-century Latin translation of the Bible favored by the church at that time—as the text of the piece. The words “aleph,” “bet,” etc., at the beginning of each verse are consecutive letters of the Hebrew alphabet, signaling the alphabetic acrostic (also known as abecedarian) form of the poems; each stanza begins with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet.

The opening line of Tallis’ work, which attributes the book to Jeremiah—“Here begins the lamentation of Jeremiah the prophet”—appears in the Vulgate but does not appear in the Hebrew manuscript tradition. The Septuagint, which is an early Greek translation of the Hebrew, contains an even longer superscription, one that is also present in some but not all early editions of the Vulgate: “And it happened, after Israel was taken captive and Jerusalem was laid waste, Jeremiah sat weeping and gave this lament over Jerusalem and said…”. The existence of these three different beginnings to the Book of Lamentations is a reminder that one edition or translation of the Bible can be significantly different than another, depending upon the manuscript tradition that is used. The Book of Jeremiah itself, for example, is about one-eighth shorter in the Septuagint (Greek) tradition than in the Hebrew, indicating that there were probably additions made to the Hebrew after the Septuagint translation was made.

Laments in Liturgy and Life

In Jewish tradition, Lamentations is read on Tisha B’Av (“Ninth of Av”), an observance that commemorates both the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 586 B.C.E. by the Babylonians, and the destruction of the rebuilt Temple in 70 C.E. by the Romans. It is also a day to remember and mourn other catastrophes that have befallen the Jewish people. The day is marked with solemnity, fasting, and prayer.

Lament—grieving before God, both individually and corporately—is part of the bedrock of biblical tradition. The Hebrew Bible not only depicts moments of praise and worship, but also seasons of frustration and despair, as well as feelings of abandonment, hopelessness, and deep sadness. In Christian tradition, laments are most regularly read in Holy Week, and particularly on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, in remembrance of Jesus’ betrayal, crucifixion, and death. But the practice of praying laments need not be limited to liturgical settings. Lament poems, such as those found among the psalms and in the Book of Lamentations, are powerful vehicles for both personal and community prayer.

Jeremiah and Lamentations

Leonard Bernstein’s Symphony No. 1: Jeremiah uses selections from the Hebrew text of Jeremiah as the libretto for the third movement, “Lamentation.” Listen to Symphony No. 1: Jeremiah here. Read more about Bernstein and his Jeremiah symphony here.

The inclusion of the text of Lamentations in a musical piece featuring the words of the prophet Jeremiah reflects the traditional attribution of the authorship of Lamentations to Jeremiah. The Book of Jeremiah itself contains lament poems, and Jeremiah prophesied during the tumultuous time of the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonian Empire—the same moment in time that is reflected in Lamentations. However, there is no concrete evidence that Jeremiah is the author, and in the Tanakh—the Jewish ordering of the Hebrew Bible—Lamentations does not come after the prophetic book of Jeremiah, as it does in the Christian canon, but rather is found in the third section of the Tanakh, the “Writings,” sandwiched between the Book of Ruth and the Book of Ecclesiastes (a.k.a. Qohelet).

Great is Thy Faithfulness

The refrain of the beloved hymn “Great is Thy Faithfulness,” written in 1923 by Thomas Chisolm, borrows from the Book of Lamentations to testify to the ongoing fidelity of God:

Great is thy faithfulness!

Great is thy faithfulness!

Morning by morning new mercies I see;

all I have needed thy hand hath provided.

Great is thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me!

The refrain paraphrases Lamentations 3:22-23, quoted here in the King James Version:

It is of the Lord’s mercies that we are not consumed,

because his compassions fail not.

They are new every morning; great is thy faithfulness.

The Lord is my portion, saith my soul; therefore I will hope in him.

Lamentations 3 is the high point of hope in the biblical poem. The movement toward and then away from hope aligns with the poem’s structure. Chapters 1, 2, and 4 each contain 22 stanzas in an acrostic form, with each stanza beginning with a consecutive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Chapter 3 is the longest acrostic, with each letter of the Hebrew alphabet beginning three stanzas before moving to the next, for a total of 66 stanzas or verses. The poetry builds both structurally and thematically toward the middle of chapter 3, before beginning its descent again toward lament and despair. Chapter 5 contains 22 verses, the same number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet, but the acrostic structure is gone. Order has dissolved into chaos, and the poem ends back in lament, with the possibility that God has abandoned the people.

Acrostic Poems

Many children are introduced to acrostic poems in early elementary school, where they might practice writing lines of verse around a particular theme spelled out by the first letter of each line, like “Nature” or “Thanksgiving.” Writing a poem that extols the characteristics of a friend, using the letters of their name as the acrostic structure, has also been a common childhood pastime.

It is possible that the alphabetic acrostic (also known as an “abecedarian”) was a useful learning tool in scribal schools in ancient Israel, too, either as an aid to memory or a

foundation for writing practice. On the other hand, some scholars point to the challenging nature of writing an acrostic (think of how many x-rays and xylophones there must be in English abecedarians!) to argue that they were a more advanced scribal art. The Book of Lamentations certainly supports the latter possibility, given its complex use of the form, its wrenching pathos, and its sophisticated theological reflection.

Even in English, acrostics are not limited to novice poets. One famous acrostic is embedded within the poem “London,” part of the British Romantic poet William Blake’s Songs of Experience, published in 1794. The first letter of each line in the third stanza spells out the word “HEAR,” a poignant way to reinforce the poem’s plea that the reader notice the miseries of industrialized urban life the poem decries. In its graphic depictions of “Marks of weakness, marks of woe” in 18th-century London, Blake’s poem echoes—whether deliberately or not—the grief over the decimated city of Jerusalem in Lamentations.

Handel’s Messiah

The libretto of Handel’s famous Messiah oratorio pulls together quotations from throughout the Old and New Testaments to construct a dramatic musical narrative of sorts. The oratorio relates the promised coming, birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, as well as the judgment at the end of days, exclusively through biblical texts. While often performed at Christmas, the message of Messiah is more of an Easter one, emphasizing resurrection and hope through Christ. Lamentations appears in the section of the libretto that points to the death of Jesus, with a slightly altered quotation of Lamentations 1:12. Rather than reading “Behold, and see if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow”—with “my” referring to personified daughter Zion—the text of Messiah says, “Behold, and see if there be any sorrow like unto his sorrow,” referring to Jesus. This one-word change serves the narrative purposes of the libretto, written by Charles Jennens, by turning the focus of every chosen Scripture passage in the oratorio toward the piece’s Christological center.

Jennens’ adaptation of the line from Lamentations, while not the same as its “original” meaning, is a good example of how a biblical text might resound in new ways for new generations of readers. The words that Lamentations gives to the desperate suffering of the city of Jerusalem are, in Jennens’ view, also an apt description of Jesus’ own suffering over 500 years later. Those interpretations need not be mutually exclusive. Just as the interpretation of Lamentations does not end in the sixth-century B.C.E., new readings in new eras do not—and should not attempt to—negate or otherwise cancel out the poem’s original context or interpretations. To borrow (and reinterpret!) a phrase from Walt Whitman, poems “contain multitudes.”