Lesson 4 of 6
In Progress

Introductory Issues in Lamentations

Structure of Lamentations

Chapters 1, 2, and 4 are acrostic poems; the first word of each verse in these chapters begins with each of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet in order. Chapter 3 extends the acrostic by having succeeding sets of three for each letter of the alphabet (hence, 22 sets of three for a total of 66 verses). Chapter 5, the final chapter, is not acrostic but does consist of 22 verses. Many scholars emphasize that the structure of the poem is itself a reflection of the grief it expresses. By using a highly rigid structure that breaks down in the final poem, Lamentations attempts to impose order on chaos, but ultimately the sorrow expressed in the book overwhelms any attempt at an orderly containment.

Poetic voices

The poems in Lamentations 1-4 alternate between three distinct voices, two of which are specifically gendered. The third-person narration in 1:1-11b starts off the poem with the third-person voice of an anonymous narrator, who comes in again at chapter 4. The first-person voice that enters briefly in 1:9d and fully in 1:11c is the female voice of personified (daughter) Zion. In chapter 3, another first-person voice appears, this time of the “strongman” (Hebrew geber), referring specifically to a man who defends the weak. Unable to fulfill his social role, the strongman laments, like daughter Zion, his shame: “I have become the laughingstock of all my people, the object of their taunt-songs all day long” (3:14). The voices converge in the first-person plural of chapter 5, when the people together cry out to be remembered and restored. No voice is able to articulate a normative explanation for the suffering or a theology of hope that will silence the lament.

The metaphor of the adulterous wife

The most acute problem for many contemporary readers is the use of the adulterous wife metaphor for describing the disobedience which is seen as the cause of the current suffering in the opening section of the book. Not only does the third-person voice describe prior “lovers” (1:2), but the poet depicts personified Zion as speaking of herself as an adulterous wife. The metaphor risks perpetuating and justifying male abuse of women; the male is seen as both the hurt one and the avenger of hurt—both prosecutor and judge/executioner. If God is seen as rightfully punishing wife Israel, men are de facto underwritten in their dominance over women. There is no easy way to “redeem” the metaphor. Even so, the metaphor itself may have been broken in the lament tradition which voices Israel’s demands to God in a tone that never would have been permitted for an adulterous wife in an ancient patriarchal society.

Relationship to Jeremiah

In the Book of Jeremiah the prophet insists against other authoritative voices that the incursion of the Babylonians was the just judgment of God. For example, while joining Hananiah in the desire for a hopeful message, Jeremiah insists in chapter 28 that servitude to the Babylonians was the judgment of God. There was no way to evade it. The early wave of exiles in Babylon was to settle in for a long period. The full destruction of Jerusalem, not an imminent return to it, was the decreed future. Lamentations is commonly read as a petitioning cry from the midst of that destruction and the punishment that it was understood to be. The third-person voice at the beginning of Lamentations can be read as agreeing with Jeremiah’s assertion that the Babylonian action was at the same time God’s action against Judah. Yet in the latter part of Lamentations 1, personified Zion cries for pity, hearing, visibility, and comfort. The plea moves beyond a sin/punishment rationalization of suffering. As such, Lamentations pushes beyond preexilic prophetic preaching of judgment. Justified or not, the problem for Lamentations is the continued suffering.

Relationship to other biblical books

Lamentations does not hold out much hope. It is itself lamentation—a cry of grief—not an answer to the suffering that is lamented. This has raised the issue of whether or not other biblical books respond to Lamentations. Isaiah 40-55, commonly called Second Isaiah, has figured prominently in such discussions. Isaiah 54:7-8, for example, can be read as conceding the wrath and abandonment expressed in Lamentations, but then moving quickly to assert a restored and everlasting relationship that will transcend anything that had been experienced before the destruction and exile. Many interpreters recognize the echoes of Lamentations in Isaiah 40-55, but they vary in their assessment of how overt or deliberate the echoes are. The oracles of hope in Jeremiah and Ezekiel can also be claimed as responses, but again the connections may not be direct. During the exile and after, there was an ongoing effort to discover and assert an ongoing relationship with God beyond the severance experienced in the destruction of Jerusalem. Undoubtedly the suffering experienced in this severance was expressed in more forms than in the five poems in Lamentations.

Lamentations exists at a midpoint between the actual experience of judgment announced by preexilic prophets and the prophetic promises of a restored and transformed relationship that emerged as the exile wore on.

Translation of Lamentations 3:56-63

Modern Bible translations translate the verbs in these verses in the past tense. As such, the verses extend the statements about God’s steadfast love and mercy which are new each day and are thus a basis for future hope (3:22-24). The speaker’s own past life would then ratify the received orthodoxy. But the imperatives at the end of the chapter—starting with commands to “look” or “see” in the middle of v. 63—are jarring and nearly inexplicable. Several recent commentaries have understood the perfect Hebrew verb forms in vv. 56-62 not as past tense but as expressions of will consistent with the imperatives in vv. 63-66. The narrative flow would then be the voice of the speaker stating that he had called on the name of the Lord from the depths of the pit in which his enemies had thrown him (3:52-55). The next move was God’s. The speaker pleads with God to hear, see, and come–and even to punish the punishers (3:64-66). Present experience is sharply in contrast with God’s past faithfulness, which intensifies the petition rather than answers it. Both translations are grammatically defensible. How one understands the overall flow of the book and the theological tensions it articulates shapes the interpreter’s decision on this point.