Lesson 1 of 6
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Summary of Lamentations


The five poems of Lamentations respond to the catastrophe of the siege and destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E. Written in third- and first-person voices, the book both acknowledges the present as the consequence of past disobedience and challenges the adequacy of that acknowledgment to account for the current suffering. God has judged; human enemies have attacked. But the extent and relentlessness of the suffering are unbearable. Theological claims about God’s mercy and justice are not operating in life as it is currently experienced by the speakers. The book consists of the poetic prayers of sufferers, who plead for God to look, see, and act. 


Lamentations challenges all piety that commends passive, silent suffering. Even if the suffering is a just punishment–something not fully conceded-the book articulates the horror endured communally and individually during and in the wake of the destruction of the structures of corporate and individual life. If biblical faith is understood as living in an “already-not yet” tension, Lamentations demands that readers not gloss over the suffering and horror of the “not yet.” One form of waiting on God is shouting the laments of this book.


In the Protestant canon Lamentations is the 25th book of the Old Testament. It lies between the prophetic books of Jeremiah and Ezekiel.


Authorship of the Book of Lamentations is unknown. The book traditionally has been attributed to Jeremiah, whose prophetic career coincided with the destruction of Jerusalem and who was also associated with the writing of laments (e.g., Jeremiah 8:18-9:1). That claim has been challenged with reason, but it has not been completely displaced. Current emphasis centers on the function of the book more than on identifying a specific individual author.


The book arose in the wake of the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E. The expressions in the book are sufficiently general and conventional to fit other periods, but this does not lessen their accuracy or horror. They have continued to be used in liturgies memorializing subsequent moments of catastrophe in Jewish history. 


Lamentations articulates the pain experienced in the collapse of Judah and Jerusalem, in 586 B.C.E. Third-person narration both describes and explains the suffering, but the book insistently moves toward direct, first-person articulation of the unbearable pain and devastation and God’s responsibility for it. The latter leads to direct address to God to see, to consider, and to restore the speaker(s). The book moves from silent suffering to verbalizing the suffering and, in turn, demanding that God, the source of the suffering, end the suffering. The book refuses to be silent in the face of God’s silence.


Lamentations is a collection of five poems. As poetry, Lamentations “shows” rather than “tells,” giving voice to the deepest emotions of ancient sufferers grappling with God. The present reader is also drawn in to read it now as an act of prayer. The gruesome depiction of suffering does not permit distance. The reader is asked to look, to see, and to act, just as God is asked to do those things in the prayers. Silent distance is not permitted. It would be appropriate for readers to be moved to work to alleviate contemporary suffering, but not without joining the text’s petitioners in their prayers against the silence of God. As the more hopeful theology of 3:22-24 does not silence the voice of the petitioners in the rest of Lamentations, readers should not rush to use other sections of the canon to silence Lamentations. With its words of comfort and hope for a postexilic future, Isaiah 40-55 may well be a response to Lamentations, but it does not silence the book. Scripture makes room for both voices: despair and hope.