But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. - Lamentations 3:21–23 (ESV)

Lamentations was written by the prophet Jeremiah in response to the fall of Jerusalem to King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. A cursory reading of the book reveals why Jeremiah has been dubbed “The Weeping Prophet”. Jeremiah experiences many hardships in his time as a prophet of Yahweh, but the devastation of the City of David as a result of hundreds of years of persistent unfaithfulness to Yahweh plunged Jeremiah into a depth of suffering that more have experienced than articulated.

Indeed, a unique thing about Jeremiah is not so much that his suffering is worse than everyone else’s, although it is worse than most, but that Jeremiah, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, penned an articulation of his pain that is beyond compare. 

The Big Idea of Lamentations

I believe a faithful Big Idea for Lamentations is the following: Lament Loss, Plead for Pardon. Lamentations dedicates the most space to lamenting the tragedy and devastation in Jerusalem brought on by their enemies from one perspective and their own sin from another. Although the desire of Israel’s enemies to destroy is clear enough, the wrath of God against their sin is even more clear. What is more, Yahweh is credited most directly for the destruction. But along with that credit comes a plea for forgiveness and restoration as Jeremiah expresses sorrow over the sins and transgressions that provoked God to bring the destruction in the first place. Jeremiah laments loss, but he also pleads for pardon. 

An Outline of Lamentations

In making an outline of Lamentations, it seems essential to note a literary feature that makes up the form and structure of the book. What modern readers know as the five chapters of Lamentations are 5 acrostic poems based on the Hebrew alphabet. Chapters 1-2 and 4-5 have twenty-two verses each with each verse representing successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet. This is why every chapter except chapter 3 has twenty-two verses. Chapter 3 has 66 verses because each letter of the Hebrew alphabet is repeated twice more after the first instance. So verses 1-3 of chapter 3 each begin with the letter aleph in Hebrew, whereas in chapters 1-2 and 4-5, only the first verse or line begins with aleph.

Why is this significant? It is significant because the threefold repetition of each letter marks out the middle acrostic poem of Lamentations as the center of attention not just in terms of its location but also its importance for understanding and interpreting the message of Lamentations. The surrounding acrostic poems are supplemental to the middle one, which is the main one. If we fail to understand this, we will fail to grasp the intended meaning of Lamentations.

Chapter 1: Jerusalem’s Humiliation

Chapter 1 focuses on Jerusalem’s humiliation. The first words of the book highlight this in speaking about the loneliness of the city after being so full and also in describing Jerusalem as a princess become a slave. Jeremiah writes how the city feels in first person, recognizing her sin and Yahweh’s punishment of her. 

Chapter 2: Yahweh’s Wrath

The second chapter focuses on Yahweh’s wrath, as is again highlighted in the first verse. While describing his pain, Jeremiah mourns the fact that Yahweh’s wrath has been poured out on the city. The chapter/poem ends with a grisly image of corpses of all ages and genders strewn in the streets. 

Chapter 3: The Need for Repentance

Chapter 3 is the central chapter not only in terms of its location in the book but also in terms of its message. Near the very center are the famous lines regarding the mercies of Yahweh being new every morning and his faithfulness being great (Lam. 3:22-23). 

Chapter 4: Jerusalem’s Siege

Chapter 4 reviews the horrors of the siege of Jerusalem. Jeremiah compares the compassion of wild animals relative to the savage ends to which the inhabitants of Jerusalem went to survive, including previously good mothers cooking their own children (Lam. 4:10). 

Chapter 5: A Plea for Restoration

Chapter 5 is constituted by a plea from Jeremiah to Yahweh to restore the people to Jerusalem. Jeremiah laments the current condition of the people and pleads with Yahweh to consider the abject condition of the people. 

Benefits of Lamentations

It has been said that joy shared is multiplied and sorrow shared is diminished. This seems to be generally true. Lamentations is a place to go for those who have experienced intense suffering and are ready to begin to process it. 

It is worth noting that a book like Lamentations is an artistic composition. It is the kind of work that describes a pain that someone is ready to articulate. The pain and suffering described in Lamentations are intense (to say the least). Many times, there is a need to focus on surviving the traumatic event rather than analyzing and processing it before it is over.

This leads me to address the issue of trauma and post-traumatic stress. I do not claim any kind of expertise on this issue, nor have I at this point walked with a large number of people through it. Nevertheless, it seems to me that the whole of Lamentations could be framed as a book written post-trauma. Lamentations walks through a process of describing and analyzing a past trauma in a way that reflects ongoing suffering while recognizing a nugget of hope at its core. Nevertheless, the suffering and awfulness of the event was so great that its effects are still being felt by the writer. I suspect Lamentations could be useful for beginning to walk with sufferers through other sorts of nearly unimaginable pain.

Lamentations reminds us of the holiness of God and the disastrousness of sin. We know that the destruction of Jerusalem was not a random event but was brought on by God in response to the persistent sin and rebellion of his people. As awful as the destruction of Jerusalem is, how much worse will eternal condemnation be in Hell?

On Lamentations and Living for God Through Christ