The book of Lamentations is sometimes described as a five-stanza dirge (a funeral song) over the death of a city (Jerusalem) and a nation (Judah). In the original Hebrew language, there are mnemonic (memory) aids in each chapter: In chapters 1, 2, 4, and 5, each verse begins with a letter of the alphabet (thus, 22 verses in each chapter because there are 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet). In chapter 3, each group of three verses begins with a letter of the alphabet (thus, 66 verses in this chapter). The book is a picture, presented from the prophet Jeremiah’s vantage point, of the desolation and devastation his people had brought upon themselves by their repeated refusal to repent, even as God pleaded with them to turn away from their sins.
Chapter one gives us an image of the battered, empty shell of Jerusalem, pointing out that “she” has been humiliated and exposed to the world by her own willful sins (verses 8-9). In verse 12 the prophet bewails the anguish that seeing such shame and suffering causes him, asking how anyone could “pass by” and remain unmoved by the sight of such destruction. Verse 17 may be the most forlorn statement in the whole book, as Jeremiah portrays his city as a woman holding out her hands, pleading for help and pity fro any passerby – only to see that God has made all her neighbors into enemies who disdain Jerusalem for her (moral) filth. Notice, however, that Jeremiah goes on in verse 18 to admit that Judah and Jerusalem deserved everything that happened to them, because of their rebelliousness against God.
Chapter two shows us a portrait which could be titled “God as an Enemy.” The outstanding characteristic in this chapter is the fact that God’s judgement against Jerusalem was executed without pity; there was no withholding of punishment, no lessening of His severity toward His own people. Verse 11 gives a graphic image of the impact this sight has on Jeremiah, and in verses 15-16 the enemies of God’s people are pictured as rejoicing and celebrating because of Judah’s downfall.
The third chapter, twenty-two “poem-ettes” of three verses each, pauses in the midst of this picture of catastrophe to celebrate the goodness and the faithfulness of God! Even as Jeremiah weeps over the agony of his nation, he directs his people’s attention to God’s promise of restoration after their tribulation is over, urging them to retain their hope in Him even as they enter captivity–
“The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; 23 they are new every morning; great is thy faithfulness. 24 ‘The LORD is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘therefore I will hope in him.’” (RSV)
Again in verses 40-42, Jeremiah urges his people to examine themselves and the cause of their suffering frankly and honestly, and make the confession and reforms the Lord desires–
“Let us search and try our ways, and turn again to the LORD. 41 Let us lift up our heart with our hands unto God in the heavens. 42 We have transgressed and have rebelled: thou hast not pardoned.”
Chapter four returns to the images Jeremiah sees with his own eyes; all the beautiful and precious things of Jerusalem shattered and burned; the temple is in ruins; the people are starving and filthy, having lost everything they had previously prized. Jeremiah’s people had fallen so far in their idolatry and disregard for God that some had even resorted to cannibalism (verse 10) rather than repent.
In the final stanza of this ineffably sad song, Jeremiah appeals to the Lord to not abandon His people permanently, but to remember that they had once been faithful. He makes a very frank confession of their sins, summarizing their condition in verse 16–
“The crown has fallen from our head. Woe to us, for we have sinned!”
– and concludes his lamentation with a plea for God to restore His people, verses 21-22.
– Dave Rogers