According to tradition the Book of Lamentations was written by Jeremiah sometime after the fall of Jerusalem in 586 BC. There are no introductory remarks of biographical information in the book. It is called Eikhah (אֵיכָה) in Hebrew which can be translated alas. In the Jewish Bible it appears in the Ketuvim, or writings as one of the Five Megillot. These books are grouped together because they have liturgical functions. Today Lamentations is read of Tish b' Av the day that commemorates the destruction of both Temples and Jerusalem along with various other disasters of Jewish History. In the Septuagint the book is called Θρῆνοιv, threnos, which means lament. Jerome's Vulgate used a transliterated Threni with the subtitle Id est Lamentationes Jeremiae, The lamentations of Jeremiah. This gets us to our English title  "Lamentations" or sometimes "The Lamentations of Jeremiah".

Lamentations consists of a series of 5 poems of lament over the city of Jerusalem and the state of the people of Judah. It is the state of the people that has caused such desolation of Jerusalem. In this regard, the book is sort of an addendum to the book of Jeremiah as Jeremiah has been predicting this fall for the bulk of his book. Yet in the middle of Lamentations, Jeremiah can recall that the Lord is faithful and deliverance is promised. The poems are largely acrostics on the Hebrew alphabet but that does not really feature in out translations, some like the NET bring forward the Hebrew letters.

Each chapter is a poem. The poems are as follows:

  1. The Desolation of Jerusalem
  2. The Destruction of Jerusalem 
  3. Great is Thy Faithfulness
  4. The Defeated People of Jerusalem 
  5. The Prayer for the People

Chapter 1 begins:

How deserted lies the city,
once so full of people!
How like a widow is she,
who once was great among the nations!
She who was queen among the provinces
has now become a slave. (Lamentations 1.1 ESV)

The people have been deported after a long siege and the city is empty of the people who once made it a vibrant place. Jeremiah has been warning the king and the people that this would happen through his whole of his book and his warnings have gone unheeded. The people have largely deserted God, now Jeremiah sees the results of the judgment of God. Jerusalem and the temple have personified the kingdom of Judah, it is the center of their inheritance, but the people have squandered that gift. Chapter 1 is mostly about the desolation of the city, but it is also about the desertion of the people from faith in their God.

Chapter 2 is a picture of the destruction of the city. Not just the fact that the people are gone as in chapter 1, but also the city is physically destroyed. The Lord and let this happen and, as Ezekiel sees in a vision in Ezekiel 10.1–22, God has also left the city. So we read in chapter 2:

7 The Lord has rejected his altar
and abandoned his sanctuary.
He has given the walls of her palaces
into the hands of the enemy;
they have raised a shout in the house of the Lord
as on the day of an appointed festival. (Lamentations 2.7 ESV)

Judah's enemies celebrate their victory just as Judah at one time celebrated the Lord's festivals. Jeremiah, however,  has remained faithful through all of his personal trials which are recorded in his book and remains faithful in this book as well. In Chapter 3 we find the basis for our hymn "Great is they Faithfulness." As in the rest of the Bible we find that God is faithful and his creation is not. Even in judgement we find God's mercy:

22 Because of the Lord's great love we are not consumed,
for his compassions never fail.

23 They are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.

24 I say to myself, "The Lord is my portion;
therefore I will wait for him." (Lamentations 3.22-24 ESV)

There is hope in lamentations it is more than mourning over the physical destruction of a physical place, the kingdom and the city has fallen to be sure, but that has happened because the people have fallen away from God. They should have known better and some did. They were warned many times but most walked into bondage anyway.

A short recap:

Before they entered the Promised land Moses warned them:    

2 You shall surely destroy all the places where the nations whom you shall dispossess served their gods, on the high mountains and on the hills and under every green tree. 3 You shall tear down their altars and dash in pieces their pillars and burn their Asherim with fire. You shall chop down the carved images of their gods and destroy their name out of that place. 4 You shall not worship the Lord your God in that way. 5 But you shall seek the place that the Lord your God will choose out of all your tribes to put his name and make his habitation there. There you shall go, 6 and there you shall bring your burnt offerings and your sacrifices, your tithes and the contribution that you present, your vow offerings, your freewill offerings, and the firstborn of your herd and of your flock. 7 And there you shall eat before the Lord your God, and you shall rejoice, you and your households, in all that you undertake, in which the Lord your God has blessed you. (Deuteronomy 12.2-7)

Much happened between Deuteronomy and the time of Solomon, in many of those stories it is clear that the nation as a whole cannot remain true to God. Solomon has a temple built in Jerusalem and when the temple was finished:

7 ... fire came down from heaven and consumed the burnt offering and the sacrifices, and the glory of the Lord filled the temple. 2 And the priests could not enter the house of the Lord, because the glory of the Lord filled the Lord's house. 3 When all the people of Israel saw the fire come down and the glory of the Lord on the temple, they bowed down with their faces to the ground on the pavement and worshiped and gave thanks to the Lord, saying, "For he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever." (II Chronicles 7.1-3)

The reign of Solomon was the peak of the united Kingdom of Israel in both prosperity and faithfulness. This, however, does not even last to the end of Solomon's life as his faith and devotion wane in his last days. By the time we reach Jeremiah we find Solomon's kingdom was divided and the Northern Kingdom of Israel was taken into captivity by Assyria and now Judah is not that different from the pagan nations around her and will be taken to Babylon: 

8 "Behold, you trust in deceptive words to no avail. 9 Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, 10 and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, 'We are delivered!'—only to go on doing all these abominations? 11 Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes? Behold, I myself have seen it, declares the Lord. (Jeremiah 7.8-11)

God's law is more than sacrifices, or even the ten commandments. It is about loving your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19.18), using honest scales (Proverbs 11.1) and treating the alien as the native born (Leviticus 19.34). Clearly the people of Jeremiah's day were failing to do that. The sacrifices were to keep the people ever conscious of their sin and focus their devotion to God where there was forgiveness and reconciliation.

Ezekiel, who is taken into captivity before the fall of Jerusalem, has a vision of the Glory of the Lord Leaving the Temple (Ezekiel 10.1–22). That is definitely a sad vision but is would be more amazing if God could have remained in eh temple through the time of the great unfaithfulness of the people. We recall what God said in Exodus 33.3 "Go up to a land flowing with milk and honey; but I will not go up among you, lest I consume you on the way, for you are a stiff-necked people." 

Ezekiel's vision of the Glory of the Lord departing the Temple really follows when people departing from God. Jeremiah knows that all of this was coming so it made the actual events even more painful.

In Chapter 4 we find Jerusalem in ruins but also the people, the nobles are reduced to the ash heap and those who were killed by the sward considered more fortunate than those who starved. Again we see the reason for this destruction is not in the physical realities of his world but in the sins of the people:

12 The kings of the earth did not believe,
nor any of the inhabitants of the world,
that foe or enemy could enter
the gates of Jerusalem.

13 This was for the sins of her prophets
and the iniquities of her priests,
who shed in the midst of her
the blood of the righteous. (Lamentations 4.12-13 ESV)

Chapter 5 is a cry to God to see the state of his people and remember them in their distress:

1 Remember, O Lord, what has befallen us;
look, and see our disgrace!
2 Our inheritance has been turned over to strangers,
our homes to foreigners. (Lamentations 5.1-2)

In the prophets generally there is this notion of deliverance through judgement. Judgment is only therapeutic if sin is acknowledged. This happens by verse 16.

15 The joy of our hearts has ceased;
our dancing has been turned to mourning.
16 The crown has fallen from our head;
woe to us, for we have sinned!

The book ends with this call for restoration:

21 Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored!
Renew our days as of old—
22 unless you have utterly rejected us,
and you remain exceedingly angry with us. (Lamentations 5.21-22)

Jeremiah has warned these people in his book, they have the stories of the other prophets and there is the warnings in Deuteronomy 28. The following table is adapted from Malick below and his note indicates that he got it from unpublished class notes. Deuteronomy 28.15-68 outlines the curses that will follow if the nation breaks the covenant. We see echoes of this spread out the book of Lamentations.

 

Comparison of Lamentations with the covenant curses in Deuteronomy
Lamentations  Deuteronomy
1.3 She dwells among the nations but she has found no rest. 28.65 And among those nations you shall find no rest.
1.5a Her adversaries have become the head 28.44 He shall be the head, you shall be the tail
1.5c Her little ones have gone away as captives before the adversary. 28.32 Your sons and your daughters shall be given to another people.
1.6c They have fled without strength before the pursuer. 28.25 You shall flee seven way before them
1.18c My virgins and my young men have gone into captivity 28.41 You shall have sons and daughters, but they shall not be yours, for they shall go into captivity
2.15 All who pass along the way clap their hands in derision at you 28.37 You shall become a horror, a proverb, a taunt among all the people where the Lord will drive you.
2.20 Should women eat their offspring? 28.53-57 Then you shall eat the offspring of your own body ....
2.21 On the ground in the streets lie young and old 28.50 ...who shall have no respect for the old, nor show favor to the young
4.10 The hands of compassionate women boiled their own children 28.56-57 ...the refined and delicate women among you ... she shall eat them secretly (i.e., her children) for lack of anything else ....
5.2b Our houses were given to aliens 28.30 You shall build a house, but you shall not live in it.
5.5 There is no rest for us. 28.65 And among those nations you shall find no rest
5.10 ... the burning heat of famine .... 28.24 ... the rain of your land powder and dust ....
5.11 Women of Zion ravished. 28.30 Who shall have no respect for the old ....
5.12 Elders were not respected 28.50 Who shall have no respect for the old ....
5.18 foxes prowl in Zion 28.26 And your carcasses shall be food to all birds of the sky and to the beasts of the earth, and there shall be no one to frighten them away.

 

 

Introduction to Lamentations:  https://www.esv.org/resources/esv-global-study-bible/introduction-to-lamentations/ 10/31/23

Malick, David, An Introduction to the Book of Lamentations:  https://bible.org/article/introduction-book-lamentations 110/31/23