Lamentations: Good Cheer in Tribulation
The title of this book in our English Bibles is "The Lamentations of Jeremiah." This title does not appear in the original Hebrew. The title by which it is known is the first word, translated by our English word "How." It is merely a tradition that the book was written by Jeremiah. This tradition can be traced back to the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Old Testament, which was written at least three centuries later than the time of Jeremiah. The Septuagint contains this interesting preface to the book: "And it came to pass, after Israel was led into captivity, and Jerusalem laid waste, that Jeremiah sat weeping, and lamented with this lamentation over Jerusalem, and said…" This tradition is found also in the Targum, the Chaldee translation of the O. T. and is alluded to in the Talmud, the collection of Jewish traditions, and referred to in the writings of the Fathers. It may or may not be true. From a comparison of the style of Jeremiah with that in Lamentations, some critics consider that the balance of internal evidence is against Jeremiah's authorship, while others take an opposite view. Some little interest attaches to the study of these views as it affords the student a clearer knowledge of the contents of both books. This is the basis for the study of the spiritual sense.
The method and style in which this book is written is worthy of consideration, although we are unable to see any deep reason for it. We may simply know that these reasons exist because it is a Divine composition. There are five chapters. The first two and the last two have each 22 verses. The third chapter has three times 22 verses. There are twenty-two letters in the Hebrew alphabet. In chapters 1, 2, and 4, each verse begins with a letter of that alphabet in succession. In chapter three, the first three verses each begin with the first letter, the second three with the second letter, and so on. The fifth chapter has twenty-two verses, but they do not follow in alphabetic order. The portion of the Word written in this acrostic form with which we are most familiar is Psalm 119. Here each of the first eight verses begins with Aleph, the next eight with Beth, and so on. A similar alphabetic structure is followed in Ps. 25; 34; 37; 111; 112; 145. A remarkable variation in the order of the letters occurs in Lam. 2; 3; 4. In each the letter Pe precedes the letter Ain.
The rhythm of the first four poems is also a peculiarity worth noting. It is the rhythm peculiar to Hebrew elegy. The verse usually consists of one or more members, each containing on an average not more than five or six words, divided into two unequal parts, the first being longer than the second. Two examples from the first and third chapters will best illustrate:
The theme of each chapter is indicated in its opening verse. 1. The desolation and misery of Jerusalem - "How doth she sit solitary, the city that was full of people." 2. The Lord’s anger with His people - "How hath the Lord covered the daughter of Zion with a cloud in His anger." 3. The nation's complaint and its ground of consolation - "I am the man that hath seen affliction by the rod of his wrath." 4. A contrast of Zion's past and present - "How is the gold become dim! how is the most pure gold changed." 5. The nation's appeal for the Lord’s compassionate regard - "Remember, O Lord, what is come upon us."
The book voices the deepest sorrows of the heart, the sorest trials in temptation. And yet the dark and dense cloud is not without its silver lining. It contains a few tender words of consolation, all the more tender because of the sorrowing gloom.
Think of the homesick Jews in Babylon, with little else to do but bewail their situation, and the words are full of meaning! Think of the soul held in bondage by natural feelings and thoughts the very reverse of its ideal, and they are filled with even deeper meaning! What a trial to be unable freely to express our love for those whom we dislike! What a hardship to be burdened with a discontented disposition that hinders us from enjoying what is really best in life! "They are said to be in spiritual captivity, who, as to the interiors, are kept by the Lord in good and truth, but as to the exteriors, are kept by hell in evil and falsity: whence there is a combat of the external man with the internal: in this state are those kept who are being infested." (A. 7990) "I am the man that hath seen by the rod of his wrath: me hath he led and caused to go in darkness and not in light: surely against me is he turned, he turneth his hand—all the day." Chapter 3: verses 1 to 21 picture the dark side of life, the state of the soul consumed with grief because the outer life is so much out of harmony with the living ideal given by the Lord. Every slightest defect in character is full of evil. "Every evil with its falses, has an inrooted connection with all evils and their falses: and such evils and falses are innumerable, and their connection is so manifold that it cannot be comprehended, not even by the angels, but only by the Lord." (A. 9330) The person who has been led of the Lord to see such evil within the tendencies of his or her lower nature finds a deep meaning in this lament. Such a person also derives corresponding comfort and encouragement from the words that follow. (Lam. 3:22-27) "It is of the Lord's mercies that we are not consumed, because His compassions fail not. They are new every morning: great is thy faithfulness." In sickness, bodily or spiritual, it is well to "both hope and quietly wait for the salvation of the Lord." The lesson closes with the words, "It is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth." Would that everyone were in earnest about religion in early adulthood! Would that there were less indifference to the highest interests of humanity! "For he who is tempted in the world is not tempted after death." (R. 185) And those who do not undergo temptation cannot be saved.
The comment upon the third chapter in Prophets and Psalms is full of suggestions. It is as follows: "Description of the combats of the Lord with hells, which were especially from the Israelitish and Jewish church, with despair, because all had been in evils and in falsities therefrom, and against the Lord: He invokes the Father that He may not be forsaken, and that He may conquer and subjugate these hells. These things in a summary."