Lamentations (Poetry Criticism) - Essay

Louise Gluck



c. 587 b.c.-86 b.c.

Also known as How and Dirges. Hebrew poems.

Traditionally attributed to Jeremiah, Lamentations is a short book in the Old Testament section of the Bible consisting of five poems. Each poem comprises a chapter describing the common sorrow and suffering of the survivors of the devastation of Jerusalem after the Babylonian siege of 587 b.c. The Hebrew title of Lamentations translates as How and comes from the first word of the book—a groan. With its first four poems written in the form of alphabetic acrostics, Lamentations's structure is elaborate and the exact significance of its pattern somewhat controversial. It is the first widely accepted work exhibiting the definite dirge meter. While placed with Writings rather than among the Prophets in the Jewish canon, in the Greek Septuagint and in most English translations of the Bible it is found immediately after the Book of Jeremiah. The three major sources for the text of Lamentations are the Hebrew text, the Septuagint, and the Peshitta. The Hebrew text is remarkably well-preserved and thus of great use to scholars for study of Hebrew meter. Lamentations is a classic work—some say a peerless example—in the expression of communal grief and its power and depth have been admired for many centuries.

Plot and Major Characters

Lamentations changes during the course of its five poems. Initially it chronicles the aftermath of the fall of Jerusalem. The poet describes the once-great city that is now desolate. It is compared to a queen who has become a slave, crying bitter tears, feeling inconsolable grief, humiliated before her enemies. The second poem describes the human suffering and horrible living conditions closer to the time of the actual fall of the city—conditions that the poet asserts have never been endured by anyone before. Starving mothers eat their children, young and old alike have been slaughtered by the Lord, who is likened to an enemy, and even walls lament. Blame also is allocated to prophets and oracles who did not perform their duties. God has laid waste the land and pitilessly rejected all whom he once embraced: The pain goes as deep as the sea. The central poem is traditionally accepted as the most important, according to many experts, and it introduces some measure of hope. Although it continues to relate horrors, they are more general in nature. The poet finds reason for hope in the notion that God will not stay angry at his chosen people forever. They admit their sins, which is an essential step to forgiveness. The fourth poem is similar to the second. It states that it would have been better to have died from the sword than to starve to death or resort to cannibalism of one's own children. Sin is declared the cause of Jerusalem's fall, particularly the sins of the priests and the prophets. The final poem details to God all the suffering his people have endured and implores him to restore the nation of his anointed ones. The form of Lamentations is mixed and the speaking voice of the book changes in the course of the poems. Jerusalem addresses the Lord in the first chapter. In the second the poet himself speaks, but again Jerusalem delivers the words near the end of the poem. The course of the third poem shifts from “I” to “we,” but the identity of the “I” has been interpreted variously by different scholars. William F. Lanahan contends that it is in the voice of the defeated soldier, and that chapter four reflects the voice of the bourgeoisie. The final poem is communal—the survivors of Jerusalem's ruin praying to God for relief from their torments.

Major Themes

The major theme of Lamentations is the suffering and starvation following the capture of Jerusalem and the principal question this raises: Why has this happened? Were the Babylonians used as an instrument of the Lord? Did God's destruction of the city break his covenant with the Jewish people? Was God punishing them for their sins, with the purpose of their eventual rehabilitation? Or has he utterly forsaken them? Should they no longer have faith in the Lord? Nothing so severe had ever happened to Israel before and survivors desperately try to make sense of their situation. The poet answers that sin was the cause of the decimation. The particular sins are not adequately enumerated, but they clearly must have been serious, for Zion admits that it deserves what it has received.

Critical Reception

As with all books comprising the Bible, a prodigious amount of scholarship has been devoted to all aspects of Lamentations. Contentious disagreements among scholars are common in all areas of research concerning these poems. One avenue of study concerns its theological message. Some scholars argue there is one and only one, others argue that there are many interpretations that work on different levels, while yet others say there is no theological message at all. Another area of interest is the importance of the book's alphabetical composition; many scholars believe that far from being just a display of poetic virtuosity, the acrostics emphasize the completeness of the treatment rendered in the poems. Among other major interests of biblical scholars studying Lamentations are its authorship, its date of creation, and its structure. There is extreme disagreement regarding the unity of Lamentations, not only whether Jeremiah was the author but whether only one person was responsible for the poems. Theodore H. Robinson, for example, states that “internal evidence makes it practically certain that they are not all the work of a single author.” Some scholars assert that Lamentations is in the style of Jeremiah; William Walter Cannon has furnished dozens of parallel phrases and concerns in Jeremiah. Other scholars insist that these parallels are insignificant, that the differences are more important, and that “Jeremiah is out of the question as author of the songs,” as Georg Fohrer puts it. Many different compositional arrangements have been proposed, with some scholars assigning certain chapters to one author, other chapters to someone else. The majority view of scholars is that the book—or at least the first four chapters—was absolutely written almost contemporaneously with the fall of Jerusalem by an eyewitness or eyewitnesses; the minority vociferously insist that the book was composed over a period spanning up to some four hundred years. Samuel Tobias Lachs, to use the most extreme example, lays out a case that the fifth poem is from the second century b.c. While many scholars view the final chapter as clearly different from the preceding four, others, notably William H. Shea, maintain that the fifth poem is vital to the overall structure of Lamentations. Such controversies continue to be argued both seriously and passionately. Lamentations is highly praised for its literary and poetic merits. Lanahan, for example, credits the poet's “manifold creative insight” in using multiple personae in the speaking voice. The most common criticism of the work is that its creator may have occasionally subsumed his message in order to fit it into the acrostic structure; this criticism is vigorously challenged by many other critics. Scholars have made advances in grammatical analysis in modern times concerning the text itself, yielding more accurate readings of certain passages: Marvin H. Pope has rendered a highly praised version of the last three verses of the fifth chapter of Lamentations, and Mitchell Dahood has made remarkable improvements to specific lines that he believes were compromised by spelling mistakes in source texts.

Principal Works

“Song of Songs” and “Lamentations”: A Commentary and Translation (translated by Robert Gordis) 1974

Lamentations (translated by Iain W. Provan) 1991

Lamentations: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (translated by Delbert R. Hillers) 1992

“Jonah” & “Lamentations” (translated by Robert B. Salters) 1994

The Book of Lamentations (translated by Rosario Castellanos and Esther Allen) 1998

“Eichah”/“Lamentations”: A New Translation with a Commentary Anthologized from Talmudic, Midrashic, and Rabbinic Sources (translated by Meir Zlotowitz) 1999

Herbert Lockyer (essay date 1959)

SOURCE: Lockyer, Herbert. “Lamentations.” In All the Prayers of the Bible: A Devotional and Expositional Classic, p. 146. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1959.

[In the following essay, Lockyer provides a brief overview of the Book of Lamentations.]

This dirge of desolation can be treated as a postscript to the Book of Jeremiah. The five Lamentations forming the book are actually five heart-cries, or, seeing that in their original form there were no chapter and verse divisions, one long prayer of pathos. Dr. C. I. Scofield says of Lamentations, “The touching significance of this book lies in the fact that it is the disclosure of the love and sorrow of...

(The entire section is 330 words.)

Harvey H. Guthrie, Jr. (essay date 1971)

SOURCE: Guthrie, Harvey H., Jr. “Lamentations.” In The Interpreter's One-Volume Commentary on the Bible: Introduction and Commentary for Each Book of the Bible Including the Apocrypha, edited by Charles M. Laymon, pp. 405-10. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1971.

[In the following essay, Guthrie provides a thematic and stylistic examination of the five poems that comprise the Book of Lamentations.]



In the Hebrew Bible the book of Lamentations takes its name from its opening word, How, the characteristic beginning of a funeral dirge. The Talmud and rabbinic tradition designate it...

(The entire section is 5677 words.)

James A. Fischer, C.M. (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: Fischer, James A., C.M. “Lamentations.” In The Collegeville Bible Commentary, 804-11. Collegeville, Minn.: The Liturgical Press, 1989.

[In the following essay, Fischer provides a close reading of the poems of the Book of Lamentations, asserting that the pieces are “incandescent with emotions of desolation, grief, incomprehension, and indignation.”]

Traditionally the Book of Lamentations has been pictured as the writing of Jeremiah the prophet as he saw the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 b.c.e. This certainly gives visual expression to much of the thought. The prophet was watching the smoke rise from the destroyed city. He heard the wailing of...

(The entire section is 5103 words.)

Claus Westermann (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: Westermann, Claus. “Lamentations.” In The Books of the Bible: Vol. I, edited by Bernhard W. Anderson, pp. 303-18. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1989.

[In the following essay, Westermann explores the function, significance, literary form, and origins of the Book of Lamentations.]

Lament belongs to human existence, for suffering is intrinsic to human life, and lament expresses this suffering. When a child is born, its first utterance is a cry. The cry of pain remains throughout one's life the immediate, inarticulate expression of pain. Jesus' cry on the cross (“and he cried aloud …”) is understandable to every person in all times. More than that,...

(The entire section is 8624 words.)

Tod Linafelt (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Linafelt, Tod. “Survival in Translation: The Targum to Lamentations.” In Surviving Lamentations: Catastrophe, Lament and Protest in the Afterlife of a Biblical Book, pp. 80-99. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, Linafelt describes the origin, nature, and character of the Targum Lamentations and differentiates the Targum and Hebraic versions of the poems.]

The original requires translation even if no translator is there, fit to respond to this injunction, which is at the same time demand and desire in the very structure of the original. This structure is the relation of life to survival....

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Tod Linafelt (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Linafelt, Tod. “‘None Survived or Escaped’: Reading for Survival in Lamentations 1 and 2.” In Surviving Lamentations: Catastrophe, Lament and Protest in the Afterlife of a Biblical Book, pp. 35-61. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, Linafelt examines elements of the dirge and lament in the first two chapters of the Book of Lamentation, deeming these sections “literature of survival.”]

In my happier days I used to remark on the aptitude of the saying, “When in life we are in the midst of death.” I have since learnt that it's more apt to say, “When in death we are in the midst of life.”...

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Kathleen M. O'Connor (essay date 2001)

SOURCE: O'Connor, Kathleen M. “The Book of Lamentations.” In The New Interpreter's Bible: Volume VI, pp. 1013-24. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001.

[In the following essay, O'Connor examines the historical setting, authorship, liturgical uses, and literary features of the Book of Lamentations, calling the work “a literary jewel and a rich resource for theological reflection and worship.”]


Lamentations is a searing book of taut, charged poetry on the subject of unspeakable suffering. The poems emerge from a deep wound, a whirlpool of pain, toward which the images, metaphors, and voices of the poetry can only point. It...

(The entire section is 5094 words.)

Further Reading


Hillers, Delbert R. Introduction to Lamentations: A New Translation, pp. xv-xli. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1972.

Offers a comprehensive overview of the Book of Lamentations, including a discussion of its origins and structure.

O'Connor, Kathleen M. “Lamentations” in The Women's Bible Commentary, edited by Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe, pp.178-82. Lousiville: Ky., John Knox Press, 1992.

Examines the role of women in the Book of Lamentations.

Salters, R. B. “The Poetry of Lamentations,” in “Jonah” and “Lamentations” pp. 84-91. Sheffield: England,...

(The entire section is 90 words.)