The five poems of Lamentations are some of the most graphic and evocative passages in the Old Testament, which seem to raise more questions than they answer. Who wrote it? When? Why? Even these are disputed, although it is commonly agreed that the event described is the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem in 586BCE.1 Beyond these are deeper questions: How can such suffering be tolerated? How can a just God allow it? These are the real issues at stake in a book that is not only about the fall of a city, but about the privileges and consequences of a covenantal relationship with YHWH God.
Poems about suffering
In his commentary, Provan asserts, "Perhaps the most immediately noticeable feature of the poems in the book of Lamentations ... is their alphabetic nature."2 However, surely the most immediately noticeable feature is the pain.3 Written as laments,4 they are filled with suffering of every kind: grief, despair, abandonment, guilt, desolation, anger. The descriptions of torment and starvation are horrifyingly vivid, and the need to explain what has happened leaps off the page. Nevertheless,
Provan is correct in the sense that the first step towards understanding these laments is to examine their acrostic composition.
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1. For example, see Delbert R. Hillers, Lamentations: A New Translation with Introduction and
Commentary (New Haven: First Yale University Press, 2009), 9-10; or David M. Carr, An Introduction to the Old Testament: Sacred Texts and Imperial Contexts of the Hebrew Bible (Chichester: Blackwell Publishing, 2010), 171. One notable exception is Iain Provan, who insists that insufficient information exists to form any conclusion. Iain Provan, The New Century Bible Commentary: Lamentations (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 11-15.
2. Provan, Lamentations, 4.
3. Provan's assertion specifically refers to readers of the Hebrew text, but the same point stands.
4. Tremper Longman III and Raymond B Dillard, An Introduction to the Old Testament (Nottingham:
Inter-Varsity Press, 2007), 345.