The book of Lamentations plunges straight into its theme with a heart-wrenching presentation of the catastrophe which engulfed the city of Jerusalem in the early sixth century b.c. when it fell to the Babylonians after a prolonged siege. Once it had been ransacked, its major buildings burned, and its leading citizens deported, those who were allowed to remain had to endure the harsh conditions imposed on the people by their conquerors. The human dimension of the tragedy is emphasised by describing the despoiled city not in political, economic or architectural terms but, using the device of personification, as a widow who, having lost family and possessions, is left destitute and forlorn.
The intricacy of the portrait of Zion’s grief and despair found in this poem displays to the full the artistic skill of the poet who composed it. The presentation is structured by the use of an alphabetic acrostic in which the first word of each verse begins with successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Each verse comprises a stanza, generally of three lines each of which has two parallel cola (but see 1:1, 7). The lines are often in the imbalanced qînâ rhythm (three stressed syllables followed by two in the second shorter half-line), though a balanced 3:3 structure also occurs.
It is possible to detect an overall concentric structure in the stanzas of the poem. Renkema has pointed to the following carefully placed elements which combine to create this effect:
|1:1||full of (rab)||1:22 many (rab)|
|1:2||no one comforting...||1:21 no one comforting .|
|1:4||her priests||1:19 my priests|
|1:5||the Lord... have gone into||1:18 the Lord... have gone into|
|1:7||none to help . the foe||1:16 a comforter is far... the enemy|
|1:8||who honoured her [?]||1:15 my mighty men|
|1:9||Lord||1:14 the Lord|
|1:10||stretched out||1:13 stretched out|
|1:11||see . and observe||1:12 observe and see|
Not all of these verbal echoes are equally convincing (Renkema admits that the correspondence between 1:8 and 1:15 is particularly weak) but, taken together, these indicators validate the conclusion that the poet has deliberately deployed his material in a concentric fashion. In that case, the key theme of the poem is found at its centre (1:11-12), which Renkema terms its ‘kernel’, and whose message he sums up as ‘God, men! Look at our misery.’
However, such a literary structure analysis needs to be supplemented by one derived from thematic considerations, that is, from the content (what is said) rather than the form of the poem (its actual vocabulary and poetic structure). A key feature in thematic analysis of Lamentations is the way in which changes occur in the viewpoint of the poem when different speakers are introduced. In chapter 1, this leads to a basically similar bipartite analysis. In the first part of the poem (1:1-11) the speaker is predominantly the poet who, acting as a narrator, describes the horrendous scene before him, though there are also incorporated two sound bites from Zion in 1: 9c, 11c. In the second part of the poem the personified city of Jerusalem speaks on her own behalf, though again there is a brief change of perspective in 1:17. It should be noted, however, that the two voices do not speak to each other: the narrator addresses an unidentified audience; daughter Zion addresses those who pass by, and later God. Still there is substantial agreement between their viewpoints. Jerusalem is isolated and suffering ongoing hardship, and there is no one comforting her in her adversity (1:2, 9, 16, 17, 21; cf. 1:7).
A general bleakness of tone pervades the poem in that the series of pictures of the grief and desolation affecting the city brings out the dejection of those who have suffered such dreadful loss. Still the switch in the second half of the poem from third person to first person narrative does provide a measure of movement in the presentation. While speaking sympathetically, the narrator conceals his personal reaction and involvement. On the other hand, Zion speaks openly of her anguish and pain. This heightens the emotional impact of what is described and draws the reader further into empathising with the experience of the community.
Although the Lord is addressed in the poem, he does not speak. The city lacks solace from human sources and also from God. He is silent, and it is the absence of any indication from God as to how he now views the community that casts an air of uncertainty over the whole poem. Zion’s distress is compounded by the realisation that she does not know if it is possible to reestablish contact with the God who has imposed his judgement on her. What will happen next? Is there a way out of this misery? No answers are yet revealed.
Why then was the poem written? One possibility is that the intent was cathartic, an attempt to vocalise the anguish of the remaining inhabitants of Jerusalem so as to give vent to their grief, and thus perhaps assuage it. However, the careful structuring of the poem militates against it being read as simply an outpouring of sorrow. The poet is seeking to guide the community away from utter prostration and despair. His initial presentation shows that he is not engaged in blind optimism. He is not denying the horrors and the hardships experienced in the city, but the reality of where they are need not be an end but a beginning. Although he does not attempt to lighten the gloom that dominates the city, yet the very fact that there remains life of a sort amid the ruins is an anticipation of a measure of hope which will be spelled out later (3:22). Solemn though this poem is, it is not yet Zion’s obituary.
Ah, how she sits alone!
The city ⌞which was⌟ full of people,
has become like a widow.
She who was. great among the nations,
a princess among the provinces,
has become a forced labourer.
The structure of the first verse is not immediately evident. In the rest of the poem the dominant pattern is that of a verse/stanza consisting of three lines (bicola). That provides substantial justification for adopting a similar configuration here, and it is in fact found in most English translations which present a stanza consisting of three contrasting situations. However, the Massoretes, the scribes from the first millennium A.D. through whom the Hebrew text has been transmitted, marked the verse as consisting of two tricola (lines of three segments). Though the Massoretes were active much later than the date of composition of Lamentations, their views are not to be lightly dismissed since they stood in the same poetic and cultural tradition as the writer of Lamentations, and they were not innovators but deliberate conservators of the traditional understanding of passages. They evidently did not consider a divergence from the prevailing binary pattern of the chapter a great breach of poetic etiquette; indeed, they might well have viewed it as adornment. On that approach the reversal of the fortunes of the unnamed city is being described in two ways. In the first line it is the change in the size of its population which is emphasised; in the second line it is the change in its political status.
For the interpretative introductions to the verse presented by the Septuagint and the Vulgate, see Introduction: B. Authorship. It is improbable that these additional comments were part of the original text, because it is difficult to see why or how they would have been subsequently omitted.
The word rendered Ah, how! is an exclamation of shock, an incredulous gasp behind which lurks a question: how ever did this change come about? This word often introduces a dirge, a mournful poem composed as a tribute to the dead (cf. 2:1; 4:1; 2 Sam. 1:19; Isa. 1:21, a very similar passage; Jer. 48:17), and so the presentation is characterised by sadness, not criticism or attribution of blame. The situation in view here is not so much the death of the city but the devastating loss which it has suffered. It is characteristic of the poems in Lamentations that they focus on Jerusalem rather than the land of Judah as a whole. At this point, however, the poet has not yet disclosed the identity of the city.
Sits/‘has sat down and so remains sitting’ on the ground was a static posture often adopted by one grieving (cf. 2:10; 3:16; Gen. 23:2; 2 Sam. 12:16; 13:31; Ezek. 26:16; Est. 4:3), but here more is implied in that alone alludes to the phrase, ‘he will sit/dwell alone’, which is used in Lev. 13:46 of the leper. The city is presented as ostracised from the community of nations. It is a scene of passivity and dejection as she remains where she has already collapsed on the ground. Possibly there is also a touch of ironic contrast in that ‘alone’ might also be used to imply security (cf. Deut. 33:28; Jer 49:31). Jerusalem no longer enjoys freedom from aggression, but is desolate and isolated.
The fact that the community in grief is pictured as a woman implies a link between communal reactions to suffering and those of an individual. The personification is not merely a poetic fancy, but a device which links the experience of the community with that of each grief-stricken individual within it. Also, the personification of the city as a mother emphasises the relationship between it and its inhabitants. It is a metropolis, a mother city (cf. ‘her young women’, 1:4; ‘her young children’, 1:5; ‘her people’, 1:7). Such female personification of the city was common throughout the ancient Near East.
Although it is possible to take the phrase full of people/‘great (rab, ‘many’; cf. 1:22) with people’ as indicating ‘a superior among her own people’ that is, an illustrious capital city, 49 (1968): 29-31. there is much to be said for the traditional understanding which identifies the contrast as between the city’s present isolation and her former thronged state. Indeed, she has become like a widow. There are three implications in this comparison which builds on the metaphor of the city as a woman. 5 (1973): 75-81. Though ‘widow’ does not imply absence of family, it is often associated with it. So this metaphor points to the loneliness and misery of one who has lost her husband. Associated with this is the vulnerability of a widow who no longer has a legal protector, but lives precariously, open to exploitation by the unthinking and the unscrupulous (cf. Ps. 94:6; Mal. 3:5). Additionally, the figure of a widow evokes a response of pity, unlike the language of divorce where the underlying accusation of unfaithfulness leads to the attribution of blame (cf. Hos. 2:2).
It is difficult to decide how far the simile ‘like a widow’ should be pressed. The thought may simply be general: the ruined city is defenceless and the population required to rebuild her and effect a recovery no longer exists. But it is at least possible to raise the question: if the city is likened to a widow, who might her husband have been? A case may be made for the analogy being worked out in terms of the king and the leaders of the community as her husband, and they were, of course, now dead, captives or fugitives (cf. 1:6). But the use by Hosea and later by Jeremiah of the breakdown of marriage as an analogy for the deterioration of the relationship between the Lord and his people (cf. Jer. 3:8; Hos. 2:2) makes it probable that here (and later on throughout the poem) it is her relationship with the Lord that underlies the poet’s probing and her own questioning of her status and present condition. Hence the comparison, ‘like a widow’. The Lord is not indeed dead, but the outcome seems no different from what would prevail if he were, because the city no longer enjoys the benefits of a protective and caring relationship with him. This note of uncertainty as to where the city now stands before God recurs throughout the book right up to its concluding verse (5:21).
The second line of 1:1 employs two similarly structured epithets for Jerusalem. The city had formerly enjoyed the status of being great among the nations, a phrase which might well be the Hebrew equivalent of a superlative. This may look back to the days of David and Solomon, or to the resurgence of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah under Jeroboam II and Uzziah respectively. It may even cover the measure of independence Judah enjoyed in the century before her fall, when surrounding nations acknowledged that Judah played a key role in the affairs of the region (for example, it was in Jerusalem that ambassadors of other nations gathered for the conference recorded in Jer. 27). As the capital of the kingdom, Jerusalem enjoyed prestige and respect from the smaller nations around her.
The term princess does convey the idea of exercising authority, and therefore the provinces will not be those of the Assyrian or Babylonian empire but areas of Judah controlled from the capital. There were also other territories which had come under the sway of Jerusalem for longer or shorter periods and, when it functioned as an administrative centre, wealth and resources flowed into the capital.
But that has all gone. Jerusalem’s fortunes have been reversed and the city is a forced labourer. The capital, like other conquered territories, is compelled to pay tribute and provide compulsory labour for her conquerors. The city has moved from royal status to slavery.
Bitterly she weeps in the night,
and her tear is on her cheek.
She has no one comforting her
among all her lovers.
All her friends have dealt treacherously with her;
they have become her enemies.