I have already done a post on the Structure of Lamentations, but as is the case when studying Scripture you will always see something new. Next week I will begin posting on Esther, which is the next book in the Hebrew Scriptures. There are manuscripts that would rather put the order of the five scrolls (Megillot) in the order of the festivals wherein they were read annually. However, the accepted order of the Hebrew Scriptures is not only chiastic but it follows what Delbert Hillers calls a “chronological” order: Ruth, Song of Songs (young Solomon), Ecclesiastes (old Solomon), Lamentations, and Esther. It is the Greek translations (LXX) where we find Lamentations being put next to Jeremiah because the prophet wrote some laments. I have discussed the contrasting relationship of Song of Songs and Lamentations before, but it is worth noting that there are a number of books with depressing lines of thought in the Writings including certain Psalms (especially Psalm 88), Job, Qoheleth (Ecclesiastes), and now Lamentations.
Psalms of lament and the book of Lamentations are designed for liturgical use in worship. Lamentations is specific to the particular situation described and yet it can be applied to any day and time. Thus the appropriate instinct to read Lamentations on the Sunday after the terrorist attacks on 9/11. Lamentations is fitting for worship in times of great distress. Yet, the reason for its placement here in the Writings rather than among the Prophets is that lamentation and confession were necessary, according to the Prophets, before restoration from the Exile. Including this book in the canon of the Writings conveyed this use to the Jewish people and was very helpful for them to know what to do while they waited for the coming salvation. This was the purpose of the book for a time when there were no more prophets and the Hebrew Scriptures came to a close, a time where there was no new special revelation. They were to spend their time confessing and lamenting their sins and waiting for the coming Savior. See also the book of Daniel, also among the Writings in the Hebrew Scriptures, in this regard.
Concerning my observation of the almost pattern in Lamentations 2, a point made in the earlier post on the book, regarding “the daughter of Zion” and the “daughter of Judah” and similar lines it struck me on Sunday evening when I was noting this pattern that the reason it falls apart is likely on purpose. That is, the pattern falls apart because of the chaos of the situation described in Lamentations. A situation I also have noted in the previous post, but here let’s just say that this was the chaos following the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians.
I also neglected to point out in the previous post that Lamentations 3 is largely in the form of an individual lament while Lamentations 1, 2, and 4 are national funeral songs (communal laments). (Lamentations 5 is closer to the pattern of a lament in the Psalms). There is a reason for this, though Lamentations is not prophetic like the Prophets, the instinct is to know that there is an individual Israel (the king pointing to the Christ) and a national Israel.
There has been much written on the fact that Lamentations 1-4 are alphabetic acrostics while Lamentations 5 has the right number of lines for one but is not one. Actually you might consider counting Lamentations 3 as having 3 alphabetic acrostics because each letter of the alphabet is used three times to open a line — aleph, aleph, aleph, beth, beth, beth, etc. If so, then there are six alphabetic acrostics plus Lamentations 5. There have been numerous efforts to find a hidden message in Lamentations 5 whether thought of as the fifth acrostic or the seventh. The thought is that if it is not alphabetic then perhaps it is still an acrostic, although we have no evidence of other such acrostics in Scripture other than alphabetic acrostics. The fact that the order of ‘ayin and pe is reversed in Lamentations 2-4 is thought by some to be a clue. Yet none of the proposals seem to really work — they have to be too creative or even “cheat.” One of the most elaborate efforts tried to spell something using acrostics and telestics (i.e. the first and last letters of some lines). However, it dawns on me that there is a much simpler explanation for the reason that there are six and not seven alphabetic acrostics. That is, I mentioned in the earlier post how alphabetic acrostics convey a sense of order but also that they convey a sense of the totality of grief — even to say the scene is one of complete chaos or a thorough destruction of Jerusalem. However, having six rather than seven alphabetic acrostics conveys the idea that even with how bad things were they were not ”complete” (as the number seven would suggest). That is, there was still a remnant of God’s people after all that horror. Thus the form of the book was designed to point to hope even in the midst of lamentation and confession.
I should also spell out more clearly than I did before how the book follows the qinah meter pattern. The Hebrew lines for Lamentations 1 and 2 are long. Lamentations 3 has three short lines per letter. Lamentations 4 and 5 are short lines. Thus if you add up the three short lines per letter for Lamentations 3 you get the following pattern: long (ch.1), long (ch.2), long (ch.3), short (ch.4), short (ch.5). This resembles a lament in sound. Usually when people speak of qinah meter they are talking about a verse of a lament following this pattern in Hebrew, but for Lamentations the whole book mimics this pattern.
Let me end with this thought toward the book’s application through Christ: Lamentations are the expressions of a faithful Israelite whose dancing has been turned into mourning (Lam 5:15). They are a pattern of prayer for us too in Christ whenever we have some such experience. Yet we know that eventually our mourning will be turned into dancing because of the work of Jesus Christ on the cross followed by the resurrection.