BEFORE SAYING SOMETHING ABOUT Lamentations 1, I should offer a few observations on the book as a whole.
(1) In Hebrew, the first word of the book means “Oh, how [deserted is the city],” and this first word becomes the title in the Hebrew Bible. Later Jewish writers referred to the book either by this word or by another Hebrew word that means “lamentations.”
(2) Early Greek and Latin translations of this short book assign it to Jeremiah the prophet. This is entirely possible, but strictly speaking, the work is anonymous.
(3) Lamentations is made up of five poems, five dirges, each occupying one chapter. The first four are acrostics: i.e., the twenty-two consonants of the Hebrew alphabet introduce, respectively, each of the twenty-two stanzas in each poem (though there are slight irregularities in chapters 2, 3, and 4). In the first three poems, each stanza is normally made up of three lines in some kind of parallelism (with two exceptional four-line stanzas, Lam. 1:7; 2:19). In the third poem, each line of each stanza begins with the same Hebrew consonant that introduces that dirge. The fourth poem has only two lines for each stanza. Though it is poetry, the fifth lament is not an acrostic, but consists of twenty-two lines that resemble some psalms of corporate lament (e.g., Pss. 44, 80).
(4) No linear flow of thought sweeps through each chapter or through the entire book. Certain themes keep reappearing, of course, but by and large the book is impressionistic, full of powerful images that reinforce a small number of burning truths.
If Job deals with the calamity that befell a righteous man, and thus with the problem of innocent suffering, Lamentations deals with the calamity that befell a guilty nation. Those who sow the wind will reap the whirlwind. While honestly and powerfully portraying the suffering of the nation, these poems vindicate God: God, not human beings, is in control of history, and God will not be mocked. Justice ultimately will prevail in the drama of history, because God is just.
Two final challenges. (a) Read through this first chapter and identify each of the powerful images the writer casts up, asking what it contributes to the chapter and how it is related to other biblical passages (if at all). For instance, verse 10 calls to mind that only the high priest could enter the Holy Place—and now raw pagans not only have entered but have ravaged the temple. Theologically, this is tied to the fact that the glory of God abandoned the temple (cf. Ezek. 8-11), demonstrating, among other things, that the presence of God is more to be sought than the building. (b) What is godly about Lamentations 1:21-22?