Notes on the Bible, by Albert Barnes, , at sacred-texts.com
Introduction to Lamentations
The prophecy of Jeremiah is immediately followed in the English Version by five lyric poems, the title of which in the versions is taken from the general nature of the contents; thus the Septuagint called these poems Θρῆνοι Thrēnoi, Threni, i. e. Dirges, and the Syriac and Vulgate "Lamentations." In the Hebrew Bible the "Lamentations" are arranged among the Kethubim, or (holy) writings, because of the nature of their contents: the Lamentations as being lyrical poetry are classed not with prophecies, but with the Psalms and Proverbs. This classification is probably later than the translation of the Septuagint, who have appended the Lamentations to Jeremiah's prophecy, inserting between them the apocryphal book of Baruch, and in fact counting the three as only one book. Although no name is attached to these poems in the Hebrew, yet both ancient tradition (Septuagint, Josephus, the Targum of Jonathan, the Talmud, etc.) and internal evidence point to Jeremiah as the author. The time of the composition of these poems is certainly the period immediately after the capture of Jerusalem, and probably during the month which intervened between the capture of Jerusalem and its destruction.
Their subject is the destruction of Jerusalem by the Chaldaeans. In the "first" of these poems the prophet dwells upon the miseries of hunger, of death in battle, of the profanation and plundering of the sanctuary, and of impending exile, oppressed by which the city sits solitary. In the "second," these same sufferings are described with more intense force, and in closer connection with the national sins which had caused them, and which had been aggravated by the faithlessness of the prophets. In the "third," Jeremiah acknowledges that chastisement is for the believer's good, and he dwells more upon the spiritual aspect of sorrow, and the certainty that finally there must be the redeeming of life for God's people, and vengeance for His enemies. In the "fourth," Judah's sorrows are confessed to have been caused by her sins. Finally, in the "fifth," Jeremiah prays that Zion's reproach may be taken away, and that Yahweh will grant repentance unto His people, and renew their days as of old.
The structure of the first four poems is highly artificial. They are arranged in 22 portions, according to the number of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet; but in the first three poems each portion is again subdivided into three double clauses, the third differing from the first and second in that each also of these divisions begins with the same letter. In Lam. 4, again we have 22 verses beginning with the letters of the alphabet in order, but each verse is divided into only two portions. In Lam. 5, though there are again 22 verses, the alphabetical initials are discontinued. Hence, some have thought that this prayer was added by the prophet to his Lamentations when he was in Egypt at a somewhat later time.
The Book of Lamentations has always been much used in liturgical services as giving the spiritual aspect of sorrow. It is recited in the Jewish synagogues on the ninth of Ab, the day on which the temple was destroyed. In the Church of England the whole of Lam. 3, and portions of Lam. 1; Lam. 2; Lam. 4 are read on the Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday in holy week. For this choice two chief reasons may be given; the first, that in the wasted city and homeless wanderings of the chosen people we see an image of the desolation and ruin of the soul cast away - because of sin - from God's presence into the outer darkness; the second and chief, because the mournful words of the prophet, set Him before us who has borne the chastisement due to human sin, and of whom we think instinctively as we pronounce the words of Lam 1:12.