That is the first thing I learned. Lamentations is not one book that we have divided into five chapters. It is five separate psalms of lament. Once we figured that out we decided to study each one separately rather than go seamlessly from one to the other and perhaps have to stop in the middle of one if class time ran out and lose the train of thought.
Another thing we learned: each lament is an acrostic poem. The patterns are not always the same, but the use of the Hebrew alphabet is prominent in them all. In numbers one and two, each stanza has three lines and the first word of each stanza begins with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet, all 22 in order, making 22 verses in our English Bibles. Number three is a bit more complex. Each stanza has three lines and each line within the stanza begins with the same letter that is next in the Hebrew alphabet, making a total of 66 verses in our English Bibles. Number four follows the pattern of numbers one and two except each stanza has only two lines instead of three. Then you reach number five, which is not an acrostic in the strictest sense, but which still has 22 stanzas in a nod to the Hebrew alphabet.
English poets are prone to look down their noses at acrostic poems as contrived and uncreative. They served a real purpose in their time. Those people did not have Bibles lying on their coffee tables. They were used to listening and memorizing. Knowing what letter the next stanza began with was a useful tool in that memorization.
Acrostics also had literary symbolism. Using every letter of the alphabet meant a full expression of the emotion under discussion, in this case, grief. After all this expressiveness, from A to Z we might say, nothing remains to be said. And a study of these five poems will show you that is so.
Number one is a poem of overwhelming sadness. After we went through the verses and the figures of speech, the repeated words and synonyms and the nuances of expression, I read the poem aloud to the class. They began reading along with me, but one young woman suddenly sat back, closed her eyes a second, then opened them and listened even more intently. This poem will cut you to the heart. You will want to weep out loud with this conquered people.
Number two will shake you to the core. Anger, fury, indignation, and other synonyms for the wrath of God appear several times both as nouns and verbals. Enemy, foe, swallowed up, without pity, without mercy leave no question that what has happened is the doing of an angry God.
Number three dwells on punishment, the reason for all this devastation and ruin, but suddenly turns close to the middle to remind the people that God is faithful. A good God still punishes sin. He would not be good if He did not.
Number four brings home the consequences of breaking the Covenant. Drawing heavily from Deuteronomy 28, the writer shows them item by item that God had warned them that this would happen, that making a covenant with the Creator involves the personal and corporate responsibility that the people had sworn to so many centuries before.
Number five rounds out the collection. Finally a humbled people feels remorse and repents. They beg God for restoration and renewal, and the writer leaves it with a Hebrew idiom that seems to indicate that God's response will be positive. After so much pain and terror, there is finally real hope.
Do you see how the writer covers all the bases with these psalms? Not only in the acrostics within the poems, but also by changing his focus from one psalm to the other, he has shown every possible emotion the people were feeling after the Babylonians destroyed their nation.
And that means we can use these words in our own struggles too. We will all have trials in our lives, but most of us will never experience what these people did. Surely if their grief can find expression and relief in these words, ours can too. I plan to cover a few of those lessons in the future. I hope you will study along with me.
All her people groan as they search for bread; they trade their treasures for food to revive their strength. “Look, O LORD, and see, for I am despised.” “Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by? Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow, which was brought upon me, which the LORD inflicted on the day of his fierce anger. (Lam 1:11-12)