Although Jeremiah’s name is nowhere attached to the book in Hebrew, the Septuagint titled it “The Lamentations of Jeremiah,” and the Jews and early Church were all but unanimous in attributing it to him. In Hebrew, the name of the book is “How?” or “Alas!”, based on the first word of Lamentations 1:1, 2:1, and 4:1; it also appears in Lamentations 4:2. The word is used fifteen other times in the Old Testament (the shortened form 43 times), often at the beginning of exclamations or lamentation poems and songs.
Without ignoring the Holy Spirit’s inspiration of the text, it is obvious that Jeremiah thought through this series of songs deeply. Unlike the book of Jeremiah, Lamentations is neither prophecy nor historical narrative, although it includes a little of both. Rather it is carefully-constructed poetry. Chapters 1-4 are all acrostics. Built from the Hebrew alphabet of twenty-two letters, chapters 1, 2, and 4 each have twenty-two verses, which begin with successive letters. Chapter three extends this to three verses for each letter, for a total of sixty-six verses. (Although chapter five also has twenty-two verses, it does not follow the Hebrew acrostic pattern.) One cannot possibly think that this was a sporadic result of Jeremiah’s sorrow over Jerusalem.
Lamentations is the work of a thoughtful man of God who meticulously considered every word as he wept over the destruction of his beloved city and Temple. The book is structured as a back-and-forth drama between Jeremiah and a personification of Jerusalem. We can date Lamentations to no earlier than 586 B.C., when Jeremiah personally watched Jerusalem and the Temple fell at Nebuchadnezzar’s hand. On the other hand, there are hints throughout that this had been the condition for some time, so a later date within the captivity is possible.
Chapter one beings with Jeremiah describing the vacant city (Lamentations 1:1-7). It seems that enough time had passed for some of the holy festivals to have been missed (Lamentations 1:4) and the past memories were considered “days of old” (Lamentations 1:7). He was not shy about the reason for their punishment: “Jerusalem committed a terrible sin…she did not consider the consequences of her sin” (Lamentations 1:8-9).
Jerusalem is given a voice in Lamentations 1:11b-16. She wept because of her punishment. God killed her young men and placed her sin fully upon her. Jeremiah responded, acknowledging that none of her enemies felt sorry for Judah (Lamentations 1:17). The city confessed her sin, submitting to God’s punishment for her rebellion, yet she prayed that God would fulfill his promised judgment upon the nations as well, who had also sinned against him (Lamentations 1:18-22).