The Agora
The Lamentations of Jeremiah

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The Structure of the Book

Each chapter is divided into 22 stanzas (verses), except chapter 3, which has 66 (3 X 22). Chapters 1 through 4 are alphabetic acrostics, with one stanza (in chapter 3, three stanzas) for each letter of the 22-character Hebrew alphabet. In chapter 1 the letters are in order. In chapters 2 through 4 they are in order with the exception of two letters: the sixteenth and the seventeenth characters ("ayin" and "pe") are transposed.

These transpositions have long puzzled scholars; some have invented ingenious exegetical "reasons" for the reversals. However, recent archaeological finds in Israel and the Sinai confirm a previously unproven scribal tradition in which "pe" -- "ayin" was the correct order. It now appears that this local Israelite variation in letter order was often used during the period when the Book of Lamentations was written.

Chapter 5 is not an acrostic, but it does contain 22 lines (rather than stanzas), probably corresponding to the 22 Hebrew letters. It is possible that this less rigid structure represents the deepened intensity of grief; perhaps Jeremiah was so grieved as he wrote that he did not tarry to keep the same "literary" form he had previously followed.

In chapters 1 through 3 each stanza contains three lines, with the exceptions of 1:7 and 2:19, which contain four lines. Chapter 4 contains 2-line stanzas. In chapter 3 all three lines of each stanza begin with the same letter and each line carries a verse number, comparable to Psalm 119 -- an eightfold acrostic.

The acrostic is common among the Old Testament writings. One purpose was that it was very helpful to memory. The acrostic style also denotes completeness of thought -- in that each letter of the alphabet suggests its own thought, all with the same basic message. This aid of the acrostic is of course lost to us in translation (although at least one translator has attempted the acrostic form in English).

Other acrostics are found in Psalms 9-10 (together), 25, 34, 37, 111, 112 and 145, and Pro 31:10-31. The prophet Nahum opens his book with a partial acrostic.

A significant feature of the Hebrew poetry is the constant repetition of similar thoughts, with only slight variations in meaning between one phrase and the next:

"He will visit thine iniquity: He will discover thy sins..."
"The elders have ceased from the gate, the young men from their music..."
Such phrases as these contribute wonderfully to the beauty of Jewish poetry, and they show how well adapted it is to be translated into other languages -- where it still maintains its depth and richness of expression. Of course, one must never forget that this is not just literature or prose or poetry, but also and especially the expression of the mind and purpose of Almighty God.

It has already been stated that the original word for "lamentations" refers to a dirge. Chapters 1, 2 and 4 are elegies or dirges. In the Hebrew form of poetry, a dirge or lament is usually concluded with a prayer. We find a prayer at the end of chapters 1 and 2, and a statement at the close of chapter 4 which resembles the prayer of chapter 1. Rather than include a prayer at the close of chapter 4, it is possible the prophet, caught in the sorrow and woe of the picture of afflicted Zion, concludes not just the one elegy but the entire book with a prayer (the whole of chapter 5). This would be appropriate, for the book as a whole is an elegy.

Additional Notes on the Structure

The Book of Lamentations has occupied a prominent place in the study of Hebrew meter, because of its acrostic form in the first four chapters. Its meter, however, seems to set it apart from other forms and varieties of Hebrew verse -- it is easily distinguished from other Hebrew verse. This uniqueness stresses our conviction as to the divinity behind the authorship: it is not, as some modern critics allege, just Hebrew poetry.

A few comments on the parallelism found in this book should be given at this time. A brief mention was given earlier; here is another example:

"Our land is turned over to strangers;
Our houses, to foreigners" (5:2).
Of the 266 lines in the book, 162 exhibit parallelism. Of more significance is the fact that chapter 5 reflects this characteristic in 19 of the 22 lines; and two of these lines that do not in themselves reflect this, are parallel to each other -- 5:9 and 5:10. This represents either 86% or 95 % usage of this form in chapter 5. In chapters 1 through 4, this usage is found in 59% of the lines. Since Jeremiah did not use the acrostic form in chapter 5 perhaps he chose parallelism to emphasise his points.

Another interesting point involved the usage of the pattern phrases "daughter" (Hebrew "bat") or "virgin daughter" ("betulat bat"). These phrases occur 20 times, remarkable in that they only occur 45 times in all the other portions of the Hebrew Scriptures (and perhaps even more significant, 16 of the 45 additional occurrences are found in Jeremiah). The phrase "bat ammi" (literally, daughter of my people) occurs eight times in Jeremiah -- the only other instances outside of Lamentations, with one exception (Isa 22:4).

Lamentations uses "daughter of Zion" seven times; "virgin daughter of Zion" once; "daughter of my people" five times; "daughter of Judah" twice; "virgin daughter of Judah" once (these last two are found nowhere else in Scripture); "daughter of Jerusalem" twice; and "daughter of Edom" once. These occurrences make explicit the personification of the people or city as a woman, a figure used so often by God of His people.

"Daughter(s)" -- "bat" or "banot" -- may also signify satellite settlements of a major urban center, like Jerusalem. Psa 9:14 refers to the "gates" of the daughter ("bat") of Zion, clearly indicating a town of some sort (see also Psa 48:11; 97:8; Isa 10:32; and Josh 15:45, 47 -- where the same word occurs). These "banot" were dependent commercially, politically and socially on the "mother" city -- a concept echoed in Gal 4:26 and Rev 17:5 to cite two diametrically opposite examples.

All of these points on the structure, rather than detracting from the divinity of the book, seem to strengthen it. God chose to use a form which could be easily remembered; and Jeremiah was the man of God to write this book for Him. The fact that poetry rather than prose was chosen adds to the thought that this book was written for all (including the children!) to be able to memorize. Verse is easier to memorize than prose, and easier still when the sequence of lines follows a set pattern. God wanted this book, with its principles and memories and horrors and hopes, to be remembered.

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