Study Guide

Lamentations

Lamentations Introduction

Why?

That one simple question pretty much sums up the entire Book of Lamentations. Whew! That was easy. Looks like Shmoop's work is done here. We're gonna go grab a Caramel Macchiato.

Okay, okay. We know we're not off the hook yet. But honestly, "why?" is a pretty good way of describing Lamentations. This book of the Bible is a series of poems all about the destruction of Jerusalem. Around 587 BCE, the Babylonian Empire rolls into Judah, burns the capital city to ground, destroys Solomon's Temple, and exiles about a quarter of the city's population. This was a traumatic event on a national scale, right up there with slavery in Egypt.

After all this goes down, the Jewish people are left to pick up the pieces and wonder "why?" Why did this happen to them? Why wasn't God on their on their side? Why would he allow a bunch of other-god-worshipping foreigners to invade his holy city? And, why, oh, why did he make Babylon so far away from Jerusalem? Seriously, it was a long walk into exile. The people's Birkenstocks were starting to give them blisters.

The author of Lamentations doesn't have an easy job. He needs to answer this question so the people can move forward and start their lives again. The author decides that it's not the Babylonians or God who's to blame for this terrible destruction—it's the Jewish people themselves. They sinned and disobeyed God, so the Almighty was totally okay to sit back and watch as their homes were burnt to the ground. He'd warned them in Deuteronomy what to expect when you don't pay attention to God's commandments.

Blaming the victim might not have been the most politically correct thing to do, but it worked. The Jewish people were able to regroup from this crisis and come out strong and thriving. And after about 50 years in exile, the Persian Empire came along and crushed the Babylonians to bits. The Jews returned to Jerusalem to rebuild the city and the Temple and nothing bad ever happened to God's chosen people ever again.

As if.

Lamentations is an age-old book that tries to answer age-old questions—why do bad things happen? How do you cope with tragedy? How can you express your suffering to God and to other people? So, why not check it out and see if you agree with the answers.

What is Lamentations About and Why Should I Care?

There's suffering (homework, no cell reception, strict parents, breakups) and there's suffering (invasion, mass destruction, death by starvation, exile). Some suffering is avoidable and some isn't. No matter. Everyone suffers at some time or another. We're all inconsolable at times about tragedies great and small.

The question is what can you do about it? Lamentations offers some helpful suggestions.

The first is: Lament. And keep lamenting. Sometimes, it just feels good to get those feelings out. Seriously, how many times have you watched the first 10 minutes of Up and cried like a baby? We rest our case.

So start with the tears, or binge-watching sad movies, or sackcloth and ashes—whatever works. Second suggestion: once you've cried it out, use your suffering as an opportunity for reflection. Think about what got you to this place. Why did it happen? Was it something you did? Was it absolutely necessary to flirt with your best friend's crush and totally lose her trust? Did you have to cheat on that exam and get thrown off the team?

If you've cried and reflected, and decided you brought all this bad stuff on yourself (like the poet believes Jerusalem did) Lamentations strongly recommends reconciliation. Ask that friend or teacher for forgiveness. Beg for a second chance. Let them see how bad you feel about what you did and convince them it won't happen again. Accept the fact that you may have permanently ruined the relationship. Lament some more about that.

If you're suffering for no fault of your own, Lamentations still has something good to offer: the possibility of change. Things will get better even if it sure doesn't seem that way at the moment. Think about how things were better before your tragedy and have confidence that they can be that way again. Corny? Kind of. But it can help put things in perspective.

Finally, you can talk about your suffering because we suffer together. The last chapter of Lamentations is a communal prayer to end suffering. Why do we publicly commemorate suffering like 9/11 or the Holocaust? Instead of forgetting about the bad times, we hold onto them to remind ourselves why they happened and how far we've come. The ancient Jews who watched Jerusalem burn had just experienced a national tragedy and they dealt with it the only way they could. They cried together, they told stories, they tried to understand, and they didn't forget. Sounds to us like a pretty good blueprint for coping. Some things never get old.

Lamentations Resources

Movie or TV Productions

Slaves of Babylon
This 1953 movie is actually mostly about what happened after the Jews were allowed to head back to Jerusalem after the fall of Babylon in 539 BCE (for full details see the Book of Daniel). Lots of princes and princesses in this one.

Historical Documents

The Book of Lamentations
The full text of Lamentations in all its New Revised translation glory. Read it and weep. Literally.

Video

Smart Folks Talk Lamentations
A good breakdown of what's up with Lamentations from an Introduction to the Hebrew Bible course at Yale. You'll feel smarter after only a few minutes.

A Giant Mess-o-potamia
Want to know a little more about Babylon and the other empires of the time? John Green explains the Fertile Crescent in just a few short minutes.

Audio

5,000 Years of Jewish History (One Video at a Time)
A short video about the history of the Jews during the Babylonian exile. Don't worry. It ends well for our biblical friends.

"The Lamentations of Jeremiah the Prophet" by Thomas Tallis
Music to weep by. The composer sets the first chapter of Lamentations to music and (as you might have guessed) it'll really tug at your heart strings.

"The Ways of Zion Do Mourn" by George Frideric Handel
This funeral anthem for Queen Caroline of England quotes pretty heavily from Lamentations including the title, "The ways of Zion do mourn and she is in bitterness" (1:4). Lamentations is definitely funeral material.

"All You Who Pass This Way"
This English hymn gets its title from Lamentations 1:12—"All you who pass by? Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow."

Images

Temple Run
What Solomon's Temple might have looked like pre-destruction.

Judah and Friends
A map of Israel showing the divided kingdoms. By the time the Babylonians came along, the Northern Kingdom had gone bye-bye.

Are We There Yet?
Seriously, how many more miles?

It's All Greek to Us
What a page from Lamentations looked like around 350 CE.

The Prophet Jeremiah
Man, watching Jerusalem get burnt to a crisp has really got me down. My therapist suggested I do some journaling. Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem by Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn. 1630. Public domain.

Jerusalem Is Burning
Quick! Call the fire department. What? We don't have a fire department. Oh, drat. "Destruction of Jerusalem Under Babylonian Rule" from The Nuremberg Chronicle. 1493. Public domain.

Forced Out, Now that's what we call burning.
The Flight of the Prisoners by James Tissot. 1896-1902. Public domain.

No Rest for the Weary
This exile thing's a drag. The Mourning Jews in Exile by Eduard Bendemann. 1832. Public domain.

On the Road to Babylon
Just because we're exiled doesn't mean I can't look fabulous. By the Waters of Babylon by Arthur Hacker. 1888. Public domain.

Exile Is Awful
All this weeping is really giving me a headache. By the Rivers of Babylon by Gebhard Fugel. 1920. Public domain.

Meanwhile, Back in Jerusalem
Exile is tough, but things aren't so great here in the city either. Lamentations of Jeremiah by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld. 1851-1860. Public domain.