Jerusalem, Or What's Left of It, Circa 587 BCE
The Book of Lamentations is pretty easy to nail down to a time and place. It's obviously about the destruction of a city—Jerusalem—and we know from the historical records that existed at the time that Jerusalem had been leveled by the Neo-Babylonian Empire in 587 BCE.
So, that means that Lamentations was probably written in the months and years that followed the fall of Jerusalem. The wounds of that destruction are pretty fresh and the people—both those who are still in Judah and those who have been exiled to Babylon—are really suffering. But if we want to dig a little deeper into their pain, we've got to understand exactly what happened in the years leading up to the day that Jerusalem was reduced to a pile of rubble. Into the Wayback Machine!
Jewish History 101
Back in the day, the Kingdom of Judah was an independent state governed by Jewish kings who came straight from the line of King David himself. They were way kosher. Of course, Judah was just a tiny little nation in a great big region where lots of major players were duking it out to see who could grab the most land and (therefore) the most power. It was a little fish in a really big and violent pond. Its land was smack in the middle of important trade routes to and from Egypt, so everyone wanted to get their hands on it.
During this time, the big empires causing trouble in the area were the Babylonians and the Egyptians. In 605 BCE, the Babylonians won a major victory when they took down the Egyptians and seized control of a whole bunch of areas in the region, including the Kingdom of Judah. Because of that, the King of Judah, Jehoiakim, was required to pay tribute money (sort of like taxes) to the hilariously named king of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar II. To the victor go the spoils.
So, King Jehoiakim decided that handing over some lunch money every once in a while was a small price to pay for not being leveled by the new bully in town. But in 601 BCE, when the Babylonians lost a huge battle to the Egyptians, King Jehoiakim decided to switch sides. Who wants to keep backing a loser?
Judah formed an alliance with the Egyptians, which threatened the Babylonians. In 597 BCE, Nebuchadnezzar punished Judah by invading Jerusalem. He attacked Jerusalem, raided the Temple, and exiled the royal family and other important citizens. The Babylonian Chronicle (an ancient text that recorded all kinds of important events in the history of the Babylonian Empire) tells it like this:
In the seventh year, [Nebuchadnezzar] besieged the city of Judah and on the second day of the month of Addaru he seized the city and captured the king Jehoiachin. He appointed there a king of his own choice Zedekiah, received its heavy tribute and sent to Babylon.
Okay, so things are not great. Babylon is large and in charge in Judah. They've also handpicked a new Jewish king, Zedekiah. But even though King Zedekiah has promised to be faithful to Babylon from now on, there are still major divisions in Judah. Some of the folks left in Jerusalem think that the Jewish people should still side with the Egyptians. Other people (like the Prophet Jeremiah) think that they should just leave well enough alone and put up with the Babylonians for a while. It might be preferable to getting pummeled.
Eventually, King Zedekiah decides that he's gonna side with the Egyptians. Big mistake. This time around, Nebuchadnezzar doesn't play nice at all. He invades Jerusalem again in 587 BCE and burns the whole city and its walls to the ground, utterly destroying the Temple in the process. Seriously, the town was nothing more than a pile of rubble once the Babylonians got done with it.
Afterwards, Nebuchadnezzar forced even more people out of the city. He rounded up all kinds of important citizens, religious leaders, and craftsmen and made them march all the way to Babylon. It was about a quarter of the population. Everyone else was left to starve or thirst to death (it's the desert, after all) in the streets. Most people eventually migrated to other parts of Judah to avoid dying in their former homes (source).
Just Like in Real Life
So, this is where Lamentations comes in. You'll see some passages that line up with the historical version of events. The Poet mentions God raining down his wrath like fire (1:13, 2:3). The city was burnt to a crisp, so this is probably both a literal and figurative image of Jerusalem burning to the ground.
The Poet also criticizes the prophets for leading the people astray (2:14, 4:13). These were probably the guys who advised King Zedekiah that God would help them if they rebelled against the Babylonians. It's was not their finest moment. The Poet also points out the people's foolishness in trusting their "friends" to help them in their hour of need (1:2, 1:19, 2:9, 4:17). Yeah, Egyptians, were you out to lunch when Nebuchadnezzar was torching the city?
There's also a sense that there are two different groups who've been affected by the siege of the city. Some prominent inhabitants have obviously been sent into exile and scattered around (1:3, 1:18, 4:16). But other people are languishing in the city. They're slowly dying of thirst and starvation (1:11, 2:11, 2:21, 4:11). The people who died in the attack on the city are the lucky ones.
It Gets Better
Even though Lamentations doesn't say how the whole thing ends for the Jewish people, we'll go ahead and give you the spoilers. See, the Prophet Jeremiah predicted that the Babylonians would rule over Judah for exactly seventy years:
This whole land shall become a ruin and a waste, and these nations shall serve the king of Babylon seventy years. Then after seventy years are completed, I will punish the king of Babylon and that nation, the land of the Chaldeans, for their iniquity, says the Lord, making the land an everlasting waste. (Jeremiah 25:11-12)
And that's exactly how it goes down. According to the Book of Daniel, the Babylonian reign ends when Babylon is taken down by the up-and-coming Persian Empire in 539 BCE. The Persian king, Cyrus the Great, is, well, pretty great, so he tells all the Jews in Babylon that they can go back to Judah and rebuild the Temple (source).
Construction on the new building starts in 536 BCE, which is pretty darn close to seventy years after the first attack on Jerusalem by Babylon. Jeremiah wasn't messing around.