What is the matter?
Many Christians assume that the prophet Jeremiah wrote the book of Lamentations in the Hebrew Bible. But Hebrew Bible scholars came up with some ideas that significantly challenge such an assumption. Why have people been assuming that Jeremiah is the author of the book of Lamentations? And what is the evidence that Jeremiah is not the author of that book?
Jeremiah had prophesied from the time of Josiah to that of Zedekiah, the last king of Judah (627~587 BCE). He proclaimed that the sins of Judah were so serious that they could never be able to avoid God’s judgment, and it is the irreversible course of history that God had already determined. He cried out that the people of Judah must obey and serve the governance of Babylon as he believed that Judah would not be able to resist this destiny by any means, neither by clever diplomatic actions nor by relying on the power of other countries.
About the relationship between Lamentations and Jeremiah
The book of Lamentations, in Korean, is called “Ae-ga” which means “sad songs.” (It is much more often called “Jeremiah’s sad songs.”) The book is composed of five chapters. According to the categories of the book of Psalms, Lamentations might be recognized as a “dirge” for a city or nation (Pss 44, 74, 77, 80, 89).
The five lament poems in Lamentations, of course, have the tragic history of the Babylonian destruction of Judah as their background. Since Jeremiah had prophesied in the last phase of Judah’s history, Lamentations is historically very close to Jeremiah, and it also relates to the emotions of Jeremiah, who had to claim the fall of Jerusalem.
Many ancient translations place the book right after the book of Jeremiah. In 2 Chr 35:25, we find the following: “Jeremiah also uttered a lament for Josiah” For these reasons, Christians have assumed that Lamentations is a book written by the prophet Jeremiah.
About the differences between Lamentations and Jeremiah
But some evidence seriously challenges the assumption that Jeremiah wrote the book of Lamentations. (1) First of all, the lamentation that Jeremiah is said to have uttered is for Josiah, not the last king Zedekiah. The contents of the book of Lamentations is also far from the “lament for Josiah.” (2) The book of Lamentations describes the Davidic kings as victims of violence, but Jeremiah considers them as one of the major causes of the fall of Judah (Jer 22:1-5). That is to say, the books differ in their theological perspective about the causes of suffering. (3) The Lamentation indicates that “we were watching eagerly for a nation,” which might help Judah from the power of Babylon, Jeremiah, on the other hand, advised “do not listen to them [other nations]” but rather “serve the king of Babylon and live.” (Lam 4:17 vs. Jer 27:17). And unlike many ancient translations of the Bible, the Jewish tradition places Lamentations in the Writings instead of putting it right after Jeremiah. Moreover, there appear multiple speaking subjects in Lamentations. And the name Jeremiah never even occurs in the book of Lamentations.
I don’t think who wrote the Lamentation really matters. But what matters is this attitude that Jeremiah must be the author of Lamentations as it has been assumed no matter what evidence we have. In order to grow as mature Christians, one must be aware that such an attitude is not faith but obstinacy.
What eventually matters is its meaning. So what does it mean? Let me introduce Richard J. Clifford’s words to you:
“Lamentations allows us to remain with grief and tragedy long enough to mourn beauty and goodness as they deserve. If we do not mourn adequately, we may assume that nothing too precious was lost. We remain with God, even if events seemingly destroyed God’s promises and, in the case of Lamentations, God’s presence with us in the Temple. If our sorrow extends beyond the limits of our reasoning, then we plunge into a moment of time not for arguing theology but for allowing emotions to rush forward. Lamentations gushes from the dark, subterranean wellsprings of faith and sears the highest heavens in an outcry of anguish.” (Catholic Study Bible)
Lamentations is a book that shows us, when humans cannot but release their negative emotions without any filter, God still is with them in silence without pointing out their limitations.