It is no uncommon thought now, as of old, to assume that the book on which we are now entering consists of the Lamentations written by the prophet on the occasion of Josiah's death. (2Ch_35:25.) If a divine testimony affirmed this, it would be our place to believe it: to that no one pretends, still there is the secret assumption that what Jeremiah composed in sorrow for Josiah must be in the Bible, and hence must be this book. But there is no sufficient reason to conclude that all the writings of prophets were inspired for the permanent use of God's people: rather is there good ground to conclude that they were not. Hence we are free to examine the character of the work before us, not to question its divine authority but to ascertain as far as may be its aim and the subjects of which it treats. But, if so, the contents themselves are adverse to the idea; for the distressing prostration of Jerusalem, not the death of the pious king cut down so young, is clearly in view. The description of the state of the city, sanctuary, and people does not accord with Josiah's death; and even the king, whose humiliation is named (Lam_2:9), could not possibly be Josiah, who was slain in battle, instead of being among the Gentiles and therefore in captivity. It was no doubt Jehoiachin whose varied lot we can easily trace by comparing the prophecy and 2 Kings 24, 25. All the circumstances of that time tally with the bewailings here.
That the Spirit of prophecy dictated the book cannot be justly doubted, though it may not have direct predictions like the former work from which in the Hebrew Bible it has long been severed as to place, though not so in the days of Josephus. Nevertheless the distinctness of object, tone, and manner is sufficiently marked to justify our viewing it as a separate work of the same writer, Jeremiah. It was morally good that we should have not only predictions of the deep trouble coming on the house of David and Jerusalem, but also the outpouring of a godly heart broken by anguish for the people of God, and the more because they deserved all that fell upon them through their enemies at God's hand. We little think what such an one as Jeremiah must have felt to see the temple destroyed, the holy service suspended, the king and priests and bulk of Judah carried off by their idolatrous conqueror, compelled to own also that their desolation was most righteous because of their sins. Even when he had survived the events which proved the value of his own slighted prophecies, he was inspired to pour forth these elegies which were no vain complaints as we shall see, but a spreading out of the woes of the city and people before a God whose compassion and faithfulness are alike infinite. He vindicates God in what He had done to unhappy Jerusalem. He places before God the utter ruin of the people, civilly and religiously, charging the false prophets with luring them into the pit by their falsehood and flattery, but exhorting the people to repentance. He shows his own sense of sorrow deeper than that of any other, as indeed he both suffered peculiarly from the Jews themselves before the crash came, and the Spirit of Christ that was in him gave him to realize all, where others nerved themselves to brave it with the mailed armour of insensibility and indomitable pride; yet does he cherish hope in what God is, who loves to lift up the fallen and abase the proud. He contrasts their present misery, because of the sins of their priests and prophets, with their former prosperity, but declares that an end will be to Zion's punishment, but none to Edom's. Lastly, he prayerfully spreads out all their own calamities before Jehovah; his only confidence too is in Him who can turn us to Himself, whatever may be His just wrath.
The form is very notable; save in the last chapter, all are acrostic or at least alphabetic. De Wette, with the usual arrogance of a rationalist, pronounces this of itself as an offspring of the later vitiated taste. But this he must do in defiance of the plain fact that those admirable and even early Psalms 25, 34, 37 are similarly constructed, not to speak of the wonderful Psalm 119 and several others in the same fifth book of the Psalter (111, 112, 145.). Those who pronounce these psalms cold, feeble, and flat, as well as unconnected, simply betray their own lack of all just appreciation, not to speak of reverence which we may not expect from men who deny them in any true sense to be of God. The first, second, and fourth chapters are so written that each verse begins with one of the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet in due succession, save that in the second and fourth cadhe follows instead of preceding Pe; and the same transposition occurs in Lam. 3, where we have three verses instead of single ones, which so commence; and hence there are in it 66 verses. Another peculiarity is to be noticed, that each verse (except Lam_1:7, Lam_2:19) is a sort of triplet in chapters 1, 2, 3. Lam. 4 is characterized by couplets (save ver. 15); and a singular structure is traceable in Lam. 5, save that it does not begin with the letters of the alphabet, though it consists of twenty-two verses. "Difference of authorship" is the ready but monotonous cry of dark scepticism: others as despairing of intelligence impute it to forgetfulness, a third to accident! The propriety of the change in what throughout is a prayer and confession to Jehovah must be apparent to the spiritual mind. The alphabetic form may have had a mnemonic object in view. For pathos the book as a whole is unequalled.