Sefer Eichah – the Book of Lamentations – is the sixth book in the Ketuvim (Writings) section of the Tanach.
Sefer Eichah was composed by the prophet Jeremiah. The text mourns the destruction of Jerusalem and the Beit HaMikdash by the Babylonians.
In Jewish liturgy, Sefer Eichah is traditionally recited on Tisha B’av which in part is a day of remembrance for the destruction of both the First and Second Beit HaMikdash.
The text is named after the first word of the sefer – Eichah meaning “alas” – which begins a formula for the commencement of wailing. The Septuagint adopted the name “Lamentations” to denote the fact that the character of the book is one of the prophet’s mourning.1
Sefer Eichah consists of five separate poems.2
1. Miseries suffered by Jerusalem (Chapter 1)
2. Miseries ane national sins (Chapter 2)
3. Chastisement is good (Chapter 3)
4. Lamenting the ruins and desolation (Chapter 4)
5. Sins forgiven through repentance (Chapter 5)
Miseries suffered by Jerusalem
Jeremiah recalls the events that led to the destruction of Jerusalem. First was the exile of the ten northern tribes by Assyria. Next was the Babylonian exile of many Jews from Judea. Lastly there was the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash by the Babylonians.
The people are prevented from coming to Jerusalem for the thrice-yearly Pilgrimage Festivals. This was a punishment for the lax attitude of the people who did not come on the pilgrimages as commanded by God.
Jerusalem’s adversaries were now her masters. Jerusalem lost her splendor and recalls all her treasures of her former days. Her adversaries now gloat over her and hold her in contempt.
The Beit HaMikdash is destroyed and there is a great amount of death and destruction. Israel confesses of her sins upon seeing the destruction but she must still pay for her sins by going into exile.
Miseries and national sins
God brought Israel up on high only to toss her down to the depths of her own sins. The glory and sovereignty of Israel has been cut off and God has refused to defend His children.
God acted like the enemy – devouring Israel. He has abandoned His altar and His sanctuary. The people did not live by Torah so they no longer had guidance.
There was utter death and destruction to the people and to Zion. Children died in their mothers’ arms and maidens mourned. All the enemies who pass by Zion shake their heads and hiss at her.
God did as He planned by carrying out His decrees which He had ordained. If only the Children of Israel would pour out their prayers and raise their voices in the study of Torah a fortuitous time would come upon them.
God let lose the enemies of Israel and caused death and destruction to fall upon His people. None survived the wrath of God and the enemies who destroyed Zion.
Chastisement is good
Jeremiah laments that of all the prophets who warned of a coming destruction, he was the only one to actually witness the destruction. Jeremiah was surrounded by his enemies and the gates of heaven were closed to Jeremiah’s prayers.
Jeremiah is tortured by his enemies who continuously mock him. He has forgotten what goodness is due to the afflictions that were brought upon him by his enemies.
However, Jeremiah does express hope for the future. He declares that God’s kindness will never be completely removed therefore Jeremiah places his hope and trust only in God.
Jeremiah declares that one should contemplate upon one’s sins and punishment. By doing this the people will come to understand that God first brings grief but will then show mercy. He calls for the people to return to God and confess of their sins.
Jeremiah cries out for the destruction of Zion and the death and exile of his people. Jeremiah calls to God to not close His ears and shut out his prayers. He calls upon God to judge his case and bring about punishment upon his tormentors.
Lamenting the ruins and desolation
Jeremiah begins his lamentation with remembering and mourning the death of King Josiah. He then goes on to bemoan the death of the children with the understanding that these deaths and the destruction he witnessed will only serve to make the Children of Israel stronger.
Mothers are forced to serve their captors at the expense of their own starving children. Those who were once wealthy and ostentatious are now forced into wallowing in the garbage heaps. Those who were of purity are now seen in such states that nobody can believe that they are the same people.
Jeremiah declares that those who died by the sword were more fortunate than those who died of starvation. God has taken His wrath to completion. He burned out His anger on Zion. The Nations would reject Israel and see her as unclean.
Even as the destruction was ensuing the Children of Israel still foolishly believed that the Egyptians would come to their rescue. Instead, their enemies pursued them and utterly destroyed them.
Jeremiah warns the Edomites that even though they may now be celebrating Israel’s destruction eventually they will suffer the same fate.
Sins forgiven through repentance
Israel cries out to God asking Him to remember their disgrace and their exile. They are treated as slaves who are made to toil under oppression. They look toward Egypt and Assyria for relief only to find none.
They are in constant fear and danger while simply trying to survive. Famine is rampant among the exiles. The maidens are abused and the princes were hung. There is no respect for the elders and the young men are made to work under oppressive conditions.
The people cry out saying that the Beit HaMikdash has come to ruins and they have sinned. The people declare that God is the eternal G-d and Master of the universe.
They call to Him and ask why he has ignored them for so long. They plead with God to be released from exile and bring them back to Him so they may serve Him as in days past.
1“Book of Lamentations.” wikipedia.org. Wikipedia, n.d. [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Book_of_Lamentations]
2“Lamentations.” jewishencyclopedia.com. Jewish Encyclopedia, 1906. [http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=30&letter=L&search=book%20of%20lamentations]