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Preaching on Lamentations

An overview of the historical background and theology of Lamentations to help you develop your sermon series and apply it to your hearers.
Preaching on Lamentations
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Historical Background

Like so much of the poetic material in the Old Testament, Lamentations is presented to the reader as the anguished prayers of an anonymous Israelite worshipper. The tradition most Christians are familiar with—that of Jeremiah being the author—started with the translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek, what we know as the Septuagint (finished sometime in the third century BC). That translation saw some changes to the then traditionally-accepted compilation, including moving Lamentations to a position directly after Jeremiah and adding in introductory line that connected Jeremiah to the text of Lamentations (a line that has been dropped in modern English translations). Theories over who authored Lamentations have abounded over the years, including one humorous theory from an 18th-century German scholar named Hermann von der Hardt postulated that Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego and the deposed King Jehoiachin (cf., 2 Kings 24-25) wrote the five prayers.

Fortunately, nailing down who authored the Book of Lamentations is not necessary to nailing down a possible date of composition or even discerning the message of the book. Although there is the occasional speculative vote cast against a commonly-accepted date (Iain Provan being the most notable), the vast majority of scholars are in general agreement that Lamentations was composed within about seventy-five years of the destruction of Solomon’s grand temple by the Babylonians, with a small number of that group arguing for a date close to Nehemiah’s time of resettlement and reconstruction (ca. 515 BC). Support for this generally-accepted date comes from the text itself, which is full of raw emotion, the kind expressed with fresh memories of burning buildings and wailing mothers (i.e., 1:11, 2:11-12, 4:14).

Literary Background

In the original Hebrew tradition, Lamentations was contained within the final part of the canon—the Writings (the Ketubim), not the Prophets (the Nebiim). Specifically, it is part of the Megollith, or “Five Scrolls,” which includes Ruth, Esther, the Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes. This portion of the Writings is commonly associated with certain festivals, such as Shavuot (Ruth) or Purim (Esther). Lamentations is associated with the Ninth of Av (late July-early August), the festival that remembers the two cataclysmic destructions of Jerusalem, first by the Babylonians in 586 BC and then by the Romans in AD 70. Most notable of the observances are a 25-hour fast and the abstaining from all bathing or washing, reminders of the awfulness of those destructive events.

Discussions that focus on the genre and style represented in Lamentations in the modern era argued that each chapter should be seen as an individual piece of poetic or liturgical literature, each one independent from the others. Contemporary scholarship, that of the last 25-30 years, has sought to view the contents of the book as a whole, as a corporate or communal lament, which falls back in line with traditional Hebrew interpretation.

Obviously inspired by the lament psalms (what I refer to as the “songs of sorrow”), the author of Lamentations strives to encapsulate the pain and anguish of defeat in poetic stanzas. However the chaotic design of the book intentionally reveals the chaotic sense of guilt and grief being felt by the poet. For example, chapters one and two are each made of 22 well-articulated three-line verses. Chapter three, the center of the book, is made up of 66 verses (three sets of 22). Chapter four subverts expectations by being made up of 22 emotionally-subdued two-line verses. However, chapter five is made of 22 tersely-worded verses.

Sermon Series

Bringing and Meaning: What Lamentations Teaches About Faithfully Following God

This series was developed for an older congregation that generally lacked a depth of biblical literacy that manifested itself in a surface understanding of God and Scripture. The congregation had not experienced much deep preaching during a previous tenure and had developed more of a “sound bite” theology, especially regarding difficult subjects. Without realizing it, they had adopted a light version of the very civil religion that they assumed their sectarian views had insulated them from. The purpose, then, of the series was to expose the congregation to a contrasting view of God—as articulated in Scripture—in hopes that it would foster deeper conversations regarding many of their views of God, Scripture, and the church.

Series Big Idea: Faith in God requires a deeply-plumbed faith in God.

Text: Lamentations 1
  • Title: The LORD Rejects
  • Exegetical Idea: God brought punishment against Israel because of her lack of covenant faithfulness.
  • Big Idea: Covenant faithfulness is more than becoming a Christian.
Text: Lamentations 2
  • Title: The LORD Destroys
  • Exegetical Idea: God brought devastation against Israel because of her lack of meaningful worship.
  • Big Idea: Meaningful worship is more than just showing up.
Text: Lamentations 3
  • Title: The LORD Remembers
  • Exegetical Idea: God brought redemption to those who obeyed wholeheartedly.
  • Big Idea: Wholehearted obedience is more than saying or doing the right thing.
Text: Lamentations 4
  • Title: The LORD Scatters
  • Exegetical Idea: God brought purification against Israel because of her lack of a repentant spirit.
  • Big Idea: Repentant spirit is more than saying we are sorry.
Text: Lamentations 5
  • Title: The LORD Reigns
  • Exegetical Idea: God brought restoration to those who sought forgiveness.
  • Big Idea: Seeking forgiveness is more than confessing sin.
The Steadfast Love of the LORD: Hope Midst the Turmoil

This series is an approach to incorporating the Kubler-Ross model of living grief into the pastoral ministry of the church’s preaching witness. The purpose is to provide a framework for speaking about grief and trauma. Additionally, it seeks to provide those experiencing such spiritually difficult moments with language and scaffolding necessary for processing what they are feeling and thinking in a way where they can both express frustrations, concerns, doubts, while remaining connected to God and the Christian community.

Series Big Idea: Faith in God and living through grief can be the same experience.

Text: Lamentations 1
  • Title: Denial
  • Big Idea: Do not deny the grief you are feeling.
Text: Lamentations 2
  • Title: Anger
  • Big Idea: Get angry; God can take it.
Text: Lamentations 3
  • Title: Bargaining
  • Big Idea: Bargain; God might ‘change his mind.’
Text: Lamentations 4
  • Title: Depression
  • Big Idea: Depression can be spiritually legitimate.
Text: Lamentations 5
  • Title: Acceptance
  • Big Idea: Acceptance does not mean God stopped caring about you.


Lamentations finds Israel at its lowest, both politically and spiritually speaking. With the Temple in ashes and the city gates of Jerusalem ablaze, the faithful few must have looked around and wondered where God was in all of this. It is only natural to ask this, but it seems like they already knew the answer: God had abandoned Israel to her own devices, just as God promised would happen as a result of the lack of faithfulness.

Israel’s songs had harkened that “God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved; God will help it when the morning dawns” (Ps. 46:5), and yet that very same city now lays in rubble and ruin. The words of Moses must have rung in the ears of the poet:

If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. (Deut. 30:16-18)

Ultimately, as the poet notes, “The Lord is in the right, for [we] have rebelled against his word” (Lam. 1:12a).

Lamentations is quite unique in the Bible, even in light of the Old Testament (aka, Hebrew Scriptures). The theological worldview at work in Lamentations is more akin to Job and Ecclesiastes than it is Deuteronomy or Psalms, although there are certainly threads of the “songs of sorrow” woven into these laments. Lamentations provides something of a theological corrective to the triumphantalism seen in the national history, where Israel was more like the Israel of Judges (“… all the people did what was right in their own eyes;” 21:25) rather than the Israel of David (“Oh, how I love your law! It is my meditation all day long;” Psalm 119:97).

While some modern writers see a theme of resistance against the spiritual status quo in Lamentations (and, to be fair, they are correct), Lamentations is not about resistance, for there is nothing left to resist. There is nothing, nothing. That is the reality of lamenting.

The theological corrective that Lamentations offered the people of its day—and readers today—is a language for theological realism. What has been challenged in the horrific events described in Lamentations is the doctrine of divine retribution, also known as Reward/Punishment theology. This doctrine, which remains prevalent in many religious cultures and sub-cultures across the globe today, simply states that “good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people.”

During their time of prosperity and political prestige, Israel thought of itself as the faithful people of God, even though they were selling their brothers for sandals (cf., Amos 8:6), because they had amassed prosperity and political prestige. However, the words of the prophets and priests—calls for wisdom, justice, and love to wash over the land—went unheeded. The people thought they were in control of their lives and their God. Little did they know that the foundation was crumbling beneath them.

We see this aftermath in Lamentations. Gone is the triumphant spirit. All that remains is punishment. What we see in Lamentations is an emerging worldview and an emerging language for expressing that worldview. We see the emergence of a worldview that would be encapsulated by the missional idea that “God shows no partiality” (Acts 10:34; cf., Rom. 2:11-16). We see the emergence of a language that boldly questions “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34) or “Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth” (Rev. 6:10)? This is not comfortable, yet it is Scripture.

In a time replete with violence, hatred, guilt, grief, trauma, and all of the other things we would rather not address, Lamentations (and its companions in the middle of our Bibles) provides the church with an incredibly useful witness. In a world that seeks to dismiss grief with trite clichés, Lamentations provides the words the mourner cannot vocalize. In a world that seeks to placate the powerful at the expense of the poor, Lamentations provides words of correction, discipline, and when heeded, redemption. In a world that seeks to downgrade trauma to a minimalized personal experience, Lamentations provides words of powerful proclamation and—if we will listen—gospel freedom.

Theological Themes

Lamentations articulates many similar themes as the other components of the Writings corpus, especially those theological themes seen in Job, Psalms, and Ecclesiastes. There is certainly a communal aspect at work here theologically, much in the same way as many of the communal laments in Psalms (i.e., Ps. 44, 74, and 90).

Corporate Suffering

Dillard and Longman note that “Lamentations grapples with the question of corporate suffering in much the same way as the book of Job struggles with the issue of individual suffering” (An Introduction to the Old Testament, p. 311). The purpose of this focus is to articulate to Israel that they have fallen out of favor with God, that God is in the right in a decision to bring judgment against Jerusalem, and that Israel should cry out to God for salvation and restoration.

Divine Warrior and Covenant

A common theme throughout the Old Testament is that God is a warrior who fights on behalf of Israel (cf., Ex. 15:3; 1 Sam. 17:45-47). This theme is most prominently displayed in the flight from Egypt in Exodus and is consistently in the background of David’s story. In Lamentations, however, we find that God fights against Israel because of their failure to keep the covenant. Specifically, we see the realization of the paradox seen in Deuteronomy 28, where God promises that Israel’s enemies will be “defeated before” them as long as they are faithful to the covenant (28:7), yet they will be “defeated before [their] enemies” if they are unfaithful to the covenant (28:25; cf., Lam. 4:10).

Guilt Because of Judgment

Lamentations opens with an image of suffering, as the poet notes “How lonely sits the city that once was full of people” (1:1). Unlike the traditional lament, however, the poet is not rebuking or questioning God. Instead, the poet seeks to garner sympathy from God, to ask for healing and relief from suffering. The poet fully acknowledges that Israel deserves punishment for her sins (1:5-8).

My Encounter with Lamentations

“There was ash everywhere.” That is the phrase I remember overhearing an elderly grandfather tell his granddaughter as they stood with dozens of solemn visitors at the World Trade Center memorial. My family and I visited New York City for the first time in March 2013. Although my children were only in late elementary school, my wife and I thought it was important that we make the mile or so trek down into lower Manhattan’s financial district to see this monument to grief and tragedy. And in the middle of a bustling district of one of the largest cities in the world, there was a calmness, a serene quiet.

I was in college and on my way to a ministry major’s retreat when I heard about the 9/11 attacks. Being in Arkansas and not quite sure what was occurring, we offered a number of prayers up for those involved in this situation. Then, as the day drew on, we learned more about this atrocity. When I returned to campus later that evening, I met my wife (then my girlfriend) in the student center for dinner. For some unexplained reason, we simply embraced quietly for a long moment. As we separated, my eye caught a television that displayed the scene of those two spotlights shining up into the sky. “I can’t believe this happened,” I remember saying to her. As the poet of Lamentations walked through the rubble of his city, I have a feeling he muttered something similar.


F. W. Dobbs-Allsopp, Lamentations, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox Press, 2002).

Hetty Lalleman, Jeremiah and Lamentations, Tyndale Old Testament Commentary (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2013).

Tremper Longman III, Jeremiah, Lamentations, New International Biblical Commentary, Old Testament Commentary (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2008).

Rob O’Lynn teaches preaching at Kentucky Christian University, Johnson University, and Fuller Theological Seminary, and is a minister in Ashland, Kentucky.

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