Jeremias lived at the close of the seventh and in the first part of the sixth century before Christ; a contemporary of Draco and Solon of Athens. In the year 627, during the reign of Josias, he was called at a youthful age to be a prophet, and for nearly half a century, at least from 627 to 585, he bore the burden of the prophetic office. He belonged to a priestly (not a high-priestly) family of Anathoth, a small country town northeast of Jerusalem now called Anatâ; but he seems never to have performed priestly duties at the temple. The scenes of his prophetic activity were, for a short time, his native town, for the greater part of his life, the metropolis Jerusalem, and, for a time after the fall of Jerusalem, Masphath (Jeremiah 40:6) and the Jewish colonies of the Dispersion in Egypt (Jeremiah 43:6 sqq.). His name has received varying etymological interpretations (“Lofty is Jahwah” or “Jahweh founds”); it appears also as the name of other persons in the Old Testament. Sources for the history of his life and times are, first, the book of prophecies bearing his name, and, second, the Books of Kings and of Paralipomenon (Chronicles). It is only when taken in connection with the history of his times that the external course of his life, the individuality of his nature, and the ruling theme of his discourses can be understood.
Period of Jeremias
The last years of the seventh century and the first decades of the sixth brought with them a series of political catastrophes which completely changed national conditions in Western Asia. The overthrow of the Assyrian Empire, which was completed in 606 by the conquest of Ninive, induced Nechao II of Egypt to attempt, with the aid of a large army, to strike a crushing blow at the ancient enemy on the Euphrates. Palestine was in the direct route between the great powers of the world of that era on the Euphrates and the Nile, and the Jewish nation was roused to action by the march of the Egyptian army through its territory. Josias, the last descendent of David, had begun in Jerusalem a moral and religious reformation “in the ways of David”, the carrying out of which, however, was frustrated by the lethargy of the people and the foreign policy of the king. The attempt of Josias to check the advance of the Egyptians cost him his life at the battle of Mageddo, 608. Four years later, Nechao, the conqueror at Mageddo, was slain by Nabuchodonosor at Carchemish on the Euphrates. From that time Nabuchodonosor’s eyes were fixed on Jerusalem. The last, shadowy kings upon the throne of David, the three sons of Josias—Joachaz, Joakim, and Sedecias—hastened the destruction of the kingdom by their unsuccessful foreign policy and their anti-religious or, at least, weak internal policy. Both Joakim and Sedecias, in spite of the warnings of the prophet Jeremias, allowed themselves to be misled by the war party in the nation into refusing to pay the tribute to the King of Babylon. The king’s revenge followed quickly upon the rebellion. In the second great expedition Jerusalem was conquered (586) and destroyed after a siege of eighteen months, which was only interrupted by the battle with the Egyptian army of relief. The Lord cast aside his footstool in the day of his wrath and sent Juda into the Babylonian Captivity.
This is the historical background to the lifework of the Prophet Jeremias: in foreign policy an era of lost battles and other events preparatory to the great catastrophe; in the inner life of the people an era of unsuccessful attempts at reformation, and the appearance of fanatical parties such as generally accompany the last days of a declining kingdom. While the kings from the Nile and the Euphrates alternately laid the sword on the neck of the Daughter of Sion, the leaders of the nation, the kings and priests, became more and more involved in party schemes; a Sion party, led by false prophets, deluded itself by the superstitious belief that the temple of Jahweh was the unfailing talisman of the capital; a fanatically foolhardy war party wanted to organize a resistance to the utmost against the great powers of the world; a Nile party looked to the Egyptians for the salvation of the country, and incited opposition to the Babylonian lordship. Carried away by human politics, the people of Sion forgot its religion, the national trust in God, and wished to fix the day and hour of its redemption according to its own will. Over all these factions the cup of the wine of wrath gradually grew full, to be finally poured from seven vessels during the Babylonian Exile laid upon the nation of the Prophets.
Mission of Jeremias
In the midst of the confusion of a godless policy of despair at the approach of destruction, the prophet of Anathoth stood as “a pillar of iron, and a wall of brass”. The prophet of the eleventh hour, he had the hard mission, on the eve of the great catastrophe of Sion, of proclaiming the decree of God that in the near future the city and temple should be overthrown. From the time of his first calling in vision to the prophetic office, he saw the rod of correction in the hand of God, he heard the word that the Lord would watch over the execution of His decree (i, 11 sq.). That Jerusalem would be destroyed was the constant assertion, the ceterum censeo of the Cato of Anathoth. He appeared before the people with chains about his neck (cf. xxvii, xxviii) in order to give a drastic illustration of the captivity and chains which he foretold. The false prophets preached only of freedom and victory, but the Lord said: “A liberty for you to the sword, to the pestilence, and to the famine” (xxxiv, 17). It was so clear to him that the next generation would be involved in the overthrow of the kingdom that he renounced marriage and the founding of a family for himself (xvi, 104), because he did not wish to have children who would surely be the victims of the sword or become the slaves of the Babylonians. His celibacy was consequently a declaration of his faith in the revelation granted him of the destruction of the city. Jeremias is thus the Biblical and historical counterpart of Cassandra in the Homeric poems, who foresaw the fall of Troy, but found no credence in her own house, yet was so strong in her conviction that she renounced marriage and all the joys of life.
Along with this first task, to prove the certainty of the catastrophe of 586, Jeremias had the second commission to declare that this catastrophe was a moral necessity, to proclaim it in the ears of the people as the inevitable result of the moral guilt since the days of Manasses (2 Kings 21:10-15); in a word, to set forth the Babylonian Captivity as a moral, not merely a historical, fact. It was only because the stubborn nation had thrown off the yoke of the Lord (Jeremiah 2:20) that it must bow its neck under the yoke of the Babylonians. In order to arouse the nation from its moral lethargy, and to make moral preparation for the day of the Lord, the sermons of the preacher of repentance of Anathoth emphasized this causal connection between punishment and guilt, until it became monotonous. Although he failed to convert the people, and thus to turn aside entirely the calamity from Jerusalem, nevertheless the word of the Lord in his mouth became, for some, a hammer that broke their stony hearts to repentance (xxiii, 29). Thus, Jeremias had not only “to root up, and to pull down”, he had also in the positive work of salvation “to build, and to plant” (i, 10). These latter aims of the penitential discourses of Jeremias make plain why the religious and moral conditions of the time are all painted in the same dark tone: the priests do not inquire after Jahweh; the leaders of the people themselves wander in strange paths; the prophets prophesy in the name of Baal; Juda has become the meeting-place of strange gods; the people have forsaken the fountain of living water and have provoked the Lord to anger by idolatry and the worship of high places, by the sacrifice of children, desecration of the Sabbath, and by false weights. This severity in the discourses of Jeremias makes them the most striking type of prophetic declamation against sin. One well-known hypothesis ascribes to Jeremias also the authorship of the Books of Kings. In reality the thought forming the philosophical basis of the Books of Kings and the conception underlying the speeches of Jeremias complement each other, inasmuch as the fall of the kingdom is traced back in the one to the guilt of the kings, and in the other to the people’s participation in this guilt.
Life of Jeremias
A far more exact picture of the life of Jeremias has been preserved than of the life of any other seer of Sion. It was an unbroken chain of steadily growing outward and inward difficulties, a genuine “Jeremiad”. On account of the prophecies, his life was no longer safe among his fellow-citizens of Anathoth (xi, 21 sqq.), and of no teacher did the saying prove truer that “a prophet hath no honour in his own country”. When he transferred his residence from Anathoth to Jerusalem his troubles increased, and in the capital of the kingdom he was doomed to learn by corporal suffering that veritas parit odium (truth draws hatred upon itself). King Joakim could never forgive the prophet for threatening him with punishment on account of his unscrupulous mania for building and for his judicial murders: “He shall be buried with the burial of an ass” (xxii, 13-19). When the prophecies of Jeremias were read before the king, he fell into such a rage that he threw the roll into the fire and commanded the arrest of the prophet (xxxvi, 21-26). Then the word of the Lord came to Jerermias to let Baruch the scribe write again his words (xxxvi, 27-32). More than once the prophet was in prison and in chains without the word of the Lord being silenced (xxxvi, 5 sqq.); more than once he seemed, in human judgment, doomed to death, but, like a wall of brass, the word of the Almighty was the protection of his life: “Be not afraid . . . they shall not prevail: for I am with thee, saith the Lord, to deliver thee” (i, 17-19). The religious opinion he maintained, that only by a moral change could a catastrophe in outward conditions prepare the way for improvement, brought him into bitter conflict with the political parties of the nation. The Sion party, with its superstitious confidence in the temple (vii, 4), incited the people to open revolt against Jeremias, because, at the gate and in the outer court of the temple, he prophesied the fate of the holy place in Silo for the house of the Lord; and the prophet was in great danger of violent death at the hands of the Sionists (xxvi; cf. vii). The party friendly to Egypt cursed him because he condemned the coalition with Egypt, and presented to the King of Egypt also the cup of the wine of wrath (xxv, 17-19); they also hated him because, during the siege of Jerusalem, he declared, before the event, that the hopes placed on an Egyptian army of relief were delusive (xxxvi, 5-9). The party of noisy patriots calumniated Jeremias as a morose pessimist (cf. xxvii, xxviii), because they had allowed themselves to be deceived as to the seriousness of the crisis by the flattering words of Hananias of Gabaon and his companions, and dreamed of freedom and peace while exile and war were already approaching the gates of the city. The exhortation of the prophet to accept the inevitable, and to choose voluntary submission as a lesser evil than a hopeless struggle, was interpreted by the war party as a lack of patriotism. Even at the present day, some commentators wish to regard Jeremias as a traitor to his country—Jeremias, who was the best friend of his brethren and of the people of Israel (II Mach. xv, 14), so deeply did he feel the weal and woe of his native land. Thus was Jeremias loaded with the curses of all parties as the scapegoat of the blinded nation. During the siege of Jerusalem he was once more condemned to death and thrown into a miry dungeon; this time a foreigner rescued him from certain death (xxxvii-xxxix).
Still more violent than these outward battles were the conflicts in the soul of the prophet. Being in full sympathy with the national sentiment, he felt that his own fate was bound up with that of the nation; hence the hard mission of announcing to the people the sentence of death affected him deeply; hence his opposition to accepting this commission (i, 6). With all the resources of prophetic rhetoric he sought to bring back the people to “the old paths” (vi, 16), but in this endeavour he felt as though he were trying to effect that “the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots” (xiii, 23). He heard the sins of his people crying to heaven for vengeance, and forcibly expresses his approval of the judgment pronounced upon the blood-stained city (cf. vi). The next moment, however, he prays the Lord to let the cup pass from Jerusalem, and wrestles like Jacob with God for a blessing upon Sion. The grandeur of soul of the great sufferer appears most plainly in the fervid prayers for his people (cf. especially xiv, 7-9, 19-22), which were often offered directly after a fiery declaration of coming punishment. He knows that with the fall of Jerusalem the place that was the scene of revelation and salvation will be destroyed. Nevertheless, at the grave of the religious hopes of Israel, he still has the expectation that the Lord, notwithstanding all that has happened, will bring His promises to pass for the sake of His name. The Lord thinks “thoughts of peace, and not of affliction”, and will let Himself be found of those who seek (xxix, 10-14). As He watched to destroy, so will He likewise watch to build up (xxxi, 28). The prophetic gift does not appear with equal clearness in the life of any other prophet as alike a psychological problem and a personal task. His bitter outward and inward experiences give the speeches of Jeremias a strongly personal tone. More than once this man of iron seems in danger of losing his spiritual balance. He calls down punishment from heaven upon his enemies (cf. xii, 3; xviii, 23). Like a Job among the prophets, he curses the day of his birth (xv, 10; xx, 14-18); he would like to arise, go hence, and preach instead to the stones in the wilderness: “Who will give me in the wilderness a lodging place . . . and I will leave my people, and depart from them?” (ix, 2; Heb. text, ix, 1). It is not improbable that the mourning prophet of Anathoth was the author of many of the Psalms that are full of bitter reproach.
After the destruction of Jerusalem, Jeremias was not carried away into the Babylonian exile. He remained behind in Chanaan, in the wasted vineyard of Jahweh, that he might continue his prophetic office. It was indeed a life of martyrdom among the dregs of the nation that had been left in the land. At a later date, he was dragged to Egypt by emigrating Jews (xi-xliv). According to a tradition first mentioned by Tertullian (Scorpiace 8), Jeremias was stoned to death in Egypt by his own countrymen on account of his discourses threatening the coming punishment of God (cf. Hebrews 11:37), thus crowning with martyrdom a life of steadily increasing trials and sorrows. Jeremias would not have died as Jeremias had he not died a martyr. The Roman Martyrology assigns his name to 1 May. Posterity sought to atone for the sins his contemporaries had committed against him. Even during the Babylonian Captivity his prophecies seem to have been the favourite reading of the exiles (2 Chronicles 36:21; Ezra 1:1; Daniel 9:2). In the later books compare Sirach 49:8 sq.; 2 Maccabees 2:1-8; 15:12-16; Matthew 16:14.
Characteristic qualities of Jeremias
The delineation in II and III of the life and task of Jeremias has already made plain the peculiarity of his character. Jeremias is the prophet of mourning and of symbolical suffering. This distinguishes his personality from that of Isaias, the prophet of ecstasy and the Messianic future, of Ezechiel, the prophet of mystical (not typical) suffering, and of Daniel, the cosmopolitan revealer of apocalyptic visions of the Old Covenant. No prophet belonged so entirely to his age and his immediate surroundings, and no prophet was so seldom transported by the Spirit of God from a dreary present into a brighter future than the mourning prophet of Anathoth. Consequently, the life of no other prophet reflects the history of his times so vividly as the life of Jeremias reflects the time immediately preceding the Babylonian Captivity. A sombre, depressed spirit overshadows his life, just as a gloomy light overhangs the grotto of Jeremias in the northern part of Jerusalem. In Michelangelo’s frescoes on the ceilings of the Sistine chapel there is a masterly delineation of Jeremias as the prophet of myrrh, perhaps the most expressive and eloquent figure among the prophets depicted by the great master. He is represented bent over like a tottering pillar of the temple, the head supported by the right hand, the disordered beard expressive of a time of intense sorrow, and the forehead scored with wrinkles, the entire exterior a contrast to the pure soul within. His eyes seem to see blood and ruins, and his lips appear to murmur a lament. The whole picture strikingly portrays a man who never in his life laughed, and who turned aside from scenes of joy, because the Spirit told him that soon the voice of mirth should be silenced (xvi, 8 sq.).
Equally characteristic and idiosyncratic is the literary style of Jeremias. He does not use the classically elegant language of a Deutero-Isaias or an Amos, nor does he possess the imagination shown in the symbolism and elaborate detail of Ezechiel, neither does he follow the lofty thought of a Daniel in his apocalyptic vision of the history of the world. The style of Jeremias is simple, without ornament and but little polished. Jerome speaks of him as “in verbis simplex et facilis, in majestate sensuum profundissimus” (simple and easy in words, most profound in majesty of thought). Jeremias often speaks in jerky, disjointed sentences, as if grief and excitement of spirit had stifled his voice. Nor did he follow strictly the laws of poetic rhythm in the use of the Kînah, or elegiac, verse, which had, moreover, an anacoluthic measure of its own. Like these anacoluthæ so are also the many, at times even monotonous, repetitions for which he has been blamed, the only individual expressions of the mournful feeling of his soul that are correct in style. Sorrow inclines to repetition, in the manner of the prayers on the Mount of Olives. Just as grief in the East is expressed in the neglect of the outward appearance, so the great representative of elegiac verse of the Bible had neither time nor desire to adorn his thoughts with a carefully chosen diction.
Jeremias also stands by himself among the prophets by his manner of carrying on and developing the Messianic idea. He was far from attaining the fullness and clearness of the Messianic gospel of the Book of Isaias; he does not contribute as much as the Book of Daniel to the terminology of the gospel. Above all the other great prophets, Jeremias was sent to his age, and only in very isolated instances does he throw a prophetic light in verbal prophecy on the fullness of time, as in his celebrated discourse of the Good Shepherd of the House of David (23:1-5), or when he most beautifully, in chapters xxx-xxxiii, proclaims the deliverance from the Babylonian Captivity as the type and pledge of the Messianic deliverance. This lack of actual Messianic prophecies by Jeremias has its compensation; for his entire life became a living personal prophecy of the suffering Messias, a living illustration of the predictions of suffering made by the other prophets. The suffering Lamb of God in the Book of Isaias (53:7) becomes in Jeremias a human being: “I was as a meek lamb, that is carried to be a victim” (Jeremiah 11:19). The other seers were Messianic prophets; Jeremias was a Messianic prophecy embodied in flesh and blood. It is, therefore, fortunate that the story of his life has been more exactly preserved than that of the other prophets, because his life had a prophetic significance. The various parallels between the life of Jeremias and of the Messias are known: both one and the other had at the eleventh hour to proclaim the overthrow of Jerusalem and its temple by the Babylonians or Romans; both wept over the city which stoned the prophets and did not recognize what was for its peace; the love of both was repaid with hatred and ingratitude. Jeremias deepened the conception of the Messias in another regard. From the time the prophet of Anathoth, a man beloved of God, was obliged to live a life of suffering in spite of his guiltlessness and holiness from birth, Israel was no longer justified in judging its Messias by a mechanical theory of retribution and doubting his sinlessness and acceptableness to God because of his outward sorrows. Thus the life of Jeremias, a life as bitter as myrrh, was gradually to accustom the eye of the people to the suffering figure of Christ, and to make clear in advance the bitterness of the Cross. Therefore it is with a profound right that the Offices of the Passion in the Liturgy of the Church often use the language of Jeremias in an applied sense.
The book of the prophecies of Jeremias
Analysis of contents
The book in its present form has two main divisions: chapters i-xiv, discourses threatening punishment which are aimed directly against Juda and are intermingled with narratives of personal and national events, and chapters xlvi-li, discourses containing threats against nine heathen nations and intended to warn Juda indirectly against the polytheism and policy of these peoples.
In chapter i is related the calling of the prophet, in order to prove to his suspicious countrymen that he was the ambassador of God. Not he himself had assumed the office of prophet, but Jahweh had conferred it upon him notwithstanding his reluctance. Chapters ii-vi contain rhetorical and weighty complaints and threats of judgment on account of the nation’s idolatry and foreign policy. The very first speech in ii-iii may be said to present the scheme of the Jeremianic discourse. Here also appears at once the conception of Osee which is typical as well of Jeremias: Israel, the bride of the Lord, has degraded herself into becoming the paramour of strange nations. Even the temple and sacrifice (vii-x), without inward conversion on the part of the people, cannot bring salvation; while other warnings are united like mosaics with the main ones. The “words of the covenant” in the Thorah recently found under Josias contain threatenings of judgment; the enmity of the citizens of Anathoth against the herald of this Thorah reveals the infatuation of the nation (xi-xii). Jeremias is commanded to hide a linen girdle, a symbol of the priestly nation of Sion, by the Euphrates and to let it rot there, to typify the downfall of the nation in exile on the Euphrates (xiii). The same stern symbolism is expressed later by the earthen bottle which is broken on the rocks before the Earthen Gate (xix, 1-11). According to the custom of the prophets (1 Kings 11:29-31; Isaiah 8:1-4; Ezekiel 5:1-12), his warnings are accompanied by forcible pantomimic action. Prayers at the time of a great drought, statements which are of much value for the understanding of the psychological condition of the prophet in his spiritual struggles, follow (xiv-xv). The troubles of the times demand from the prophet an unmarried and joyless life (xvi-xvii). The creator can treat those he has created with the same supreme authority that the potter has over clay and earthen vessels. Jeremias is ill-treated (xviii-xx). A condemnation of the political and ecclesiastical leaders of the people and, in connection with this, the promise of a better shepherd are uttered (xxi-xxiii). The vision of the two baskets of figs is narrated in chapter xxiv. The repeated declaration (ceterum censeo) that the land will become a desolation follows (xxv). Struggles with the false prophets, who take wooden chains off the people and lead them instead with iron ones, are detailed. Both in a letter to the exiles in Babylon, and by word of mouth, Jeremias exhorts the captives to conform to the decrees of Jahweh (xxvi-xxix). Compare with this letter the “epistle of Jeremias” in Baruch, vi. A prophecy of consolation and salvation in the style of a Deutero-Isaias, concerning the return of God’s favour to Israel and of the new, eternal covenant, is then given (xxx-xxxiii). The chapters following are taken up largely with narratives of the last days of the siege of Jerusalem and of the period after the conquest with numerous biographical details concerning Jeremias (xxxiv-xlv).
Literary criticism of the book
Much light is thrown on the production and genuineness of the book by the testimony of chapter xxxvi; Jeremias is directed to write down, either personally or by his scribe Baruch, the discourses he had given up to the fourth year of Joakim (604 B.C.). In order to strengthen the impression made by the prophecies as a whole, the individual predictions are to be united into a book, thereby preserving documentary proof of these discourses until the time in which the disasters threatened in them should actually come to pass. This first authentic recension of the prophecies forms the basis of the present Book of Jeremias. According to a law of literary transmission to which the Biblical books are also subject—habent sua fata libelli (books have their vicissitudes)—the first transcript was enlarged by various insertions and additions from the pen of Baruch or of a later prophet. The attempts of commentators to separate these secondary and tertiary additions in different cases from the original Jeremianic subject-matter have not always led to as convincing proof as in chapter lii. This chapter should be regarded as an addition of the post-Jeremianic period based on 2 Kings 24:18-25:30, on account of the concluding statement of li: “Thus far are the words of Jeremias.” Cautious literary criticism is obliged to observe the principle of chronological arrangement which is perceptible in the present composition of the book, notwithstanding the additions: chapters i-vi belong apparently to the reign of King Josias (cf. the date in iii, 6); vii-xx belong, at least largely, to the reign of Joakim; xxi-xxxiii partly to the reign of Sedecias (cf. xxi, 1; xxvii, 1; xxviii, 1; xxxii, 1), although other portions are expressly assigned to the reigns of other kings: xxxiv-xxxix to the period of the siege of Jerusalem; xl-xlv to the period after the destruction of that city. Consequently, the chronology must have been considered in the arrangement of the material. Modern critical analysis of the book distinguishes between the portions narrated in the first person, regarded as directly attributable to Jeremias, and those portions which speak of Jeremias in the third person. According to Scholz, the book is arranged in “decades”, and each larger train of thought or series of speeches is closed with a song or prayer. It is true that in the book parts classically perfect and highly poetic in character are often suddenly followed by the most commonplace prose, and matters given in the barest outline are not seldom succeeded by prolix and monotonous details. After what has been said above concerning elegiac verse, this difference in style can only be used with the greatest caution as a criterion for literary criticism. In the same way, investigation, of late very popular, as to whether a passage exhibits a Jeremianic spirit or not, leads to vague subjective results. Since the discovery (1904) of the Assuan texts, which strikingly confirm Jeremiah 44:1, has proved that Aramaic, as the koine (common dialect) of the Jewish colony in Egypt, was spoken as early as the fifth and sixth centuries B.C., the Aramaic expressions in the Book of Jeremias can no longer be quoted as proof of a later origin of such passages. Also, the agreement, verbal or conceptual, of texts in Jeremias with earlier books, perhaps with Deuteronomy, is not in itself a conclusive argument against the genuineness of these passages, for the prophet does not claim absolute originality.
Notwithstanding the repetition of earlier passages in Jeremias, chapters l-li are fundamentally genuine, although their genuineness has been strongly doubted, because, in the series of discourses threatening punishment to the heathen nations, it is impossible that there should not be a prophecy against Babylon, then the most powerful representative of paganism. These chapters are, indeed, filled with the Deutero-Isaian spirit of consolation, somewhat after the manner of Isaiah 47, but they do not therefore, as a matter of course, lack genuineness, as the same spirit of consolation also inspires xxx-xxxiii.
Textual conditions of the book
The arrangement of the text in the Septuagint varies from that of the Hebrew text and the Vulgate; the discourses against the heathen nations, in the Hebrew text, xlvi-li, are, in the Septuagint, inserted after xxv, 13, and partly in different order. Great differences exist also as to the extent of the text of the Book of Jeremias. The text of the Hebrew and Latin Bibles is about one-eighth larger than that of the Septuagint. The question as to which text has preserved the original form cannot be answered according to the theory of Streane and Scholz, who declare at the outset that every addition of the Hebrew version is a later enlargement of the original text in the Septuagint. Just as little can the difficulty be settled by avowing, with Kaulen, an a priori preference for the Masoretic text. In most cases the Alexandrian translation has retained the better and original reading; consequently, in most cases the Hebrew text is glossed. In a book as much read as Jeremias the large number of glosses cannot appear strange. But in other cases the shorter recension of the Septuagint, amounting to about 100 words, which can be opposed to its large lacunæ, as compared with the Masorah, are sufficient proof that considerable liberty was taken in its preparation. Consequently, it was not made by an Aquila, and it received textual changes in the literary transmission. The dogmatic content of the discourses of Jeremias is not affected by these variations in the text.
In the Greek and Latin Bibles there are five songs of lament bearing the name of Jeremias, which follow the Book of the Prophecy of Jeremias. In the Hebrew these are entitled Kinôth. from their elegiac character, or the ‘Ekhah songs after the first word of the first, second, and fourth elegies; in Greek they are called Threnoi, in Latin they are known as Lamentationes.
Position and genuineness of Lamentations
The superscription to Lamentations in the Septuagint and other versions throws light on the historical occasion of their production and on the author: “And it came to pass, after Israel was carried into captivity, and Jerusalem was desolate, that Jeremias the prophet sat weeping, and mourned with this lamentation over Jerusalem, and with a sorrowful mind, sighing and moaning, he said”. The inscription was not written by the author of Lamentations, one proof of this being that it does not belong to the alphabetical form of the elegies. It expresses, however, briefly, the tradition of ancient times which is also confirmed both by the Targum and the Talmud. To a man like Jeremias, the day on which Jerusalem became a heap of ruins was not only a day of national misfortune, as was the day of the fall of Troy to the Trojan, or that of the destruction of Carthage to the Carthaginian, it was also a day of religious inanition. For, in a religious sense, Jerusalem had a peculiar importance in the history of salvation, as the footstool of Jahweh and as the scene of the revelation of God and of the Messias. Consequently, the grief of Jeremias was personal, not merely a sympathetic emotion over the sorrow of others, for he had sought to prevent the disaster by his labours as a prophet in the streets of the city. All the fibres of his heart were bound up with Jerusalem; he was now himself crushed and desolate. Thus Jeremias more than any other man was plainly called—it may be said, driven by an inner force—to lament the ruined city as threnodist of the great penitential period of the Old Covenant. He was already prepared by his lament upon the death of King Josias (2 Chronicles 35:25) and by the elegiac songs in the book of his prophecies (cf. xiii, 20-27, a lament over Jerusalem). The lack of variety in the word-forms and in the construction of the sentences, which, it is claimed, does not accord with the character of the style of Jeremias, may be explained as a poetic peculiarity of this poetic book. Descriptions such as those in i, 13-15, or iv, 10, seem to point to an eye witness of the catastrophe, and the literary impression made by the whole continually recalls Jeremias. To this conduce the elegiac tone of the Lamentations, which is only occasionally interrupted by intermediate tones of hope; the complaints against false prophets and against the striving after the favour of foreign nations; the verbal agreements with the Book of Prophecy of Jeremias; finally the predilection for closing a series of thoughts with a prayer warm from the heart—cf. iii, 19-21, 64-66, and chapter v, which, like a Miserere Psalm of Jeremias, forms a close to the five lamentations. The fact that in the Hebrew Bible the Kinôth was removed, as a poetic work, from the collection of prophetic books and placed among the Kethúhîm, or Hagiographa, cannot be quoted as a decisive argument against its Jeremiac origin, as the testimony of the Septuagint, the most important witness in the forum of Biblical criticism, must in a hundred other cases correct the decision of the Masorah. Moreover, the superscription of the Septuagint seems to presuppose a Hebrew original.
Technical form of the poetry of Lamentations
(1) In the first four laments the Kînah measure is used in the construction of the lines. In this measure each line is divided into two unequal members having respectively three and two stresses, as for example in the introductory first three lines of the book.
(2) In all five elegies the construction of the verses follows an alphabetical arrangement. The first, second, fourth, and fifth laments are each composed of twenty-two verses, to correspond with the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet; the third lament is made up of three times twenty-two verses. In the first, second, and fourth elegies each verse begins with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet, the letters following in order, as the first verse begins with Aleph, the second with Beth, etc.; in the third elegy every fourth verse begins with a letter of the alphabet in due order. Thus, with a few exceptions and changes (Pê, the seventeenth, precedes Ayin the sixteenth letter), the Hebrew alphabet is formed from the initial letters of the separate verses. How easily this alphabetical method can curb the spirit and logic of a poem is most clearly shown in the third lament, which, besides, had probably in the beginning the same structure as the others, a different initial letter to each of the original verses; it was not until later that a less careful writer developed each verse into three by means of ideas taken from Job and other writers.
(3) As to the structure of the strophe, it is certain that the principle followed in some cases is the change of the person of the subject as speaker or one addressed. The first elegy is divided into a lament over Sion in the third person (verses 1-11), and a lament of Sion over itself (verses 12-22). In the first strophe Sion is the object, in the second, a strophe of equal length, the subject of the elegy. In 11c, according to the Septuagint, the third person should be used. In the second elegy, also, the intention seems to be, with the change of strophe, to change from the third person to the second, and from the second to the first person. In verses 1-8 there are twenty-four members in the third person; in 13-19 twenty-one in the second person, while in 20-22, a strophe in the first person, the lament closes in a monologue. In the third lament, as well, the speech of a single subject in the first person alternates with the speech of several persons represented by “we” and with colloquy; verses 40-47 are clearly distinguished by their subject “we” from the preceding strophe, in which the subject is one individual, and from the following strophe in the first person singular in verses 48-54, while the verses 55-66 represent a colloquy with Jahweh. The theory of the writer, that in the structure of Hebrew poetry the alternation of persons and subjects is a fixed principle in forming strophes, finds in Lamentations its strongest confirmation.
(4) In the structure of the five elegies regarded as a whole, Zenner has shown that they rise in a steady and exactly measured progression to a climax. In the first elegy there are two monologues from two different speakers. In the second elegy the monologue develops into an animated dialogue. In the third and fourth elegies the cry of lamentation is louder still, as more have joined in the lament, and the solitary voice has been replaced by a choir of voices. In the fifth lament a third choir is added. Literary criticism finds in the dramatic construction of the book a strong argument for the literary unity of Lamentations.
Liturgical use of Lamentations
The Lamentations have received a peculiar distinction in the Liturgy of the Church in the Office of Passion Week. If Christ Himself designated His death as the destruction of a temple, “he spoke of the temple of his body” (John 2:19-21), then the Church surely has a right to pour out her grief over His death in those Lamentations which were sung over the ruins of the temple destroyed by the sins of the nation.
Faulhaber, M. (1910). Jeremias. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.
Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. October 1, 1910. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.