This canonical book of the Old Testament is made up of five elegies on the destruction of Jerusalem (587 B.C.).
In the Septuagint, as in the Vulgate, this book is located after Jeremiah, to whom they attribute it; in the Hebrew Bible it is included among the writings (Ketubim) and is part of the "Five Scrolls" (meghilloth) which were read out in the liturgical ceremonies of the principal Jewish feasts-the Song of Songs at the Passover, Ruth at Pentecost, Lamentations on the day of fasting to commemorate the fall ofJerusalem, Ecclesiastes on the feast of Tabernacles, and Esther at Purim.
Up to the eighteenth century, both Jewish and Christian tradition regarded it as an undisputed fact that Jeremiah was the author of Lamentations, the basis for this being 2 Chronicles 35:25 and the internal evidence of the poems themselves.
But then doubts were cast on this attribution on the grounds that it was difficult to see how Jeremiah could praise Zedekiah in Lamentations yet reproach him in his own book, or how he could hope for aid to come from the Egyptians (4: 17) in view of the fact that he bitterly opposed the policy of the kings of Judah to ally with Egypt.
Yet the relationship between this and the period and teachings of Jeremiah cannot be doubted, except for the passages mentioned. Therefore, there is a good basis for thinking that it was written in Palestine, shortly after the fall of Jerusalem in 587, if not by Jeremiah himself, then by a secretary of his, in which case the question of authorship is a secondary one.
Lamentations is much admired for its content and poetic beauty. The structure of the first four poems is alphabetical; each of its stanzas begins with one of the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet, a device frequently used in the Bible to help memorization of the text. The fifth lamentation is not alphabetical, although it also has twenty-two stanzas.
In the course of each of these lamentations the drama of destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple is described in tones of deep pathos, but what they mainly stress is divine punishment of its inhabitants for betraying and abandoning Yahweh. In spite of this terrible punishment the poems recognize that it has served to awaken the people to their sin (5:16) and cause them to desire to turn back to God: "Restore us to thyself, O Lord, that we may be restored" (5:21).
The main teaching in this little book is summed up in the following point which well warrants meditation: Faults and sins, no matter how enormous they be, can, if they are humbly recognized and confessed with true repentance, help to lead one back to God and be pardoned by him. Hence the hope of forgiveness in this poem:
"Rejoice and be glad, O daughter of Edom, dweller in the land of Uz;
"But to you also the cup shall pass; you shall become drunk and strip yourself bare.
"The punishment of your iniquity, O daughter of Zion, is accomplished, he will keep you in exile no longer;
"But your iniquity, O daughter of Edom, he will punish, he will uncover your sins" (Lam. 4:21-22).
This is a canticle appropriately used in the Church's Holy Week liturgy. Through the passion and death of our Lord, provided man recognizes and confesses his sins, he is enabled to rejoice and to share in the glory of the resurrection of his Lord.
The book of Baruch, a deuterocanonical book of the Old Testament, comes after Lamentations in the Vulgate, but the Septuagint puts it after Jeremiah because of its obviously close connection. Although it is not part of the Hebrew canon, it was read in the synagogue, like Lamentations. The Fathers of the Church (Athenagoras, Irenaeus, and Clement of Alexandria, among others) considered Baruch to be an inspired book. This is the official position of the Church, which ever since the Council of Trent lists it in the canon of Scripture.
Baruch (= blessed) was the secretary and disciple of Jeremiah (Jer. 32: 12ft). After the assassination of Gedaliah he was forcibly taken, with Jeremiah, to Egypt (Jer. 43). Later, as he himself tells us, he left Egypt (1: 12) and joined the Jewish exiles in Babylon, where he wrote his book and gave a public reading of it on the fifth anniversary of the destruction of Jerusalem (581).
He returned to Jerusalem that same year with monies collected for those remaining in the city, for burnt offerings and sin offerings; he brought with him some of the sacred vessels which Nebuchadnezzar had plundered from the Temple and must surely have read out the book on the occasion of the feast of Tabernacles (1:6-14).
The book consists of six chapters, the last of which gives the text of the Letter of Jeremiah. After a short historical introduction (1: 1-14), there are three fairly distinct parts to the book:
The first (1: 15-3:8) consists of a long prayer in which the people confess their sin and beg God's mercy and forgiveness; the second (3:9-4:4) is a hymn of praise to divine wisdom, an attribute of God which is inaccessible to man unless-as is the case with Israel-God makes his mind known in the form of his eternal law, the source of life; the third part (4:5-5:9) is an exhortation in which Jerusalem, cast in the role of a good mother, invites her children to have hope and confidence in God and in which the enemies of Israel are threatened with dire punishment. The book ends with a passage announcing the end of the exile and the return to Jerusalem.
The Letter of Jeremiah (this is the name given to chapter 6), whose original text according to scholars was in Hebrew, is, Jerome thinks, psuedoepigraphic, since he assigns it a date much later than that for the editing of the writings of that prophet. It probably comes from the third century B.C., when the worship of the gods was being reestablished in all its ancient splendor at Babylon. This, though, does not mean that chapter 6 is not an inspired text: The Fathers recognized it as such and it is in the Church's canon.
This sixth chapter, which is very beautifully written, is an argument in popular language in favor of the one true God. It ridicules idolatrous worship as vain and empty; the exiles have no need to fear it, no matter how decked out in gold or silver these idols are; they are only pieces of wood which cannot move and can do nothing to help themselves. The prophet cleverly proves that the gods the Babylonians adore are idols, on which no one can rely:
"They cannot save a man from death or rescue the weak from the strong. They cannot restore sight to a blind man; they cannot rescue a man who is in distress. They cannot take pity on a widow or do good to an orphan. These things that are made of wood and overlaid with gold and silver are like stones from the mountain, and those who serve them will be put to shame. Why then must anyone think that they are gods or call them gods?" (Bar. 6:36-40).
The teaching contained in this letter is in line with the prophetic writings we have already seen, even if it is of a later date. The only one in whom they should place their trust is the God of Israel, transcendent, eternal, unique-not the idols of Babylon, which people were trying to enthrone once again.