How to Read Lamentations

The Book of Lamentations

Planting a garden requires the right tools. And so does interpreting the Bible. But instead of shovels, rakes, and weeders, we use observation, interpretation, contextualization, and application. 

The book of Lamentations is a poetic reflection on the siege of Jerusalem and the exile.  This video from The Bible Project provides an overview of the book. The goal of this post is not to replace your personal study of the Bible. Rather, it is to help you navigate the reflection of Lamentations, discover what it teaches, dive into how it fits into the rest of the Bible, and look at how it applies to your life. Use the questions below as a guide as you watch this video.

As the video points out, Lamentations is a poetic reflection on the siege of Jerusalem and the exile, a memorial to the pain and confusion of the Israelites following such a horrendous catastrophe. Since the entire book encompasses a vast array of themes and subjects, this post focuses on Lamentations 3. Use the principles from the video to inform your answers to the following questions about Lamentations 3.

Lamentations 3:1-66 (ESV)

Great Is Your Faithfulness

1 I am the man who has seen affliction

under the rod of his wrath;

2he has driven and brought me

into darkness without any light;

3surely against me he turns his hand

again and again the whole day long.

4He has made my flesh and my skin waste away;

he has broken my bones;

5 he has besieged and enveloped me

with bitterness and tribulation;

6 he has made me dwell in darkness

like the dead of long ago.

7 He has walled me about so that I cannot escape;

he has made my chains heavy;

8though I call and cry for help,

he shuts out my prayer;

9 he has blocked my ways with blocks of stones;

he has made my paths crooked.

10 He is a bear lying in wait for me,

a lion in hiding;

11 he turned aside my steps and tore me to pieces;

he has made me desolate;

12 he bent his bow and set me

as a target for his arrow.

13He drove into my kidneys

the arrows of his quiver;

14 I have become the laughingstock of all peoples,

the object of their taunts all day long.

15 He has filled me with bitterness;

he has sated me with wormwood.

16 He has made my teeth grind on gravel,

and made me cower in ashes;

17my soul is bereft of peace;

I have forgotten what happiness is;

18 so I say, “My endurance has perished;

so has my hope from the Lord.”

19 Remember my affliction and my wanderings,

the wormwood and the gall!

20My soul continually remembers it

and is bowed down within me.

21But this I call to mind,

and therefore I have hope:

22 The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;

his mercies never come to an end;

23they are new every morning;

great is your faithfulness.

24 “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,

“therefore I will hope in him.”

25The Lord is good to those who wait for him,

to the soul who seeks him.

26 It is good that one should wait quietly

for the salvation of the Lord.

27 It is good for a man that he bear

the yoke in his youth.

28Let him sit alone in silence

when it is laid on him;

29 let him put his mouth in the dust—

there may yet be hope;

30 let him give his cheek to the one who strikes,

and let him be filled with insults.

31 For the Lord will not

cast off forever,

32but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion

according to the abundance of his steadfast love;

33 for he does not afflict from his heart

or grieve the children of men.

34To crush underfoot

all the prisoners of the earth,

35 to deny a man justice

in the presence of the Most High,

36to subvert a man in his lawsuit,

the Lord does not approve.

37 Who has spoken and it came to pass,

unless the Lord has commanded it?

38 Is it not from the mouth of the Most High

that good and bad come?

39 Why should a living man complain,

a man, about the punishment of his sins?

40Let us test and examine our ways,

and return to the Lord!

41 Let us lift up our hearts and hands

to God in heaven:

42 “We have transgressed and rebelled,

and you have not forgiven.

43“You have wrapped yourself with anger and pursued us,

killing without pity;

44 you have wrapped yourself with a cloud

so that no prayer can pass through.

45 You have made us scum and garbage

among the peoples.

46 “All our enemies

open their mouths against us;

47 panic and pitfall have come upon us,

devastation and destruction;

48 my eyes flow with rivers of tears

because of the destruction of the daughter of my people.

49 “My eyes will flow without ceasing,

without respite,

50 until the Lord from heaven

looks down and sees;

51my eyes cause me grief

at the fate of all the daughters of my city.

52 “I have been hunted like a bird

by those who were my enemies without cause;

53 they flung me alive into the pit

and cast stones on me;

54 water closed over my head;

I said, ‘I am lost.’

55 “I called on your name, O Lord,

from the depths of the pit;

56 you heard my plea, ‘Do not close

your ear to my cry for help!’

57 You came near when I called on you;

you said, ‘Do not fear!’

58“You have taken up my cause, O Lord;

you have redeemed my life.

59You have seen the wrong done to me, O Lord;

judge my cause.

60You have seen all their vengeance,

all their plots against me.

61 “You have heard their taunts, O Lord,

all their plots against me.

62The lips and thoughts of my assailants

are against me all the day long.

63 Behold their sitting and their rising;

I am the object of their taunts.

64 “You will repay them, O Lord,

according to the work of their hands.

65You will give them dullness of heart;

your curse will be on them.

66You will pursue them in anger and destroy them

from under your heavens, O Lord.”

Scripture quotations marked (ESV) are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Observation asks the basic question: who, what, where, and when. It examines the book at a surface level—the characters, events, themes, culture, and genre. Observations may seem obvious at first, but they open the door to the meaning of any part of the Bible. Be careful to not jump ahead to interpreting the observations, or assigning them meaning. Just list them. 

Example: The author repeatedly says that God is the one who has made him suffer. God has broken his bones, besieged him, walled him up, made his chains heavy.

Observe: As you watched the video, and then read the psalm, what observations could you make about Lamentations 3? (Consider the characters, locations, objects, metaphors, comparisons, cultural aspects, genre, themes, and actions of the characters.)
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Where an observation determines what Lamentations 3 says, interpretation takes the next step to find out what it means. We’ve asked what Lamentations 3 says about God and humanity, and now we ask what that means. Look at the themes and ask what they mean as well.

Example: (Observation) The author repeatedly says that God is the one who has made him suffer. God has broken his bones, besieged him, walled him up, made his chains heavy. (Interpretation) God is ultimately in control of the circumstances in which we find ourselves; if suffering is occurring, God has allowed that into our lives, and in Israel’s case, is allowing them to reap the consequences of their sin and broken covenant.

Interpret: What is significant about each of the observations you made above? What is the main message of Lamentations 3? (Think about what this book teaches about God and humanity and what that teaching means, as well as the meaning of the themes.)
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Contextualization looks at how a book or chapter fits into the story of the Bible. It connects the themes that pop up throughout the story of Scripture and sees how the book or chapter fills in the biblical narrative. 

Example: Moses warns Israel of their ability to choose blessing or curse by keeping or forsaking the covenant. The Israelites are repeatedly unfaithful to the covenant. Prophets warn of exile. God is faithful—both to His covenant, and to His character. He must bring judgment on rampant evil. We reap what we sow. God is sovereign over all circumstance. Proverbs repeatedly urges us to choose wisdom over folly.

Contextualize: What themes does Lamentations 3 seem to establish? How do those themes connect with the rest of the book of Lamentations? What themes would you say have potential to carry forward into other books of the Bible? What themes connect back to the Torah (Genesis through Deuteronomy) or the historical books (Judges through 2 Kings)?
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Application asks, “So what?” It considers how the meaning of a book or chapter applies to our day-to-day lives. The point of reading Scripture isn’t to become puffed up with knowledge, but to be transformed. Ask God to show you how you can specifically put the truths from this book into practice. Brainstorm ways you can live out what you learned throughout your day.

Example: Just as Israel experienced the consequences of their sin and forsaking God, I also get to choose blessing or curse in my life. If I choose to obey, seek wisdom, and follow the Lord, I will reap the consequences of those actions. Likewise, if I choose to disobey, forsake God, and go my own way, I will reap the consequences of that action. God, in His sovereign faithfulness, will allow the proper consequences, and sometimes will allow suffering into my life (often independent of my choices), but always for the purposes of accomplishing His good plan.

Apply: How does the truth from Lamentations 3 affect you and your relationship with God and others? What are some specific actions you could take to live out the truths found in this book this week?
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The last step in reading the Bible helps wrap everything up. We take the time to summarize the main message and implications of the book. As you summarize what you learned, it solidifies what God taught you through this video.  

Share: Now that you’ve spent time learning about Lamentations, how would you explain the main points of this book to a friend? If you were going to explain what you learned to a friend, what would you say? What would you be sure to include? Why?
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Reading the Bible doesn’t have to be like weeding a garden. You can find great joy in learning about God through His Word. Read through Lamentations this week. As you study, use observation, interpretation, contextualization, and application as a guide. Take the next step and put what you learn into practice. 

To learn more about The Bible Project, click here.