The Bible was not written in chapter and verse. That is to say, Christians added the convention of dividing the books into sections at a later date in order to standardize scriptural references throughout the expanding Church and provide a shorthand method for citing passages without having to quote them at length. In many parts of the Bible, especially those written in prose, the precise dividing points between verses are somewhat arbitrary, since such passages constitute progressive narratives or cohesive discourses meant to be taken by the whole, and you’ve probably run across a couple spots in the Bible where the verse divisions seem particularly weird and random. The big exception to all this is, of course, the poetry of the Old Testament, which was written in definite lines that can easily be numbered in a way that faithfully conveys the original structure of the text.
In the case of Lamentations, I’m not sure the writer would have numbered it any differently himself. Lamentations is one large poem composed of five smaller poems, and thus five chapters. As any translation worth its ink will tell you in the footnotes, each of the first four chapters is an acrostic poem. In chapters one and two, each verse is three lines, but the first line of verse one begins with an aleph, verse two with a beth, verse three with a gimmel etc. Chapter four is similarly patterned, though each verse is only two lines instead of three. Chapter three is unique in that every line gets the acrostic treatment, making the pattern AAA BBB CCC etc.; the later scholars decided to make each line its own verse but also to denote the line triplets via stanza breaks.
The fifth and final poem/chapter is also unusual–not just because it breaks from the acrostic format, but because it is significantly shorter than the other poems. Instead of twenty-two sets of lines, it is simply twenty-two lines. Reading straight through from the earlier parts of the book (as the author intended) makes this last poem feel markedly fast-paced.
I’m gonna go ahead and stop you right there, Jordan. That’s really nice and all, but what does the poetic structure of Lamentations have to do with the content? Why not just start talking about what the author says instead of spending so much time talking about how he says it? Have patience, O italicized one, and I will explain. See, form and content are perpetual bedfellows; simply put, how you say something is part of what you’re saying. For instance, you’ll never hear a death metal cover of “Here Comes the Sun” on the radio (I hope), because the very premise is self-defeating; death metal as a musical style is designed for messages of anger and malcontent, and any uplifting lyric would be negated by the overwhelming influence of the medium in which it was expressed. You’d think the singer was being ironic or cynical rather than sincere. Similarly, a love letter written in the style of a press release will probably fail to convey its full meaning, and the Declaration of Independence would have been received quite differently if presented to King George via a flamboyant Broadway musical number. (Happy Fourth of July, everyone!) In addition to the style of a whole work, the progression of its parts is also significant to its meaning; a reader or listener’s expectations may be affirmed or purposely thwarted, and various devices can be employed to emphasize certain points of a transmission. The Pauline Epistles are excellent examples of this, as are many songs by the legendary rock group Queen. [Now there’s a sentence I never expected to write.]
And so we have two questions to consider:
1.) Why is Lamentations a poem?
2.) What specific poetic devices are employed, and what is their significance?
That first question is worth considering, even if we don’t exactly have something solid to point to for a definite answer. If life is SO bad for the author and his people, why express the agony through a poem? Poetry itself is a very versatile medium which can lend itself to all kinds of messages, styles, and tones, but what sets poetry apart from prose–what makes it poetry–is that it has a deliberate, premeditated structure. (Even the appearance of lacking structure can be a purposeful structure, as evidenced by much contemporary poetry.) Furthermore, in the case of Lamentations, the poetic structure is especially meticulous and organized. This demonstrates, at the very least, that Lamentations is not an outburst or a knee-jerk reaction or an emotional spasm. It is thoughtful and deliberate, tightly written and carefully constructed–and instead of diminishing the effect of the lament, this amplifies it. The emotion is palpable because the poem is brilliantly composed.
Now consider that Lamentations is a prayer of petition to the Lord. The author repeatedly implores God to see his people’s destitution, end their suffering, punish their enemies, and restore them to Himself. Instead of gushing out prayer like an emotional Krakatoa, the author builds his case with great care, using the full extent of his intellectual and creative capabilities to compose something beautiful and moving. Does God value thoughtfulness, creativity, and beauty in our prayers to Him? I should think so. Of course, God doesn’t play favorites by intellect or writing skill. But since the author of Lamentations has taken the time to reflect and consider, he is able even amid his pain and sorrow to remember and declare with confidence that “though He brings grief, He will show compassion, so great is His unfailing love.” The author has done his homework on the character of God, that his petition might be informed by the truths that are often easy to forget and difficult to feel. A supplicant who is not mindful of such truths surely would lack the patience and thoughtfulness necessary to compose this work.
Even if you and I do not plan to start writing prayer poems to God, perhaps we should be thoughtful enough in our responses to life’s turbulence and in our prayers such that we could if we wanted to. At the very least, let us commit to faithfulness in recalling to ourselves the often intangible yet supremely real truth of God’s love, lest in our emotional upheavals we pray foolishly.
……Oh, you want to talk about question two too? Next time, dear reader. Next time.