In the Hebrew Bible these Elegies of Jeremiah, five in number, are placed among the Chetuvim, or |Holy Writings| (|the Psalms,| &c., Lu 24:44), between Ruth and Ecclesiastes. But though in classification of compositions it belongs to the Chetuvim, it probably followed the prophecies of Jeremiah originally. For thus alone can we account for the prophetical books being enumerated by Josephus [Against Apion, 1.1.8] as thirteen: he must have reckoned Jeremiah and Lamentations as one book, as also Judges and Ruth, the two books of Samuel, &c., Ezra and Nehemiah. The Lamentations naturally follow the book which sets forth the circumstances forming the subject of the Elegies. Similar lamentations occur in 2Sa 1:19, &c.; 3:33. The Jews read it in their synagogues on the ninth of the month Ab, which is a fast for the destruction of their holy city. As in 2Ch 35:25, |lamentations| are said to have been |written| by Jeremiah on the death of Josiah, besides it having been made |an ordinance in Israel| that |singing women| should |speak| of that king in lamentations; Josephus [Antiquities, 10.5.1], Jerome, &c., thought that they are contained in the present collection. But plainly the subject here is the overthrow of the Jewish city and people, as the Septuagint expressly states in an introductory verse to their version. The probability is that there is embodied in these Lamentations much of the language of Jeremiah's original Elegy on Josiah, as 2Ch 35:25 states; but it is now applied to the more universal calamity of the whole state, of which Josiah's sad death was the forerunner. Thus La 4:20, originally applied to Josiah, was |written,| in its subsequent reference, not so much of him, as of the throne of Judah in general, the last representative of which, Zedekiah, had just been carried away. The language, which is true of good Josiah, is too strong in favor of Zedekiah, except when viewed as representative of the crown in general. It was natural to embody the language of the Elegy on Josiah in the more general lamentations, as his death was the presage of the last disaster that overthrew the throne and state.
The title more frequently given by the Jews to these Elegies is, |How| (Hebrew, Eechah), from the first word, as the Pentateuch is similarly called by the first Hebrew word of Ge 1:1. The Septuagint calls it |Lamentations,| from which we derive the name. It refers not merely to the events which occurred at the capture of the city, but to the sufferings of the citizens (the penalty of national sin) from the very beginning of the siege; and perhaps from before it, under Manasseh and Josiah (2Ch 33:11; 35:20-25); under Jehoahaz, Jehoiakim, and Zedekiah (2Ch 36:3, 4, 6, 7, 10, 11, &c.). Lowth says, |Every letter is written with a tear, every word the sound of a broken heart.| The style is midway between the simple elevation of prophetic writing and the loftier rhythm of Moses, David, and Habakkuk. Terse conciseness marks the Hebrew original, notwithstanding Jeremiah's diffuseness in his other writings. The Elegies are grouped in stanzas as they arose in his mind, without any artificial system of arrangement as to the thoughts. The five Elegies are acrostic: each is divided into twenty-two stanzas or verses. In the first three Elegies the stanzas consist of triplets of lines (excepting La 1:7; 2:19, which contain each four lines) each beginning with the letters of the Hebrew alphabet in regular order (twenty-two in number). In three instances (La 2:16, 17; 3:46-51; 4:16, 17) two letters are transposed. In the third Elegy, each line of the three forming every stanza begins with the same letter. The stanzas in the fourth and fifth Elegies consist of two lines each. The fifth Elegy, though having twenty-two stanzas (the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet), just as the first four, yet is not alphabetical; and its lines are shorter than those of the others, which are longer than are found in other Hebrew poems, and contain twelve syllables, marked by a cæsura about the middle, dividing them into two somewhat unequal parts. The alphabetical arrangement was adopted originally to assist the memory. Grotius thinks the reason for the inversion of two of the Hebrew letters in La 2:16, 17; 3:46-51; 4:16, 17, is that the Chaldeans, like the Arabians, used a different order from the Hebrews; in the first Elegy, Jeremiah speaks as a Hebrew, in the following ones, as one subject to the Chaldeans. This is doubtful.