Lamentations: introducing this version

In brief: Alphabetic acrostics. And rhythmical qinah.

Lamentations is poetry. Not prose.

Arid brutality and vicious harshness are the hallmarks of both the text and message of Lamentations. Despite that, many English translations persist in deploying linguistic styles redolent of a gentle ramble through flowery meadows on an English summer's day in the company of pastoral poet William Wordsworth if he had accidentally brushed against a stinging nettle while picking one of his beloved daffodils.

Contrast this traditional, rather polite and somewhat expansive translation of Lam. 3:1–3 (New English Bible):

I am the man who has known affliction,
I have felt the rod of his wrath.
It was I whom he led away and left to walk
in darkness, where no light is.
Against me alone he has turned his hand
and so it is all day long.

with the tight, beat-driven, rhythmical version freshly offered here:

Agonies: I am the man seared
by the rod of his wrath;

Away—me he drove, force-marched
in darkness, no light;

Against me, he turns his hand
from day-dawn to dusk;

Can scripture be "performance poetry"?

Yes! See the Psalms. But even more so, Lamentations. Lamentations leaps into life when released from the bondage of our preconceptions.

Might our reading of scripture risk actually stifling it? We sit in comfortable chairs. We are silent. We smother it under a prose-shaped bias that pre-disposes our expectations: the earnest, spiritual quest for "the meaning". And we then, subconsciously, expect scripture to conform and behave in accordance with our pre-formed expectation of our "meaning".

But this version aims to demand us leap up and perform it aloud.

Poetry is far, far more than its mere component words and phrases. Prose often (not always, of course) attempts to tie down meaning to a particular intent.

By contrast to this "pinning down" of prose, the very form and nature of poetry can take us in the opposite direction: the act of performing it opens out the edges of meaning; it invites and encourages the reader to explore an open landscape. Poetic imagery points to experiences that eclipse words.[1] It can also purposefully exploit ambiguity: appearing to say one thing, yet simultaneously suggesting something else, even the opposite. A case in point here is 1:7–10: do we perceive and receive Daughter Zion as sinner or victim (or both)?

Poetry through the ages deploys a range of techniques. There is rhyme. Alliteration. Rhythm and metre. Even the physical feel of aloud-spoken words in the mouth plays a part.

Lamentations also has the acrostic, discarded in most translations. But perhaps even more important, and also jettisoned in most translations, is a forceful, angst-driven rhythm, known as qinah.[2]


Lamentations is poetry. Not prose.

Declaim it aloud! Vital to the Hebrew line-pair couplets of Lamentations is its three–two qinah stress pattern pervading all but the final chapter. Hebrew poetry can be tightly concise compared to English equivalents which tend to wax more loquaciously expansive. This version aims for that original tight conciseness.

Hit those stresses. This is rap. This is beat. Or, in more refined society, "sprung rhythm with attitude".

Agonies: I am the man seared
by the rod of his wrath;
Away me he drove, force-marched
in darkness, no light;
Against me, he turns his hand
from day-dawn to dusk;
—Lam. 3:1–3

Further, we might observe that the overall three–two count of the line resonates closely with the pentameter, so familiar in English poetry and particularly in Shakespeare plays; see the "Twelfth Night" extract above.[3]

It is sadly rare for an English translation to capture this condensed rhythmic vitality of the scriptural text. Admirers of the translation by Robert Alter will know his work to capture it; see, for example, his Psalm 29 and Genesis 1. Also notable is the New American Bible Revised Edition (NABRE); see their Introduction to Lamentations and their online translation. By coming to such texts from the poetic angle, some of this can be regained.

I thoroughly recommend these translations. But note that both had other constraints which ruled against them additionally using acrostics.

…and acrostics

Lamentations is poetry. Not prose.

Several psalms use the technique of acrostics in the Hebrew alphabet of 22 letters.[5] Many of us may already be familiar with this, lurking, but usually ignored by us, in the background.

In the Lamentations anthology of five poems, four are Hebrew-acrostic and the third of these is even triple acrostic:

Agonies: I am …

Away—me he drove …

Against me, he turns …


Breaking my bones …

Besieged by him …

Bound by him …

—Lam. 3:1–6

The final poem, while not Hebrew-acrostic, nevertheless also has 22 stanzas and some see a surprising hidden acrostic in its final four stanzas, whose principle is also made manifest in this rendering.

An aim of this new version is to capture that foundational acrostic technique that almost all modern translations lack, that of Ronald Knox being an exception.[6]

In mapping Hebrew's 22 letters onto the western alphabet's 26, four letters need omitting.[7] Knox chose to omit the final four: W–Z. But an appeal of alphabetic-acrostic poetry is its all-encompassing "A to Z" sense of totality;[8] a suffering as vast as the universe of pain, from "A to Z", to which nothing more can be added.[9] In the case of the people of Lamentations, this was the totality of the destruction of their beloved Jerusalem; the Annihilation of Zion. Indeed, the text of the second poem is itself book-ended, "A to Z" style, by "the day of the Lord's anger".

So isn't this "aleph to tav", "A to Z" totality equally valid as an integral, even essential, component of "meaning"? Whatever necessary four letters are chosen for omission, 'A' and 'Z' surely remain indispensable.

Linguistic styling

In his magesterial translation of the Hebrew Bible, Robert Alter notes: "This [acrostic] form leads to even more syntactic inversions than is common in biblical Hebrew, with the object of the verb 'fronted' at the beginning of many lines, but the poet exploits this pattern for expressive emphasis."[10]

English translations of Lamentations also tend to lose important stylistic distinctions between different chapters, and thereby lose a richness of biblical diversity, even between adjacent chapters.[11] A key example is the second chapter, in which over 80% of the Hebrew text's verses start with a verb. This itself generates a pounding effect to the hearer, audience or alert reader. I could find only a single translation which had this: Young's Literal Translation from the late nineteenth century. But even that seemed to be simply a by-product, rather than intention, of its translation paradigm, and it still missed a couple of instances. Of course, the acrostic nature at the start of the Hebrew verse hugely restricts our verb choice in its English representation (Young's non-acrostic translation was unhindered by this significant constraint) but it seems at least worth attempting, although a few instances were not possible.

Again, a prose-biased quest for "meaning" might miss these distinctive characteristics. But they can come across with authentic power in the poem and staged reading.

Why the chapter introductions and footnotes?

This version makes no attempt to be a commentary, whether devotional or as biblical study. Nor does it attempt to provide any systematic historical or theological background for the book (which, in short, was of utter devastation and catastrophe for the Jewish people around 587/586 BCE: the destruction of their homeland and temple, and their forced exile to Babylon). For these purposes many excellent commentaries already exist and several are listed in the Bibliography.

Instead, it has a relatively unique slant towards public recitation and even staged performance. (And, yes, it is perfectly possible for recital and staged performance to be devotional, and deeply so.) So the primary, although not exclusive, purpose of the introductions and footnotes is to provide background and ideas from the perspectives of recitation and stage production.

In summary

Lamentations is poetry. Not prose.

So why this version? No existing translation seems to capture the essential characteristics of the original Hebrew: Z-inclusive acrostic; qinah; linguistic compactness.

Perform it aloud! Stage it in a worship space!

See the visual acrostic; speak that qinah.


I am deeply grateful to:

[1] Hens-Piazza (2017), p.xlvi.

[2] The term qinah has two different poetic uses: (a) large-scale: the genre of an entire funeral-eulogy poem; (b) small-scale: a particular 3–2 rhythm within a poetic line, primarily but not exclusively used within such eulogies. Middlemas (2021) discusses both: p.2 (large-scale genre), pp.22–23 (rhythm) and p.33 (their interaction). In our context, we use the rhythmic meaning.

[3] The pentameter analogy is only partial. Whereas pentameter, in its familiar iambic form, is reasonably strict "weak-strong" syllable-pairs (so "w-S w-S w-S w-S w-S"), qinah frequently has two or more weak syllables (occasionally zero) between the strong beats. So "Agonies: I am the man seared by the rod of his wrath" is "S-w-w S-w-w-w S-w-w S-w-w S".

[4] Minkoff (1997).

[5] The alphabetic-acrostic psalms are: 9–10 (as a pair), 25, 34, 37, 111, 112, 119 (eightfold acrostic) and 145.

[6] Unfortunately the Knox translation de-regularises the all-important opening 'A' word of chapters 1, 2 and 4. These ought to be consistently "Alas" or equivalent but instead become the inconsistent set "Alone", "Alas" and "All".

[7] There is a further subtlety of a letter-reversal at one point in two slightly different orderings of the Hebrew alphabet in different chapters. This is deemed irrelevant here, as we already have to omit four letters of our own alphabet.

[8] Berman (2023), p.151; Bergsma et al (2018), p.817; van der Spuy (2008), pp.513–532.

[9] O'Connor (2002), p.13.

[10] Alter (2019), vol.3 (The Writings), p.657.

[11] This translation loss is readily apparent in other biblical texts, especially in the Hebrew Bible (our Christian Old Testament). For me as a scientist and erstwhile geologist, a key loss is across the two markedly different and contrasting creation accounts at the opening of Genesis.