Lamentations 3

Lamentations 3 takes the acrostic nature of these poems a step further than the others. Not only do we have the twenty-two stanzas corresponding to the Hebrew alphabet, but each stanza itself has three lines sharing that same initial letter.

In contrast to the first and second poems which are voiced by Daughter Zion and reflect a woman's perspective of the effects of war and siege, this poem is strongly masculine in perspective. Indeed its opening words would be best translated as "I am the man", from the male-specific Hebrew geber.[1] This recurs in verses 27, 35 and 39.[2]

Structurally, while the acrostic tends to produce its own grouping within acrostic boundaries, observe how particular thoughts may have their own counter-grouping cutting across these boundaries. An early, clear example is at 12–13 where the bow-and-arrow crosses the D/E acrostic boundary. This "enjambment" of ideas and images across the alphabetic boundaries is a counterweight to the formal structuring of the acrostic, and this keeps the poem moving forwards.[3] See also 3–4, 15–16, 42–44, 45–47 and 48–51. A similar change of thought happens between 58 and 59 within the 'W' stanza.

And it is within a single verse, at 42, that perhaps the most abrupt change of direction happens. Just when the poet is on the brink of regaining his confidence, the vision of fragile hope is shattered and evaporates: "But you did not forgive". Like a thunderbolt from a clear blue sky, scything through the verse and cutting apart the established Deuteronomic pattern of "we repent; God will forgive": "But you did not forgive".[4] This may be the most disturbing idea in the chapter, and in the entire book.[5]

There are many, especially in my own tradition, the protestant regions of the western Christian faith, who isolate the hopeful passage of 3:22–39 from the stark images of the rest of the poems; we tend to attach notions such as "central", "focus" and "highlight" to verses in this small passage in this third chapter. But it seems useful, verging on essential, to recognise that this "grand statement of hope stands at the centre of the work as a whole but not as the focal point [emphasis mine] because it exists in tension with the portraits of human suffering…in the more negative images of the material."[10] So if we really want a retain the notion of a single point of highlight, then we should instead look to the fifth, final chapter as most important, whose communal voice, singly expressed, plays a vital role.[11]

As if to support this, "there are a number of places in 3:25–39 where the [Hebrew] syntax is convoluted and even problematic.… One effect…is to disrupt…the ease and forthrightness of the poetry's meaning at this point, to slow down the reading process and to require our closer attention. Dissonance thus enters the poetry's message"[12] at precisely the solitary point where hope is expressed. The syntax of this new version attempts to reflect this. Similarly, the intensely ordered form of the triple acrostic in the man's outward speech is strikingly at odds with the ambiguity riddling his interior response.[13]

Several commentators see in the first few verses a sort of "anti-psalm" to the well-known Psalm 23, "The Lord is my shepherd".[14] (Hover the mouse over verses 1–3 to see the text of the psalm.)

Acrostic omissions: I, K, Q, X

Agonies: I am the man[15] 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;[16]


Breaking my bones, he has wasted
my flesh and my skin.

Besieged by him; he caged me
by hardship and gall;

Bound by him in darkness
to dwell as the ever-dead.


Confining, inescapably walled,
he chained me, he weighted me;

Cry though I into the void,
he blanks out my prayer.

Confining my walkway with hewn stone,
he twisted my paths;


Dangerous as an ambushing bear,
as a prey-stalking lion,

Dragging from my pathway he ripped me
and desolate made me.

Drawing his bow, he propped me:
for his arrows a target;


Eviscerated he my innards
with the shafts of his quiver.[17]

Excoriated, to my kinsfolk a laughing-stock,
their taunt-tune the day long.

Engorging me, force-feeding bitterness
he sated me with wormwood;


Fracturing my teeth on gravel,
he ground me in dust.

Forsworn has he peace from my soul,
I forgot what is good;

Fled, perished dregs of honour and
vestigial hope from the Lord.[18]


Gall and wormwood are my searing
and downfall—such remembering;[19][20]

Grief downcasts my soul—
such recollecting; such remembering.

Glimmering with this to heart
therefore I will hope:


How constant the Lord's loyalties;[21]
his compassion is never drained;

His mercies renew each day-dawning;
how great is your faithfulness.

Hope I therefore in him; my soul says
"My portion is the Lord".[22]


Judicious[23] is the Lord to his seekers,
to the soul who quests for him;

Judicious is our hoping, and in silence,
for the Lord's deliverance;

Judicious is a man's bearing
the yoke while in youth;


Lonesome let him sit,[24] and in silence,
when it's laid so upon him.

Lend he his mouth to the dust—[25]
perhaps yet may be hope;

Lend he his cheek to the assailant;
take his fill of disgrace.


Mankind's forswearing by our Lord[26]
lasts not forever;

Mercy is his, though he afflicted;
so great his loving-kindness.

Mean heart guides not his affliction
of humanity's children.


Neutering, crushing underfoot
all prisoners of earth;

Nay-saying, denying this man's rights
before the Most High;

Negating one's pleading for justice;
—does our Lord not look?


Ordering futures? Who can make so
should our Lord not decree?

Out of the Most High's mouth, come not
both disaster and good?

Of what shall one living complain;
this man for his sins?[27]


Plumb we our ways, examine them,
and turn back to the Lord;

Plead we, hearts and hands raised,
to God on high:

Perversely we have transgressed.
—But you did not forgive;


Re-cloaked[28] in anger, you pursued us;
you slew us pitilessly;

Re-cloaked in enveloping cloud:
impervious to prayer.

Rejected you made us, discarded,[29]
in the midst of the peoples;


Snapping and gaping their mouths at us
are all our enemies;

Suffering, ours: terror and traps,
ransack and ravaging.[30]

Stream tears from my eyes
at my Daughter People's ravaging;[31]


Tears stream: unbidden,
no respite, unending,

Till out looks the Lord
and sees from the heavens.

Tears stream, tormenting my soul
for all the daughters of my city.


Unreasoning, my enemies ensnared me,
ensnaring as a bird;

Undone—my life in a pit
as rocks they cast on me;

Under waters engulfing my head;
I thought, "I am lost".[32]


Voice[33] I your name, Lord,
from bottom-most pit;

Validate my plea; close not
your ears to my cry.

Venturing close when I call you,
say: "do not fear".


When you plead, my Lord, my cause,
you redeem my soul.

Witness, Lord, how I am wronged;
do justice for me;

Witness all their vindictiveness,
their scheming against me.


You hear, Lord, their insults,
their scheming at me:[34]

Yonder, foes prattle against me
from day-dawn to dusk;

You notice? Whether seated or rising,
I am their snide-song.[35]


Zilch make their rewards, O Lord,
for the works at their hands;

Ziplock their cold hearts:
your curse upon them;

Zealously hunt them, destroy them
under the heavens of the Lord.

[1] Contrast the Hebrew adam which, rather like the English word "man", is not only the male "Adam" in the Gen.2 Adam and Eve creation story, but can sometimes be read in gender-inclusive manner as in the "mankind/adam…male and female [God] created them" in the preceding Gen.1 creation story.

[2] Middlemas (2021), p.45.

[3] Berlin (2004), p.85.

[4] Respectively: Dobbs-Allsopp (1997), p.48; Hens-Piazza (2017), p.52. Also O'Connor (2002), p.53.

[5] Berlin (2004), p.96.

[6] Goldingay (2022), p.123. But Hens-Piazza (2017), p.39 sees just one voice throughout.

[7] Berlin (2004), p.92.

[8] Goldingay (2022), p.150; Dobbs-Allsopp (1997), p.41.

[9] Berman (2023), pp.114–116.

[10] Middlemas (2004), p.94.

[11] Kang & Venter (2009), p.2.

[12] Dobbs-Allsopp (2012), pp.120–121.

[13] Hens-Piazza (2017), p.40.

[14] Van Hecke (2002); Berlin (2004), p.86 n.4; Hens-Piazza (2017), p.41; Berman (2023), p.97.

[15] Translation compromise. Ideally this would start "I am the man" but the acrostic constraint doesn't allow this.

[16] Each of these three verses is headed by a first person pronoun, thus stressing the first person nature of this discourse. Berlin (2004), p.88.

[17] 12–13: see also Ps.38:3 "Your arrows have sunk deep in me; your hand has come down upon me." (NABRE)

[18] The original carries a double meaning of not only "hope in the Lord has perished" but also "hope because of the Lord has perished". See also Dobbs-Allsopp (2012), p.114.

[19] In the Hebrew text both 19 and 20 start with an emphatic verb "remember". In 20, this is doubled, albeit in different conjugations. So "19Remember… 20Remember, remember…". Our English acrostic would require a synonymous 'G' verb. No such verb seems apparent. To reflect at least some representation of this structure and emphasis, we position the verb at the verse-ends.

[20] This "remembering" verse brings the section towards its close, itself recalling its opening "searing", O'Connor (2002), p.48, and bracketing its "gall" (v5) and "wormwood" (v15), Goldingay (2022), p.136. It also recalls the "downfall" of 1:7,9; Goldingay (2022), pp.60–61, 65, 135–136; Berlin(2004), p.82.

[21] In the Greek Septuagint/LXX, this three-verse acrostic stanza, 22–24, is strangely absent. The previous stanza, 19–21, ends with "therefore I will hope" and 22–24 (in the Hebrew) with "therefore I will hope in him". This similarity possibly led to its accidental omission (homoioteleuton) by its translators. Provan (2016), p.93; Goldingay (2022), p.137.

[22] This section of first person narrative concludes with three references to the self, before the narrative switches to a third person perspective.

[23] In this stanza, each line shares an opening Hebrew word meaning "good".

[24] "Sit" is the same verb as 1:1—"Alone she sits". Goldingay (2022), p.143.

[25] Lines two and three of this stanza start with the same verb that can mean put, give or offer.

[26] As with the 'I' stanza, the lines in this 'M' stanza should all start with the same word, in this case a small, simple word to mean "for…" or "because…". Unfortunately this is a challenge too far. Had this stanza been 'N' rather than 'M', "now" would have been a possibility. But that would then have required a subsequent stanza of three 'Q' or 'X' words.

[27] The first half-verse has Hebrew adam, the second has geber. This contrast is preserved here using "one" and "man".

[28] The Hebrew verb here often refers to the covering of the Ark of the Covenant: the immanent presence of God. It also alludes to the Exdous "pillar of cloud" and to Moses on Mt. Sinai. While those had beneficially signified the presence of God with his people, here God has erected a barrier against his own people. "Nowhere in Lamentations, and perhaps the entire Bible, is God's refusal to be present more strongly expressed." Berlin (2004) p.96.

[29] The "discarded" can be seen as anticipating its recurrence at 5:22, the devastating final verse of the entire book. Goldingay (2022), p.153.

[30] Verses 47–48 involve alliteration and the repetition of "ravaging".

[31] The "Daughter People" half-line is the same at 2:11, 3:48 and 4:10.

[32] 53–54: see also Ps.88:7–8 "You plunge me into the bottom of the pit, into the darkness of the abyss. Your wrath lies heavy upon me; all your waves crash over me." (NABRE)

[33] In 55–61 the verb tenses, which work differently between Biblical Hebrew and English, can be interpreted as past or present or even a mixture. We follow Dobbs-Allsopp (2012), pp.126–127, Berlin (2004), pp.81–83 and Provan (2016), pp.105–108 in adopting the present tense. For the past tense, see Goldingay (2022), pp.156ff.

[34] A near-direct repetition from the previous verse. Goldingay (2022), p.159 indicates that the slight change in the second occurrence makes it sharper. The choice here of "against me" and "at me" attempts to reflect this. This "against/at me" also recurs in the following verse.

[35] Just as this poem opens with "I am", so also it (almost) closes.