Lamentations 5

Lamentations 5, like other chapters, has the same number of stanzas, 22, as the Hebrew alphabet. But unlike the other chapters:

Even, it would appear, the toehold of sanity provided by those features has evaporated. The very attempt to impose structure upon the chaos is under threat; structure and content conspire together to provide the book with a very unsettling ending.[2]

Further, the Hebrew Masoretic text puts a section break between verses 18 and 19.[3] Mount Zion, God's dwelling-place and formerly "joy of all the earth" (2:15 and Ps.48:2) is now abandoned, in chaos, like the primordial cosmos before creation. Bleak, indeed.

Yet this chapter, above the others, is the book's prayer. It is preceded by abandonment, especially chapter 4, which "was distinctive for incorprating no speaking to Yahweh".[4] It remains in abandonment. But whereas the other litanies of complaint had addressed God mostly en passant, this chapter is framed as a prayer to him. This is the pinnacle: "the lamenting population was shown a way to rebuild their shattered universe by, paradoxically, reaching out to their God who was not there for them anymore".[5] And textually, although the previous qinah rhythm and sophisticated cross-line and cross-verse enjambment have all but vanished, there are instead the more balanced lines of Hebrew poetry with pervasive parallelism:[6] the form so emblematic of Bible's highest form of prayer, the Psalms.

A further contrast of this chapter with the others is that this is communal. No "I" speaks in this poem; and whereas Lam.1 and Lam.2 never spoke in first-person plural terms, and Lam.3 and Lam.4 did so only when past the halfway point, Lam.5 speaks almost throughout in "we/our/us" terms.[7]

The main central portion of the chapter may be viewed as two confessional sections: vv.2–7 reflecting broadly on history ending "our ancestors sinned" and vv.8–16 about the current state ending "we have sinned".[8]

Just as the fourth chapter has both similarities with some Psalms but also contrasts against them, so too does this chapter: in this case Psalms 74 and 79. Absent are: the usual Psalmist terms of endearment (e.g. "sheep of your pasture", "Jacob", "your servants"); the destruction being a desecration; the attachment of blame to the invaders; any call for vengeance on them; etc.[9]

Many attempts have been made to find something comparable to the acrostic. Not least, this would provide the otherwise missing "seventh acrostic" (the other six being one each in chapters 1, 2 and 4, plus the triple acrostic of chapter 3) which would yield a creation-derived and sabbath-reflecting "six+one" of completion. In the final four verses, taking not only the first but also the final letter of each (an "acrostic-telestic") yields the eight-letter Hebrew phrase "your God is exalted greatly".[10] While initially such praise looks a misfit in the context of devastation it nevertheless resonates well with Job's "The Lord gives and the Lord takes away; blessèd be the name of the Lord" (Job 1:21).

How might we represent that? Perhaps "Alleluia", itself directly from the Hebrew "Hallelujah" ("Praise the Lord"), might be appropriate.


Recall,[11] O Lord, what befell us:
look; notice our disgrace:[12]


Our heritage turned over to strangers,
our homes to occupiers.

Orphans we have become: fatherless;
our mothers as widows.

Our well-water? Extorted for profit;
even our firewood comes at a price.


Up to our necks are we pursued;
we weary, we are given no rest.

We stretched out hands to Egypt;[13]
to Assyria to beg for our bread.

Our ancestors sinned and are no more;
now we, we bear their punishment.


Underlings now rule us as overlords;[14]
there is no release from their hand.

Getting bread is at risk of our lives,
exposed to the desert sword.[15]

Our skin burns hot as an oven
from the raging fevers of famine.


Women are raped in Zion;
virgins in the cities of Judah.

Princes are hung up by their hands;
elders disrespected to their faces.

Young men slave at millstones;
lads under woodpiles stagger.[16]

Elders abandoned their city-gate;
young men their songs.


Joy has abandoned our hearts;
our dancing turned into dirges.

The crown from our head has tumbled:
woe to us; for we have sinned.


For all this: our hearts sicken;[17]

for all these: our eyes dim;

for Mount Zion: there desolate,
the haunt of hyenas.[18]


And you, Lord, sit forever enthroned,
ruling generations eternal;

Long years, why always ignore us?
Why for all time forsake?

Lead us back, Lord, renew days of old,
let us turn back to you.

Indeed,[19] you have discarded us:
to you we are anathema.[20]

[1] Three–two qinah remains in 2, 3, 14 and 18; Goldingay (2022), p.190. This is retained here, and seems particularly poignant at 17–18.

[2] Provan (2016), p.124; Hens-Piazza (2017), p.75.

[3] Goldingay (2022), p.203 note 'd'; p.204.

[4] Goldingay (2022), p.193.

[5] Wielenga (2007), p.69.

[6] Dobbs-Allsopp (2012), p.140; Middlemas (2021), pp.21–22.

[7] Goldingay (2022), p.191.

[8] Berman (2023), p.160ff.

[9] Berman (2023), pp.155–157.

[10] Guillaume (2009).

[11] The verbs "recall" (here) and "ignore" (v20) form an antithetical pair, topping and tailing the chapter. Both are also about deliberation: "recall" is more than "remember" and "ignore" is more than "forget". See Berlin (2004), p.117; Goldingay (2022), p.205; Berman (2023), p.158.

[12] There now starts a catalogue of what, in modern-day writing, we would call bullet points, that returns at v.17 "For all this…".

[13] Reaching out to Egypt and Assyria: see also Hosea 7:11 and 12:2. 'Egypt' may additionally be viewed figuratively as a condition of slavery; see Alter (2019), vol.2 (Prophets) p.1224 (footnote to Hosea 8:13).

[14] These may be understood as Babylonian officials who were slaves or servants of the Babylonian king (Berlin, 2004), p.121. In modern parlance, "lackeys" or "puppet government" may be imagined.

[15] This might mean either the heat of the desert sun or tribes preying on desert refugees.

[16] A difficult verse to translate in several respects. So given the surrounding abuse-related text, a view of hard-labour and slavery is chosen; the work typically of pack animals. See Berlin (2004), p.123; Goldingay (2022), pp.200–201; Hens-Piazza (2017), p.83; Middlemas (2021), p.100.

[17] Hebrew: a series of three consecutive half-verses all starting "for" ("because of").

[18] Originally foxes or jackals, although not the same "jackal" noun as at 4:3. Hyenas are familiar, and this allows the poetic force of alliteration.

[19] The "indeed" translation is supported by both NABRE and Alter (2019) vol.3 (The Writings), p.669. Other versions also have this as statement (KJV: "but thou hast…"; NEB: "but if thou hast…then indeed"). The NIV has the more open "unless you have…".

[20] This is an astonishingly grim ending; we do well to meditate on this closure. Some Jewish traditions conventionally repeat v.21 ("Lead us back… turn back to you") as a coda.