Goldingay, John. The Book of Lamentations. New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2022. 228 pp. Hb; $40.00 Link to Eerdmans
John Goldingay’s 2021 Jeremiah commentary in the NICOT series replaced J. A. Thompson’s 1995 commentary (now an Eerdmans Classic Commentary). Besides his major commentary, Goldingay also recently published a short The Theology of Jeremiah (IVP Academic, 2021, reviewed here). There never was a NICOT volume on Lamentations. This new volume by Goldingay fills this gap.
The thirty-three-page introduction to the book introduces the five poems which make up Lamentations. Goldingay begins by comparing Lamentations with other ancient Near Eastern city laments, although some are a millennium older than Lamentations and from an entirely different culture. It is impossible to know if the author of Lamentations knew this literary genre, but some scholars suggest the canonical book is a parody of these ancient city laments.
The five poems manifest a tight unity that is unparalleled in the rest of Scripture. Even though the book describes a radical disorientation in grief, the acrostic poems make it one of the most orderly books in the Hebrew Bible (5). The Hebrew varies between qatal and yiqatol forms, but Goldingay consistently translates using the English aorist. For the poet, the destruction of Jerusalem is in the past.
Goldingay suggests Lamentations 1:1-4 is a “Textbook embodiment of many of the features of first testament poetry” (7). He assumes worshipers originally chanted this poetic material. The lines have a rhythm (he compares the Hebrew poetry of Lamentations to modern rap music). This poetry has a regular rhythm, which means exceptionally short or long lines draw attention to themselves. Following Allsop-Dobbs, the poetry of Lamentations has a “limping beat” (9). Other features of the book’s poetry include repetition combined with variation, terseness, imagery, and various points of view. All Hebrew poetry omits the small words that aid communication, so his translation often assumes prepositions or an article. Terseness also implies using ellipsis, which can produce a certain “jerkiness in the translation.”
With respect to authorship and date, Goldingay is clear. The book is anonymous even if the Septuagint ascribed the book to Jeremiah. He suggests this results from “later guesswork or creative reflection” based on 2 Chronicles 35:25 (13). But there are many “Jeremiah-like similarities.” Like Jeremiah, the poets of Lamentations are acquainted with the devastation of the city of Jerusalem. Even though Lamentations follows Jeremiah 52 in English Bibles, the books are quite separate from the Hebrew Bible. Lamentations does not have any direct historical data to suggest a date other than after the fall of Jerusalem. Goldingay suggests it is “plausible to follow the direction that the poems point in, inviting us to think of the situation after 587 rather than starting from an alternative subtlety. The poets lived between the years 587 and the 540s B.C., “the same period that the Jeremiah scroll came into existence” (15). He suggests that Judahite communities used the poems in worship based on references to mourning and fasting at places like Bethel or Mizpah (Zechariah 8:18-19).
Regarding the occasion, place of origin, and destination, he observes that the book was not written from Jerusalem. Even though the city was completely destroyed, a Judahite community remained in the land. However, there is no direct information in the book regarding why the poems were written. Goldingay suggests the books guide worshippers on how to think about the 587 catastrophe and to encourage them to express their feelings about the disaster. The goals of the writer are, therefore, “theological, educational, pastoral, cathartic, and religious” (17). Sometimes the poems address Yahweh. Other times, the poets address one another, although not in a dialogue. Following Leslie Allen’s suggestion, Lamentations is a “liturgy of grief.” The poems facilitate people expressing to the Lord their continuing grief over the state of their city and the community after the catastrophe of 587 (17).
There can be no systemizing the theology of Lamentations, “the book is a whirlwind” (27). The writers are casting around for some meaning in the darkness. The poems are often an expression of suffering rather than the meaning behind it. He suggests two central theological themes in the book: Yahweh as the God of Israel and Israel as the people of Yahweh. Yahweh is actively sovereign (Lam 3:32-38) but his anger toward his people is blazing (2:1-2). Many commentators on Lamentations assume the theology of Deuteronomy, 2 Kings, and Jeremiah: wrongdoing results in trouble. This is true, but Goldingay sees more in the book than poetry based on Deuteronomic theology. The theology of Lamentations can be compared to the Psalms. God’s people need to trust in Yahweh and his faithfulness to his promises. But like the Psalms, Lamentations encourages protest in the light of trouble. Also, with the Psalms and the prophets, Yahweh continues to be committed to David and to Zion. Goldingay suggests that the “genius of Lamentations” is to hold all this together at the same time. It is not a “theology in shreds,” as some describe the book.
Lamentations is often considered a theodicy. The book is an attempt to explain the disaster of 587. For many Christian commentators, the explanation is that God was acting justly by punishing Judah for their sins. But as Goldingay observes, Lamentations “spreads the blame around.” Judah is to blame, but God himself is responsible for the disaster. Following Zachary Braiterman, Goldingay briefly discusses the term antitheodicy to describe Lamentation’s theology. Antitheodicy is a response to evil or disaster that is a protest rather than an explanation. But Goldingay thinks neither term is quite right. In Lamentations, it works both ways. There is traditional theodicy but also bitter protest and expressions of genuine grief. In fact, he concludes, “If there is a way of living with the unresolvable, it lies outside Lamentations.”
He begins his commentary on each poem by summarizing its content and offering something like an outline. Sometimes, verses can be grouped together, but this is not always possible. He offers a series of observations on the structure of the poetry in each of the five poems. The commentary treats each verse of the poem as a unit.
Goldingay’s translation follows the Masoretic text. In the introduction, he draws attention to 4QLam and 5QLam, which are not too different from the Masoretic Text. In his translation, Goldingay uses the Septuagint, Aramaic Targums, and the Peshitta in the footnotes of the commentary. These notes sometimes explain translation choices and occasionally emend the text. But in his view, amending the Masoretic Text does not always clear up ambiguities. His translation in the commentary is a beautiful rendering of the Hebrew Bible in English (see also Goldingay’s translation of the First Testament).
Following the commentary on each poem, he offers a brief “Readers Response.” What would someone worshiping in Bethel or Mizpah think about the poem? These are short imaginary responses that are creative and moving. They are not the sort of thing one usually finds in academic commentary. This is not a basic pastoral application, nor is it an attempt to create canonical connections with the New Testament that is is all the rage in some commentary series. Goldingay invites us into the post-exilic world and asks us to think and feel along with the original worshipers who used these poems to cope with the catastrophe in which they were currently living.
There are several other unique features of this commentary. First, Goldingay writes in a very personal, familiar style. He captures the reader’s imagination and makes for a stimulating commentary to read. The commentary is not bogged down with minor exegetical details; he remains focused on the meaning of the poems. Virtually every page challenges the reader to deal with the grief of the poet. Second, Goldingay often uses bullet point lists of literary features or other data to summarize the material. Third, there is a more direct citation of other commentaries than usually expected in an exegetical commentary. Goldingay appears to have read every significant commentary on Lamentations ever written and plucks the most salient, moving, perhaps even shocking lines. Anyone using this commentary to prepare for teaching Lamentations will appreciate the fruit of Goldingay’s labor. He does not cite many ancient commentaries, but there are a few references to Ibn Ezra and Rashi. Fourth, occasionally, he makes important comparisons to other ancient Near Eastern literature. It is very difficult to understand Lamentations without this parallel literature. But he uses this material judiciously to illustrate and not distract from the poems themselves.
Conclusion. As one expects when John Goldingay published a commentary, this new commentary on Lamentations is well worth reading. In fact, it is a rare commentary that should be read cover to cover as one might a monograph.
Other Commentaries in the NICOT Series:
- Timothy R. Ashley, The Book of Numbers
- Bill T. Arnold, The Book of Deuteronomy, Chapters 1–11
- Hannah K. Harrington, The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah
- DeClaissé-Walford, Jacobson, and Tanner, Psalms
- John Goldingay, The Book of Jeremiah
- John Goldingay, The Book of Lamentations
- Thomas Renz, The Books of Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah
- Mark J. Boda, Zechariah
- Mignon Jacobs, Haggai and Malachi
NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.