The Book of Lamentations (NICOT) – John Goldingay

The Book of Lamentations NICOT John Goldingay
The Book of Lamentations by John Goldingay
Also by this author: The Book of Jeremiah, Proverbs
Series: New International Commentaries
Published by Eerdmans on March 1, 2022
Genres: Academic
Buy on Amazon

The book of Lamentations is one of the most vivid representations of grief and trauma in the Hebrew Bible. Written in the wake of the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonian Empire, it is comprised of five poems of twenty-two stanzas each, in a manner of tight formal unity unparalleled by any other work in the Scriptures. 
In this volume, widely respected Old Testament scholar John Goldingay analyzes these and other aspects of Lamentations while keeping a constant eye on the book’s meaning and use as Christian Scripture. After a thorough introduction that explores matters of background, composition, and theology, Goldingay provides an original translation of the book from the Masoretic text along with verse-by-verse commentary.

From the beginning of the evangelical movement, the New International Commentaries have served as a premier academic resource for evangelical Bible scholars, theologians, and clergy. After an initial focus on the New Testament, the first Old Testament volumes were published in 1976. For forty-five years, Eerdmans has added volumes and replaced volumes when they became outdated. But through all that, there has never been a NICOT commentary on Lamentations. Until now.

The impetus for a volume on Lamentations appears to have been a desire to rework and update J.A. Thompson’s 1980 NICOT commentary on Jeremiah. While Jeremiah/Lamentations are often connected to one another, Goldingay traces this back to the LXX and no further, rightly listing these poems as anonymous—even bringing up the possibility that the author or authors were women. This method of being clear on what we don’t know while speculating on what might be brings a freshness to the text that extends throughout several other areas of the commentary.

The Book of Lamentations is the shortest single volume in the NICOT series, ironically contrasting with Goldingay’s Jeremiah, which is the longest. I appreciate that the book was not tacked onto the Jeremiah volume, but allowed to be its own thing separate from Jeremiah. At least at the popular level, I’ve found that Lamentations is always read and interpreted through the lens of Jeremiah, and while that may be the case to some extent, removing Lamentations from Jeremiah’s shadow is altogether appropriate as it centers lament as the primary theme—a subject all too often ignored in the modern Western evangelical church.

The first 36 pages are devoted to an introduction covering the background, composition, authorship, date, occasion, place of origin, destination, canonicity, theology, thematic implications, and a Hebrew linguistics discussion. Goldingay is both succinct and thorough, covering each element well and allowing the reader to get a solid cultural and contextual understanding of Lamentations’ background.

Goldingay also provides a translation from the Hebrew using the Masoretic text. I am not a Hebrew scholar, so I cannot comment much on this aspect of the commentary other than to say that Goldingay’s credentials for translation work are numerous, including a translation of the Hebrew Scriptures called The First Testament: A New Translation. Goldingay is careful to explain his translational choices when necessary and does so without getting bogged down in the minutiae.

The key thing that I personally took away from this text from a big-picture standpoint is that Lamentations is not intended to be a theological treatise. It is emotional, not rational, and it “holds together in an unstable unity a variety of theological themes” (27). Moreover, it is more about the expression of suffering rather than presiding a theodicy of suffering. It is not a book to look to for theological statements, as those statements are being made by individuals enduring the crucible of suffering.

Each chapter of Lamentations receives between 25-40 pages of analysis, where Goldingay goes verse-by-verse through the text. He gives each chapter a thematic title that serves as a powerful summary of the lament:

  • Lamentations 1: “Is there pain like my pain?”
  • Lamentations 2: “He poured out his wrath like fire.”
  • Lamentations 3: “Perhaps there is hope.”
  • Lamentations 4: “He lit a fire in Zion.”
  • Lamentations 5: “Be mindful, Yahweh.”

Each of these chapters ends with an imaginative reader’s response that speculates how someone who has taken part in reading these laments after the Exile might have experienced them. While it is probably the least academic section of the commentary, it is perhaps the most helpful pastorally. I found these sections to be incredibly powerful in showing how similar the laments of Israel are to so many throughout the world today. The feelings of Lamentations are the feelings of Christians struggling with tragedy the world over.

Goldingay also utilizes bullet points to summarize and categorize information, making this among one of the most readable academic commentaries that I’ve had the pleasure of reading. It makes it easy for the reader to break down information and analyze it. The writing style is academic, but informal, making it very readable. Goldingay’s personality shines through and it isn’t as a dusty academic but as someone who truly loves Scripture and wants to ensure readers understand it well. Lamentations makes it clear that we cannot academize lament and grief. Goldingay matches that tone with a writing style that manages to be both empathic and academic.

I also appreciate that Goldingay makes use of many other commentaries on Lamentations, more often than not quoting them directly. It shows that he has truly done the work of researching the literature and has an understanding not only of Lamentations but the academic corpus of writing concerning Lamentations. Commentaries are generally used piecemeal for whatever section a pastor or scholar is working over, but the length and style of Goldingay’s work lends itself toward reading this book cover-to-cover. I personally read this over a six-week period, spending one week on the introduction and five weeks over the five chapters reflecting on lament. It was a deeply spiritual experience, and that’s not something I usually say about commentaries. More than engaging my mind and increasing my knowledge, John Goldingay’s NICOT Lamentations commentary engaged my heart and increased my spiritual understanding of lament, grief, and God.