Lamentations is the translation of the title from the Greek Septuagint, Threnoi. In the Hebrew Bible, books are named by their first words and so this book is titled ‘Ekah, “How”. In Christian Bibles Lamentations follows the Book of Jeremiah. Lamentations has historically be attributed to the prophet Jeremiah. However it is unlikely that Jeremiah was actually the author. In Hebrew Bibles, Lamentations is part of the Writings. It is read on the ninth day of Ab as part of a day of mourning remembering the destruction of the Temple. In Christian communities, Lamentations is read during Holy Week.
The destruction of the Temple in 586 BCE by the Babylonians was the end Judah as an independent nation. The book was written after the destruction of the Temple but before it was rebuilt at the end of the sixth century BCE. We do not know the exact date or location where the book was written.
You will notice how these poems resemble Psalms 74 and 79 which were also written after the destruction of the Temple.
The first four poems (chapters 1,2,3,4) are acrostics using the 22 letter Hebrew alphabet. (See psalm 111, 112,145; Prov 31:10-31 for other examples). Each verse or stanza begins with a letter of the alphabet in alphabetical order. Chapter 3 is a triple acrostic in that all three verses of each stanza begin with the same letter. Chapter 5, while not an acrostic, has 22 verses. Perhaps the acrostic form was used to indicate total destruction ( i.e. from A to Z). Acrostic poems tend to break into fragments rather than read as one entity.
In the first four poems there is a unequal length between the two parts that form each line or sentence. The second line is usually shorter than the first. This produces a “limping” 3:2 meter.
This is a book of public mourning and the language and images are striking and hard to read because of the pain and suffering that is described. Lamentations assumes the theology of Deuteronomy- sin leads to divine punishment. Babylon was merely an agent used by God. God is responsible for the disaster and God will be the one to end the exile.
Here are several good sources to aid your reading of Lamentations
Anderson, Bernhard W., Katheryn Pfister Darr, Understanding the Old Testament Abridged fourth Edition. (Upper Saddle River,New Jersey: Prentice Hall) 1998.
Berlin, Adele, “Lamentations” in The New Oxford Annotated Bible with Apocrypha: New Revised Standard Version.Coogan, Michael D.; Brettler, Marc Z.; Perkins, Pheme; Newsom, Carol A. (2010-01-20) Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.
Gottwald, Norman K. “Lamentations” in HarperCollins Bible Commentary Mays, James L. ed.(San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco) 2000.
O’Connor, Kathleen M. “Lamentations”,in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary Vol 6 Keck, Leander E. ed. (Nashville: Abingdon Press) 1996