Its five short chapters contain graphic, poignant, eye-witness descriptions of the capture of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple in 586 BCE.
In the words of S Goldman: “The theme is repeated in each of the five distinct elegies which make up the Book; for each of the chapters is to be considered a poem complete in itself and it is fruitless to attempt to find logical coherence or development between one chapter and the next.
“Even within each of the separate poems there is an absence of plan or structure; instead the thought moves this way and that, as indeed might be expected in poems which are the spontaneous outpourings of a grief-stricken heart.”
Echah is chanted to a haunting mournful melody. No blessing is recited over it when it is not read from a scroll.
Chapter 1 contains 22 verses, each beginning with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. It describes the distress of the city and of its people contrasted with the arrogance of the enemy:
“For these things I weep;
My eye, my eye runs down with water;
Because the comforter is far from me,
He that will refresh my soul;
My children are desolate,
Because the enemy has prevailed” (verse 16).
The chapter concludes with a plea that the enemy, the willing instrument of evil, should not escape its own punishment.
Chapter 2 also has 22 verses and is alphabetical. It elaborates on the theme of the desolation:
“The youth and the old man lie
On the ground in the streets;
My young women and young men
Have fallen by the sword;
You slew them in the day of Your anger;
You slaughtered unsparingly” (verse 21).
Chapter 3, with 66 verses constructed according to a triple alphabet, gives expression to the deep sorrow in the author’s heart. Yet:
“This I recall to my mind,
Therefore I have hope.
Surely the Lord’s mercies are not consumed:
Surely His compassions fail not” (verses 21-22)
Chapter 4, with 22 verses, is again alphabetical. It stresses that the city has suffered not only by reason of external but internal factors. The rabbis declared that the first Temple fell because of idolatry, immorality and bloodshed, and the second because of groundless hatred amongst the people. National weakness and internal social disintegration were the unseen allies of the enemy.
Chapter 5 is not alphabetical but contains 22 verses. It concludes with an appeal to God to become reconciled with Israel and to “renew our days as of old”. In order not to end a Biblical book on an unfavourable note, verse 21 is repeated after verse 22. There is a similar custom in the case of Isaiah, Malachi and Kohelet.
Echah contains no indication as to its author. Tradition ascribes it to Jeremiah, who lived when the First Temple was destroyed and saw the fulfilment of his own prophecies.