Did you ever have to write an acrostic poem in elementary school? You know, down the left side of the page you write your name and for each letter you write a word or phrase that describes you? I was never very impressed by our so-called poetic creations and I came to view acrostic poems as poetry-for-people-who-can’t-write-poetry.
Later, my opinion of acrostics recovered as I discovered poems where the initial letters didn’t stand out from the others and spelled a code or a series of words, such as in Geoffrey Trease’s Cue for Treason, or Lewis Carroll’s The Looking Glass. And the Bible is full of acrostics, too, though instead of spelling words, they are abecedarian, a list of the letters of the alphabet.
If you’ve ever read the Psalms, you’ve noticed the Hebrew letters above the stanzas of Psalm 119, the most complex of the Biblical acrostics, with each of the 8 phrases per section beginning with the same letter. This may explain why, in translation, this Psalm sounds somewhat disjointed. But did you know there are several other acrostic poems? Psalm 9 and 10 (form one acrostic together), Psalm 25, Psalm 34, Psalm 111, Psalm 112, Psalm 145, Proverbs 31:10-31, Lamentations 1-4 (yes, the whole book) and Nahum 1:1-9.
Why acrostics? Some people have speculated that it is an aid to memorization, or that just as with our expression “From A to Z”, an acrostic expresses a complete idea. Also, any time there is a constraint on how an idea can be expressed, more is demanded artistically from the poet.
Now, I know in the article on chiasms I said that the great thing about Hebrew poetry is that it translates so well since it doesn’t depend on the sounds of the original language. Well, here’s an exception to that rule. However, some ingenious translators have tried to conserve the acrostic nature of the poem from Hebrew to English. Here’s an example by T.L. Wilt in his 1993 article “Alphabetic Acrostics: perhaps the form can be represented” in The Bible Translator. Notice he has played around with the order of verses 5-7.
Ps 111 – Wilt
1.Praise the Lord!
All my heart praises the Lord,
Besides the upright, in the congregation.
2. Contemplated by those delighting in them, the
Deeds of the Lord are great.
3. Everlasting is his righteousness;
Full of honor and majesty is his work.
4. Gracious and merciful is the Lord. (4b)
He has shown his people the power of his work (6a)
In giving them the heritage of the nations. (6b)
Just and faithful are the works of his hand. (7a) The
Lord provides food for those who fear him, (5a)
Mindful, always, of his covenant. (5b)
7b None of his precepts can fail,
8. Ordained forever and ever,
eQuity and faithfulness.
9. Redemption for his people was
Sent by the Lord.
To be kept forever is his Covenant.
Untarnished is his name and
10. Wisdom begins with the fear of the Lord.
eXcellent understanding marks all who practice it.
You, O Lord, will be praised with a
Zeal that lasts forever.
It’s maybe not the most readable translation, but it certainly helps us understand what the psalm would feel like in the original language.
For a more technical discussion of acrostic poems in the Bible, you can read Roelie van der Spuy’s article, “Hebrew Alphabet Acrostics: Significance and Translation.” Or in your Bible you could make a little note in the margin to remind yourself of the underlying structure of the passages I’ve mentioned. For me, I like knowing there is a structure, even if it’s not apparent in English.
For a lot of people, the Bible is either art or truth. For me, it's both, and I hope to persuade readers in both camps to see the other perspective.