Hebrew Poetry – Acrostics & Psalm 119

While poetry today makes heavy use of lines that end with rhyming words, Hebrew poetry never knew anything like that. However, they did make use of the beginning of their lines of poetry in some instances. They often used acrostics – starting each line with a different letter of the alphabet. Turn to Lamentations and see if you notice anything about the numbers of verses of the five chapters.

Chapter 1 – 22 verses
Chapter 2 – 22 verses
Chapter 3 – 66 verses
Chapter 4 – 22 verses
Chapter 5 – 22 verses

The Hebrew alphabet has 22 letters and you notice that all the chapters in Lamentations are multiples of 22. All five chapters are acrostics with chapter three, the middle chapter, having 3 acrostics (A,A,A,B,B,B,etc.) in it making an acrostic sandwhich between chapters 1-2 & 4-5. Several psalms are acrostics or combine into acrostics (Psalm 9 + Psalm 10, 34, 37, 111+112, 119, and 145 with Psalm 119 being the most famous). Of course this doesn’t shine through well in translation. Psalm 34 takes an interesting twist as several letters are put out of order to spell “to learn” or “to teach” and is considered to be a wisdom psalm. Imagine if you were reading a poem and you figured out it was an acrostic and you looked down and noticed the lines started with the following letters:

A –
B –
C –
D –
T –
O –
L –
E –
A –
R –
N –
E –
F –
G –
H –

You would probably notice that it was intentional. There is also an acrostic in Proverbs that you may not have known about and is probably a chapter that you know really well – Proverbs 31.

Psalm 119
In this acrostic each letter is given a section of eight lines. Within those eight lines eight words show up: law, decrees, statutes, commandments, ordinances, word, precepts, and promise. Law is the most frequent of these eight words and because of that this psalm has often been referred to as being about the completeness (represented by the whole alphabet) of the law. Or it could be refered to as “The Law from A-Z” in our terminology. Walter Bruggeman has called this psalm “The A,B,C’s of Torah obedience.” When we think of law we think of restrictions but that is not how they were to view it. Those who follow the laws, commandments, decrees, statutes, etc of God are blessed. They are happy. They are not restricted. They are freed to live within the confines of the life God always wanted us to have. It is a liberation to know the boundaries God has set up for his people.

In a culture that read aloud, imagine the impact hearing this psalm would have. Hear the repetition over and over again. Blessed – law, blessed – obedience, blessed – decrees, rejoice – statutes, etc. He longs for God. He delights in God’s commands. He hears them in his mind like a beautiful song. Just as there is a predictable order to the alphabet the call of God is to live a well ordered life that is centered on who God is and who he expects his people to be. Listen to these words from Brueggeman on Psalm 119,

It affirms that torah will cover every facet of human existence, everything from A to Z. There is no human crisis or issue in which one need go outside the field of torah obedience to live fully…life is reliable and utterly symmetrical when the torah is honored…Obedience to the torah is a source of light, life, joy, delight…The torah is no burden but a mode of joyous existence…The teachers of this psalm are not worried or seduced by legalism. They do not find the commandments restrictive or burdensome. – Message of the Psalms

Today, one group does not like to talk about grace because they are afraid it will be abused and the other party doesn’t like to talk about obedience because they are afraid it will be abused. What both sides have missed is that both should be discussed and both should be lived out. It is not about one or the other it is about both. Both are what God intended and we should never shortchange what God is doing here. He intends for us to understand the boundaries he has placed upon our behaviors and thoughts. That gives us freedom to live the way we were intended to live. “I run in the path of your commands, for you have set my heart free” – 119:32. I thought the law and obedience was only burdensome. How can he say that? Because it is true. Read Psalm 119 and come away with a renewed appreciation for the order that obedience to God can bring in your life. Remember the zeal that the psalmist feels for being in a right relationship with God. Sense his passion for living a well-ordered life and bask in the beauty of his language of what life is like when living in line with the will of God.

For a creative use of this medium see here (thanks Jel and others).

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