Acrostic Psalms

Nine of the biblical Psalms are acrostic poems. The general idea is a simple one: they comprise a sequence of uses of the Hebrew alphabet in alphabetical order. So, for example, in the two shortest complete acrostics, psalms 111 and 112, half a verse or less of material starts with successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet, aleph through tav in turn. In psalms 25 and 34 there is one verse beginning with each of the 22 Hebrew letters in turn. In psalm 119 there are famously 8 verses beginning with each of the Hebrew letters, giving the 176 verses that make this by far the longest of the canonical psalms.

These nine (or eight, see below) psalms are not alone in Scripture. Proverbs 31:10-31, the book of Lamentations and Nahum 1:2-8, all use the same acrostic device.

The acrostic psalms are not of a specific genre (or Gattungen). They can variously have strong elements of thanksgiving (34, 111), wisdom motifs and style (34, 37, 112), they can praise (9, 145), they can lament (10, 25, 119?) or there can be a focus on Torah (119). So what is the point to this literary device, one that in many cultures appears as something of a poetic oddity?

There are probably a number of interrelated ideas going on.

1. There is something here about convention and order. The biblical Psalms obey a number of conventions like all poetry rooted in a linguistic tradition. The acrostic form is one additional convention which gives a further constraint for the poet to work with. One of the challenges of poetry is to achieve something special within a set of rules that provide a framework. The idea of order takes on an especially poignant dynamic in the acrostic poems found in Lamentations 1-4 because of the horrors depicted there. The ordered response to the disorders experienced by Israel is the poets attempt to both highlight the dire nature of events and at least in language terms a step towards order, at least in defining the problem.

2. There is also a sense of completeness, just as in English we think of an A to Z as a compendium on a subject. A particular poem has in this sense made a complete point, argument or appeal. If this is so, then psalm 119 takes on almost manic proportions of completeness. Psalm 119 actually goes further still with its use of eight synonyms for God’s word or instruction. In nearly every verse one of these eight words appears.

3. Convention and completeness of this type also support the memorisation of the Psalms and this seems to have been important to the psalmist as Gordon Wenham has argued in a couple of recent books (Psalms as Torah, The Psalter Reclaimed).

A couple of final points are worth mentioning. Psalms 9 and 10 are not individual acrostics but they actually form a single acrostic. The fact that they belong together is further indicated in their being a single psalm in the LXX and in psalm 10 having no heading in the main Hebrew manuscripts. What is puzzling is why they have been separated and why the perfection of the acrostic has been lost in a couple of places by editing. There is also some disruption of the acrostic pattern in a couple of other cases. For example, in psalm 145 there is no clause corresponding to the ‘letter N’. Perhaps this is a deliberate disruption of perfection to make a theological point about the impossibility of perfection before the eschaton. As with many other aspects of the Psalter we can learn much, but also find some mysteries. It probably shouldn’t be any other way!

Imprecatory Language in the Psalms

Many psalms contain language which seems at odds with Jesus’ instruction that believers should love their enemies. The same language stands in contrast too with basic modern ethics of tolerance, as well as common-sense morality. Because of this apparent incoherence between the Psalms and New Testament teaching, some interpreters use the Psalms selectively. In some cases whole psalms are omitted from official liturgical worship. In other cases psalms are edited whereby the ‘offending’ verses are omitted; effectively deleting them from the canon. What appears to be a solution to modern or Christian sensibilities, however, creates new, and I would suggest ultimately insurmountable, problems for seeing the Psalms as Scripture.

Whatever our detailed theology of Scripture, surely it is meant to be authoritative. How can we preserve its normative role if we allow ad hoc omission of parts of the whole? Once we employ criteria from outside Scripture to limit it we reject its authority over us.

Is there another way? Can we account for the imprecatory nature of some psalms language in a manner which does not deny New Testament teaching or modern, and in this case commendable, sensibilities.

Perhaps our starting point should be to note that there is no necessity to see every word the psalmist utters as entirely just and correct. Though the psalmist appears to claim righteousness, we aren’t naive enough to believe that this was actually always the case! Might it not be plausible to give priority to seeing the language of the psalms as being emotionally honest rather than ethically ideal?

Psalm 137’s call to have infants dashed against rocks is undoubtedly abhorrent, as much as it is perhaps understandable emotionally in the context of the sort of national tragedy described in for example the book of Lamentations. Does our use of Psalm 137 mean that we own the psalmist a wishes? I don’t think so. Can it not instead be seen as an honest recognition that in the most dire of circumstances it is better to commit our darkest and most unsavoury wishes to God rather than suppress our emotions. The articulation of such wishes is perhaps a psychological necessity for dealing with such emotion and allowing God to begin a healing process. Is it perhaps the case that only comfortable Western world-views that inform a spirituality where emotional honesty is suppressed beneath intellectual niceties?

Another useful point that needs to be noted us that the psalmist nearly always looks to Yahweh to carry out his dark wishes. This is ultimately a placing of what we want in God’s hands, thus recognising the provisionality of our wishes as we attempt to align ourselves with God’s wishes.

These initial thoughts are probably not very original and they don’t offer a complete solution to the imprecatory words of the Psalms. They do, however, I hope offer a starting point for more nuanced views on using using language that tends to jar against our attempts to domesticate Scripture.