Hebrew Acrostics and Lamentations 3

Joseph Zhakevich

The word of God is beautiful. Not only is it beautiful for its verbal-plenary inspiration; it is also beautiful as a piece of literary genius. One component of that is acrostics.

The following paragraph, taken from the forthcoming foreword to the complete edition of the Legacy Standard Bible, describes the acrostic texts as follows:

At times, the biblical authors structured their writings where each section of poetry begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Psalm 119 is a well-known example of this, but far from the only one (see Pss 9-10, 25, 34, 37, 111, 112, 119, 145; Prov 31:10-31; Lam 1, 2, 3, and 4; and Nah 1:2-8). Because the Legacy Standard Bible endeavors to be a window into the original text, all known acrostics are labeled with each section having its respective Hebrew letter and English transliteration. While some acrostics correspond with the complete alphabet (e.g., Ps 34; 119; Lam 3), others reflect a part of the Hebrew alphabet (Nah 1:2-8) or extend over chapter divisions (Pss 9-10).

As mentioned, Lamentations 1-4 is an example of a Hebrew acrostic. Chapter 3 is available to read below. It’s a beautiful text, where every successive Hebrew letter is repeated in verse groupings of three. 

The LSB foreword explains why acrostics are utilized:

Nevertheless, acrostics bring out the artistic beauty of God’s Word, reflect the completeness of thought and theology in the passage, and provide ease of memory for the original hearers. It is a feature intended by the inspired writer and so deserves the attention of the modern reader.

Lamentations 3:22-24, a major chord in a book full of minor chords, fulfills some of these functions as the lament turns its gaze to God’s lovingkindness, that is hesed (חסד), a familiar word that begins with the letter heth. While the chapter begins with a series of afflictions, the question is: How can these afflictions be turned into hope? And verse 22 answers this query by drawing the attention of the reader to hesed, a well-known and cherished word that appears almost 250 times in the Bible. Thus this portion of the acrostic promises that there is hope in the darkness. Dawn will always rise from the night—indeed, every morning. And so, here too the reminder to the one lamenting is that the hesed of Yahweh is the source of hope in the midst of troubles. In effect, it is easy to see how the original readers would have used this literary device to help them commit this passage, and specifically this verse, to memory.

Since the LSB is committed to being a window into the original text, we have shown how the acrostics are represented in more passages than just Psalm 119. Sometimes they have oddities that should stick out to us, like flipping Hebrew letters (e.g., see Lam 3:46-51). But those should drive our noses into the text to further study why the author chose to do that. By seeing the acrostics reflected in Lamentations in our English text, we are provided with the opportunity to do just that—to study the word even more. 

The use of acrostics in Lamentations 1-4 will be utilized in the forthcoming LSB Handy Size. And it shows just one feature implemented from the LSB into print editions that will provide readers with a clear view, through the window of the English text, into the world the Author is painting.

Lamentations 3
The Prophet Suffers

א Aleph
1   I am the man who has seen affliction
    Because of the rod of His wrath.
2   He has driven me and made me walk
    In darkness and not in light.
3   Surely against me He has turned His hand
    Repeatedly all the day.
ב Beth
4   He has caused my flesh and my skin to waste away;
    He has broken my bones.
5   He has besieged and encompassed me with gall and hardship.
6   Dark places He has made me inhabit,
    Like those who have long been dead.
ג Gimel
7   He has walled me in so that I cannot go out;
    He has made my chain heavy.
8   Even when I cry out and call for help,
    He shuts out my prayer.
9   He has blocked my ways with cut stone;
    He has made my paths crooked.
ד Daleth
10  He is to me like a bear lying in wait,
    Like a lion in secret places.
11  He has turned aside my ways and torn me to pieces;
    He has made me desolate.
12  He bent His bow
    And set me as a target for the arrow.
ה He
13  He made the arrows of His quiver
    To enter into my inward parts.
14  I have become a laughingstock to all my people,
    Their music of mockery all the day.
15  He has saturated me with bitterness;
    He has sated me with wormwood.
ו Vav
16  He has broken my teeth with gravel;
    He has made me cower in the dust.
17  My soul has been rejected from peace;
    I have forgotten goodness.
18  So I say, “My strength has perished,
    As well as my hopeful waiting which comes from Yahweh.”
Hope of Relief in God’s Mercy 
ז Zayin  
19  Remember my affliction and my homelessness,
    the wormwood and gall.
20  Surely my soul remembers
    And is bowed down within me.
21  This I will return to my heart;
    Therefore I will wait in hope.
ח Heth
22  The lovingkindnesses of Yahweh indeed never cease,
    For His compassions never fail.
23  They are new every morning;
    Great is Your faithfulness.
24  “Yahweh is my portion,” says my soul,
    “Therefore I wait for Him.”
ט Teth
25  Yahweh is good to those who hope in Him,
    To the soul who seeks Him.
26  It is good that he waits silently
    For the salvation of Yahweh.
27  It is good for a man that he should bear
    The yoke in his youth.
י Yodh
28  Let him sit alone and be silent
    Since He has laid it on him.
29  Let him put his mouth in the dust;
    Perhaps there is hope.
30  Let him give his cheek to the one who strikes him;
    Let him be saturated with reproach.
כ Kaph
31  For the Lord will not reject forever,
32  For if He causes grief,
    Then He will have compassion
    According to His abundant lovingkindness.
33  For He does not afflict from His heart
    Or grieve the sons of men.
ל Lamedh
34  To crush under His feet
    All the prisoners of the land,
35  To deprive a man of justice
    In the presence of the Most High,
36  To defraud a man in his legal case—These
    things the Lord does not see with approval.
מ Mem
37  Who is there who speaks and it happens,
    Unless the Lord has commanded it?
38  Is it not from the mouth of the Most High
    That both calamities and good go forth?
39  Why should any living person or any man
    Complain because of his sins?
נ Nun
40  Let us search out and examine our ways,
    And let us return to Yahweh.
41  We lift up our heart to our hands
    Toward God in heaven;
42  We have transgressed and rebelled;
    You have not pardoned.
ס Samekh
43  You have covered Yourself with anger
    And pursued us;
    You have killed and have not spared.
44  You have covered Yourself with a cloud
    So that no prayer can pass through.
45  You have made us mere scum and refuse
    In the midst of the peoples.
פ Pe
46  All our enemies have opened their mouths against us.
47  Panic and pitfall have befallen us,
    Devastation and destruction;
48  My eyes run down with streams of water
    Because of the destruction of the daughter of my people.
ע Ayin
49  My eyes pour down unceasingly,
    Without stopping,
50  Until Yahweh looks down
    And sees from heaven.
51  My eyes deal severely with my soul
    Because of all the daughters of my city.
צ Tsadhe
52  My enemies without cause
    Hunted me down like a bird;
53  They have silenced my life in the pit
    And have placed a stone on me.
54  Waters flowed over my head;
    I said, “I am cut off!”
ק Qoph
55  I called on Your name, O Yahweh,
    Out of the lowest pit.
56  You have heard my voice,
    “Do not hide Your ear from my prayer for relief,
    From my cry for help.”
57  You drew near when I called on You;
    You said, “Do not fear!”
ר Resh
58  O Lord, You have pleaded my soul’s cause;
    You have redeemed my life.
59  O Yahweh, You have seen my oppression;
    Judge my case.
60  You have seen all their vengeance,
    All their purposes against me.
שׂ Sin / שׁ Shin
61  You have heard their reproach, O Yahweh,
    All their purposes against me.
62  The lips of those who rise against me
    and their whispering
    Are against me all day long.
63  Look on their sitting and their rising;
    I am their mocking song.
ת Tav
64  You will recompense them, O Yahweh,
    According to the work of their hands.
65  You will give them dullness of heart;
    Your curse will be on them.
66  You will pursue them in anger and destroy them
    From under the heavens of Yahweh! 

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