Knowing your ABC's

When I was a kid, I remember one of my teachers helping the class with a gift for our mothers. It was an acrostic based on the word "mother." I'm sure you know what an acrostic is and you probably even remember making one a time or two as a child. It's when the first letter of each line of a poem spells out a word. I'm sure mine went something like this:




Hey mom, I'm not very creative

Errr, can we work on something else instead?

Recess must be coming up soon, right?

Seriously, here's a lovely acrostic I found online based on the word "mother."

There's one for you, mom. Love you.

You get the idea.

The Hebrew Bible is no stranger to acrostics. Unfortunately, they aren't readily apparent in our English translations. They're literally lost in translation, because the Bible wasn't written in English.

Sometimes, the Hebrew Bible uses acrostics on a rather grand scale. The book of Lamentations is a great example. It's one of those books we don't talk about much or read very often. I bet most of us haven't ever heard a sermon from Lamentations. That's too bad, cause it's a powerful little 5-chapter book of poetry filled with vivid imagery. I'll probably come back to Lamentations some day for this blog.

The first chapter is 22 verses long. That's exactly how many letters are in the Hebrew alphabet.

Ok, let's pause. That might seem strange to you. How can they have less letters than us? Well, not all alphabets are the same. I was once in Zimbabwe singing a song filled with L's with some 500 children who loved it (long story). I didn't understand what the big deal was until I was told the Zimbabwe language doesn't use the letter "L" very much and the kids loved the chance to use "L." The truth is, it works both ways. Hebrew has letters for sounds we don't use in English.

Back to Lamentations. The first chapter of this wonderful book is an alphabetic acrostic. That means each line (in this case, each verse) of the poem begins with consecutive letters of the Hebrew alphabet. I like that a lot. The poetry is already quite evocative, but the author took the time to structure the poetry around the Hebrew alphabet. The second chapter does the same thing. Then, in the third chapter (the center of the book), the author goes all out and makes it 66 verses long, 3 verses per letter! Here's a picture of the first 12 verses. Even though you don't know the Hebrew alphabet, you can see verses 1-3 begin with the same letter, and verses 4-6 begin with the next letter in the alphabet, and so on.

Oh wait! Wait!

One more thing. Hebrew is read from right to left. Yeah, so there's that.

Ok, now have a look.

Look at you. Reading Hebrew.

I love it. I really do. It's too bad we miss this in English.

The fourth chapter returns to just 22 verses, in alphabetical order as we would expect. Lamentations closes with a fifth chapter that also has 22 verses, but it's not an alphabet acrostic. I don't know why. Personally, I suspect the poet was exhausted. "Alright, here's 22 verses, but screw this alphabetical order thing. I'm done."

Psalm 119 is another alphabetic acrostic. In Psalm 119, each letter of the Hebrew alphabet gets 8 verses! This continues until the Psalmist is all the way through the Hebrew alphabet, 176 verses later. Whoa. That's commitment. Check out the first 11 verses.

The NIV does something cool here to help folks reading an English translation. They show the Hebrew letter relevant to each 8 verse section. Here's a pic.

Don't get used to me complimenting the NIV.

On a smaller scale than the book of Lamentations or Psalm 119, Proverbs 31:10-31 is an alphabetic acrostic. If you're not familiar with it, this passage closes out the book of Proverbs by talking about a wife of noble character. You really need to acquaint yourself with this passage. Very woman-friendly, and let's be honest, that's not always the case with the Bible. Feel free to comment if you disagree or want to chat more about this.

In this passage, a capable woman is described as purchasing real estate (verse 16) and using her profit to plant a vineyard (verse 16). She takes part in profitable trading (verse 18), cares for the poor and needy (verse 20), and has her own small business selling linen garments (verse 24), all while managing her home (verse 27). Yes, managing her home.

I digress. The author of this passage proclaims the virtues of a noble woman, and does it by using an alphabetic acrostic for these 22 verses.

So after all this info, I haven't even gotten to the Hebrew acrostic I wanted to discuss today. I guess we'll save it for part 2. I think there's plenty here to chew on.


  1. I'm guessing the song in Zimbabwe was
    "A-la-la-la La-la-la-le-lu-jah." ?

    Takes me back, either way... :)

  2. It would be a real treat if you sang that this Sunday.

    1. It would be something. Not sure it would be a treat.

    2. Ahhhhhh come on. Just like a segway 😂 why did you decide to go to Zimbabwe?

    3. I worked with a church that started AIDS orphanages in Zimbabwe, that is, orphanages for babies born from parents with AIDS. I was there around 2-3 weeks, and in addition to visiting the orphanages, we worked at a church in a small village where the school closed down and sent the kids to us for the afternoon for about 3 days. I think our largest day we had around 500 kids one afternoon, with me playing guitar and singing silly songs along with them. Check out for more info. It's an incredible organization and some of the best people I've ever known are part of it.

  3. Oh wow that is really amazing and sad all at the same time. God just knows where to send help and who to use. His majesty really is beyond understanding.


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