The lectionary reading for this Sunday contains selections from two acrostic poems in the book of Lamentations. The first reading is Lam 1:1–6, “how lonely sits the city that once was full of people”, a lament about the desecration of the city of Jerusalem by the Babylonian invaders. The psalm offered is Lam 3:19–26, probably because it contains a counterpoint to this lament in the famous words of hope, “the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (3:22–23).
An acrostic poem begins each line with each letter of the alphabet, in order, line after line. It is an aide-de-memoire for recalling the lines of the poem in order. Thus, in Hebrew, which has 22 letters in its alphabet, Lam 1 has 22 verses, each new verse beginning with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet, in alphabetical order. There are 22 verses in chapters 1, 2, and 4 of Lamentations; chapter 3 has 66 verses, so each letter commences three verses before moving on to the next letter.
There are other acrostic poems in the Hebrew Scriptures, including Psalms 9 and 10 together, Psalms 25, 34, 37 (2 verses per letter), 111 (two letters per verse), 112 (also two letters per verse), 119 (which has 176 verses, meaning eight lines for each of the 22 letters!), and Psalm 145. There are also acrostic poems in praise of the eset chayil: “a woman of valour, who can find? she is far more precious than jewels” (Proverbs 31:10–31), and in the oracle of judgement at Nahum 1:1–9, “a jealous and avenging God is the Lord, the Lord is avenging and wrathful; the Lord takes vengeance on his adversaries and rages against his enemies”.
In recognition of the selections from acrostic poems that are provided by this Sunday’s lectionary, I have written my own attempt at an acrostic poem, including some of the key motifs that we encountered in the recent course on The Prophets.
Anger burns fiercely in your potent words,
Burning, raging, searing into our hearts;
Compassionate, merciful, you say that you are
Drowning out all our anxieties and fears. Yet,
Every breathe of inspiration that comes,
Flowing with energy, abounding in intensity,
Greets my heart with a stunning announcement:
How can I pardon you? while sin abounds
I cannot let it pass by, I cannot forgive!
Justice you desire, justice you call for,
Kindling a sense of righteousness in my heart,
Leading me along the paths of equity.
May this be how we live, how we are,
Nurturing all that you want us to be.
O Lord of hosts, look down on our lives;
Pity our inequities,
Pardon our transgressions,
Quieten our hearts,
Quicken us with grace.
Restore us to righteousness,
Revive our hearts,
Send again your spirit;
Strengthen and sustain us,
Teaching us the way that you would have us walk.
Under your guidance, we will be faithful,
Vowing to serve you in all of our ways.
When we are judged righteous,
Excelling in your ordinances,
You will delight in us,
Zealous for your ways.