Psalm 145: God’s greatness from A-Z

Psalm 145 is one of a handful of acrostic psalms. Acrostic psalms follow the pattern of the Hebrew alphabet, each line beginning with the next letter. You’ve probably written acrostic poetry in English in elementary school. Something like this:


Depending on your view of cats, you may or may not like that last line (being mildly allergic to them, when I am in a cat house “tormentor” is an appropriate word to use). That aside, the acrostic poem uses the pattern of letters as part of the poetry.

Hebrew acrostic poems seem to work in a similar way. They follow the pattern of the alphabet to lend a sense of totality and comprehensiveness to their treatment of theme. Psalm 119 is the most well-known of these acrostics. Each letter of the Hebrew alphabet gets 8 lines!

Acrostic poems like this work better in Hebrew than English. Virtually no one even bothers trying to mimic the alphabet structure in translation. Here are a few reasons why:

  • English word order is less easily manipulated than Hebrew;
  • Certain English letters—like Q and X—do not begin many useful words; and
  • There are more letters in the English alphabet (26) than the Hebrew (22/23, depending on how you count), meaning that you run out of Hebrew text to translate before completing the English alphabet.

But some intrepid translators give it a shot anyway. I’m not sure if the result is the same. The lack of completion in the English alphabet seems to hamstring the attempts, but they are interesting.

Check out this acrostic translation of Psalm 145 by Rabbi Sam Seicol.

A couple quick notes about what you will see.

  1. The text of Psalm 145 begins following the title (Psalm 145). Hebrew is on the left; English is on the right. Remember that Hebrew reads in the opposite direction from English, so the letter closest to the center of the screen in either language is where the line begins.
  2. The lines follow the order of the alphabet.
  3. What happened to the “N” line? In the standard Hebrew text from antiquity, this line is missing. That seems like a copyist mistake. Our ancient translations testify to a Hebrew line which somehow fell out of the main Hebrew text (called the Masoretic Text). We have since found at least one ancient Hebrew manuscript which has this “N” line as well. Modern Bibles all have it as the second half of verse 13.
  4. The psalm ends “and all flesh bless the holy Name forever and ever.” There are a couple lines after that which are part of the Jewish worship setting for the psalm, not the psalm itself.

This translation is a nice stab at providing an English translation which visually parallels the effect of the Hebrew poem. It also shows part of the reason why translators don’t do this: it’s hard, and the effect in English is pretty uneven. Finally, Rabbi Sam Seicol’s translation here is more like an aid for reading Hebrew than an attempt to render the psalm into an English translation which can stand strong on its own two feet.

Those weaknesses acknowledged, read it. Ponder it. Enjoy it. Whether acrostic psalms work in English or not, in Hebrew they remind us that praising God’s greatness fills up the alphabet, A—Z ,and still is unsearchable.