An acrostic is a composition in which the initial letters of each line or unit, when taken together, spell something meaningful. An alphabetic acrostic starts with the first letter of the alphabet, and each successive line begins with each successive letter, until the alphabet is finished. The Bible contains a number of alphabetic acrostics.
Acrostics only occur in the Hebrew sections of the Bible, not in Greek or Aramaic, since almost all biblical poetry is in Hebrew. There are twenty-two letters in the Hebrew alphabet, so every alphabetic acrostic will have twenty-two parts. (No distinction is made between the letters śîn and šîn in the acrostics, both of which were written as ש.)
Biblical acrostics were made for poetic beauty and ease of memorization. In Bible times, manuscripts were scarce because they had to be copied by hand; a memory device such as an acrostic was welcomed. The alphabetic acrostic also gave the poet a definite structure within which to organize his thoughts. Of course, the full beauty of an acrostic is lost in any translation, but it is still useful to note this structure, and to look at it in Hebrew if possible.
The most challenging thing about composing an alphabetic acrostic is finding appropriate words for letters which occur infrequently. Just imagine—if Psalm 119 were written in English, there would have to be eight verses beginning with X, and eight with Z. In Hebrew, wāw and ṭêṯ are about as uncommon at the beginning of a word as our X and Z, respectively. The most difficult letter of a Hebrew acrostic by far is wāw. There are only eleven biblical Hebrew words that begin with wāw, and ten of these are very rare words or names, several of which may be textual errors. Fortunately for acrostic-makers, the eleventh word is the most common word in the whole Bible, the conjunction ו (and, that, but). In every acrostic in the Bible, all the wāw verses begin with the conjunction ו, including eight verses in a row in Psalm 119. Psalms 25 and 34 both skip this difficult letter.
The most famous acrostic in the Bible is Psalm 119. This Psalm is termed a repeating stanzaic acrostic because it is arranged in twenty-two stanzas, each of which has eight lines that begin with a single letter of the Hebrew alphabet. These twenty-two stanzas are usually marked in English Bibles by the letters that the lines in each stanza begin with. Like some other acrostic psalms, it is the acrostic which gives structure to Psalm 119, which otherwise follows a theme rather than an outline. As the Psalmist composed this acrostic, I imagine he might have thought, “What observation on my walk with God can I express in a sentence that begins with this letter?” “How can I pick up on the thought of the previous verse with another word of this letter?” For the most part, there is considerable variation in the initial words for each acrostic letter. This not only adds to the poetic beauty of the acrostic, but also creates a nice mixture of thought, ensuring that a variety of spiritual truths are expressed.
Another famous acrostic in the Bible is Proverbs 31:10-31, the description of the virtuous wife. While this is a well-known passage, most people are not aware that its twenty-two verses begin with the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet.
One of the most interesting acrostics in the Bible is the book of Lamentations, which is composed entirely in acrostic form. In both ch. 1 and ch. 2, there are twenty-two strophes of three lines each; the initial letters of the strophes together form the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet. In ch. 3, there are again twenty-two three-line strophes which stand for the twenty-two letters, but this time each line of each strophe begins with the same letter (a repeating stanzaic acrostic). In ch. 4, the pattern shifts to twenty-two two-line strophes, where again only the first line of each strophe begins with the letter in the acrostic. Chapter 5 has twenty-two lines, but no formal acrostic—perhaps to symbolize the chaos and disorder in Jerusalem. It is interesting that in chs. 2–4, pe precedes ‘ayin, a known variation of the more usual alphabetic order.
Psalms 9 and 10 together form an unusual broken acrostic, in which almost every other line begins with a consecutive letter of the Hebrew alphabet, but with some irregularities. Psalm 10 skips out of the acrostic in vv. 3-11 (the description of the wicked man) before rejoining it for the final four letters. Still, enough of the letters are present to consider the acrostic as legitimate, and not a mere coincidence or scholarly contrivance. These two Psalms are closely linked; they were probably composed together, with the tenth Psalm written to complement the ninth.
Psalms 111 and 112 are unique in that each colon, or subdivision of a line, begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Even though these Psalms are only ten verses each in our English Bibles, they contain twenty-two cola each, plus a heading.
Psalms 25 and 34 are also acrostic in form, with each line beginning with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet; however, the letter wāw is skipped in both of these psalms. Although some ancient versions and modern scholars try to insert a wāw line in Psalm 25, an analysis of these psalms shows that the wāw line was intentionally skipped to form a double acrostic. Skipping the wāw creates an odd number of letters in the alphabet (twenty-one), which puts lāmeḏ exactly in the middle. Psalms 25 and 34 both add a pe line after tāw (at the end), to keep the number of lines at twenty-two. When this additional pe is taken together with the first and middle letters of the acrostic (’ālep̄ and lāmeḏ), the letters spell ’ālep̄, the first letter of the alphabet. Most likely, wāw was the letter chosen to be omitted because there is only one word beginning with wāw that could be used in an acrostic. Attempts to “correct” the “omission” of the wāw line actually ruin the poetic structure of these psalms. Psalm 25 also has the peculiar trait of having two rêš lines (rather than qôp̄ – rêš). Many reasons for this have been suggested, but it is possibly because David felt that there was no appropriate way to form a qôp̄ line.
Another acrostic psalm is Psalm 37, in which every other line begins with a consecutive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. The acrostic in this psalm is unusual in that a particle precedes the word beginning with the acrostic letter in the lines for the ‘ayin and tāw.
The only other complete acrostic in the Bible is Psalm 145, in which each verse begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. There is no nûn verse in the Masoretic Text of this psalm (nûn is skipped between v. 13 and v. 14), but this is in keeping with the variation in form that is found in the other biblical acrostics.