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Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible [1]

ACROSTIC . Acrostic poems, i.e. poems in which initial letters recurring at regular intervals follow some definite arrangement, occur to the number of 14 in the OT; another instance is Sir 51:13-30 . All these are of a simple type, and are so planned that the initials recurring at fixed intervals follow the order of the Hebrew alphabet; thus the first section of the poem begins with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, aleph  ; the second with the second letter, beth  ; and so on down to the twenty-second and last letter, taw . The interval between the several letters consists of a regular number of lines . In   Psalms 111:1-10;   Psalms 112:1-10 this interval is one line; in   Psalms 25:1-22;   Psalms 34:1-22;   Psalms 145:1-21 ,   Proverbs 31:10-31 , Sir 51:13-30 , and in the fragment, which does not clearly extend beyond the thirteenth letter, contained in   Nahum 1:1-15 , the interval   Isaiah 2 lines; in   Lamentations 4:1-22 it   Isaiah 2 longer lines, in chs. 1 and 2 it   Isaiah 3 longer lines; in   Psalms 9:1-20;   Psalms 10:1-18 (a single continuous poem), and in   Psalms 37:1-40 , it   Isaiah 4 lines. In   Lamentations 3:1-66 , where the interval between each successive letter of the alphabet   Isaiah 3 long lines, each of each set of three lines begins with the same letter; and similarly in   Psalms 119:1-176 , where the interval   Isaiah 16 lines, each alternate line within each set of 16 begins with the same letter.

Certainly in  Lamentations 2:1-22;   Lamentations 3:1-66;   Lamentations 4:1-22 , and, according to the order of the verses in the LXX [Note: Septuagint.] , in   Proverbs 31:1-31 , probably also in   Psalms 34:1-22 (where the sense seems to require the transposition of   Psalms 34:16 and   Psalms 34:15 ) and in   Psalms 9:1-20 , the sixteenth and seventeenth letters of the Hebrew alphabet occupy respectively the seventeenth and sixteenth places in the acrostic scheme. The reason for this is unknown.

Comparatively few of these poems have come down to us intact. They have suffered from accidental errors of textual transmission, and probably also from editorial alterations. In some cases an entire strophe has dropped out of the text; thus the sixth strophe (of 2 lines) has fallen out between  Psalms 34:6-7 , and the fourteenth between   Psalms 145:13-14 , though in the latter case it still stood in the Hebrew MS from which the Greek version was made. Occasionally lines have been inserted, as, apparently, in more than one place in   Psalms 37:1-40 , and in   Nahum 1:2 . But such corruption of the text is really serious only in   Psalms 9:1-20 f.,   Nahum 1:1-15 , and Sir 51:13-30 .

The earliest of these fifteen poems are probably  Lamentations 2:1-22;   Lamentations 4:1-22 , which may have been written in the earlier half of the 6th cent. b.c.; but the custom of writing such poems may have been much more ancient. Perhaps the latest of the poems is Sir 51:13-30 (about b.c. 180), but the Jews continued to compose such poems long after this.

The English reader will find the strophes clearly distinguished, and the initial Hebrew letters with their names in English letters indicated, in the RV [Note: Revised Version.] of  Psalms 119:1-176 . Unfortunately the RV [Note: Revised Version.] does not give the initials in the other poems; but they will be found, in the case of the Psalms, in (for example) Kirkpatrick’s Psalms (Cambridge Bible), Cheyne’s Book of Psalms , Driver’s Parallel Psalter . For   Lamentations 2:1-22;   Lamentations 4:1-22 see Expositor , 1906 (April) [G. A. Smith]; for   Nahum 1:1-15 , Expositor , 1898 (Sept.), pp. 207 220 [G. B. Gray], or Driver, Century Bible , p. 26 f. Common though it is in other literatures and with such mediæval Jewish poets as Ibn Ezra, no decisive instance of the type of acrostic in which the initial letters compose a name, has been found in the OT, though some have detected the name Simeon (or Simon) thus given in   Psalms 110:1-7 ,   Psalms 25:1-22;   Psalms 34:1-22 contain each an additional strophe at the close of the alphabetic strophes; in each case the first word of the verse is a part of the Hebrew verb pâdâh , ‘to redeem,’ and it has been suggested that the author or a copyist has thus left us a clue to his name Pedahel  ; but interesting as this suggestion is, it is for several reasons doubtful.

G. B. Gray.

Holman Bible Dictionary [2]

 Psalm 119:1 aleph beth  Psalm 119:169-176 taw  Psalm 9-10 Psalm 25:1 Psalm 34:1 Psalm 37:1 Psalm 111:1 Psalm 112:1 Psalm 145:1 Proverbs 31:10-31 Lamentations 1:1 Lamentations 2:1 Lamentations 3:1 Lamentations 4:1

Webster's Dictionary [3]

(1): (n.) Alt. of Acrostical

(2): (n.) A Hebrew poem in which the lines or stanzas begin with the letters of the alphabet in regular order (as Psalm cxix.). See Abecedarian.

(3): (n.) A composition, usually in verse, in which the first or the last letters of the lines, or certain other letters, taken in order, form a name, word, phrase, or motto.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia [4]

a - kros´tik  : The acrostic, understood as a short poem in which the first letters of the lines form a word, or name, or sentence, has not yet been proved to occur in ancient Hebrew literature. The supposed examples found by some scholars in  Psalm 2:1-4 and   Psalm 110:1-4 are not generally recognized. Still less can be said in favor of the suggestion that in   Esther 1:20 four words read from left to right form by their initials an acrostic on the name Yhwh (compare König, Einleitung 293). In Byzantine hymn-poetry the term acrostichis with which our word "acrostic" is connected was also used of alphabetical poems, that is poems the lines or groups of lines in which have their initials arranged in the order of the alphabet. Acrostics of this kind are found in pre-Christian Hebrew literature as well as elsewhere in ancient oriental literature. There are twelve clear instances in the Old Testament: Psalms 25; 34; 37;   Psalm 111:1-10; 119; 145; Prov 31:10-31, and Lam 1 through 4. There is probably an example in Psalms 9 and 10, and possibly another in Nab  Psalm 1:2 -10. Outside the Canon, Sirach 51:13-30 exhibits clear traces of alphabetic arrangement. Each of these fifteen poems must briefly be discussed.

Pss 9 and 10, which are treated as one psalm in Septuagint and Vulg, give fairly clear indications of original alphabetic structure even in the Massoretic Text. The initials of  Psalm 9:1 ,  Psalm 9:3 ,  Psalm 9:5 are respectively ‛āleph , bēth , gı̄mel  ; of  Psalm 9:9 ,  Psalm 9:11 ,  Psalm 9:13 ,  Psalm 9:15 ,  Psalm 9:17 vāv , zayin , ḥēth , ṭēth and yōdh .  Psalm 10:1 begins with lāmedh and  Psalm 10:12 ,  Psalm 10:14 ,  Psalm 10:15 ,  Psalm 10:17 with ḳōph , rēsh , shı̄n and tāv . Four lines seem to have been allotted to each letter in the original form of the poem. In Ps 25 all the letters are represented except vāv and ḳōph . In  Psalm 25:18 we find rēsh instead of the latter as well as in its place in  Psalm 25:19 . In  Psalm 25:2 the alphabetical letter is the initial of the second word. The last verse is again supernumerary. There are mostly two lines to a letter. In Ps 34 all the letters are represented except vāv ,  Psalm 34:6 beginning not with it, as was to be expected, but with zayin . The last verse is again a supernumerary. Since here and in  Psalm 25:22 the first word is a form of pādhāh it has been suggested that there may have been here a sort of acrostic on the writer's name Pedahel pedhah'ēl , but there is no evidence that a psalmist so named ever existed. There are two lines to a letter. In Ps 37 all the letters are represented except ‛ayı̆n which seems however from Septuagint to have been present in the earliest text. As a rule four lines are assigned to each letter. In Psalms  Psalm 111:1-10 are found two quite regular examples with a line to each letter. Ps 119 offers another regular example, but with 16 lines to a letter, each alternate line beginning with its letter.   Psalm 119:1-8 , for instance, each begin with 'āleph . In Ps 145 are found all the letters but nūn . As we find in Septuagint between  Psalm 145:13 and   Psalm 145:14 , that is where the nūn couplet ought to be:

"Faithful is the Lord in his words

And holy in his works,"

which may represent a Hebrew couplet beginning with nūn , it would seem that a verse has dropped out of the Massoretic Text. Prov 31:10-31 constitutes a regular alphabetical poem with (except in  Proverbs 31:15 ) two lines to a letter. Lam 1 is regular, with three lines to a letter Lam 2; 3; 4, are also regular with a curious exception. In each case precedes ‛ayin , a phenomenon which has not yet been explained. In Lam 2 there are three or four lines to a letter except in  Lamentations 2:17 , where there seem to be five. In Lam 3 also there are three lines to a letter and each line begins with that letter. In Lam 4 there are two lines to a letter except in  Lamentations 4:22 where there are probably four lines. Lam 5 has twice as many lines as the letters of the alphabet but no alphabetical arrangement. In Nab   Lamentations 1:1-10 Delitzsch (following Frohnmeyer) in 1876, Bickell in 1880 and 1894, Gunkel in 1893 and 1895, G. B. Gray in 1898 ( Expos , September) and others have pointed out possible traces of original alphabetical structure. In the Massoretic text, however, as generally arranged, it is not distinctly discernible. Sirach 51:13-30: As early as 1882 Bickell reconstructed this hymn on the basis of the Greek and Syriac versions as a Hebrew alphabetical poem. In 1897 Schechter (in the judgment of most scholars) discovered the original text in a collection of fragments from the Genizah of Cairo, and this proved the correctness of Bickell's idea and even the accuracy of some details of his reconstruction. The poem begins with 'āleph and has tāv as the initial letter of the last line but one. In 51:21, 22, 24, 25, 26, 27 the letters mēm , nūn , ‛ayı̆n , , cādhē , ḳōph and rēsh can be traced at the beginnings of lines in that order Ṣamekh is absent (compare Schechter-Taylor, The Wisdom of Ben Sira , lxxvi-lxxxvii).

As this rapid survey will have shown, this form of acrostic as employed by Hebrew writers consisted in the use of letters of the alphabet as initials in their order, at regular intervals, the distance between two different letters ranging from one to sixteen lines. Once each letter is thus used three times, in another case eight times. The corruption of the text has in some cases led to considerable interference with the alphabetical arrangement, and textual criticism has endeavored to restore it with varying success.

These alphabetical poems have been unduly depreciated on account of their artificial structure and have also been regarded for the same reason as of comparatively late origin. This latter conclusion is premature with present evidence. The poems in Lam undoubtedly go back as far as the 6th century bc, and Assyrian testimony takes us back farther still for acrostic poems of some kind. Strictly alphabetical poems are of course out of the question in Assyrian because of the absence of an alphabet, but there are texts from the library of Ashur-bani-pal each verse-line in which begins with the same syllable, and others in which the initial syllables read together compose a word or sentence. Now these texts were written down in the 7th century bc, but may have been copied from far earlier Babylonian originals. There can be little doubt that oriental poets wrote acrostic at an early period, and therefore the use of some form of the acrostic is no clear indication of lateness of date. (For these Assyrian acrostics compare Weber, Die Literatur der Babylonier und Assyrer , 37.)


In addition to authorities already cited: König, Einl , 58, 66, 74, 76, 399, 404, 419, and Stilistik , etc., 357ff, Budde, Geschichte der alt-hebraischen Litteratur , 30, 90, 241, 291; article "Acrostic" in HDB (larger and smaller) and Hastings, Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics , and Jewish Encyclopedia  ; commentaries on Ps, Nah, Prov and Lam; Driver, Parallel Psalter  ; King, Early Religious Poetry of the Hebrews , chapter iv.

Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature [5]

(from Ἄκρον , Extremity, and Στίχος , verse), The word commonly signifies the beginning of a verse; but it is sometimes taken for the end or close of it. It ordinarily signifies an ode in which the initial letters of the verses in their order spell a certain word or sentence. In this form acrostics do not occur in the Bible. There are certain parts of the poetical compositions of the Old Testament, however, in which the successive verses or lines in the original begin with the letters of the Hebrew alphabet; these may be called alphabetical acrostics. For instance, in  Psalms 119:1-176, there are as many stanzas or strophes as there are letters in the alphabet, and each strophe consists of eight double lines, all of which, in each case, begin with that letter of the alphabet corresponding to the place of the strophe in the Psalm that is, the first eight lines begin each with א , Aleph, the next eight with ב , Beth, and so on. (See Abecedarian).

Other Psalms have only one verse to each letter, in its order, as  Psalms 25:1-22;  Psalms 34:1-22. In others, again, as  Psalms 111:1-10;  Psalms 112:1-10, each verse is divided into two parts, and these Hemistichs follow the alphabetical arrangement, like the whole verses of the last mentioned Psalms. The Lamentations of Jeremiah are mostly acrostic, some of the chapters repeating each letter one or more times. The last chapter of Proverbs also has the initial letters of its last twenty-two verses in alphabetical order. (See Poetry).

The term acrostic is used in ecclesiastical history to describe a certain mode of performing the psalmody of the ancient Church. A single person, called the precentor, commenced the verse, and the people joined with him at the close. We find also the words hypopsalma and diapsalma, likewise Ἀκροτελεύτιον and Ἐφύμνιον , almost synonymous with acrostic, used to describe the same practice. They do not always mean the end of a verse, but sometimes what was added at the end of a psalm, or something repeated in the middle of it, e.g. the phrase "for his mercy endureth forever," repeated or chanted by the congregation. The Gloria Patri is by some writers called the epode or acroteleutic, because it was always sung at the end of the psalms (Bingham, Orig. Eccl. 1, 14).

hymns were in use in the ancient Church; and specimens remain in Greek, but especially in Latin. The term was also applied to the Christian formula Ἰχθύς , (See Ichthys). A peculiar use of the term occurs in the Greek office-books, in which the successive canons begin with the several letters of the alphabet.