The meaning of Acrostic in the Bible
(From International Standard Bible Encyclopedia)
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 Psalms 2:1-4 and Psalms 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 Konig, 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; 111 f.; 119; 145; Pro. 31:10-31, and Lam. 1 through 4. There is probably an example in Psalms 9 and 10, and possibly another in #Nah_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 Psalms 9:1, Psalms 9:3, Psalms 9:5 are respectively 'aleph, beth, gimel; of Psalms 9:9, Psalms 9:11, Psalms 9:13, Psalms 9:15, Psalms 9:17 waw, zayin, cheth, Teth and yodh. Psalms 10:1 begins with lamedh and Psalms 10:12, Psalms 10:14-15, Psalms 10:17 with qoph, resh, shin and taw. Four lines seem to have been allotted to each letter in the original form of the poem. In Psa. 25 all the letters are represented except waw and qoph. In Psalms 25:18 we find resh instead of the latter as well as in its place in Psalms 25:19. In Psalms 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 Psa. 34 all the letters are represented except waw, Psalms 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 Psalms 25:22 the first word is a form of padhah it has been suggested that there may have been here a sort of acrostic on the writer's name Pedahel pedhah'el, but there is no evidence that a psalmist so named ever existed. There are two lines to a letter. In Psa. 37 all the letters are represented except 'ayin 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 111 f. are found two quite regular examples with a line to each letter. Psa. 119 offers another regular example, but with 16 lines to a letter, each alternate line beginning with its letter. Vs 1-8, for instance, each begin with 'aleph. In Psa. 145 are found all the letters but nun. As we find in Septuagint between Psalms 145:13 and Psalms 145:14, that is where the nun couplet ought to be:
"Faithful is the Lord in his words
And holy in his works,"
which may represent a Hebrew couplet beginning with nun, it would seem that a verse has dropped out of the Massoretic Text. Pro. 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 pe 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 #Nah_1:1-10| ff. 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 'aleph and has tav as the initial letter of the last line but one. In 51:21,22,24,25,26,27 the letters mem, nun, 'ayin, pe, tsadhe, qoph and resh can be traced at the beginnings of lines in that order Samekh 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: Konig, Einl, 58, 66, 74, 76, 399, 404, 419, and Stilistik, etc., 357 ff., 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, Pro. and Lam; Driver, Parallel Psalter; King, Early Religious Poetry of the Hebrews, chapter iv.
William Taylor Smith
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