An acrostic is a poem in which the initial letters of each successive line form a word, phrase, or pattern. Acrostics are found in several ancient Near Eastern literatures; in the Bible the only poems of this type are alphabetic acrostics, in which each consecutive line or group of lines begins with a successive letter of the alphabet in the order of the letters in Hebrew. The acrostic poems in the Bible are Psalms 9–10, 25, 34, 37, 111, 112, 145; Proverbs 31.10–31; Lamentations 1, 2, 3, 4; Nahum 1.2–8 (incomplete); Sirach 51.13–30; and the most elaborate, as well as the longest chapter in the Bible, Psalm 119. Because of the structural device of the acrostic, the content of these poems is not developmental. The purpose of the acrostic may have been mnemonic; it also may have been intended to convey the idea that the entire range of sentiment is being expressed, “from A to Z,” as it were. Few English translations have attempted to reproduce this formal device; one that does is by Ronald Knox.
Michael D. Coogan