Definition of Acrostic

Another of my experimental entries in the little Bible glossary, a definition of the acrostic form.

Acrostic — A Hebrew poetic form in which the first letters in each line are in alphabetical order. Examples are Ps 25, 34, 145 and Pr 31:10-31. Some poems repeat the letters such as Ps 37 (twice), Lam 4 (two times), Lam 1-3 (three times), Ps 119 (8 times). Somes acrostics are irregular. Its effect is “a poetic way of saying that a total coverage of the subject was being offered” (NIDB). Acrostics are not reproduced in the major English Bible versions.

J. Randal Matheny

Be pithy.

2 thoughts on “Definition of Acrostic

  1. Randy,

    Correct me if I am wrong, but I have been under the impression that acrostic forms may be found in many languages, not just Hebrew, and may be used in prose as well as poetry.. Not all acrostics utilize the whole alphabet. I have heard the term referred to any construction utilizing letters of the alphabet in an artificial manner. For exampale, the mnemonic “ikthus” for “fish” from Greek was an acrostic meaning “Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Saviour”. Bus ministries used “J(esus 1st)O(thers 2nd) Y(ourself last) for many years. I have always heard these forms called acrostics, even though they did not use the whole alphabet. Is my useage of the term wrong? Is there another better term for this type construction? Thanks

  2. Correct, and the entry here lacks a bit of context, since I’m considering Biblical studies only. So within that context, as far as I can tell — somebody correct me, the acrostic is used only in the OT (nothing in the NT) and only in alphabetical order.

    Now, some try to make other acrostics out of texts like Ps 4: “unto a lamp for Zerubbabel” (ISBE 1:32). From what I’ve read (which is not extensive, I admit), they don’t sound convincing.

    I almost mentioned the ikthus example you mentioned, but decided against it, for brevity’ sake, since it doesn’t occur in the NT.

What do you think?