Megan Alsene-Parker delves into the artistry of the Hebrew acrostic form and the vivid pictures these little-known poems paint.
Psalm 119 is one of the most well-known psalms, principally because of its impressive length of 176 verses. Yet, another part of its notability is its unique structure: it is an acrostic psalm in which each group of eight lines begins with consecutive letters of the Hebrew alphabet, and it is marked as such in English Bibles by headings of ‘aleph’, ‘beth’, and so on. As Psalm 119 is often the only acrostic poem that English Bibles visually signpost in this way, the reader might be left with the impression that this psalm is the only acrostic in the Old Testament, but that is not the case.
Scholars generally agree that there are fourteen alphabetic acrostic poems in the Old Testament, found across four biblical books: Psalms 9–10 (which is considered to be one poem), 25, 34, 37, 111, 112, 119, 145; Proverbs 31:10-31; Lamentations 1, 2, 3, 4; and Nahum 1 (the exact verses of the acrostic in Nahum 1 are debated, but it encompasses at least verses 2-8, perhaps up to verse 11). While most examples of English acrostics are poems that spell out a word, name, or phrase, the acrostic poems in the Old Testament are all alphabetic acrostics. That is, each poetic unit begins with successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet—whether that be each half-line (Psalms 111, 112), line (Psalms 25, 34, 145; Proverbs 31; Nahum 1), stanza (Psalms 9–10, 37; Lamentations 1, 2, 4), or consecutive group of lines (Psalm 119, 8 lines per letter; Lamentations 3, 3 lines per letter). Rather than being a repetitive or clunky constraint, the alphabetic acrostic form gave the poets a flexible mould within which they could showcase their artistry. These fourteen acrostic poems feature many creative wordplays, sometimes even breaking the form’s ‘rules’ in meaningful ways to mirror a poem’s particular message.
Psalm 37, for example, showcases at least three distinct kinds of alliterative wordplay. In verse 1, the psalmist repeats the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, aleph, at the start of both halves of the poetic line, creating alliteration between the beginnings of the segments:
Do not fret yourself…
Do not be envious…
Another example occurs in verse 3, where the letter beth is repeated in consecutive words:
Trust in the Lord…
A third kind of alliteration can be seen when the psalmist uses the same letter for the first and last words in a line or unit. Verse 20—the kaph line—is an impressive example of alliterative repetition, containing five words that start with the letter kaph, including the first and last words of the verse:
Ki … kiqar karim
kalu ve’ashan kalu.
But … like the glory of the pastures,
they vanish—like smoke they vanish.
These sorts of alliteration happen throughout Psalm 37 (see especially verses 10–11, 14–15, 18–19, and 23) and in many of the Bible’s other Hebrew acrostic poems.
Wordplay is not the only example of the poets’ creativity with the acrostic form, though. Nahum 1 is thought of by some scholars as a ‘perfectly imperfect’ acrostic because it only somewhat follows the alphabetic order. Letters like aleph, gimel, he, vav, het, and tet appear at the beginnings of successive lines or half-lines; but beth, daleth, zayin, yod, and kaph are trickier, appearing in unexpected places. Further, the acrostic breaks off after kaph, giving us only half the alphabet. So, is Nahum 1 really an alphabetic acrostic? While some have argued that Nahum 1 was never meant to be an acrostic, or that textual corruption has forever lost the ‘original’ acrostic, the best explanation is that the disruption of the form is related to the poem’s meaning. Nahum 1 is introducing a message about the Lord’s vengeance against the Assyrians; and, in the fierce whirlwind of the Lord’s anger, the letters are thrown about this way and that, taking on a form that mirrors the poem’s message.
It is this openness to adaptation that makes the acrostic form a perfect vessel for artistic creativity. No alphabetic acrostic in the Old Testament is the same; instead, they all take the acrostic and creatively shape it to fit the poem’s overall message. Proverbs 31:10-31 expounds the virtues of the ‘wife of noble character’ from ‘A to Z’. Psalm 119 invites the reader on a meditative journey on the torah through its lengthy, cyclical repetition of letters—eight alephs, eight beths, and so on. Lamentations presents consecutive scenes, each unfolding in turn through its four acrostic poems with a fifth non-acrostic poem, guiding the audience through scenes of destruction and lament. And Nahum 1 portrays the storm of God’s anger through its disruption of the acrostic form.
While each of these acrostic poems might be built on the same underlying alphabetic sequence, there is a wide variety in the messages and themes conveyed by each poem’s use of the form. These fourteen poems, with their intricate wordplay and structural innovations, demonstrate the acrostic form’s capacity for diversity and beauty—a capacity that adds yet another layer of richness to the Word of the Lord.