Question: "What is an acrostic poem? What examples of acrostic poems are in the Bible?"
Answer: An acrostic poem is a poem in which the first letter (or sometimes the first syllable) of each line spells out a word, name, or sentence. A good example is Lewis Carroll’s untitled poem, usually called “Life Is but a Dream,” at the end of Through the Looking-Glass. The first letters of the twenty-one lines of this poem spell out Alice Pleasance Liddell, the full name of the young girl who inspired Carroll to write his novels.
Some scholars claim that the Bible contains acrostic poems, but there is debate on whether the poems were intended as acrostics by the original writers. What is beyond debate is the existence of some poems in the Old Testament that show an alphabetical arrangement. Sometimes, these are called “acrostic” poems, but they are more properly called “alphabetical” or “abecedarian.”
Psalm 111 is a good example of an “acrostic” poem in Scripture. After the initial “Praise the Lord” in verse 1 are twenty-two lines to correspond with the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Each line of the poetry begins with a letter of the alphabet, in order.
Another example of an acrostic or alphabetical poem is Psalm 119. This psalm is divided into twenty-two sections, one for each Hebrew letter. Each section has sixteen lines, with that section’s letter appearing at the start of each alternate line. So, for example, the first eight verses contain sixteen lines of poetry, and every other line begins with aleph (א), the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet. The next section of Psalm 119 comprises verses 9–16, and each verse begins with the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet, beth (ב).
Psalms 9 and 10, taken together, show some purposeful alphabetic arrangement, although not with the whole alphabet. Psalm 25 uses twenty of the twenty-two Hebrew letters. Each letter is given two lines of poetry. In verse 2, the expected letter comes at the beginning of the second word, rather than the first.
Other acrostic poems such as Psalm 34 (two lines per letter), Psalm 37 (four lines per letter), and Psalm 145 (two lines per letter) also have some omissions or minor adjustments to the strict alphabetical sequence.
Outside of the book of Psalms are two other passages that contain acrostic or alphabetical arrangements. One is Proverbs 31:10–31. The poetic description of the virtuous woman is an acrostic, with each verse beginning with a different letter of the Hebrew alphabet (two lines per letter).
Finally, Lamentations chapters 1—4 contain acrostic poems. Lamentations 1 has twenty-two verses, giving three lines to each Hebrew letter in order. In Lamentations 2 there are mostly three or four lines to each letter. In Lamentations 3 there are twenty-two stanzas of three verses apiece; each verse begins with that stanza’s letter. So the last stanza of Lamentations 3 (verses 64–66) has three lines beginning with the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet, taw (ת). In the twenty-two verses of Lamentations 4, there are mostly two lines of poetry to each letter.
One other passage, Nahum 1:2–8, is a hymn to God with an alphabetic construction. Only half of the Hebrew alphabet is used, however, and the sequence of letters is not rigid.
The acrostic or alphabetical structure of various portions of Scripture could have been a memorization aid or simply meant to enhance the beauty of the reading. In any case, such linguistic devices are a good reminder that the Bible is literature and that the biblical writers, guided by the Holy Spirit, used the literary forms and tools available to them to communicate God’s Word.