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Figures of Speech

By John W. Schoenheit

The ability to communicate with words is one thing that sets mankind apart from all other creatures. God is the Author of language, and no one has ever used language as precisely as God does in the Bible, including His use of figures of speech, of which there are more than 200 varieties in Scripture.[1] When most people say, “a figure of speech,” they are speaking in general terms of something that is not true to fact. However, genuine “figures of speech” are legitimate grammatical and lexical forms that add emphasis and feeling to what we say and write. In the Bible, God uses figures of speech to emphasize things that He wants us to see as important. Many people who read the Bible never think to ask themselves, “How do we know what God wants emphasized in His Word?” God uses figures of speech to put emphasis where He wants emphasis, so it is important that we recognize and properly interpret the figures of speech in the Bible. Knowing the figures of speech God uses in the Bible helps us to understand the true meaning of Scripture and enables us to more fully enjoy its richness.

The figure of speech we are going to study in this issue of The Sower is Acrostichion, or, in English, Acrostic. The Greek word Acrostichion comes from akros (“the extremity;” thus the beginning or end), and stichos (a row), and thus an Acrostichion is when letters are used at the beginning or end of a number of lines. The letters can be the letters of the alphabet, or can spell a word or phrase. When each successive letter of the alphabet is used, the acrostic is referred to as “abecedarian.” Even short acrostics generally do not happen accidentally, and so the sections of the Bible that are acrostic are clearly the work of God to call our attention to those particular verses and what they are saying.

One famous acrostic is why one of the ancient symbols for Christianity is the fish. The first letter of these Greek words, “?????? (Jesus) ??????? (Christ), ???? (God’s) ???? (Son), ????? (savior),” spells ?????, (ichthus), the Greek word for “fish.”

Psalm 111 is a perfect acrostic in Hebrew. The Hebrew alphabet has 22 letters, and Psalm 111 has 22 lines in the Hebrew text, and each of them begins with the next successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet.

Psalm 112 is also a perfect acrostic in Hebrew. It is no coincidence that Psalm 111 and 112 are placed together. Psalm 111 focuses on Yahweh, giving Him praise and honor, while Psalm 112 focuses on the person who fears Yahweh and how he is blessed.

Psalm 119 is the most famous acrostic Psalm in the Bible. It is well known for being the longest Psalm in the Bible, but it is not as well known that it is acrostic. There are 176 verses in Psalm 119, which is 22 (the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet) times 8. Each stanza of eight verses begins with a different letter of the Hebrew alphabet, beginning with aleph (the first letter) and ending with tau (the last letter).

Proverbs 31:10-31, the verses that extol the virtuous woman, are acrostic.

There are more acrostics in the Bible, and not every one of them is “perfect,” having all 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet in order, and furthermore, not all of them reproduce the alphabet. Psalms 9 and 10 are two halves of an acrostic, completing one thought, but the acrostic is not “perfect” as is the acrostic in Psalm 111, for example. Actually, Psalms 9 and 10 are just one psalm in both the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament made about 250 BC, and in the Latin Vulgate version. In the Hebrew text, Psalm 9 starts with aleph, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and Psalm 10 starts with lamed (pronounced “laam’-ed”), the twelfth letter, the letter that starts the second half of the Hebrew alphabet. E. W. Bullinger points out in his book, Figures of Speech Used in the Bible, that Psalms 9 and 10, more than just being about sinful people in general, describes the Antichrist, the man of sin, and the times in which he lives (which is actually easier to see in Hebrew than in English). It is likely that Bullinger correctly surmises that the acrostic is imperfect and broken on purpose, reflecting the imperfect and broken condition of the world when the Antichrist rules the earth and the imperfect nature of the Antichrist himself.

When figures of speech such as Acrostic occur in the Bible, English readers must rely on marginal notes and sometimes a good study Bible to reveal that fact, because what can be easily seen in Hebrew or Greek cannot usually be reproduced in English.

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