Tenses & Clause Position in the Psalms – Section 3: Chains of Imperfects Consecutive (part 1)

In section 3 of his work, Tempora und Satzstellung in den Psalmen, Diethelm Michel investigates how imperfects consecutive (wayyiqtols) should be understood when connected together. He has already concluded in §§ 1 and 2 that an imperfect consecutive that follows either a perfect (qatal) or an imperfect (yiqtol) denotes a result or an effect of the cause depicted in the tense that goes before. But just as in narrative,[1] wayyiqtols tend to form chains, showing progressive action. He comments on this phenomenon first in § 1 on Ps 40:2–4 [1–3]. The perfects are highlighted in blue; the wayyiqtols in red.

קַוֹּ֣ה קִוִּ֣יתִי יְהוָ֑ה
וַיֵּ֥ט אֵ֜לַ֗י
וַיִּשְׁמַ֥ע שַׁוְעָתִֽי׃
וַיַּעֲלֵ֤נִי׀ מִבּ֥וֹר שָׁאוֹן֘ מִטִּ֪יט הַיָּ֫וֵ֥ן
וַיָּ֖קֶם עַל־סֶ֥לַע רַגְלַ֗י כּוֹנֵ֥ן אֲשֻׁרָֽי׃
וַיִּתֵּ֬ן בְּפִ֙י׀ שִׁ֥יר חָדָשׁ֘ תְּהִלָּ֪ה לֵֽאלֹ֫הֵ֥ינוּ

2 I waited patiently on Yahweh—
then he inclined himself to me,
he listened to my cries for help,
3 he pulled me up from the hole of raging, from the muddy water,
he set my feet on a sound ground, he thus made my steps sure,
4 he gave me a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God.

The chain of wayyiqtols express actions that arise from one another. These actions as a whole result from the patient waiting and crying for help (v. 2). So, the relationship between the wayyiqtols and the perfect at the head is the same: cause-effect. The wayyiqtol chain simply depicts the result as a series of related, progressing actions. This is little surprise to those familiar with biblical Hebrew narrative.

The more important, perhaps less obvious, issue that Michel addresses throughout § 3 is the presence of other tenses within these wayyiqtol chains. For example, considering Ps 40:2–4 again, the presence of the perfect כונן (“he made sure”) is conspicuous in the middle of the chain. It cannot be explained as a different stage of time. Rather, Michel concludes that the two clauses describe basically the same thing. To “make steps sure” is the same as setting feet on solid ground. Therefore, there is no progress in thought. Thus, the perfect is not a part of the continuous action represented by the wayyiqtol chain; it explicates the imperfect consecutive, introducing a “retarding moment” in the action.

Psalm 78 also demonstrates this use of the perfect within wayyiqtol chains. Consider the following examples (vv. 53, 56, 57):

וַיַּנְחֵ֣ם לָ֭בֶטַח וְלֹ֣א פָחָ֑דוּ
וְאֶת־א֜וֹיְבֵיהֶ֗ם כִּסָּ֥ה הַיָּֽם׃

He led them safely [wayyiqtol]—they were not frightened [qatal[2]],
while the sea covered [qatal] their enemies.

וַיְנַסּ֣וּ וַ֭יַּמְרוּ אֶת־אֱלֹהִ֣ים עֶלְי֑וֹן
וְ֜עֵדוֹתָ֗יו לֹ֣א שָׁמָֽרוּ׃

Then they tested [wayyiqtol] and rebelled [wayyiqtol] against God the Highest,
in that they did not keep [qatal] his decrees.

וַיִּסֹּ֣גוּ וַֽ֭יִּבְגְּדוּ כַּאֲבוֹתָ֑ם
נֶ֜הְפְּכ֗וּ כְּקֶ֣שֶׁת רְמִיָּֽה׃

So they were apostate [wayyiqtol] and faithless [wayyiqtol] like their fathers,
in that they turned [qatal] like a treacherous bow.

In each case, the perfect does not continue the flow of action. The perfect establishes a contingent event that the author uses to make some kind of remark about the action of the wayyiqtol. This dynamic also occurs in vv. 59–62:

59 שָׁמַ֣ע אֱ֭לֹהִים וַֽיִּתְעַבָּ֑ר
וַיִּמְאַ֥ס מְ֜אֹ֗ד בְּיִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃
60 וַ֭יִּטֹּשׁ מִשְׁכַּ֣ן שִׁל֑וֹ
אֹ֜֗הֶל שִׁכֵּ֥ן בָּאָדָֽם׃
61 וַיִּתֵּ֣ן לַשְּׁבִ֣י עֻזּ֑וֹ
וְֽתִפְאַרְתּ֥וֹ בְיַד־צָֽר׃
62 וַיַּסְגֵּ֣ר לַחֶ֣רֶב עַמּ֑וֹ
וּ֜בְנַחֲלָת֗וֹ הִתְעַבָּֽר׃

59 When God heard [qatal], he was full of wrath [wayyiqtol],
and he utterly rejected [wayyiqtol] Israel.
60 He abandoned [wayyiqtol] his dwelling at Shiloh,
the tent where he dwelt [qatal] among mortals,
61 and delivered [wayyiqtol] his power to captivity,
his glory to the hand of the foe.
62 He gave [wayyiqtol] his people to the sword,
and vented his wrath [qatal] on his heritage. (NRSV)

Note the following observations:

  1. The leading perfect שׁמע (“he heard”) is the basis for the demonstration of wrath and the actions that ensue.
  2. By using the perfect in v. 59a, the author leaves the flow of action of vv. 56–58 and establishes something that occurs during the process of the preceding verses. In other words, he introduces the reasons for the subsequent imperfects consecutive.
  3. The results of God’s hearing are depicted in a chain of wayyiqtols.
  4. The same verb is used in v. 59a and 62b to describe God’s venting of his wrath (עבר), both times in the hithpael.
  5. In v. 59a, the venting of wrath is depicted with an imperfect consecutive; in v. 62b with the perfect.
  6. The significance of observation #5 is this: In v. 59, the wrath is the temporal and logical result of the hearing. But in v. 62, since the wrath has already been enacted, the wrath is not a new event. Rather, the author intends to pause and review God’s wrath as described by the intervening wayyiqtols.

There is much more to discuss on section 3, which I will attempt in at least one more post on wayyiqtol chains. The question to answer there is how simple imperfects act within these chains.

[1] The function of wayyiqtols in narrative should be quite familiar to those who read the Hebrew Bible. They are used to depict the foreground of the narrative and, for that matter, are characteristic of narration.

[2] The perfect here is negated. This will be discussed in comments on section 13.


Author: Randy McKinion

Besides being a husband and father, I teach at Cedarville University in Cedarville, OH.

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