Tenses and Clause Position in the Psalms: Excursus on Psalm 18 (part 1)

My last post on Diethelm Michel’s Tempora und Satzstellung in den Psalmen [Tenses and Clause Position in the Psalms], summarized his initial take on the use of the perfect (qatal), imperfect (yiqtol) and imperfect consecutive (wayyiqtol) in the Psalter. These observations were primarily driven by the use of the wayyiqtol following the qatal or yiqtol. In his treatment of the yiqtol and of wayyiqtol chains, Michel made the observation that at times the imperfect can be used virtually the same as the imperfect consecutive. One should note that this is not the only use of the imperfect, as he will describe various ways the author uses the yiqtol in later sections. However, his conclusion intrigues me, so I find it helpful that he has attempted to make this claim by walking carefully through Psalm 18.

Since Psalm 18 and 2 Samuel 22 are essentially the same poem, choosing Psalm 18 is fitting. The reader can use these two parallel psalms to determine patterns of usage by the biblical writers. If anyone is interested, I have the Hebrew texts in parallel (Psalm 18 and 2 Samuel 22), with differences highlighted.

As I walk through the text, I will be interacting some with my previous post about Wolfgang Schneider’s approach to the imperfect.

The translations reflect my understanding of these verses, not Michel’s.

Psalm 18:2 [English 1]

אֶרְחָמְךָ֖ יְהוָ֣ה חִזְקִֽי׃

I want to love you, Yhwh, my strength.[1]

Michel concludes that the imperfect here is a cohortative. I completely agree, as this fits the general understanding of how a speaker/poet expresses volition. I would note (although Michel does not point this out), that the imperfect is placed here in first position in its clause.

Psalm 18:3 [Eng 2]

יְהוָ֤ה׀ סַֽלְעִ֥י וּמְצוּדָתִ֗י וּמְפַ֫לְטִ֥י
אֵלִ֣י צ֭וּרִי אֶֽחֱסֶה־בּ֑וֹ
מָֽגִנִּ֥י וְקֶֽרֶן־יִ֜שְׁעִ֗י מִשְׂגַּבִּֽי׃

Yhwh is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer;
my God is my rock—let me take refuge in him—
my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.

The only comment Michel makes on this verse is that it gives the theme of the psalm. He translates the verb with the present, which I have chosen not to follow. My take on the verse (at least for now) is this: The phrase אלי צורי is a nominal clause translated simply, “My God is my rock.” This is followed by a verbal clause with a yiqtol in initial position, as in v. 2 above. As such, I believe it is just as valid to translate this as a volitional, even if one uses “I will take refuge” instead of the “let me take” (or something similar) used above. My point is that the speaker is not simply stating a fact, but is expressing a desire, as in v. 2.

Psalm 18:4 [Eng 3]

מְ֭הֻלָּל אֶקְרָ֣א יְהוָ֑ה
וּמִן־אֹ֜יְבַ֗י אִוָּשֵֽׁעַ׃

As one worthy to be praised, I will call upon Yhwh;
and from my enemies, I will be saved.

The first half of the verse is notoriously difficult to translate, and Michel discusses these issues briefly. However, for the issue here, his conclusion is that the imperfects report past action. He does not explain why. I see no compelling reason why this is the case, because at this point, the imperfects are not set within a string of past actions, as might be suggested in psalms that place yiqtols and wayyiqtols together (see this post). As seen in the translation above, I have chosen the English future, but I believe a present tense would be fine as well (cf. most English translations). Since imperfects are generally perspectivally indifferent, I believe this is the best understanding. I would point out that both imperfects do not occur in first position, so I would not regard them volitionally.

Psalm 18:5–6 [Eng 4–5]

אֲפָפ֥וּנִי חֶבְלֵי־מָ֑וֶת
וְֽנַחֲלֵ֖י בְלִיַּ֣עַל יְבַֽעֲתֽוּנִי׃
חֶבְלֵ֣י שְׁא֣וֹל סְבָב֑וּנִי
קִ֜דְּמ֗וּנִי מ֣וֹקְשֵׁי מָֽוֶת׃

Waves[2] of death engulfed me,
and torrents of wickedness terrify me.
The chords of Sheol surrounded me,
snares of death confronted me.

The translation of the perfects follow easily Michel’s view as past actions stating facts, albeit in this case he points out that these are not actual things that occurred to the psalmist. Rather, these actions are images (from myths) in which the psalmist saw chaos breaking into his life.

For the matter at hand, verse 5 is striking. Both these verses are chiasms, but in v. 5, a perfect is placed in parallel with an imperfect. Michel does not address the significance of this at this point of his book, but he does in a later section (§ 29e). By inverting the clause and expressing action with the imperfect instead of the perfect, the accent is shifted so that a pure presentation of action (as expressed by the perfect) no longer exists. Two results follow: (1) the action of the second half of the chiasm is more conditional to the first [result in a translation of “so that…”] and (2) the static nature cause by the inversion is avoided. I believe the second is of significance, because by using the imperfect, the author has avoided creating a closed qatal clause whereby the action of the second half would be layered upon the first and perhaps seen as the same action.[3] At the same time, I have chosen to translate the imperfect with the present tense to distinguish it from the perfect.

Psalm 18:7 [Eng 6]

בַּצַּר־לִ֤י׀ אֶֽקְרָ֣א יְהוָה֘
וְאֶל־אֱלֹהַ֪י אֲשַׁ֫וֵּ֥עַ
יִשְׁמַ֣ע מֵהֵיכָל֣וֹ קוֹלִ֑י
וְ֜שַׁוְעָתִ֗י לְפָנָ֤יו׀ תָּב֬וֹא בְאָזְנָֽיו׃

In my trouble, I call to Yhwh,
and to my God I cry out for help.
May he hear my voice from his temple,
and may my cry for help come into his ears.

Again, Michel draws the (in my opinion hasty) conclusion that the imperfects here have a past meaning [“I called…I cried out”]. At the same time, he understands the imperfect ישׁמע to be an example of a yiqtol functioning like a wayyiqtol. Thus, the “hearing” is a result of the calling and crying out [“since he hears…”]. The primary issue I have with this is that you would expect such imperfects to be found in the midst of a wayyiqtol chain. Although wayyiqtols follow in v. 18, I don’t believe there has been a legitimate transition by an author to a series of actions that are normally related by a chain of narrative tenses. But even if I were to grant that the imperfects in the first two clauses are understood as past actions (which I don’t favor), I am not compelled to jettison my view that the last two imperfects may be taken as volitional. The first (ישׁמע) occurs in the first position of the clause as we would expect; the second (תבוא) is parallel to the first as part of a chiasm.[4]

Conclusion

I will cover more of Psalm 18 and Michel’s views in related posts. However, I thought I would pause and ask, Why is this important?On the one hand, as a teacher of Hebrew, the significance is quite obvious—to discover how the tenses are used so that translations and interpretations will be accurate. On the other hand, as a believer who reads the text as part of the community of faith, I believe the way I have understood and translated these verses demonstrate how we as readers can take these words upon our lips. That is, especially in the case of the volitional uses of the imperfect, the readers of the psalm is invited to express these desires along with the psalmist, perhaps as an individual, but also as part of worship with the congregation. Michel’s view would lead us to view Psalm 18 as merely rehearsing an act of the suppliant (David) in the past. I am simply showing that perhaps a different understanding of the tenses will help us see how the psalmist has preserved the volitional mood and present aspect of the poem. And as such, he allows us to sing the song along with the author.


[1] Most English translations have simply chosen, “I love you.” Perhaps the NKJV is suggesting a volitional understanding with, “I will love you.” None are clear on this.

[2] reading with 2Sam 22:5

[3] I realize I’m on sticky ground here, but these are simply some of my initial thoughts. Such layering usually exists when a closed qatal clause is layered upon a wayyiqtol (as for example in Gen 1:5).

[4] The parallel of תבואישׁמע in 2Sam 22:7 is a wayyiqtol. There is no parallel for תבוא. I will need to address this situation again, but I am of the opinion that this action is historicized in the specific example of 2Sam 22. This explanation is not without its difficulties, but viable.

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Author: Randy McKinion

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

2 thoughts on “Tenses and Clause Position in the Psalms: Excursus on Psalm 18 (part 1)”

  1. hi randy,
    i liked your sequence on michel (read half a year later…). i did not manage to find any biographical data on him, though he is mentioned elsewhere (e.g. waltke-oconnor), maybe since michael diethelm is also the name of a soccer player…
    i agree with you that his past interpretation of imperfects is not well founded. also, i find his approach more psychological than linguistic.
    but the causal approach to wayiqtol (not included necessarily in the vav-consecutive) is refreshing.

    nir cohen

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