More on the Hebrew Perfect in the Psalter (Diethelm Michel – Section 7 )

Sorry about the long delay; the semester has been a busy one.

In section 7, Diethelm Michel continues to deal with the perfect tense within the context of various genres of psalms. Specifically, he deals with perfects that occur in three cases:

  1. when the speaker speaks of the certainty of the Lord’s hearing a prayer,
  2. when the speaker vows to praise the Lord within the context of a lament,
  3. when the speaker reports praise in a song of thanksgiving.

I have chosen a text from each of the first two sections that I believe will provide opportunity for clarity. I intend to post on some other passages from this section in the near future.

Please note that the translations given are a rendering of Michel’s German.

Psalm 6:9–11 [English versions 8–10]

9 ס֣וּרוּ מִ֭מֶּנִּי כָּל־פֹּ֣עֲלֵי אָ֑וֶן
כִּֽי־שָׁמַ֥ע יְ֜הוָ֗ה ק֣וֹל בִּכְיִֽי׃
10 שָׁמַ֣ע יְ֭הוָה תְּחִנָּתִ֑י
יְ֜הוָ֗ה תְּֽפִלָּתִ֥י יִקָּֽח׃
11 יֵבֹ֤שׁוּ׀ וְיִבָּהֲל֣וּ מְ֭אֹד כָּל־אֹיְבָ֑י
יָ֜שֻׁ֗בוּ יֵבֹ֥שׁוּ רָֽגַע׃

9 Leave me, all you wrongdoers,
for Yhwh has heard [perf] my weeping,
10 Yhwh has listened [perf] to my plea.
Since Yhwh condescends [impf] to accept my prayer,
11 all my enemies must be ruined [impf],
must be greatly frightened [impf],
must leave [impf], be ruined in no time [impf].

For the first 8 verses, the psalmist cries out to Yhwh for grace and healing because of the great trouble in which he finds himself. Because of the change of mood between vv. 8 and 9, the perfects of vv. 9, 10 are clearly facts reported by the author, facts that would have just been experienced, according to Michel. Such perfects are used in these cases to express the certainty of Yhwh’s hearing/acting on behalf of the speaker.

Noteworthy, in my opinion, is how the cry for the wrongdoers to depart is followed by the particle כִּי along with the perfects, as a signal that the psalmist is shifting to providing the basis for his request(s). Throughout this section, though Michel does not comment, such a particle (notably כִּי and אֲשֶׁר) is often found within this section’s examples (e.g., 3:8; 52:11; 116:2, 8). Although not universal, perhaps this can serve as a signpost for such a shift and such translation of the perfect.

The more difficult element within these verses is the interplay between the perfects, which report facts, and the imperfects that follow. Those of v. 11 are generally accepted as a modal use of the imperfect. Such is a reasonable conclusion, not simply because of the context, but also because these imperfects appear in first position of the clause. As such, they would generally be regarded as volitional.[1] An explanation for v. 10 is not as straightforward, because one must consider the effect of the author’s placing a perfect and imperfect in parallel (abba). The middle elements of the chiasm are tightly connected grammatically (Yhwh + fem. sing. noun + 1cs suffix). As such, the perfect expressing a fact is placed over against the imperfect as the first elements in the chiasm.

The question revolves around how the two actions should be related, and the answer to that question is variously understood.

  1. The possibility exists that the speaker is conflicted, in that he recognizes that Yhwh “has heard” the supplication, yet the “accepting” of his prayer remains a separate and unfulfilled act. Thus, the imperfect would be translated as a future act. Yet, to so parse the terms “weeping” (v. 9), “supplication,” and “prayer” (v. 10) seems to be unjustified in light of the confidence in Yhwh’s act based on his previous “hearing.” In other words, the psalmist seems to have no doubt in Yhwh’s intervention. The parallelism of the middle elements certainly invites the reader to make the conclusion that they are closely related (see comments in #2 below).
  2. Gunkel’s solution understands the imperfect as an imperfect of the story to be translated in the same way as the perfect: “Yhwh has heard my prayer.” This is followed by at least one modern version.[2] I find it interesting that Michel does not agree with this, for he certainly has regard for a “poetic aorist” use of the imperfect (§ 21). Michel does not give a solid argument for why this is not the case. It could be argued that the change to the imperfect was necessary to protect the identification of the “prayer” and “supplication” as two separate acts. If the perfect were used in both cases, according to Michel’s logic, the perfects would describe separate facts. A dichotomy between “weeping” and “supplication” is clear; not so between “supplication” and “prayer.”
  3. The imperfect of v. 10 could also be taken modally. Michel believes this is the case, given the clause position of v. 10b, as well as the relationship to the modal imperfects (cf. § 23) of v. 11. In other words, by inverting the clause and setting the imperfect in close connection to two other imperfects, v. 10b should be read as setting the stage for v. 11. If this is the case, then the translation given above (“Since Yhwh hears … my enemies must…”) seems quite reasonable.
  4. Although it is impossible to discern what the translators of most English versions are intending by their translations of such tenses, the general approach is to resort to a traditional understanding of the tenses. So the perfect of 10a is translated with an English past tense (specifically a past perfect), the imperfect of 10b as present (ESV, NASB, NIV, NRSV) or future (NIV). What seems to be quite clear, however, is that none of these versions are reading v. 10b with as tight a connection to v. 11 as Michel.

I believe Michel’s observation on the interplay between the perfect and imperfect is quite intriguing. Observing the connections between verses and the ongoing parallelism within the psalm makes an important contribution to his argument. By inverting the clause, the author has allowed a series of three imperfects to be read in succession, paralleled in v. 11b with two more. Thus, the chiasm helps the reader move seamlessly from the reasons for the psalmist’s confidence to the future certainty expressed in the volitional imperfects. V. 10 becomes a great example of the meeting of tense, clause position, and the dynamics of parallelism, despite the fact that Michel does not speak to the latter.

Psalm 31:8–9 [EVV 7–8]

8 אָגִ֥ילָה וְאֶשְׂמְחָ֗ה בְּחַ֫סְדֶּ֥ךָ
אֲשֶׁ֣ר רָ֭אִיתָ אֶת־עָנְיִ֑י
יָ֜דַ֗עְתָּ בְּצָר֥וֹת נַפְשִֽׁי׃
9 וְלֹ֣א הִ֭סְגַּרְתַּנִי בְּיַד־אוֹיֵ֑ב
הֶֽעֱמַ֖דְתָּ בַמֶּרְחָ֣ב רַגְלָֽי׃

8 I will rejoice [impf] and be glad [impf] in your favor.
You have considered [perf] my misery,
you have known [perf] my soul in distress,
9 you have not given [perf] me into the hand of the enemy,
you have set [perf] my feet in freedom.

Here, the perfects express facts following the psalmist’s commitment to rejoice in the Lord’s lovingkindness. Use of the perfect without connections shows that the actions should be understood not as being strung together sequentially, but as individual acts demonstrating Yhwh’s lovingkindness. Also, there is again a signal for the change (אֱשֶׁר), as there are in most of the examples given in the second section of Michel (see also 28:6–7; 71:24).

 


[1] Please note that this is not Michel’s conclusion, but one based on Schneider and Nicacci (see this post).

[2] The NET translates the clause, “The LORD has accepted my prayer.” The explanatory note states that they believe the impf should be a preterite and appeal to the parallelism with the perfect.

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Author: Randy McKinion

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

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