Hebrew Clauses – Diethelm Michel (Section 28)

Although his work consists of a detailed study of the Psalter, Diethelm Michel’s Tempora und Satzstellung in den Psalmen has an important section about the syntax of clauses in Hebrew (Section 5 of the work). For my own benefit and perhaps some out there who find such study interesting, I thought it might be helpful to present his results. (I did a similar summary of Wolfgang Schneider here.) In section 28, Michel lays out his understanding of the verbal clause and the nominal clause.

The Verbal Clause

  1. We refer to a clause as a verbal clause (VC) when it reports the performance of an action or the appearance of a characteristic.
  2. The predicate of a VC always consists of a finite verb.
  3. The finite verb always stands at the beginning of the clause; only adverbial qualification can step in before it. An explicit subject follows the verb in attributive position. An example of an adverbial phrase coming before the finite verb would be Ps 102:9a:

כָּל־הַ֭יּוֹם חֵרְפ֣וּנִי אוֹיְבָ֑י
all day my enemies surround me

The Nominal Clause

  1. We call a clause a nominal clause (NC) that makes a statement about a subject.
  2. A subject of the NC is a substantive or an equivalent of such (pronoun, substantive adjective or participle, substantive clause).
  3. A predicate of a nominal clause can be (1) a substantive, (2) an adjective (participle), (3) a pronoun, (4) an adverb, or (5) an entire clause. The last possibility is important in that it leads the third classification, the compound nominal clause.

The Compound Nominal Clause

  1. We call a clause a “compound nominal clause” when its predicate consists of an entire clause, a NC or a VC.
  2. In the predicate of the clause, a back-reference to the larger subject can take place.
  3. When a so-called copula is used in a nominal clause, it is regarded as a compound nominal clause.

Here are two examples, the first is a CNC with a NC as predicate, the second with a VC as predicate. Both have a nominal at the front about which a whole clause makes a claim.

Psalm 69:14
וַאֲנִ֤י תְפִלָּתִֽי־לְךָ֙׀ יְהוָ֡ה
As for me: my prayer is to you, Yhwh.

Psalm 103:19
יְֽהוָ֗ה בַּ֭שָּׁמַיִם הֵכִ֣ין כִּסְא֑וֹ
Yhwh [he has done this as a characteristic]:
he has established his throne in the heavens.


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.

Diethelm Michel: Section 6 – The Perfect in Description of Trouble

This post is a continuation of a series that is working through Diethelm Michel’s Tempora und Satzstellung in den Psalmen [Tenses and Clause Position in the Psalms]. Section 6 of this work, which begins a new section of the book treating the use of the perfect (qatal) in the Psalter, shows how the qatal is used to describe the trouble of the speaker(s) in lament and thanksgiving psalms.

As we transition to this new segment of the book, some of the big questions asked by Michel are concerning (1) how the perfect reports action, (2) the relationship between actions reported in the perfect, (3) how the perfect interacts with the other tenses, and (4) typical translations of the perfect. Michel’s methodology, as in earlier sections, is simply to walk through example passages and make passing, summary statements.

Psalm 79

Michel begins with vv. 1–4:

1 אֱֽלֹהִ֡ים
גוֹיִ֙ם׀ בְּֽנַחֲלָתֶ֗ךָ
אֶת־הֵיכַ֣ל קָדְשֶׁ֑ךָ
אֶת־יְרוּשָׁלִַ֣ם לְעִיִּֽים׃
2 נָֽתְנ֡וּ אֶת־נִבְלַ֬ת עֲבָדֶ֗יךָ
מַ֭אֲכָל לְע֣וֹף הַשָּׁמָ֑יִם
בְּשַׂ֥ר חֲ֜סִידֶ֗יךָ
3 שָׁפְכ֬וּ דָמָ֙ם׀ כַּמַּ֗יִם
סְֽבִ֨יב֤וֹת יְֽרוּשָׁלִָ֗ם
וְאֵ֣ין קוֹבֵֽר׃
4הָיִ֣ינוּ חֶ֭רְפָּה לִשְׁכֵנֵ֑ינוּ
לַ֥עַג וָ֜קֶ֗לֶס לִסְבִיבוֹתֵֽינוּ׃

One English translation.

In vv. 1–3, five verbal clauses report actions of the enemies, which in v. 4, a verbal clause describes the condition of the ones praying. Structurally of note is that each of these has perfects in first position with no connecting ו. As such, Michel makes the point that these qatal clauses do not report continuous actions. “The enemies have not first devastated the temple [v. 1], then dishonored the corpses [v. 2] and only then spilled their blood [v. 3]. Rather, here events are listed that should persuade Yhwh to intervene, and each of them has its own inherent weight.” The conclusion is that these perfects list definite facts, yet not in the same way that a wayyiqtol chain would.

Regarding translation, Michel states that generally all of these should be translated in the past, except perhaps v. 4. Throughout the section, Michel translates according to context, wrestling with the time element in relationship to the other verbs/action surrounding the perfects. As such, he presents no definite rule for when to translate with past or present.

The description of the trouble is again picked up in v. 7:

כִּ֭י אָכַ֣ל אֶֽת־יַעֲקֹ֑ב
וְֽאֶת־נָוֵ֥הוּ הֵשַֽׁמּוּ׃

For they[1] have devoured Jacob
and laid waste his habitation. (NRSV)

However, here the second half of the verse contains an inversion that is easily explained by the use of chiasm.

Michel’s demonstrates from a number of others passages the same observations as from Psalm 79. Differences arise when accompanied by other tenses (esp. wayyiqtol and yiqtol), but his conclusions seem mostly consistent. One question that he raises is the issue of inversion, which will be treated in a later section/post. However, it would be beneficial to show an example here that is not part of a chiasm:

Psalm 54:5

כִּ֤י זָרִ֙ים׀ קָ֤מוּ עָלַ֗י
וְֽ֭עָרִיצִים בִּקְשׁ֣וּ נַפְשִׁ֑י
לֹ֤א שָׂ֙מוּ אֱלֹהִ֖ים לְנֶגְדָּ֣ם סֶֽלָה׃

For strangers—they have risen up against me;
and tyrants—they have sought my life.
They have not set God before their eyes. Selah.

The perfects describe the actions of the enemies, reporting facts. Yet, in the first half of the verse, a nominal is set before the verb, creating an inversion. Michel’s conclusion is helpful in this regard, namely that in this case, the focus of the sentence lies less on the action then on the characterization of the enemies (hence my translation above to help focus on that). The significance of inversions will be discussed later, especially as they relate to chiastic structures.

Two Observations

  1. What makes me slightly uncomfortable throughout this section (and perhaps through much of Michel’s work) is his reliance upon isolating the use of the tenses in particular genres. Though perhaps completely necessary, I wish his treatment was based more strictly on structural identifiers, such as the placement of the verb. He approaches this in his observations concerning the connection between perfects with the waw or lack thereof. This is a topic taken up in a later section, but I wish it were one addressed from the beginning of the book as foundational for his discussion of the tenses.
  2. Throughout section 6, the reader must recognize that translation of perfect strictly with the English past tense is by no means followed by modern translations and is probably difficult to hold strictly. This highlights an important point that reading the Psalms in translation does not allow the reader to fully appreciate what is being done by the writers.

[1] Michel believes this should be read as a plural along with not a few Hebrew manuscripts as well as Jer 10:25. Cf. the apparatus in BHS.

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

This is a continuation of this post.

Psalm 18:8–16 [Eng 7–15]

8 וַתִּגְעַ֬שׁ וַתִּרְעַ֙שׁ׀ הָאָ֗רֶץ
וּמוֹסְדֵ֣י הָרִ֣ים יִרְגָּ֑זוּ
וַ֜יִּתְגָּֽעֲשׁ֗וּ כִּי־חָ֥רָה לֽוֹ׃
9 עָ֨לָ֤ה עָשָׁ֙ן׀ בְּאַפּ֗וֹ
וְאֵשׁ־מִפִּ֥יו תֹּאכֵ֑ל
גֶּ֜חָלִ֗ים בָּעֲר֥וּ מִמֶּֽנּוּ׃
10 וַיֵּ֣ט שָׁ֭מַיִם וַיֵּרַ֑ד
וַ֜עֲרָפֶ֗ל תַּ֣חַת רַגְלָֽיו׃
11 וַיִּרְכַּ֣ב עַל־כְּ֭רוּב וַיָּעֹ֑ף
12 יָ֤שֶׁת חֹ֙שֶׁךְ׀ סִתְר֗וֹ סְבִֽיבוֹתָ֥יו סֻכָּת֑וֹ
חֶשְׁכַת־מַ֗֜יִם עָבֵ֥י שְׁחָקִֽים׃
13 מִנֹּ֗גַהּ נֶ֫גְדּ֥וֹ עָבָ֥יו עָבְר֑וּ
בָּ֜רָ֗ד וְגַֽחֲלֵי־אֵֽשׁ׃
14 וַיַּרְעֵ֬ם בַּשָּׁמַ֙יִם׀ יְֽהוָ֗ה
וְ֭עֶלְיוֹן יִתֵּ֣ן קֹל֑וֹ בָּ֜רָ֗ד וְגַֽחֲלֵי־אֵֽשׁ׃
15 וַיִּשְׁלַ֣ח חִ֭צָּיו וַיְפִיצֵ֑ם
וּבְרָקִ֥ים רָ֜ב וַיְהֻמֵּֽם׃
16 וַיֵּ֤רָא֙וּ׀ אֲפִ֥יקֵי מַ֗יִם
מוֹסְד֪וֹת תֵּ֫בֵ֥ל
מִגַּעֲרָ֣תְךָ֣ יְהוָ֑ה
מִ֜נִּשְׁמַ֗ת ר֣וּחַ אַפֶּֽךָ׃

For a possible English translation, consider the ESV. But note that the English versions are 1 verse behind the Hebrew.

For the first time in the psalm, the tense switches to the wayyiqtol [marked in red throughout], which is the dominate tense in these verses. Other tenses are interspersed within, but clearly these verses consist of a wayyiqtol chain narrating a complex of continuous actions which Michel describes as a defeat of the Chaos flood by means of creation. His point is that the author describes his salvation in terms of figurative language. Since there are no personal references, the point could be made that the author describes past actions of Yhwh—namely, his subduing of His enemies—in terms of a theophany, language used elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible. Only after describing these past events, does the author apply these to his own situation (see below on vv. 17ff.)

One verb that causes difficulty is the imperfect at the start of v. 12. Michel uses this instance to bolster his thesis that there is virtually no difference between the imperfect and imperfect consecutive. Since 2 Samuel 22:12 as well as two Hebrew manuscripts (according to the apparatus in BHS), one might suppose that it should be taken as the wayyiqtol. This would certainly make sense in the passage, as it does in 2 Samuel. If the text is allowed to remain as in MT, it causes issues for the way I’m viewing the imperfect. Structurally, being at the head of the clause, it might be considered volitional. However, we must admit that there are a variety of uses of the imperfect (as Nicacci points out in his helpful article: “An Integrated Verb System for Biblical Hebrew Prose and Poetry,” pp. 114-119). Left as the imperfect, I think a conditional use would be most appropriate for vv. 12-13: “Though he makes [or would make] darkness his covering . . . out of the brightness broke . . . hailstones and coals of fire.”

Psalm 18:17–21 [Eng 16–19]

17 יִשְׁלַ֣ח מִ֭מָּרוֹם יִקָּחֵ֑נִי
מִמַּ֥יִם רַבִּֽים׃
18 יַצִּילֵ֗נִי מֵאֹיְבִ֥י עָ֑ז
וּ֜מִשֹּׂנְאַ֗י כִּֽי־אָמְצ֥וּ מִמֶּֽנִּי׃
19 יְקַדְּמ֥וּנִי בְיוֹם־אֵידִ֑י
־יְהוָ֖ה לְמִשְׁעָ֣ן לִֽי׃
20 וַיּוֹצִיאֵ֥נִי לַמֶּרְחָ֑ב
כִּ֨י חָ֥פֵֽץ בִּֽי׃
21 יִגְמְלֵ֣נִי יְהוָ֣ה כְּצִדְקִ֑י
כְּבֹ֥ר יָ֜דַ֗י יָשִׁ֥יב לִֽי׃

English Translation: Psalm 18:16-20.

What I find intriguing about these five verses is how the author moves almost exclusively to the imperfect. Eight of the nine yiqtols here are found in first position, and the ninth is set in a chiasm parallel to the eighth. So I would conclude that here again (in probably all of these uses), the author has used the imperfect volitionally. He continues the request of v. 7, yet now makes this series of requests based on the past work of God narrated in vv. 8–16. Otherwise, I have a hard time understanding why there would be a need to shift so heavily to the imperfect.

An alternate way of understanding v. 19, which I think is helpful, would be to set this verse in the framework of Michel’s section 2. In this sense, the wayyiqtols in vv. 19b, 20a may be seen as results of the imperfect at the head of v. 19 with the translation: “Every time they would confront me . . . Yhwh was my support and brought me out ….”

In favor of accepting most of these yiqtols as volition (in my opinion) is the connection between vv. 21 and 25. In v. 21, the speaker uses the imperfect to ask Yhwh to reward and recompense him according to his righteousness and clean hands, respectively.[1] In v. 25, on the other hand, the speaker uses the wayyiqtol to state that Yhwh has recompensed him, again because of righteousness and clean hands. If Michel is correct and v. 21 simply states facts of the past, like the wayyiqtol, then the psalmist claims a two-fold recompense from Yhwh. In answering this difficulty, Michel states, “V. 25 is by no means a mere repetition of v. 21, rather it places the statements, which v. 21 has merely reported, in a definite context.” Rather, I would explain this as a request (v. 21) answered by Yhwh (v. 25).

The two perfects that occur (vv. 18b, 20b) are found in כי clauses and present no difficulty.

[1] This assumes a volitional reading and that both are intended as volitional because of the chiasm.

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]


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.

Wolfgang Schneider on the Imperfect

I have been reviewing Diethelm Michel’s understanding of the Hebrew tenses in the Psalter, in which he makes the claim that the imperfect (yiqtol) and imperfect consecutive (wayyiqtol) are not distinguished in their use in certain instances. I thought it might be helpful to discuss Wolfgang Schneider’s take on the imperfect from his Grammatik des biblischen Hebräisch before continue with Michel’s examination of Psalm 18. Schneider’s work describes the use of tenses in narrating texts (§ 48.2) and discourse texts (§ 48.3).

The Tenses in Narrative Texts

Narrative texts are characterized by a chain made up of the imperfect consecutive tense. Whenever this wayyiqtol chain is interrupted, another tense (usually the perfect) must replace the wayyiqtol. These compound nominal clauses[1] that interrupt the narrative chain normally provide some type of background or circumstance for the wayyiqtol chain that follows. As such, the perfect appears as a background tense, providing a looking-back perspective.

Since he understands the imperfect as the primary tense of discourse, Schneider treats imperfects in narrating texts as foreign tenses. He treats these in section 48.5 (Tense Transitions: Foreign Tenses in Narratives). The use of the imperfect can be summarized under two categories:

  1. Commentary. The imperfect (or also perfect consecutive) appears in the narrative when the narrator steps out of the speech situation and discusses something with the reader. One example he gives is Genesis 43:31–32, where the author explains why Joseph and his brothers were served and ate separately.
  2. After conjunctions. On the one hand, imperfects appear after the particle אָז, where אָז essentially replaces the “wa” of wayyiqtol. Schneider states that it is often found before a short narrative note where the narrator wants to insert something on the same theme, as in Exodus 15:1, which introduces the Song of Moses. On the other hand, an imperfect appears as a perspectival tense after such conjunctions as אֲשֶׁר, עַד אֲשֶׁר, and טֶרֶם as well as in subordinate interrogative clauses to describe events that are seen as future from the level of the narrative. Jonah 4:5 gives a good example (note how these would be translated): “Jonah went out (wayyiqtol) of the city and sat (wayyiqtol) to the east of the city and made (wayyiqtol) a booth for himself there. He sat (wayyiqtol) under it in the shade, till (עַד אֲשֶׁר) he should see (yiqtol) what would become (yiqtol) of the city.”

The Tenses in Discourse Texts

Although Schneider discusses the use of all the tenses in discourse texts, I am primarily concerned with the imperfect, so I will limit my comments to that topic. The imperfect, which characterizes the speech as discourse, does not have a looking-back perspective.[2] According to Schneider, it is perspectivally indifferent.

I believe the most important point he makes in this discussion is related to the position of the imperfect in its clause (my translation):

Imperfects, which do not stand at the beginning of a clause (as in CNC or subordinate clauses), are indicative (simple affirmative clauses); imperfect forms at the beginning of a clause are to be regarded as “volitional.” The speaker wants something.

Schneider gives examples primarily from speeches within narrative books. The question, however, is whether this understanding of the imperfect correlates with what is found in the Psalter or other poetic sections. Specifically in regard to the volitional use of the imperfect, he states in § 51.4 that it is also valid to a great extent for poetic texts. Consider Psalm 149:2: “Let Israel be glad (yiqtol) in his Maker! Let the sons of Zion rejoice (yiqtol) in their King!”[3] His only caveat is that rhetorical figures such as chiasmus or parallelism must also be taken into account.

As such, I believe that Schneider’s (and also Nicacci’s) take on the imperfect should not be overlooked when approaching this issue in the Psalter. His view provides a good comparison (contrast?) for the conclusions that Michel has made.


[1] Simple nominal clauses provide contemporaneous circumstances to the narrative.

[2] The perfect also serves this role in discourse texts.

[3] Note how this verse translates both verbs as volitional, even though the second yiqtol is not in first position. The justification for this is that the verse is chiastic.

Diethelm Michel – Section 5: Summary and Clarification

Sorry for the delay in this post…I’ve been on vacation.

Through the first four sections of his work, Tempora und Satzstellung in den Psalmen [Tenses and Clause Position in the Psalms], Diethelm Michel has discussed the use of the imperfect consecutive (wayyiqtol) in the Psalter. In section 5, he summarizes what has been found and gives a provisional solution to the (non-)distinction between the imperfect consecutive and the imperfect (yiqtol).


  1. The wayyiqtol gives a result, either stemming from a perfect (qatal), imperfect, participle, infinitive, or nominal clause.
  2. The wayyiqtol is used without consideration of the time element.
  3. The majority of passages were translated in the past, but others fit in to no time element.
  4. The distinction between the perfect and imperfect consecutive was always clear.
  5. The yiqtol, on the other hand, at times appears to be used as a wayyiqtol.

Differentiation of Wayyiqtol and Yiqtol

In order to clarify the use of yiqtol in the Psalter, Michel spends a considerable amount of space working through the text of Psalm 18. I intend to do this as well in the next post or two, but I wanted to post here his conclusions regarding these things. So I quote him in translation from a couple places:

Imperfect and imperfect consecutive are not distinguished with regard to stage or time and character of action. The difference between the two verb forms lies merely in the fact that the imperfect consecutive is connected more strongly with the previous portrayal through a demonstrative prefix *ון.

For the relationship of imperfect and imperfect consecutive has arisen that between both “tenses” no difference exists with regard to their meaning as verb forms. The imperfect consecutive simply expresses a closer connection with the preceding.

At the same time, he states that the wayyiqtol is regard as a typical historical tense, not in the sense that the meaning of the verb form carries a historicizing element, but only in that the verb portrays events in their temporal order as arising from one another and one after the other.

The details of how he came to these conclusions will be discussed in the next post.