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
וַ֜יֵּ֗דֶא
עַל־כַּנְפֵי־רֽוּחַ׃
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
וַֽיִּגָּלוּ֘
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
יַֽ֜מְשֵׁ֗נִי
מִמַּ֥יִם רַבִּֽים׃
18 יַצִּילֵ֗נִי מֵאֹיְבִ֥י עָ֑ז
וּ֜מִשֹּׂנְאַ֗י כִּֽי־אָמְצ֥וּ מִמֶּֽנִּי׃
19 יְקַדְּמ֥וּנִי בְיוֹם־אֵידִ֑י
וַֽיְהִי
־יְהוָ֖ה לְמִשְׁעָ֣ן לִֽי׃
20 וַיּוֹצִיאֵ֥נִי לַמֶּרְחָ֑ב
יְ֜חַלְּצֵ֗נִי
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.