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Hebrew and You with Lee M. Fields - Swirling Tenses in Ps 2:1–3

Categories Hebrew and You

Fields 1

The Forms and Translation

The NIV, as do all the most common versions, render all the verbs of Ps 2:1–3 with the English simple present. This English tense refers to action that is portrayed generally or is repeatedly true. It does not usually portray action as currently in progress, for which English uses the progressive present tense: “are conspiring,” etc.

The Hebrew, however, shows variation. The four verbs and their tense-aspects are:

Fields 2

If this were a narrative text instead of poetry, one translation reflecting the tense-aspects would be

1a        Why did the nations rage,
1b        and the peoples, shall they plot in vain?
2a        The kings of the earth shall rise up,
2b        and the rulers, they conspired together

This translation sounds strange, but reproduces the Hebrew tense-aspects. The NIV makes better sense, but translating them all with the same tense does not reflect the tense interchange of the Hebrew. The Jewish translators of the Septuagint also flattened the tenses as the NIV did, but rendered them all with the Greek aorist tense of the indicative mood, a form that is the default for past time and undefined aspect. This is most often translated with the English simple past, but because of the nature of this aspect, the aorist can be used for gnomic or proverbial actions.

Hebrew Poetry and Tense-Aspects

What is the poet doing? Randall Buth (Living Biblical Hebrew: Selected Readings with 500 Friends [Jerusalem: Biblical Language Center, 2006], 162–64) cites this very passage and explains that poets at times play with the tenses: “[t]he tense-aspects mean exactly what they say, but the application of the poetic embellishment is not necessarily clear.” In other words, the tense-aspects really communicate to the hearer the meanings intrinsic to the tense-aspects, but the reader must work harder to gain the meaning the poet is trying to express.

The tense-aspects of qatal and yiqtol are different, but do have some overlapping functions. The qatal can refer to existing states in the present and, by extension, be used in gnomic/proverbial statements. Likewise the yiqtol, which normally portrays actions as future time or as open-ended (i.e., incomplete or imperfective), can also be used for gnomic/proverbial statements.

The interchange of Hebrew tense-aspects would get the reader’s attention, but perhaps not as roughly as the translation given above. An improvement might be this:

1a        Why have the nations raged,
1b        and the peoples, they plot in vain?
2a        The kings of the earth rise up,
2b        and the rulers, they have conspired together

Possible Poetic Intention

Knowing the Hebrew gives the reader a greater appreciation for the poetry and gives the reader a better “feel” for theWestminster_Psalter_David tone. (1) Recognizing the Hebrew tenses helps modern readers to pay attention to a poetic verbal interchange that the translations do not bring out. (2) The order of the interchange displays an A-B-B-A structure; not in meaning, but in verbal form (other structural observations may be seen as well). It unites the two verses rather tightly. (3) Understanding the verbal interchange gives the reader a sense of the unusual nature of the expression that the English translations do not bring out.

Perhaps the swirling tenses of verses 1–2 express the turmoil within the poet and his readers when they consider the threats from foreign powers. The enemies’ plot of rebellion against the Lord and his anointed one is given in v. 3. The reader is left to wonder what will happen in the midst of the chaos!

Then comes the next stanza, “He who sits in heaven laughs; the Lord makes fun of them.” All four of the verbs in vv. 4–5 are the yiqtol tense-aspect. This uniformity stands in contrast to the interchanges in vv. 1–2. Perhaps it communicates order as opposed to the chaos. The greatest enemy in the world is no match for him. There is literally no contest.

The same principle is true for God’s people at all times. We see disorder; things just are not as they should be. There are threats from any human or demonic agent. Our attention is drawn to the apparent victories of sinful enemies of the Lord. We may feel frightened or confused by the multitude and diversity of attacks. But then we turn our gaze to the truth about the Lord: he is the creator and therefore infinitely greater in power than any creature whatsoever. The reality is that nothing is beyond the Lord’s control. As his people grow in trust in the Lord, the inner turmoil dissipates and peace grows. Then his people can face any difficulty with the assurance that God has no rival and wins. Then we can focus on the mission of leading God’s enemies — which we also used to be! — into friendship with God through Christ. We warn and teach; we love and serve. And we say Maranatha!


devotions on the hebrew bibleLearn more about What Lee M. Fields has to say in Devotions on the Hebrew Bible.

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