Hebrew and You with Lee M. Fields - The Timing of the Lord’s Return to Jerusalem in Zech 1:16
Zechariah and Haggai were prophesying when the Jews had returned from Babylonian exile and were supposed to be rebuilding the temple. However, they had encountered opposition and had become so discouraged that work had stopped. The Lord sends these prophets to encourage the people to resume and complete the work. This opening vision begins a series that continues through ch. 6. It serves in part to affirm to the Jews that the Lord is with them in spite of the difficulties they are encountering.
Time in the Translations
English translations show an interesting different translation of Zechariah 1:16. Please note the chart below:
For the Hebrew שַׁבְתִּי the NIV (and NASB) renders with the English future tense. On the other hand, the ESV (and NLT, KJV [“I am returned”]) renders this with the English perfect, a past action. Is the Lord’s returning to Jerusalem yet future to the Lord’s statement in this verse or is it past? How could the versions render with such different tenses?
The Qatal Form
The verb שַׁבְתִּי is best referred to as Qatal (traditionally referred to as Perfect). The ways that grammarians speak about Hebrew grammar is often confusing. Verbs indicate something about tense (the time of the action), mood (the portrayal of reality), and aspect (portrayal of the process of the action). Let’s look at three functions of the Qatal.
(1) One function of the Qatal is simple past. For example, in 2 Sam 23:10 “He rose ….”
(2) A more common function is what has been called anterior, that is, action that occurs before another action. This is commonly translated into English with a perfect tense verb. The time of the action with respect to the speaker may be past, present, or future depending on the context the speaker sets up. For example, the Qatal is used for actions anterior to a past action are translated with the English past perfect as in Josh 5:7, “for they had not been circumcised …”; for actions anterior to a present circumstances are translated with the English present perfect as in Josh 5:14, “Now I have come”; and for future actions anterior to another future action as in Isa 6:11, in answer to the question, “How long [shall I, Isaiah, make the people not understand]?, “Until the cities shall have become desolate.”
In prophetic contexts, future events can be spoken of from the perspective of future time without being antecedent to another future action. Earlier grammarians have called this use the “Perfect of certitude,” i.e., the future event is so surely to happen that it is spoken of as in the past. To be accurate it is important to note that this use is not a function of the Qatal, but is a rhetorical or literary device. Jouön-Muraoka (§112h) refers to this as the “prophetic perfect.” For example, in Isa 5:13, a poetic section, a Qatal form is used of the exile of the Israelites more than a century in the future. For a narrative text with the same force, see Josh 6:2, in which God promised Jericho’s defeat, which was still future.
The NIV, as indicated by the rendering “I will return,” has taken the Qatal in Zech 1:16 as this prophetic perfect. The rhetorical effect of a prophetic perfect here would be the certainty of the Lord’s return. The English future tense does not bring out this nuance. His return is yet future to the time of Zechariah’s speaking.
The rendering of the ESV with the English perfect, “I have returned,” makes the Lord’s return an action completed prior to Zechariah’s speaking. This removes any prophetic element from the statement.
Both of these translations are possible. But there is another alternative that brings out a different nuance. Let’s look at a third use of the Qatal.
(3) Qatal forms can be used in modal contexts to express what grammarians call performative actions.
“Modal” refers to actions that are not real, but have some degree of potentiality, such as ability (“can”), possibility (“may”), desire (“want”), obligation (“must”), and clauses introduced by subordinating conjunctions (if, since, though, etc.). The Yiqtol form is most naturally used form for these. Zechariah 1:16 is certainly a modal context as indicated by the expression “my house will be built [Yiqtol].” Ability and obligation also fit the context well: “My house can/must be built.”
“Performative” means that the act of speaking is the virtual accomplishment of the action. Buth describes it as “a fictive past perfective indicative” (Living Biblical Hebrew: Selected Readings, 146). As a performative action, when the Lord says שַׁבְתִּי, he is saying, “I hereby return to Jerusalem with mercy.” In other words, the Lord is saying that right at this moment he is returned to the city. His return means the obligation to rebuild is now possible.
What would this mean for the returnees? The temple was a symbol of the presence of the Lord among his people. Sometimes this was abused, as when the people in Jeremiah’s day thought they were immune to punishment because they had the temple, no matter the degree of their corruption (Jer 7:8–11). The reality of the Lord’s departure is poignantly portrayed as the glory of the Lord in a chariot departing the threshold of the temple (Ezek 10:18–19). What a sorrowful disaster for the people of the Lord!
In Zechariah the troubled returnees needed to know that even though things were not going well, the Lord was there with them. In this performative Qatal form the Lord declares that he is returned at this moment. He is not waiting to be with his people until the temple is rebuilt. In the modal Yiqtol that follows he indicates that they must complete their mission to rebuild. But because the Lord is present they need not rely on their own strength alone.
God’s people in every age have a task to do. Even though it may not always appear so, the Lord is among his people now. And because he is among us, we, the new temple (2 Cor 6:16), have all that we need to carry out the tasks of bringing others into relationship with God (Rom 10:15) and of becoming like him (2 Pet 1:3–11).
Learn more about What Lee M. Fields has to say in Devotions on the Hebrew Bible.
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