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Hebrew and You with Lee M. Fields — When Does What Happen? Verb Shifts in Ps 24:2–6

Categories Hebrew and You


There is debate about the nature of Hebrew verbs. Are they primarily tenses, moods, or aspects? I follow the view that aspect is not the most prominent notion, but rather that time and mood are dominant (see recommended works at the end of the post).

The significance of seeing aspect as not the most prominent is reflected my choices for the names of the Hebrew tenses. The Perfect (completed action), and Imperfect (incompleted action), are really misnamed with respect to their essential import. Better is to use the form names, Qatal and Yiqtol.

To understand the Hebrew verb routine texts ought to be taken as normative. Routine is best seen in Hebrew prose. Poetry, almost by definition, uses deviations from the norm. Still, the norms of the Hebrew verb should be understood as the basis for poetry. Noting the shifts in tense forms in Hebrew is easy; translating them into English is doable, but the form shifts among the Hebrew verbs are often lost. Let’s look at some in Psalm 24.

Verses 2–3

The two verbs in 2, “For on the seas he founded it, and on the rivers he established it,” are both perfective and past time and are parallel. However, the first is the Qatal form and the second is the Yiqtol form. The latter is probably an ancient preterite (perfective past) form which in Biblical Hebrew came to look like Yiqtol forms for most verbs. It is right that the versions translate them both as simple past. Why did the poet shift from one to the other? Perhaps to gain the reader’s attention in v. 3, which uses two Yiqtol futures (simple future indicative is the default meaning of the Yiqtol); formally the same, but functionally different.

Verse 4

Verse 4 answers the question raised in v. 3, “Who shall ascend the Lord’s mountain, and who shall rise in his holy place?” Below is a chart comparing the NIV and NASB for the lines with the verbs bolded.
Screen Shot 2016-02-16 at 10.15.59 PM
Lines 4a–b are verbless clauses. These would assuming the verb to be in the tense made clear in the context. Hebrew normally does not express the verb to be. When Hebrew wished to mark the time they inserted the past or future tenses of to be (הָיָה, hāyâ, and יִהְיֶה, yihyeh, respectively). These lines might be rendered “The one who is innocent of hands and purer of heart.” The two translations with simple present tense rightly convey the proverbial nature (continuous aspect without time limitation) of the clauses. Notice though that in lines 4c and 4d the NIV (so also ESV, NLT, NRSV) continues with the proverbial present from 4a–b, but the NASB (so also KJV) shifts from the proverbial present to the English perfect tense.

The Hebrew Qatal form is the default for action that is past (either with respect to the speaker or relative with respect to another action), indicative (real), and perfective (completed). But it can also indicate present results based on past actions, and therefore be used for proverbial expressions. The Yiqtol forms are also appropriate for proverbial statements, but the Qatal in proverbial expressions carries the nuance of greater reality, an experienced past.

The upside of the NIV is that it brings out the proverbial nature of 4c–d; the downside is that it loses the nuance of the Hebrew shift to Qatal instead of the using the verbless clause to indicate a past, real action. The upside of the NASB is that it marks the shift in the Hebrew; the down side is that the English perfect implies a past completed action without marking the continuous aspect and therefore diminishes the proverbial sense.

The significance of the Hebrew is that the person who achieves the fellowship with God in v. 3 is the one who possesses the qualities of 4 a–b and who has both avoided the errors in 4c–d (see the previous blog) and continues to avoid them.

Verses 5–6

In v. 5 the verb shifts again, this time to the Yiqtol form, whose default meaning is future time, indicative mood, perfective aspect. All the versions render this with the English simple future, a good match for the Hebrew Yiqtol. The position of the verb is first in the clause. Clause-initial Yiqtol normally indicates a modal use, such as “may he/let him bear.” Here, though, the meaning seems to be the default Yiqtol meaning.

Finally in v. 6 there is a shift to another verbless clause. The subject is only the pronoun this. The predicate is quite long. Most standard English versions read the verbless clause as a statement that the blessing from the Lord is a present reality and also a proverbial truth. As mentioned above, the tense of verbless clauses is determined by the context. It is also possible that v. 5 sets the context as future, i.e., the blessing future for those who currently (substantival participles indicating continuous action) seek the Lord.

A Text Critical Matter

At verse 6, the JPS (Jewish Publication Society, 1917) reads differently from most other modern English translations. Here is a table comparing the MT, NIV, and JPS.
Screen Shot 2016-02-16 at 10.19.32 PM

A literal translation of the Hebrew would be “This (is) the generation of the pursuers of him, the seekers of your face, Jacob. Selah” (note two different words for seeking in Hebrew!). The JPS follows the MT. The NIV and most modern versions follow the reading of two Hebrew MSS and the LXX, which add the word God. The JPS calls that generation that pursues and seeks God “Jacob.” Perhaps this expression as found in the MT is intended to mean a true nation of God, i.e., the nation that pursues and seeks God.

May we live out Psalm 24 by being people innocent of hands and pure of heart. May we have a track record of no false speech or false worship, and may that come to characterize our lives every day. May we be always faithful pursuers and seekers of God and be his true people.

Recommended works on the Hebrew verb. In particular see Randall Buth in various articles, Ohad Cohen, The Verbal Tense System in Late Biblical Hebrew Prose (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2013), Galia Hatab, The Semantics of Aspect and Modality (Amsterdam: Benjamins, 1997), and Jan Joosten, The Biblical Hebrew Verbal System (Jerusalem: Simor, 2012).

(Image source: By Pete Unseth - Own work, CC0)


lee-fieldsLee M. Fields writes about the biblical Hebrew language, exegesis, Hebrew translation, and related topics at Koinonia. A trained Hebrew scholar, his education includes a Ph.D. from Hebrew Union College. He is the author of Hebrew for the Rest of Us (Zondervan, 2008) and An Anonymous Dialogue with a Jew (Turnhout: Brepols, 2012). He currently serves as Professor of Bible and Chairman of the Department of Biblical Studies at Mid-Atlantic Christian University in Elizabeth City, NC.

Learn more about Lee’s innovative work in biblical languages and instruction.

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