I noticed in studying the Psalms that Psalm 1 in the old Coverdale text reads, "Blessed is the man that hath not walked in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stood in the way of sinners, and hath not sat in the seat of the scornful."

Yet most modern translations are in the present "walks not" or "does not walk" . . .

It seems the Hebrew supports the earlier form. What justification is there for what appears to be a modern divergence.

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    What about in the case of Isaiah 53. If Biblical Hebrew is not a tense language, then why was Isaiah 53 translated with a past tense approach? – user6146 Oct 22 '14 at 12:29

OK, moving this from a comment to an answer.

Note about "tenses" in Biblical Hebrew. Technically speaking the idea of "zman 'avar"/'past tense' is Modern Hebrew. In Biblical Hebrew, you have aspects rather than tenses: perfect/imperfect. So [lo] halakh is in what's called the simple perfect[ive] aspect. The verbal system in Biblical Hebrew is somewhat different than Modern (as well as European languages like English). Perfect verbs generally indicate that the action or concept is whole or complete, which is usually (but not always) an indication that they happened in the past — or the past up until the present.

Now there is a form that be used to indicate the "present" more clearly: a present participle (in this case, holekh). Literally, *ashrei ha'ish asher lo holekh means "Happy is the one who [is] not walking". However, Classical Biblical Hebrew tends to avoid the use of the participle as a "present tense" verb — while it does use the present participle as a substantive (noun), an adjective, a relative, and a predicate, the use of the participle to represent the present tense is largely a feature of Late Biblical, and especially Mishnaic, Hebrew. As Waltke and O'Connor write: "the participle does not function in Biblical Hebrew as a finite verb with a distinct time reference, though such use is regular in Mishnaic and later Hebrew; thus the words yodea' ani would in Biblical Hebrew have the sense 'I am one who knows,' while in Mishnaic Hebrew they mean simply 'I know'".

So: in the context of Psalms, "lo halakh" could definitely be translated as a simple present, i.e. "does not walk", as well as "has not walked".

Kelly indicates that "a perfect may be translated in the present tense when it represents a verb of perception, attitude, disposition, or mental or physical state of being", and gives as examples Isaiah 59:8, I Samuel 8:5, and Malachi 1:2. Similarly, Waltke and O'Conner write that "sometimes the perfective conjugation is used for present-time situations. This combination creates creates notional tensions because the form entails a single aspect, but present time tends to entail imprefective aspect... Hebrew may use its perfective form with the same, present/habitual significance ("the gnomic perfective") [example: Jeremiah 8:7]. Hebrew also uses its perfective form for a present situation in which a speaker resolves on a future action."

The "gnomic perfective" is the kind of form used when expressing things that happen all the time, i.e. in proverbs and sayings. So here it's not talking about one specific person who is currently walking, but rather the idea of a person who walks.


How the learned confound such matters! Never mind modern or other non-Biblical Hebrew! In Biblical Hebrew, the present participle is sometimes used (e.g. Psalm 87:2 the LORD loves/ is loving ); but the main contrast is between perfect and imperfect (perfective and imperfective for students of Bruce Waltke), eg qatal and yiqtol; and perfect may be prophetic past or future perfect in context, while imperfect may be simple or definite past, or perfective past, in context.

In Psalm 1 the contrast of the tenses, ARISING FROM THE WORDS OF THE PSALM ITSELF, shows that the three perfect verbs MUST be translated as perfective, at no time did the man walk, so that he has never( not even now) walked etc. Then, in the middle of the psalm, the imperfects are present tense, describing the present and continuing activity/state of the man. Then, the final imperfects are future, describing the future destiny of the man.

The translation of Hebrew verbs must be determined, not from an a priori academic supposition, but from a careful consideration of the passage in question.

  • Welcome aboard! I agree that Hebrew verbs must be translated from context, but it would help readers if you would use the scholarly-accepted names for Hebrew verb states. I had to read this a few times to get the sense of what you are saying. Are my edits in line with your intentions? – Frank Luke Jun 26 '13 at 17:12
  • @FrankLuke, is the tense of Hebrew verbs generally obscure and determined by the translators? Or have we obscured them by through translation? IT makes sense that there is past, present and future addressed in this Psalm. Why then do the translators dismiss it? – user2027 Aug 7 '13 at 22:58
  • @Sarah, Biblical Hebrew verbs don't have tense as we know it (modern Hebrew does). The same form of a verb can be past, present, or future. Let me give an example: barak can mean "he blessed," "he blesses," or even "he will bless" depending on the context. Typically, a verb in the imperfect state will be future tense, but it doesn't have to be. If I put a waw-consecutive on it, it's past tense. – Frank Luke Aug 8 '13 at 14:17
  • @Sarah, there is a discussion on the tense system here and here. It degenerates into a forum fight, but just those two posts have some good information. – Frank Luke Aug 8 '13 at 14:19

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