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The Blue Letter Bible

The Imperfect Tense

The Imperfect Tense

The imperfect tense is translated in Hebrew most often as a future tense, but in reality what is actually being expressed is an incomplete condition, which is what the future tense indicates. However, there are other times when future time is not the focus, but rather continuous, unfinished action which may be expressed in past, present and future time.

  1. Simple Future Imperfect

    This is the most basic use of the imperfect:

    1. “On your belly you shall go (תֵלֵךְtēlēk), and dust you shall eat (תֹּאכַלtō’kal) all the days of your life” (Genesis 3:14b).
    2. I will teach (אֲלַמְּדָה’ă lammədâ) transgressors Your ways, and sinners will turn back (יָשׁוּבוּyāšûbû) to You” (Psalm 51:13).
  2. Frequentative Imperfect

    The frequentative aspect of the imperfect is used to indicate action that is repeated on a continuous basis, or at frequent intervals.

    1. Past Time
      1. “But a mist used to rise (יַֽעֲלֶהya‘ăleh repeatedly in the past) from the earth and water the whole surface of the ground” (Genesis 2:6).
      2. We who had sweet (נַמְתִּיקnamtîq – continually in the past) fellowship together, in the House of God we walked (נְהַלֵּךְnəhallēk – continually in the past) in the throng” (Psalm 55:14).
    2. Present Time
      1. “The Lord is far from the wicked, but the prayer of the righteous He hears (יִשְׁמָֽעyišmā‘ – continually)” (Proverbs 15:29).
      2. “But the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Do not look at his appearance or at the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for God sees not as man sees, for man looks (יִרְאֶהyir’eh – continually) at the eyes, but the Lord looks (יִרְאֶהyir’eh – continually) at the heart’” (1 Samuel 16:7).
    3. Future Time
      1. “Moreover, he shall speak for you to the people; and he will be (יִֽהְיֶהyihəyeh – continually in future time) as a mouth for you and you will be (תִּֽהְיֶהtihəyeh – continually in the future) as God to him” (Exodus 4:16).
      2. I will heal (אֶרְפָּא’erpā’ – continually/repetitively into the future) their apostasy, I will love them (אֹהֲבֵם’ōhăbēm – continually into the future) freely, for My anger has turned away from them” (Hosea 14:4).
  3. Progressive Imperfect

    The emphasis of the progressive imperfect is action that is moving forward in a progressive manner toward a goal or a specific idea. However, the difference between the progressive imperfect and the frequentative imperfect, is that the progressive imperfect looks at a single thought or action moving toward a goal as one event, versus repeated movements of the frequentative imperfect toward that same goal. Thus, it sees the one event being described as being in a single, progressive state toward the stated goal.

    1. Past Time
      1. “Now the angel of the Lord came up from Gilgal to Bochim. And he said, I brought up (אַעֲלֶה’a‘ăleh) you from Egypt...’” (Judges 2:1).
      2. “Then Solomon assembled (יַקְהֵלyaqhēl) the elders of Israel and all the heads of the tribes,...” (1 Kings 8:1).
    2. Present Time
      1. “Then Achish said to his servants, ‘Behold, you see the man behaving as a madman. Why do you bring (תָּבִיאוּbî’û) him to me?’” (1 Samuel 21:14).
      2. “Woe to us, for the day declines, for the shadows of the evening lengthen (יִנָּטוּyinnāṭû)! (Jeremiah 6:4).
    3. Future Time
      1. “And the Lord set a definite time, saying, ‘Tomorrow the Lord will do (יַעֲשֶׂהy‘ăśeh) this thing in the land” (Exodus 9:5).
      2. “And behold, I will send (אֶשְׁלַח’ešlaḥ) the lad saying, ‘Go, find the arrows.’...” (1 Samuel 20:21).
  4. Characteristic Imperfect

    On occasion the repetitive or frequentative use of the imperfect makes a statement about something or someone that tends to characterize that subject as belonging to a particular delineation or specific group of entities.

    1. “Benjamin is a wolf that tears (יִטְרָףyitrāp)...” (Genesis 49:27).
    2. “…and her salvation like a torch that burns (יִבְעָֽרyib‘ār)” (Isaiah 62:1).
  5. Consecutive Imperfects

    At times progressive imperfects are joined whereby they present a sequential order of events.

    1. Past Time
      1. “Then the days of Adam after he became the father of Seth were eight hundred years, and he begat (וַיּוֹלֶדvayyôled) sons and daughters” (Genesis 5:4).
      2. “Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew; and he ate (וַיֹּאכַלvayyôkal) and he drank (וַיֵּשְׁתְּvayyēšt) and he arose (וַיָּקָםvayyāqom) and he went away (וַיֵּלַךְvayyēlak)...” (Genesis 25:34).
    2. Present Time
      1. “The man shapes iron into a cutting tool and does his work over the coals, and with hammers he fashions it (יִצְּרֵהוְּyiṣṣərēhû) and makes it (וַיִּפְעָלֵהוּvayyip‘ālēhû) with his strong arm…” (Isaiah 44:12).
    3. Future Time
      1. “For a child will be (was) born to us, a son will be (was) given to us; and the government will be (וַתְּהִיּvattəhî) on His shoulders; and His name will be called (וַיִּקְרָאּvayyiqrā) Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6).
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