Nisi Dominus ædificaverit domum, in vanum laboraverunt qui ædificant eam. [psalm 126:1]

I am pretty sure that classical Hebrew has no future perfect tense, so how did Jerome arrive at his decision to employ it, and other un-Hebraic tenses, as above in the Vulgate?

(I apologize in advance if my question is somewhat elementary; the last time I had instruction in Latin was during my undistinguished high school career in 1958.)

Addendum 2016·6·22 (original text without introductory descriptive phrase):

אִם־יְהוָ֤ה׀ לֹא־יִבְנֶ֬ה בַ֗יִת שָׁ֤וְא׀ עָמְל֣וּ בוֹנָ֣יו בּ֑וֹ [psalm 127:1]

You will notice that the תנ"ך numbers the cited passage as 127:1, whereas the Vulgate numbers it as 126:1. Is Jerome trying to drive me crazy or something?

  • 2
    Welcome to the site! I don't think the question is too elementary. Explaining Latin tenses and consecutio temporum is one thing, but relating the choices to the original Hebrew text requires more. I hope someone who reads both Hebrew and Latin can answer you. (You might want to juxtapose the Hebrew version of that passage with Hieronymus' translation for easier comparison.)
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Commented Jun 22, 2016 at 9:34
  • 1
    Very interesting question! It might help if you added more context to this quotation; I don't know the story, but, if it makes sense to use the future perfect in that passage, then it is less surprising.
    – Cerberus
    Commented Jun 22, 2016 at 13:10
  • As a general comment (I barely know any Hebrew), when one translates and speaks fluently the destination language, the context in the original gives clues of the need of such nonexistent tense. For example, when translating if-clauses from English to Spanish or other romance languages, -say if I went-, you often have the need to use past subjunctive -si yo fuera/hubiera ido-, even though the original formulation uses just the past.
    – Rafael
    Commented Jun 22, 2016 at 13:52
  • Psalm numbering is confusing because Jerome followed the Septuagint rather than the Masoretic text. See Why are the Psalms numbered this way in some Catholic Bibles? Commented Jun 22, 2016 at 17:45

1 Answer 1


I have two thoughts about this.

First, the thing to keep in mind here is that different languages use different tenses differently.

In English, for example, I'd use the present tense followed by the future tense followed by the present tense to say

If you arrive tomorrow, I'll see you.

In French, however, such a thing would make no sense. How can you use the present tense for something that's happening in the future? So I'd use two future tenses:

Si tu arriveras demain, je te verrai. ["If you'll arrive tomorrow, I'll see you." ]

In Latin, which is often even more specific when it comes to things happening in the future I'd use a future perfect followed by a future, since for me to see you you have to have arrived already.

Si crás advéneris, té vidébó. ["If you will have arrived tomorrow, I'll see you."]

The Latin arrangement of tenses is correct in English, but it's not what we'd say. The French isn't even correct—you can't say "if you'll arrive tomorrow."

The point is that different languages can have different grammatical structures to communicate the same meaning.

Second, I actually think that ædificávérit is a perfect subjunctive rather than a future perfect indicative. Perfect subjunctive followed by a perfect indicative in a conditional sentence is rare, but it's not unheard of (Harkness 511, 512). Mixed conditionals are often wonky to translate in Latin, but it's the difference between "If the Lord doesn't build the house, they who built it labored in vain" (future perfect indicative) and "If the Lord didn't build the house, they who built it labored in vain" (perfect subjunctive). To me the second makes more sense—the idea is that God has to do the building with them, not that, once they're finished building, God shows up and does the real building.

Actually, a third thing: welcome to the site!

  • 2
    Nice answer. But in addition there already existed a translation into Greek, LXX, and other versions in Latin, and he would not have wanted to invent a translationese which nobody else was happy with. His introduction mentions the editing work as much as the translation.
    – Hugh
    Commented Jul 7, 2016 at 8:31
  • 1
    @Hugh Ah—very interesting! Commented Jul 7, 2016 at 10:38
  • 3
    @JoelDerfner When we apply your "different languages use different tenses differently" to Hebrew, we see: Hebrew has no tenses in our sense at all, only aspects (source)
    – K-HB
    Commented Mar 10, 2019 at 14:24

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.