A Review of the Imperative Mood

When one thinks of the imperative mood, one associates it with being the mood of command. That is by and far the largest usage of the imperative. Modern scholarship, however, associates the imperative mood with intention instead of command. This association places a greater emphasis upon the subject as the source of a choice, decision, or determination as opposed to the one executing the choice. Such a distinction may seem trivial to the beginning student. To the grammarian, however, while it is a fine distinction it allows for additional nuances to be understood from the imperative.
Wallace divides the imperative into eight discernible functions. There are both the positive command (e.g. Hebrews 13:17) and the prohibition (e.g. Ephesians 5:18), which are the most common functions of the mood. Additionally, however, the imperative mood can be used as a request (e.g. John 4:31), allowance (permissive imperative, e.g. 1 Corinthians 7:36), conditionally (e.g. James 4:7), potentially (e.g. Ephesians 4:26 maybe), as a pronouncement (e.g. Matthew 21:21), and in greetings (e.g. Acts 15:29). /1
While a discussion of the six additional functions of the imperative is interesting, in the remainder of this review let’s look at the two main functions, command and prohibition. The imperative mood favors three tenses, future, aorist, and present.
The future tense, whether positive or prohibitive, is commonly used to express generic commands. This is the familiar form “thou shalt” and “thou shalt not” that we find in the Old Testament. The future tense provides a measure of emphasis upon the thing commanded or prohibited. Mathew 22:37 is an example of the positive imperative and Matthew 19:18 the negative. With the negative, this tense prefers the particle OU (???) as opposed to MH (???).
The aorist tense favors particular commands as opposed to generic ones because particular commands are urged upon others as an item to be accomplished as a whole. The aorist tense naturally lends itself to this concept. Within the aorist tense, positive commands may be considered ingressive, i.e. to begin an action or they may be considered constative where the emphasis isn’t upon the inception of the command, but the priority of it. Romans 6:13 is a good example of an ingressive aorist imperative, “Begin to yield yourselves unto God.” 2 Timothy 4:2 is a great example of a constative aorist imperative, “As your priority, Preach the word!” The negative aorist imperative in prohibitions takes the subjunctive with the particle MH (???) and is used similarly as it’s positive counterpart.
The present tense also has an ingressive element, but with the flavor of the present tense and continuing action so that the emphasis is upon progressing. This lends itself more toward general precepts as opposed to specific commands. The present tense imperative may also be used to express expected continuity, i.e. continue to do this command. And, consistent with the present tense, the imperative may indicate an expectation of repeatedness. An example of an present ingressive imperative may be found in Matthew 9:9 where Jesus tells Matthew, “Follow me;” in other words, begin to follow me. An example of a customary present imperative would be Galatians 5:16, “Walk in the Spirit;” i.e. keep on walking in the Spirit. And finally, an example of an iterative present imperative would be Matthew 7:7ff. The “ask, seek, knock” of that passage indicates a repetitive effort on the part of the suppliant.
One final note on the imperative: older scholarship suggested that the aorist with the imperative meant “do not start” while the present with the imperative meant “stop doing.” Contemporary scholarship has challenged this view. Some passages simply don’t lend themselves to this sort of understanding. In that regard, the imperative has been considered to be more nuanced, as outlined above, than this older approach suggests.
1/ Wallace, Daniel B., Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, p.485ff. See also the chapter at the end of the book on Volitional Clauses, p.714ff.

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