Monday, August 24, 2009

The Prophetic Perfect

But behold, I have obtained a land of promise, in the which things I do rejoice; yea, and I know that the Lord will deliver my sons out of the hands of Laban, and bring them down again unto us in the wilderness. 1 Nephi 5:5

When I first read the verse above, I wondered if Joseph Smith had mixed up his verb tenses because Lehi referred to having "obtained a land of promise” while they were obviously still in the desert and that was a future event. I thought perhaps it was a way of expressing faith in things to come as though they had already come. I was delighted when I came across the Hebrew language idiom that perfectly fit this (and many other) scriptures. It is another witness that Joseph Smith really did translate the Book of Mormon. He didn’t even know English grammar that well, much less Hebrew and Aramaic.

John Schoenheit wrote: “In the Hebrew and Aramaic idiom in which the Bible was written, when something was absolutely going to happen in the future, it is often spoken of as if it had already occurred in the past. Hebrew scholars are familiar with this idiom and refer to it as “the prophetic perfect” ... and the “perfective of confidence.” Students studying Semitic language and thought sometimes call this idiom, “here now, but not yet” or “already—not yet.”

Unfortunately, the average [person] has no knowledge of the idiom. This is due to the fact that in the vast majority of the cases in which it appears in the Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic texts, the translators have not done a literal translation into English, but have actually changed the tense. Thus, the “prophetic perfect” is rarely apparent in English Bibles.

In fairness to the translators, because the English language seldom uses anything like the prophetic perfect, most Christians would only be confused if it were left in the text. For example, the Greek text of Jude 14 says that the Lord “came” with thousands of his saints. Scholars of the biblical languages recognize that Jude was simply using the prophetic perfect to indicate the certainty of the Lord’s coming in the future with thousands of saints. But if they translated the verse literally, the average Christian would probably become confused and wonder, “When did the Lord come with thousands of his saints? The first and only time he came he had only a relatively small band of followers.”

In his magnificent work Figures of Speech Used in the Bible, E. W. Bullinger says that the switch from the literal future tense to the past tense is technically the figure of speech Heterosis. He wrote that the past is used instead of the future to emphasize the certainty of an event. [The past tense is used instead of the future tense] when the speaker views the action as being as good as done. This is very common in the Divine prophetic utterances where, though the sense is literally future, it is regarded and spoken of as though it were already accomplished in the Divine purpose and determination. The figure is to show the absolute certainty of the things spoken of.

One of many examples is found in Numbers 21:34. When Israel was coming out of the wilderness, Og, the king of Bashan, and his army came out to fight them. God wanted to assure Moses that Israel would win the battle, so He said, “Do not be afraid of him, for I have handed him over to you(NIV). Interestingly, almost every English version deviates from the usual practice and translates the verb in the literal past tense instead of translating it in the future tense. Thus, even in the NIV, it seems that the battle is over even though it had not yet been fought.”

For more information on “The Prophetic Perfect” see John W. Schoenheit, The Christian’s Hope: The Anchor of the Soul, Appendix E, pp. 223-240.


  1. How little we really know about scripture.

    I am grateful for this insight. Bullinger is one of my favorites and so is Donna. This helps me understand that all things are present before Heavenly Father: past, present and future. His Word is truly alive with power to save!

  2. That is a good way of thinking and wording things, because it helps us to exercise more perfect faith that the event will actually take place. And in some cases, it is so sure that we can count it as having happened, like the Atonement...(Obviously, people could repent before that)

  3. Thank you Donna for the "Prophetic Perfect". I hope "Ye are Gods" speaking in present tense refers to the future of me and my house.
    I have a request. Would you write about Hosanna and Amen and the difference if it was Alleluia hymns 81 and 82 and 200 or Gloria in hymn 203.

  4. Actually, English uses "prophetic perfect" a lot. There is even a specific word for it in English. I will not say it because I want to do a carving on my blog about that word in the future. :)

    However, here are a couple common examples to go with Lehi's translated statement. . .

    If somebody hits a fly ball into the outfield, what does the outfielder say? "I got it!" "Got" is past tense, but it has not happened yet. But he is sure he is going to get it and tells others of it so there is order.

    Or someone might say, "What are you going to do about that?" And another answers, "Don't worry, I have it covered." That is past tense about something that has not uncovered itself yet.