Prophetic perfect tense
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The prophetic perfect tense is a literary technique used in the Bible that describes future events that are so certain to happen that they are referred to in the past tense as if they already happened. The category of "prophetic perfect" was already suggested by medieval Hebrew grammarians, such as David Kimhi: "The matter is as clear as though it had already passed," or Isaac ben Yedaiah:
"[The rabbis] of blessed memory followed, in these words of theirs, in the paths of the prophets who speak of something which will happen in the future in the language of the past. Since they saw in prophetic vision that which was to occur in the future, they spoke about it in the past tense and testified firmly that it had happened, to teach the certainty of his [God's] words -- may he be blessed -- and his positive promise that can never change and his beneficent message that will not be altered." (Isaac ben Yedaiah):
Gesenius describes it as follows:
"The perfect serves to express actions, events, or states, which the speaker wishes to represent from the point of view of completion, whether they belong to a determinate past time, or extend into the present, or while still future, are pictured as in their completed state." (GKC §106a)
"[The perfect can be used to] express facts which are undoubtedly imminent, and, therefore, in the imagination of the speaker, already accomplished (perfectum confidentiae), e.g. Nu 17:27... Gn 30:13, 1 S 6:5 ..., Pr 4:2. Even in interrogative sentences, Gn 18:12, Nu 17:28, 23:10, Ju 9:9, 11, Zc 4:10 (?), Pr 22:20.8 This use of the perfect occurs most frequently in prophetic language (perfectum propheticum). The prophet so transports himself in imagination into the future that he describes the future event as if it had been already seen or heard by him, e.g. Is 5:13 ...; 19:7, Jb 5:20, 2 Ch 20:37. Not infrequently the imperfect interchanges with such perfects either in the parallel member or further on in the narrative." (GKC §106n)
According to Waltke & O'Connor:
"Referring to absolute future time, a perfective form may be persistent or accidental. A persistent (future) perfective represents a single situation extending from the present into the future.... With an accidental perfective a speaker vividly and dramatically represents a future situation both as complete and as independent…. This use is especially frequent in prophetic address (hence it is also called the “prophetic perfect” or “perfective of confidence”)."
Klein has attempted to identify all established instances of the prophetic perfect. Notarius, siding with Rogland, argues that the "prophetic perfect" is "a metaphorical use of the past tense in the retrospective future-oriented report."
Isaiah 5:13 "Therefore My people are gone into captivity, for want of knowledge; and their honourable men are famished, and their multitude are parched with thirst"(JPS)
Isaiah 10:28-32 "He is come to Aiath, he is passed through Migron; at Michmas he layeth up his baggage; They are gone over the pass; they have taken up their lodging at Geba; Ramah trembleth; Gibeath-shaul is fled. Cry thou with a shrill voice, O daughter of Gallim! Hearken, O Laish! O thou poor Anathoth! Madmenah is in mad flight; the inhabitants of Gebim flee to cover. This very day shall he halt at Nob, shaking his hand at the mount of the daughter of Zion, the hill of Jerusalem."(JPS)
Jeremiah 23:2 "Therefore thus saith the Lord, the God of Israel, against the shepherds that feed My people: Ye have scattered My flock, and driven them away, and have not taken care of them; behold, I will visit upon you the evil of your doings, saith the Lord."(JPS)
Amos 5:2 "The virgin of Israel is fallen, she shall no more rise; she is cast down upon her land, there is none to raise her up"(JPS)
- Zuck, Roy B. (April 1, 2002). Basic Bible Interpretation. David C Cook. p. 117.
- Max F. Rogland, Alleged non-past uses of qatal in classical Hebrew (Assen: Royal Van Gorcum, 2003), pp. 53-56.
- Bruce Waltke and M. O’Connor, An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax (Eisenbrauns, Winona Lake, IN, 1990), p. 464, n.45
- Robert Chazan, Daggers of Faith (Berkeley: UC Press, 1989), p.87
- Wilhelm Gesenius, E. Kautzsch, and A. E. Cowley, Gesenius' Hebrew Grammar ( Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1910).
- Waltke and O’Connor, §30.5.1e, 489-90
- George Linam Klein, "The 'Prophetic Perfect'" Journal of Northwest Semitic Languages 16 (1990): 45-60
- Tania Notarius, The Verb in Archaic Biblical Poetry: A Discursive, Typological, and Historical Investigation of the Tense System (Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2013), p.88.