The Figure of Speech – Heterosis as used in the Bible

God is the Author of language, and the ability to communicate by words is one thing that sets apart man from all other creatures. God invented words so he could communicate with us and we can communicate with each other. Figures of speech exist in every language, and they add emphasis and feeling to what we say and write.

No one has ever used language as precisely as God does in His Word. When we recognize the figures of speech in the Bible, we are able to more fully enjoy the richness of the Word of God and also learn much more truth from it. It is important that we become at least somewhat familiar with the figures of speech in Scripture, of which there are more than 200 varieties.

We all use figures of speech when we write or speak, but often we are not aware of the figures we are using. It helps us to appreciate them and understand the emphasis they bring to the text when we recognize them for what they are. This article will cover the figure of speech Heterosis. [1] Heterosis occurs with verbs, and is a form of exchange.

It is the exchange of one form of the verb for another, one mood or tense for another, one degree for another, or one gender for a different gender. The exchange can be difficult to see because, for one thing, it occurs in the Hebrew or Greek verb. We must pay close attention to the context and scope of Scripture to make sure that we are understanding the change correctly. Nevertheless, there are some very clear examples in the Word of God.

To gain a better understanding of Heterosis, let’s take some examples from English. When people are very excited, they tend to speak in the present tense, even though the event is in the past. A present tense narrative communicates more emotional energy than a past tense narrative. Imagine Jane coming up to you, very excited, and telling you about Bob and Sue. Jane might well say, “So Bob says to Sue,…then Sue tells him,…then Bob calls Bill and says to him,…” and so forth. Note that Jane is using verbs in the present tense even though the event is in the past. Jane probably does not know she is using the figure of speech Heterosis (the present for the past), she is just excited. Had Jane not been excited, and reported the situation factually, she would probably have used verbs in the past tense: “So Bob said to Sue,…then Sue told him…then Bob called Bill and said to him,…” This latter rendition is grammatically correct, but it does not carry the emotional impact of the present tense.

Another example of Heterosis might occur when a parent asks a son to take out the garbage. The son might look at the parent and say, “Done,” meaning that he will do it. The son does not know he is using the figure Heterosis (we also call this the idiom of the Prophetic Perfect), but he knows he is trying to confidently communicate that his parents need not worry, he will take out the garbage (despite his confident assertion, they may need to ask him again later).

Examples of Heterosis in the Bible:

An intransitive verb instead of a transitive verb

1 Corinthians 2:2 (KJV)
“For I determined not to know [intransitive] any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified.”

The transitive verb, “make known,” i.e., preach, is more grammatically correct in the context, which is that Paul had made the determination not to preach anything but Christ and the crucifixion. However, by using the intransitive verb, emphasis is placed on the fact that knowing Jesus Christ was crucified for us is what every Christian has to know first and foremost.

An imperative verb for an indicative verb

John 2:19 (KJV)
“Jesus answered and said unto them, ‘Destroy [Imperative] this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’”

Jesus was not commanding his enemies to destroy him, but was giving a prophecy.

The present tense for the future tense

Matthew 3:10b (NASB)
“…every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is [present tense] cut down and thrown into the fire.”

The certainty that trees that do not produce good fruit “will be” [future] cut down is expressed by the present tense in the verse.

2 Peter 3:11 (NASB)
“Since all these things are to be destroyed [future] in this way, what sort of people ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness,”

In the Greek text, the verb “destroyed” is present passive, but most people would not understand the verse if it said, “…all these things are destroyed…,” since they are not destroyed yet. Therefore, the translators have translated the Heterosis into the text and made the verb future so the reader can understand. The present tense is put for the future tense “to show that something will certainly come to pass, and it spoken of as though it were already present.” [2]

The past tense for the future tense

Job 19:26 and 27a
(26) And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God;
(27a) I myself will see him [future] with my own eyes…”

The Hebrew reads, “I myself have seen him…,” having the verb in the past tense. However, the Heterosis would be lost on many readers. Job had not seen God at that point, but he was so sure that he would see Him in the resurrection, that he spoke of seeing God in the past tense.

Isaiah 53:4 and 5 (author’s translation) [3]
(4) “Surely our sicknesses he has borne [past], and our pains—he has carried [past] them, and we have esteemed [past] him plagued, smitten of God, and afflicted.
(5) Yet he was pierced [past] for our transgressions, bruised [past] for our iniquities. The punishment that made us whole was [past] on him, and by his wounds there is [present] healing to us.”

It is this use of the past for the future that is sometimes called the idiom of the Prophetic Perfect. It is very common in prophecies. For example in Isaiah 53, which speaks of the torture and death of Christ, many things are written in the past tense about Jesus even though Isaiah wrote more than 700 years before Christ was born.

The prophecies about Christ were written in the past tense because they would absolutely come to pass at some time in the future, some of them when Christ came to suffer and die, and some when Christ sets up his Millennial Kingdom on earth.

Isaiah 53 intersperses the future tense of the verb with the past tense and the present tense in a very powerful way that lets all of us know conclusively that Jesus Christ was going to suffer and die for our sorrows, sicknesses, and sins. We still have sorrow, sickness, and sin in this life, but when Christ sets up his kingdom on earth, everyone will be healed, sin will be forgiven, and sorrow will be no more.

The figure Heterosis is a wonderful way in which God places emphasis in the Bible, and adds emotion and feeling to the words on the page.


[1] E. W. Bullinger, Figures of Speech Used in the Bible (Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI, reprinted 1968), p. 510-534.
[2] Bullinger, op. cit., Figures; p. 521.
[3] We use our own translation here because it more clearly shows the heart of this passage.

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