The Prophetic Perfect

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,” “the historic sense of prophecy,” and the “perfective of confidence.” [1] Students studying Semitic language and thought sometimes call this idiom, “here now, but not yet” or “already—not yet.” [2] Unfortunately, the average Christian 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. [3] 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. [4]

Perhaps the most recognized Hebrew scholar of modern times is Friedrich Gesenius (1786–1842). He wrote about the perfect tense and its various uses (the “perfect” is sometimes called the “past tense,” but the Hebrew and English do not look at verbs in quite the same way). [5] Although normally associated with action that has already occurred, Gesenius wrote that the perfect is used in some cases when the event is still actually future. He noted that the perfect was used:

To express future actions, when the speaker intends by an express assurance to represent them as finished, or as equivalent to accomplished facts: (b) To express facts which are undoubtedly immanent, and, therefore, in the imagination of the speaker, already accomplished. This use of the perfect occurs most frequently in prophetic language (perfectum propheticum [Latin for “prophetic perfect”]). 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., Isa. 5:13, therefore my people are gone into captivity; 9:1; 10:23; 11:9; 19:7; Job 5:20; 2 Chronicles 20:37. Not infrequently the imperfect [i.e., the actual future tense] interchanges with such perfects either in the parallel member or further on in the narrative. [6]

The last sentence is very important. Anyone studying the Hebrew text will notice that there are many times when ideas are expressed in couplets or parallel expressions. [7] It is often the case when one of the couplets is the prophetic perfect that the other is the literal imperfect, or future, tense. Coupling the perfect with the imperfect alerts the reader to the use of the prophetic perfect idiom because an event cannot be both past and future. If there is no couplet, the context and the subject matter are usually enough to allow the reader to determine whether or not the prophetic perfect is being used. In the above example of Jude 14, the reader is able to identify the use of the prophetic perfect because although this verse indicates the action occurred in the past, there are other verses which indicate that the Lord will come with thousands of his saints in the future.

The distinguished scholar and author of the very well known Young’s Concordance, Robert Young, agrees with Bullinger and Gesenius. He wrote:

“The past is frequently used to express the certainty of a future action.” [8]

The Hebrew grammarian C. L. Seow also writes:

In some instances, the certainty of an immanent event in the mind of the speaker is enough to justify the use of the perfect. This usage of the perfect is especially common in prophecies, promises, and threats. In such cases, one should render the Hebrew perfect by the English present or even future. [9]

Often the only translation that accurately translates the prophetic perfect as a past tense is Young’s Literal Translation of the Holy Bible (YLT). Robert Young was very interested in preserving the literal meaning of the Hebrew and Greek in his translation. That made his translation very different from the common translations of his day (the late 1800’s), and he was questioned about why he put a past tense where the other versions usually had a future tense. This led to his writing some prefaces to his version, one of which is titled, “The Battle of the Hebrew Tenses.” In that preface he writes:

The past is either perfect or imperfect, e.g. ‘I lived in this house five years,’ or ‘I have lived in this house five years;’ this distinction may and can only be known by the context, which must in all cases be viewed from the writer’s standing point.

In every other instance of its occurrence, it points out either—

1) A gentle imperative, e.g., “Lo, I have sent unto thee Naaman my servant, and thou hast recovered him from his leprosy,” [2 Kings 5:6]; see also Zech. 1:3, etc.; or
2) A fixed determination that a certain thing shall be done, e.g., “Nay, my lord, hear me, the field I have given to thee, and the cave that is in it; to thee I have given it; before the eyes of the sons of my people I have given it to thee, bury thy dead,” [Gen. 23:11]; and in the answer; “Only—if thou wouldst hear me—I have given the money of the field” [Gen. 23:13]. [10]

There are many examples of the prophetic perfect in the Bible, far too many to list in this appendix [This article was taken from our book, The Christian’s Hope: The Anchor of the Soul]. Nevertheless, the following references should be sufficient to make the point that the idiom is quite common. This is especially true in prophetic utterances where God is assuring people that some future event will absolutely occur.

Genesis 6:18. In Genesis 6, God told Noah to build the ark. After telling him how to build it, the Hebrew text reads that God said, “And you have come into the ark.” The ark was not even built at that time, and when it was built God told Noah, “Go into the ark” (Gen. 7:1). The prophetic perfect in Genesis 6:18 makes it clear that Noah would absolutely enter the ark. Most English versions, not wanting to confuse the reader, read something like, “And you will enter the ark.” The YLT (Young’s Literal Translation) reads, “and thou hast come in unto the ark.”

Genesis 15:18. The Hebrew text reads, “To your descendants I have given this land.” This promise was made to Abraham before he even had any descendants to give the land to. Nevertheless, God states His promise in the past tense to emphasize the certainty of the event. The KJV, ARV (American Revised Version of 1901), YLT, and NASB all have the past tense in their versions.

Genesis 18:26. Abraham was bargaining with God to save Sodom. God told Abraham that if fifty righteous people could be found in the city, He would spare it. To make His point clear, God used the prophetic perfect. He literally said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous people, I have spared the whole place.” The YLT accurately reflects the use of the past tense in the Hebrew text. The force of the prophetic perfect as a promise can be seen in the context. For example, in 18:28, God does not use the prophetic perfect but uses the literal future and says He “will not” destroy it if there are forty-five righteous people there.

Genesis 41:30. Joseph interpreted Pharaoh’s dream and foretold that there would be seven years of plenty and seven years of famine. When mentioning the seven years of famine, he speaks of them in the perfect tense, using the prophetic perfect for emphasis. Literally, Joseph said, “And there have arisen seven years of famine.” To avoid confusing the reader, almost every English version says that the famine “will arise.” The YLT accurately reflects the past tense in the Hebrew text. It is obvious from the context that the seven years of plenty are yet to come and that the famine will follow the years of plenty. But, in the text, it sounds like the famine has already occurred. The coupling of the past and future in the context lets the reader know that the prophetic perfect idiom is being used and emphasizes the fact that there absolutely will be a famine.

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.

Numbers 24:17. The prophecy of the coming Messiah, given by the prophet Balaam, is placed in the prophetic perfect for emphasis. Although it would be more than 1,400 years before the Messiah would come, the Hebrew text has, “A star has come forth out of Jacob and a scepter has arisen out of Israel.” English readers might be confused by the perfect tense, so the translators use the future tense in most English versions. The YLT accurately reflects the use of the past tense in the Hebrew text.

1 Samuel 2:31. This verse is a prophetic announcement of what will occur to Eli, the High Priest. The Hebrew text is in the past tense and literally reads, “Lo, the days are coming, and I have cut off your arm [i.e., “your strength”].” Almost all modern versions translate this verse in the future tense so it makes sense to the modern reader. The NIV reads, “The time is coming when I will cut short your strength.” The YLT follows the Hebrew text.

1 Samuel 10:2. The Hebrew text is in the past tense and says, “you have found two men.” Most modern versions convert the past to the future so the reader is not confused. The NIV reads, “When you [Saul] leave me [Samuel] today, you will meet two men near Rachel’s tomb.” The YLT follows the Hebrew text.

Job 19:27. This verse contains one of the great statements of hope in the Bible. Job knew that sometime after he died, he would be resurrected to life and be with the Messiah. The Hebrew text makes this future resurrection certain by portraying it as a past event. The NASB is similar to most English versions and reads, “Whom I myself shall behold, and whom my eyes shall see.” In the Hebrew text, the first verb is imperfect (i.e., incomplete or future) but the second verb is in the past tense and literally reads, “My eyes have seen him [the Redeemer].” Thus, the Hebrew text couples the literal future with the prophetic perfect idiom making Job’s declaration clear. He knew that his resurrection was future, but he was so confident of it that he spoke of it as being a past event. Most English versions (the YLT is an exception) have both verbs in the future so the reader will not be confused.

Psalm 45:7. Psalm 45 is known to refer to the coming Messiah. Verse 7 refers to the Messiah’s love of righteousness and hatred of wickedness. In the Hebrew text, “love” is in the perfect (past) while “hate” is in the imperfect (not yet completed). The Hebrew would more naturally read, “You have loved righteousness, and hate wickedness.” This is a good example of what Gesenius said when he noted that the prophetic perfect and imperfect are often coupled together and placed in parallel. It is noteworthy that the prophetic perfect places the emphasis on love, not on hatred. As much as it is important to mete out justice to enemies, it is essential for a ruler to love righteousness. The reader is assured of Christ’s love of righteousness because it was put in the prophetic perfect 1,000 years before he was born. Interestingly, the modern versions vary in their handling of the verse. The NASB and the ASV put both verbs in the past, while the NIV and the RSV put them both in the present. The YLT closely follows the Hebrew text by putting “love” in the past and “hate” in the present.

Proverbs 11:7 and 21. These verses offer an interesting contrast between the futures of the unjust and the just. In verse 7, we read, “The hope of the unjust man has perished.” The use of the past tense in the Hebrew text emphasizes the certainty of the future destruction of the wicked person. In verse 21, concerning the righteous man, we read, “the seed of the just has escaped.” Again, the use of the past tense emphasizes the certainty of the future salvation of the righteous person. Because the actual judgment of the righteous and the wicked is still future, most modern versions read that the Hope of the wicked will perish and that the seed of the just will escape. God will mete out justice for both the righteous and the wicked. The use of the idiom absolutely emphasizes that God’s coming Judgment is certain to occur and warns people to be careful how they live.

Isaiah 9:6. This verse speaks of the coming Messiah. To mark the certainty of the Messiah’s future coming, the past tense is used in the Hebrew text. Although Isaiah wrote more than 700 years before the birth of Christ, the Hebrew text reads, “To us a child has been born, to us a son has been given, and the government has been on his shoulders, and he has been called Wonderful, Counselor…” Concerning this verse, the noted commentator Edward J. Young writes:

We must note again how impressive this fact was to Isaiah. He speaks of the birth as though it had already occurred, even though from his standpoint it was future. We know that Isaiah is not speaking of a past occurrence, for the simple reason that to do so would not yield a good sense. Whose birth, prior to Isaiah’s time, ever accomplished what is herein described? To ask that question is to answer it. Furthermore, we must note that the Child whose birth is here mentioned was also the One whose birth had been foretold in chapter 7. [11]

Isaiah 11:1 and 2. This is a wonderful prophecy concerning the coming Messiah, whom God foretold from the line of David. He used the prophetic perfect idiom to emphasize the certainty of the event. The Hebrew text couples the perfect with the imperfect and can be translated, “A shoot has come up from the stump of Jesse and a branch out of his roots will bear fruit.” The Hebrew text of verse 2 also uses the prophetic perfect: “And the spirit of Yahweh has rested upon him….” Most of the modern versions use the future tense all the way through and read, “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse and a branch from his root will bear fruit. And the spirit of Yahweh shall rest on him…” The coming of the Messiah was absolutely certain and God represents that in the text by using the prophetic perfect.

Isaiah 52 and 53. These chapters contain what is referred to as one of the “Servant Songs” in Isaiah. It is a “song” about the coming Messiah. Interestingly, many of the verses in the perfect tense in the Hebrew text are not converted to the future tense in the English versions but are accurately translated in the past tense. Curiously, however, the translators chose to keep the prophetic perfect intact in some cases. Thus the English reader has no way to tell whether the Hebrew verb is perfect or imperfect because the translators were not consistent in how they translated the section. The section foretelling the Messiah’s life and work starts in 52:13 and runs through Chapter 53. In the verses below, where the prophetic perfect is not already in the NIV, it will be in bold type. If the prophetic perfect is in the NIV, it will be in italics. Thus, the reader will be able to see at a glance how the translators have handled the text. There are also some imperfects in the Hebrew that were translated as perfects in English. These have been translated as imperfects, either present or future.

Isaiah 52:13-15 (Author’s translation)
(13) Behold, My servant [the Messiah] acts wisely, He is high, and hath been lifted up, and hath been exalted.
(14) Just as many have been astonished at you—his appearance so disfigured more than man, and his form more than the sons of men.
(15) So he will sprinkle many nations. Kings shut their mouth on account of him, for that which was not told to them they have seen, and that which they have not heard they have understood.

Isaiah 53:1–12
(1) Who has believed our message? And the arm of Yahweh, to whom has it been revealed?
(2) For he grows up as a tender plant before Him, and as a root out of a dry ground. He has no form or majesty that we should look upon him, and no beauty that we should be attracted to him.
(3) He is despised, and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with sickness. And like one from whom men hide their faces, he is despised, and we esteemed him not.
(4) Surely our sicknesses he has borne, and our pains—he has carried them, and we have esteemed him plagued, smitten of God, and afflicted.
(5) Yet he was pierced for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities. The punishment that made us whole was on him, and by his wounds there is healing to us.
(6) All of us like sheep have wandered, each has turned to his own way, and Yahweh has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
(7) He was oppressed and he was afflicted, yet he opens not his mouth. As a lamb to the slaughter he is brought, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he opens not his mouth.
(8) By oppression and judgment he was taken away, and among his generation who considers that he was cut off out of the land of the living? For the transgression of My people—punishment to him.
(9) And they make his grave with the wicked, but with a rich man in his death, although he had done no violence, and no deceit in his mouth.
(10) Yet it was Yahweh’s will to bruise him, He has made him sick. If his soul becomes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring, he shall prolong his days, and the purpose of Yahweh will prosper in his hand.
(11) Because of the anguish of his soul he will see—and be satisfied. By a knowledge of him, the righteous one, My servant, will justify many, and their iniquities he shall bear.
(12) Therefore I give to him a portion among the great, and he will divide the booty with the strong, because he poured out his soul to death, and he was numbered with the transgressors. For he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors.

This section of Isaiah contains many perfects and imperfects. No wonder the Ethiopian eunuch said to Philip, “Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?” (Acts 8:34). [12] With 20/20 hindsight, Christians today all agree that this section of Isaiah is speaking of the Messiah. The use of the prophetic perfect in reference to the accomplishments of the Messiah emphasizes the certainty of his future actions.

Jeremiah 21:9. This verse speaks of the certain knowledge that those people who surrender to the Babylonians will have their lives spared. The Hebrew text reads, “Whoever goes out and has surrendered…will live.” Of course, no one had yet surrendered, and so the modern versions read, “Whoever goes out and surrenders…will live.” This is another good example of the coupling of the literal with the prophetic perfect idiom. “Surrendered” is in the perfect tense, but “will live” is in the imperfect or future tense. Jeremiah was speaking inside the city, so no one he was talking to had gone out to the Babylonians or surrendered, yet the promise of God was that those who “had surrendered” would live.

Joel 2:21–24. These verses speak of the blessing of God upon the earth in the Millennial Kingdom, but the blessing is spoken of as if it already existed. God uses the prophetic perfect to assure Israel that His promises will not fail.

Joel 2:21–24
(21) Be not afraid, O land; be glad and rejoice. Surely the LORD has done great things.
(22) Be not afraid, O wild animals, for the open pastures are becoming (lit., “have become”) green. The trees are bearing (lit., “have borne”) their fruit; the fig tree and the vine yield (lit., “have yielded”) their riches.
(23) Be glad, O people of Zion, rejoice in the LORD your God, for he has given you the autumn [former] rains in righteousness. He sends you abundant showers, both autumn [former] and spring [latter] rains, as before.
(24) The threshing floors will be filled (lit., “have been filled”) with grain; the vats will overflow (lit., “have overflowed”) with new wine and oil.

C. F. Keil, Hebrew scholar and coauthor of the well-known Commentary on the Old Testament in Ten Volumes, writes on the use of the perfect (past) tense in these verses in Joel:

The perfect is not only applied to actions which the speaker looks upon from his own standpoint as actually completed, as having taken place, or as things belonging to the past, but to actions which the will or the lively fancy of the speaker regards as being as good as completed, in other words, assumes as altogether unconditional and certain, and to which in modern language we should apply the present [or future]. The latter is the sense in which it is used here, since the prophet sets forth the divine promise as a fact, which is unquestionably certain and completed, even though its historical realization has only just begun, and extends into the nearer or more remote future. [13]

Even though the promises being spoken of in Joel have not yet been fulfilled, God promises, by way of the perfect tense, that they absolutely will be fulfilled in the future.

Zechariah 12:10. In most English versions, the translators have brought some, but not all, of the occurrences of the past tense in the Hebrew text over into their English versions. The Hebrew text reads, “And I have poured out on the house of David, and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem, a spirit of grace and supplication, and they have looked upon him whom they have pierced, and they have mourned over him, as one mourns over an only child, and they weep bitterly for him, as one weeps over a first-born.” This verse makes it seem as if the Messiah were already pierced, when in fact Zechariah was speaking five hundred years before the arrival of Christ. The prophetic perfect emphasized to the people that the sacrifice of Christ was a certainty.

Before moving on to the New Testament, it will be helpful to note that the idioms of the Hebrew language and culture come over into the New Testament text as well. E. W. Bullinger explains that the idioms of the Hebrew language and culture are reflected in the Greek text:

The fact must ever be remembered that, while the language of the New Testament is Greek, the agents and instruments employed by the Holy Spirit were Hebrews. God spake “by the mouth of his holy prophets.” Hence, while the “mouth” and the throat and vocal chords and breath were human, the words were Divine.

No one is able to understand the phenomenon; or explain how it comes to pass: for Inspiration is a fact to be believed and received, and not a matter to be reasoned about. While therefore, the words are Greek, the thoughts and idioms are Hebrew.

Some, on this account, have condemned the Greek of the New Testament, because it is not classical; while others, in their anxiety to defend it, have endeavored to find parallel usages in classical Greek authors. Both might have spared their pains by recognizing that the New Testament Greek abounds with Hebraisms: i.e., expressions conveying Hebrew usages and thoughts in Greek words.” [14]

Bullinger is correct about the Hebrew idiom coming into the Greek text, and although he says the New Testament text was originally Greek, there is evidence that there was an Aramaic original text underlying some of the Greek and giving it a Semitic flavor. Matthew and John almost certainly wrote in their native language, Aramaic. Later, these texts would have been translated into Greek. Following are some good examples of the prophetic perfect in the New Testament. [15]

Ephesians 2:6. The verse says, “And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus.” This verse is usually translated in modern versions just as it reads in the Greek—in the past tense. Such a rendering creates a problem. In the rest of the Bible, the translators have generally translated the “prophetic perfect” as a future tense so the reader will not be confused. The average Christian is not accustomed to seeing a future event described in the past tense. Thus, when he reads that Christians are “seated” (past tense) in the heavenly realms, he has no training to help him understand that this is a way of stating that Christians will absolutely be seated with Christ in heaven in the future.

F.F. Bruce, noted linguist and biblical scholar, writes specifically about Ephesians 2:6:

That God has already seated his people with Christ in the heavenly realm is an idea unparalleled elsewhere in the Pauline corpus. It can best be understood as a statement of God’s purpose for his people—a purpose which is so sure of fulfillment that it can be spoken of as having already taken place. [16]

Christians are literally on earth, not in heaven. Therefore, we have to look up to heaven. As Colossians 3:1 says, “set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God.” While Ephesians says that we are seated with Christ in heavenly realms, Colossians says that Christ is seated “above” us, at the right hand of God. Obviously, both verses cannot be literal, and the Bible is not contradicting itself. Colossians is literal. We are on earth now and Christ is “above” us. Ephesians is using the prophetic perfect to say that we absolutely will be with Christ in heaven in the future.

Jude 14. This verse speaks of Enoch’s prophecy and literally reads, “the Lord came with ten thousands of His holy ones.” Of course, the Lord has not yet come, but his coming is so certain that the prophecy is written in the past tense. We can easily see how idioms like the “prophetic perfect” put translators in a tough position. If they translate the text literally, many Christians would be confused. If they do not, we lose a powerful vehicle for God to communicate the absolute certainty of future events.

There are many important examples of the “prophetic perfect” in the Bible and an exhaustive list would be difficult to compile. However, the examples listed above should be sufficient to document that a future event may be spoken of in the past tense in order to emphasize that it will absolutely come to pass.

The prophetic perfect also in large part explains why the New Testament sometimes says that “salvation,” justification,” “redemption,” “glorification,” and “adoption” are an accomplished reality, and at other times says they are still future. Admittedly, this can make the New Testament difficult to understand, and even occasionally results in arguments between Christians. There are verses stating that we Christians have already been saved (Eph. 2:8. “You have been saved through faith”), verses that state we are in the process of being saved now (1 Cor. 1:18. “But to us who are being saved, it [the cross] is the power of God), and verses stating that our salvation is still future (Rom. 13:11. “Our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed,” and 1 Thess. 5:8 which says that the “helmet” of the Christian is the “hope of salvation”). So, which is it? Are we saved now or is salvation something we have to wait and hope for? The prophetic perfect gives a window into understanding that question.

We Christians are not saved now in the sense that we are already rescued from death and the consequences of sin in this world. We still wrestle with sin and Christians die every day. Literally, although God is working out the process of our salvation now, our complete salvation is still future. We will have new bodies, we will be rescued from death, and we will be freed from sin and sickness. But right now, we have God’s gift of holy spirit born inside us, which is “a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession” (Eph. 1:13; 2 Cor. 1:22; 5:5). The fact that our future salvation is guaranteed means that, in the idiom of biblical language, it can be spoken of as if it were already accomplished. Thus, we Christians refer to ourselves as “saved,” even though we struggle with sin, sickness, and death in our day-to-day lives.

There are other things that Christians will absolutely have in the future that are spoken of in the Bible in both the past and future tense. The Bible says the believer is already redeemed (Rom. 3:24; Eph. 1:7; Col. 1:14), but also awaiting redemption (Rom. 8:23; Eph. 1:14; 4:30). We are said to have been adopted into God’s family (Rom. 8:15, translated “sonship” in the NIV), and yet we are still awaiting adoption (Rom. 8:23). We are said to be glorified (Rom. 8:30), but our glorification is also said to be future (Rom. 8:17, and Col. 1:27 says we have the “hope of glory”). We are spoken of as already justified (Rom. 5:1), but Galatians 5:5 says, “we eagerly await through the Spirit the righteousness for which we hope” (“justified” and “righteous” are from the same root word in Greek—one is a noun, the other a verb).

Christians who are not careful to rightly divide God’s Word can end up like the six blind men arguing about what an elephant was like. [17] Each had grabbed a different part of the elephant and was vigorously defending his position. The man who had the leg declared he was like a tree, the one who had the ear said he was like a fan, the one who had the trunk asserted he was like a snake, and so forth. So too, Christians can grab different verses in the New Testament and begin arguing as if the Bible could contradict itself and one verse is literally true and the others literally false. That is not how to establish truth in the Christian world. The Bible is God-breathed and does not contradict itself. It uses words according to the language, culture, and idioms used in biblical times. Paul did not finish writing the Church Epistles and walk away saying, “Ha! They’ll never figure that out.” Certainly not. He wrote using words and phrases that reveal truth. The truth revealed by the prophetic perfect idiom is that the Christian does not need to worry about his salvation, redemption, or glorification. Although these things are not yet fully realized, the presence of the holy spirit in the Christian and the sure word of prophecy guarantees them when the Lord returns.


[1] The fact that scholars do not agree on one name for the idiom should not confuse anyone. Idioms typically do not have names. An idiom will be assigned a designation only if it is grammatically important enough to receive attention and it needs name recognition to facilitate discussion. If a non-English speaker heard someone say, “stop on a dime,” and asked the name of the idiom, the answer would be that it really does not have a name. So it is with most idioms. They are not individually named. For two of the names assigned to the prophetic perfect, see Bruce Waltke and M. O’Connor, An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax (Eisenbrauns, Winona Lake, IN, 1990), p. 490.
[2] Dean and Susan Wheelock, “Here Now, But Not Yet,” Hebrew Roots, Issue 00-1; Vol. 4, No. 4 (January, February, March, 1999), pp. 3–8. James D. G. Dunn, Jesus and the Spirit (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI, 1975), p. 309.
[3] I say “seldom” because English does have something akin to the prophetic perfect. If a mother asks her son to take out the garbage, he may respond, “Done.” Of course the job is not done yet, but the point is clear—he will do it in the future. The prophetic perfect works the same way; it speaks of the future as if it were already “done.”
[4] Bullinger, op. cit., Figures of Speech, p. 518.
[5] The fact that the Hebrew and English treat verbs differently accounts for some of the differences in the English translations. For example, the Hebrew “perfect” tense refers to an action already completed, while the imperfect is not yet completed. Thus an “imperfect” can sometimes be equivalent to the English present tense, sometimes to the future, and sometimes an exact equivalent cannot be determined because there is not enough information given.
[6] E. Kautzsch, ed., Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1910), pp. 312,13.
[7] Psalms and Proverbs are not the only Hebrew poetry in the Old Testament. Job and many of the prophetic books contain large amounts of poetry. “Unlike much Western poetry, Hebrew poetry is not based on rhyme or meter, but on rhythm and parallelism. The rhythm is not achieved by balanced numbers of accented and unaccented syllables, but by tonal stress or accent on important words. In parallelism, the poet states an idea in the first line, then reinforces it by various means in the succeeding line or lines. The most common type is synonymous parallelism, in which the second line essentially repeats the idea of the first (Ps. 3:1). In antithetic parallelism, the second line contains an idea opposite to that in the first (Ps. 1:6). In synthetic parallelism, the second or succeeding lines add to or develop the idea of the first (Ps. 1:1,2). In emblematic parallelism, the second line elevates the thought of the first, often by using a simile (Ps. 42:1).” Ryrie Study Bible, Expanded Edition, New International Version (Moody Bible Institute, Chicago, 1994), Introduction to Psalms, p. 801.
[8] Robert Young, Young’s Concordance, (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI, reprinted 1964), Hint #60 in “Hints and Helps”.
[9] C. L. Seow, A Grammar for Biblical Hebrew (Abingdon Press, Nashville, TN, 1987), p. 93.
[10] Robert Young, Young’s Literal Translation of the Holy Bible (Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI), preface, “The Battle of the Hebrew Tenses.”
[11] Edward J. Young, The Book of Isaiah (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids. 1996), Vol. 1, p. 329.
[12] The Septuagint also mixes the past with the present and future in this section, so even if the Ethiopian were reading the Greek Old Testament, he would still be confused about whether the person being referred to lived in Isaiah’s past or future.
[13] C. F. Keil, Commentary on the Old Testament in Ten Volumes, Vol. X, Minor Prophets (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI, reprinted 1975), pp. 204–5.
[14] Bullinger, op. cit. Figures of Speech, pp. 819, 20.
[15] Two examples of a phrase using the prophetic perfect in the New Testament are John 4:23 and John 5:25. In both these verses Christ said, “A time is coming [literal future] and now has come [prophetic perfect]….” The John 4 reference is to the coming of the spirit, which, although it had not yet come, was certainly going to come in the future just as God promised. The John 5 reference is to the dead coming to life at the Resurrection, a point made clear in John 5:28. So, Jesus also used the same idiom as the writers of the Old Testament. He coupled the future tense, which is literal future, “a time is coming,” with the non-literal, “and now has come.” By using both phrases together, he made sure that the listener would not be confused and by using the idiom he emphasized the certainty of the events.
[16] F. F. Bruce, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, The Epistle to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI, 1984), p. 287.
[17] Hazel Felleman, ed., The Best Loved Poems of the American People, “The Blind Men and the Elephant,” John Saxe, (Doubleday & Company, Inc., Garden City, NY, 1936), pp. 521,22.

Was this article a blessing to you? Comment below to let us know what you liked about it and what topics you'd be interested to see going forward! Also, please consider donating – even $1 helps! – to support the creation of more content like this in the future!


  1. The best example of this idiom

    [Students studying Semitic language and thought sometimes call this idiom, “here now, but not yet” or “already—not yet.”] (taken from an article on “the perfect prophetic tense.”

    Heb 2:5 For unto the angels hath he not put in subjection the world to come, whereof we speak.
    Heb 2:6 But one in a certain place testified, saying, What is man, that thou art mindful of him? or the son of man, that thou visitest him?
    Heb 2:7 Thou madest him a little lower than the angels; thou crownedst him with glory and honour, and didst set him over the works of thy hands:
    Heb 2:8 Thou hast put all things in subjection under his feet. For in that he put all in subjection under him, he left nothing that is not put under him. But now we see not yet all things put under him.

    This is the Hebrews writer quoting David, who was quoting Moses, who was quoting God, who spoke in the Beginning as though all the things God, himself had purposed had already come to pass.

    It is evident Moses understood this concept as he stated in Gen 2,

    Gen 2:4 These are the generations of the heavens and of the earth when they were created, in the day that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens,
    Gen 2:5 And every plant of the field before it was in the earth, and every herb of the field before it grew: for the LORD God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was not a man to till the ground.

    Moses understood that the words given to him by God to write the creative plan in Gen 1:1 through Gen 2:3 had not yet come to pass in their entirety.
    That is why Moses gave explanation of his narrative starting in verse 5 stating, “and every plant of the field BEFORE it was in the earth and every herb of the field BEFORE it grew, for the Eternal One had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was not a man to till the ground.

    Moses is telling the reader that, after viewing the entirety of God’s Plan in Chapter 1, we are now going to take up the story between 1;27 and 1:28.
    Why between 1:27 and 1:28?
    Because 1:28 is NOT what God said to Adam and his children. 1:28 is what God said to Noah and his children. For when 1:27 and 1:28 were “planned” we were given no detail in the plan of the formation of the man. Those details are not given us until Moses gives us the narrative of the formation of man and the events that unfolded between Adam and Noah. It is not until Noah comes forth from the ark that the purpose of God is actually spoken to the man and his family. Nonetheless, David coming along many thousands of years later, tells the reader that the words of God given by Moses declare the purpose God spoken from the Beginning. From these words we see that even the Flood and the Replenishing of the Earth were in the Plan of God.

    We can assume from David’s Psalm, Psalm 16, all from the time of Moses who read Moses writings know, the purpose of God as given in the writings of Moses as Moses is read every sabbath, We can also assume that those in the know, Noah, Shem, Arphaxad, Eber, and Peleg, and on down through to Moses, know the purpose of God as God declared his purpose to Noah and his family. They in turn transmitted that purpose to those who would hear until we get to Abraham and his family. These concepts were then transmitted all down the line till we get to Moses. Now, the details of how that was accomplished are not necessarily known by us. However, this we do know,

    Psa_103:7 He made known his ways unto Moses, his acts unto the children of Israel.

    So then, the Apostle tells us this concept, the concept of “perfect prophetic tense” is a valid one as he writes to the Romans saying,

    Rom 16:25 Now to him that is of power to stablish you according to my gospel, and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery, which was kept secret since the world began,
    Rom 16:26 But now is made manifest, and by the scriptures of the prophets, according to the commandment of the everlasting God, made known to all nations for the obedience of faith:

    And again when the prophet declares:

    Isa 46:9 Remember the former things of old: for I am God, and there is none else; I am God, and there is none like me,
    Isa 46:10 Declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times the things that are not yet done, saying, My counsel shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure:

    And again,

    Isa 43:7 Even every one that is called by my name: for I have created him for my glory, I have formed him; yea, I have made him.

    In verse 7, the Eternal One is declaring his methodology of achieving his purpose. He creates or plans it. He goes about the process of making it, called form. He then completes or makes it.
    Whats more is, before he follows this process, God declares his purpose.

    Chief and most relevant example.

    God states His Purpose
    Gen 1:26 And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.

    This statement is a statement of purpose or intent.

    Based on that statement of purpose God then,

    Gen 1:27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.
    Gen 1:28 And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.

    How do we know verse 27 is based on verse 26? What does the word “so” mean?

    Now, what is the prime example of a man, a writer in the scripture that understood this principle of “perfect prophetic tense?”
    Without reservation, that man is John, when he writes,

    Joh 1:1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
    Joh 1:2 The same was in the beginning with God.
    Joh 1:3 All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.

    And again,

    1Jn 1:1 That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life;
    1Jn 1:2 (For the life was manifested, and we have seen it, and bear witness, and shew unto you that eternal life, which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us;)

    When we define the word Word as “that which God spoke,” we then get a clear understanding of what God spoke, its ramifications and the impact of that knowledge on our understanding of what God is doing. When people define the word Word as a pre-existent state of being for some super person, they miss it altogether and do not know what God is doing from beginning to end.

  2. Could this verse be an example of prophetic perfect tense? I see the Father as an infinite being but the son exists in this finite creation as a finite being so i don’t attribute all of the three omni words with the son but just the Father. Because his ascension would be considered a future event at this time correct?

    John 3:13 And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven.

  3. Genesis 6.18. וּבָאתָ֙ is wayyiqtol – vav conversive – so in traditional grammar, which you are accepting, this would be an imperfect. Thus, ‘and you shall go’.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.