The Prophetic Perfect Searching the Scriptures Series

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A few days ago someone asked, “Why is it that at times Book of Mormon prophets speak of future events as if these had already taken place?  

This query is just the pretext I needed to start a series of brief articles on scriptural-related principles: Searching the Scriptures Series.  

Prophetic Perfect

Two examples from the Book of Mormon:

“Wherefore, after he was baptized with water the Holy Ghost descended upon him in the form of a dove” (2 Nephi 31:8).

“And if Christ had not risen from the dead, or have broken the bands of death that the grave should have no victory, and that death should have no sting, there could have been no resurrection” (Mosiah 16:7)

Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) scholars have given a name to this linguistic approach: the prophetic perfect. It means that the prophet’s faith was such that they could speak of future events with the certainty of a done deed. That is because they were permitted to see these events, in some instances, hundreds of years before they took place.  

The Old Testament

The Hebrew Bible is full of such language. Our translations from Hebrew to English or other languages do not always preserve these linguistic details. Here are just a few that are mentioned by Isaiah scholars: Isaiah 1:7; 14:24; 30:7; 42:16; 44:23; 51:3; 53:2; 54:6; 57:18; 59:15; and 59:16 (see Isaiah Testifies of Christ, 3rd Edition, Gregorio Billikopf).

The prophetic perfect is especially evident where the prophets speak of our Redeemer, Jesus the Christ. So we see in Isaiah 52–53 (please read along in Isaiah and pay particular attention to the past tense):  

“As many were astonied at thee; his visage was so marred” (Isaiah 52:14); “and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not (Isaiah 53:3); “he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted” (Isaiah 53:4); “But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him” (Isaiah 53:5); “and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:6); “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth … ” (Isaiah 53:7); “He was taken from prison and from judgment … for he was cut off out of the land of the living: for the transgression of my people was he stricken” (Isaiah 53:8);  “And he made his grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death” (Isaiah 53:9); “he hath put him to grief” (Isaiah 53:10); “because he hath poured out his soul unto death: and he was numbered with the transgressors; and he bare the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors” (Isaiah 53:12).

Hebraic Note

The prophetic perfect is not a verbal type as such (Hebrew verbs are generally composed of three root letters with changes that indicate tense). Instead, it is a rhetorical form (Joüon, P., & Muraoka, T. (2006) who cites, A grammar of biblical Hebrew, Roma: Pontificio Istituto Biblico). The context, rather, indicates the prophetic perfect. Also see Gesenius, F. W., 1910. Gesenius’ Hebrew grammar. (E. Kautzsch & S. A. E. Cowley, Eds.) (2nd English ed., p. 472). Oxford: Clarendon Press).

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