Hebrew Prophetic Tenses

Hebrew Prophetic Tenses

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This title might seem terribly dry and boring at first sight. We are going to consider the way Hebrew prophets use what grammarians call the tense and aspect of verbs, when they write about events yet to happen in the future.

They write about future events, in a past tense. They are so confident of God’s word not returning to him void, but accomplishing its purpose, that they dare to use verb forms associated with events already completed, when referring to future events. This is a feature typical of the grammar of Hebrew prophecy.

From the present they look back to a future event – sounds like science fiction!


We take as our example Isaiah 53. It really is a case of looking back to the future.

Now the events described in Isaiah 53 have a dual fulfilment. On one level, there was an actual Israelite man who, by self-sacrifice, managed to take the punishment coming to the Israelites, upon himself, and thereby ensured their healing. One another level, of course, the prophet looks back to the future work of Jesus on the Cross.


Tenses and the description of time are handled differently in Hebrew from how they are usually presented in English. We note that the bulk of the chapter is cast in the perfective aspect, as looking back to a future that has already taken place; completed events, that are yet to happen from the poet’s present time.

“By his stripes we have been healed”. In our confession we too, like the Hebrew prophet, in his choice of the tense and aspect of the verbs he uses, look back onto the present from the future final Glory of the manifest Victory of God in Christ. The principle of the confession of God’s Word is enshrined in the very grammar of Biblical Hebrew.

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