Prophecy: Past Or Present Tense?

Posted in: 2007
By Tom L. Ballinger
Mar 8, 2008 - 5:19:20 PM

June 26, 2007


Chapter One

We find in the Bible that a great deal of prophetic utterances are not written in the future tense, but rather, are written in the PAST, or PRESENT tense. This is why many prophecies are considered to have already taken place. This has resulted in error, confusion, and bewilderment. Hopefully, this composition will clear up any misunderstanding caused by the inappropriate uses of English grammar—to wit, using past and present tenses in our Bibles instead of the future tense. Our first consideration will be in:

“Young’s Literal Translation of the Holy Bible”

In “The Preface To The First Edition,” the Scotsman, Robert Young, worked for twenty years translating the Bible into what he called a “literal translation.” He finished his work in 1862. “The Preface and Introduction” is well worth investing the time to thoroughly study his findings and conclusions. I found it to be rewarding. Thank God for this man’s labor and the humble attitude he possessed as he presented his findings.

He said that there are two methods of translation which may be adopted in rendering into our own language the writings of ancient authors. “The one is, to bring him before us in such a manner as that we may regard him as one of our own; the other, to transport ourselves, on the contrary, over to him, adopting his situation, modes of speaking, thinking, acting—peculiarities of age and race, air, gesture, voice and etc.” Young stated that “each has its advantages, but the latter is incomparably better of the two, being suited—not for the ever-varying modes of thinking and acting of the men of the fifth, or the tenth, fifteenth, or some other century, but—for all ages alike.”

Interestingly, he goes on to comment, “All attempts to make Moses or Paul, act, or speak, or reason, as if they were Englishmen of the nineteenth century, must inevitably tend to change the translator into a paraphrast (a person who paraphrases) or a commentator, characters which, however useful, stand altogether apart from that of him, who, with a work before him in one language, seeks only to translate into another.”

Robert Young believed that there is no other way of presenting a Bible translation than to translate it, literally. This is what he endeavored to do. He believed that no other kind of rendering could place the reader side-by-side with the writer—“prepared to think as he does, to see as he does, to reason, to feel, to weep, and to exult along with him.” The writer’s conception of time, even the grammatical past, present, future, are to become our own.

While Young was not critical, he did point out that the King James Translators “were almost entirely unacquainted with two distinctive peculiarities of the Hebrew mode of thinkng and speaking, admitted by the most profound Hebrew scholars in theory, though, from undue timidity, never carried out in practice …” (the following are quotes from Young) …that:

I. The Hebrews were in the habit of using the past tense to express the certainty of an action taking place, even though that action might not be performed for some time. And
II. That the Hebrews, in referring to events which might be either past or future, were accustomed to act on the principle of transferring themselves mentally to the period and place of the events themselves, and were not content with coldly viewing them as of a bygone or still coming time; hence the very frequent use of the present tense

Young mentioned men who acknowledged that these two great principles of the Hebrew language “are substantially to be found in the works of Lee, Gesenius, Ewald & etc.” Young said he carried these two principles out in his translation much beyond what any of these ever contemplated. As Bible teachers of the Word of God, we should hope that others may build upon what we have taught. Yes, even to the extent that they go, or advance “much beyond” what we ever contemplated.

Robert Young is saying, in plainer words, that the inspired writers of the Old Testament wrote prophecy in either the present, or past tense. They wrote as if they were alive and present at the time future events, which they predicted, would take place. Young suggested the writers, such as Moses and the Prophets, were so certain of the predicted events becoming a reality that they wrote as if the events had already occurred—past tense, or they were so assured of the event becoming a fact that they wrote as if it were taking place during their lifetime—present tense.

Young said, “… the Hebrew writers, when narrating or describing events which might be either past or future (such as the case of Moses in reference to the “Creation or the Deluge,” on the one hand, and the “Coming of the Messiah” or the “Calamities which were to befall Israel,” on the other hand), uniformly wrote as if they were alive at the time of the occurrence of the events mentioned, and as eye-witnesses of what they are narrating.”

If we, to the best of our knowledge and ability, would project ourselves, either to the past or the future as we study the Scriptures, they would be more readily understood.

Young also wrote, “the Hebrew writers often expressed the certainty of a thing taking place by putting it in the past tense, though the actual fulfillment may not take place for ages.”

Many students-scholars have recognized this as fact and have written, accordingly, such as, the great Dr. E. W. Bullinger. He has covered this subject in many of his writings. The one that comes to mind is found on Page 518 in his work, “Figures of Speech Used In The Bible.” He said:

“The Past for the Future. This is put 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.”

Dr. Bullinger listed nineteen examples of where the past tense is used instead of the future tense. The Hebrews used this type of Figure of Speech because they were Divinely directed to do so by the Spirit of Truth—to wit, INSPIRED.

Bullinger, further, pointed to twenty-seven examples where the present is put for the future (Page 520). As he said, the writer was convinced that the utterances will be literally fulfilled. It was as if they “were already accomplished.”

If we are ignorant of these “Figures,” we will be unable to distinguish what is PAST history and what is to be a FUTURE realization.

The majesty of David’s 23rd Psalm is an obvious illustration of David, under inspiration, using the present tense when he is really writing about the future; the future being what will be his lot in the coming of the Kingdom of God. Since David is dead and buried (Acts 2:29), the reality of Psalm 23 will take place when David is raised from the dead.

Psalm 23 will be considered in the light of David having written it with the absolute certainty that whatsoever God has promised, He is also able to perform (Rom. 5:21).

The LORD is [will be] my shepherd; I shall not want (v. 1).

He maketh [will make] me to lie down in green pastures [speaks of David’s death]: He leadeth [will lead] me beside the still waters [to rest in death] (v. 2).

He restoreth my soul [will bring me back to life]: He leadeth [will lead] me in the paths of righteousness for His Name's sake [for His Own sake] (v. 3)

Yea, though I walk [in resurrection, I will walk] through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for Thou art [will be] with me; Thy rod and Thy staff they [will] comfort me (v. 4).

Thou preparest [will prepare] a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: Thou anointest [will anoint] my head with oil; my cup runneth [will run] over (v. 5).

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life [i.e., the days of my resurrection life]: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever [Hebrew, for a length of days] (v. 6).

It is very instructive to know that the Hebrew word, “dwell,” as found in verse six, is “yashab.” According to Strong, YASHAB, has as one of its meanings; “to sit down, especially as a judge.” This is exactly what David will do as Israel’s Shepherd-King during his reign under the King of kings for the duration of the Pre-Parousia Kingdom of God. So, we can understand Psalm 23:6 to say, “… and I will sit as a judge in the House of Yahweh for a length of days [during the Kingdom of God].

This was just a cursory perusal of the Twenty-Third Psalm. But, it should be sufficient to present the ideas of Robert Young and E. W. Bullinger as they broached the use of the present and past tenses used by the inspired writers of Holy Writ as their way of expressing the absolute certainty of their prophecies.

However, there are many times when the King James Translators will take a past or present tense verb and translate it into the future tense because they are confident it is part of a prophetic event. They even did this in Psalm 23. They took the Hebrew word, “yashab,” in verse six in which it is in the present tense, meaning “to sit, to sit down, to dwell,” and they translated it into the future tense by making it “will dwell.”

In “Young’s Literal Translation,” he did render “for ever” as the phrase, “for a length of days.”

In our continuing effort to rightly divide the Word of Truth, we need to be knowledgeable of this grammatical uniqueness—in the original text, the use of the present tense and past tense, many times, are used to convey the certainty of a future event taking place.

Tom L. Ballinger

July 4, 2007


Chapter Two

The Hebrews used a special technique when they uttered God inspired prophecies. Many times, they were expressed in the present or past tenses in order to express the certainty of an action taking place, even though the action might not be performed until sometime in the future ages.

There were other times when the Hebrew Prophets acted upon the principle of mentally transferring themselves to the period, either past or future, which they were writing about. They wrote as if they were living during the time of the event which they were writing about—past or future.

The medieval Jewish grammarian and commentator, David Kimchi, wrote concerning the prophets’ use of the past tense being used of predicted future events: he said, “The matter is as clear as though it had already passed” (An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax, Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1990, page 464).

Marc Saperstein, Ph D., wrote in his dissertation about the 13th Century rabbi, “The Works of R. 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. (Harvard University, 1977, pp. 481-82. Cited in Daggers of Faith by Robert Chazan, Berkeley: UC Press, 1989, p. 87). [I added the emphasis].

The Hebrews’ use of the present and past tenses to describe, still, unfulfilled prophecies has been the reason so many students and teachers of the Word find prophecy, in many cases, to be a jig-saw puzzle. Furthermore, we read:

The future is described as having already occurred because God's will, inherently and ineluctably, possesses the power of realization so that the time factor is inconsequential.
-- Exodus: The Traditional Hebrew Text with the New JPS Translation (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1991), p. 59.

In our last issue, we looked at the 23rd Psalm and noted the use of the past tense of verbs as they related to King David’s future in the age to come—the Kingdom of God. We took the liberty to insert the future tense of the past tense verbs. By doing this, it placed the context of the Psalm where it belonged—in the future, not the past. It speaks of David’s glory, in the future, when he is raised from the dead. We were in no way, shape, or fashion altering God’s Word; we were simply giving the sense of It.

The Apostle Paul carried this Hebraism over into his inspired writings, such as:

The “called” of Romans 8:30 are spoken of as, already, in the Divine purpose in Christ, having been justified, yes, even glorified. The “called” of Romans 8 are sleeping in the dust; however, and most assuredly, they will be justified and glorified in the future “manifestation of the sons of God” (Romans 8:15).

Believers of Present Truth are regarded by Paul as, already, being raised from the dead and being seated with Christ among the heavens most exalted ones (Eph. 2:6).

Paul mentions additional times when verbs in the present or past tenses are used when, grammatically, the future tense is required. Most of us have no problems with the New Testament of such usages.

1 Corinthians 15:2.—“By which also ye are [will be] saved.”

1 Corinthians 15:12.—“How say some among you that there is [will or can be] no resurrection of the dead?”

Ephesians 2:5—“And hath quickened [will quicken] us together…”

Ephesians 2:6—“And hath raised [will raise] us up together, and made [will make] us sit together…”

2 Timothy 1:10—“Who hath abolished [will abolish] death, and hath brought [will bring] life and immortality to light through the gospel”

These Pauline samples of present and past tenses use of verbs are used to emphasize the absolute certainty that the things, mentioned, will come to pass.

You will be able to identify many more such instances. You are encouraged to do so.

The Prophet Isaiah wrote a most magnificent description of our Lord Jesus’ rejection and subsequent crucifixion in his Fifty-third Chapter. The Prophet wrote, as you will observe, in both the present and past tenses, as he expressed a future event which was to take place some 740 years later. Consider, along with us, Isaiah 53:3-7. For lack of space, we’ll only consider the five verses as mentioned:

“He is [will or shall be] despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid [will hide] as it were our faces from Him; He was [will be] despised, and we esteemed [will or shall esteem] Him not” (v. 3).

“Surely He hath borne [will bear] our griefs, and carried [will carry] our sorrows: yet we did [will or shall] esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted” (v. 4).

“But He was [will or shall be] wounded for our transgressions, He was [will or shall be] bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was [will be] upon Him; and with His stripes we are [will be] healed” (v. 5).

“All we like sheep have gone [will go] astray; we have turned [will turn] every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid [will lay] on Him the iniquity of us all” (v. 6).

“He was [will be] oppressed, and He was [will be] afflicted, yet He opened not his mouth [He will not open His mouth]: He is [will or shall be] brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so He [will open] openeth not his mouth”
(v. 7).

English readers of the Bible, in many cases, are perplexed when they consider the tenses of the verbs used. The present tense in Scripture does not always mean the writer is speaking about what is presently happening. The following verse was inspired around the year 740 B.C. It refers to the Lord Jesus Christ Who was probably born in 29 B.C.

“For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counseller, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6).

How could Isaiah write as if THE CHILD was born in Isaiah’s time? This was a prophetic writing which the Hebrew readers understood to mean that this prophecy would be fulfilled without the shadow of a doubt. Therefore, it was written in the present tense.

“For unto us a Child [shall be] is born, unto us a Son [shall be] given: and the Government [of God] shall be upon His shoulder: and His Name shall be called Wonderful, Counseller, the Mighty God, the everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.”

This clearly identified Jesus Christ as being the subject of Isaiah’s prophecy. Isaiah wrote as though he were present when the Child was born and when the Son was given to Israel. He could do this, based upon the Biblical principle that Bible believing Hebrews were fully persuaded that whatsoever God promised, He was, also, able to perform!

An in-depth discussion of the ancient languages of the Old and New Testaments is beyond my “grade level,” so we’ll leave it, as is, for now. But, we can safely say the following, based upon our meager understanding: verbs in the present and past tenses are used rhetorically for the FUTURE. When we understand this Biblical fact, then, we can grasp that much of what we thought was past history is, in reality, prophecy.

Tom L. Ballinger