Can you explain the use of verb tenses in prophecy?
August 1988

“Can you explain the use of verb tenses in prophecy?” Ensign, Aug. 1988, 27–28

Many times in prophecy, the present and past tenses are used, even though the prophecy refers to a future event. Can you explain the use of verb tenses in prophecy?

Stephen D. Ricks, associate professor of Hebrew and Semitic languages, Brigham Young University. An answer to this question can be seen in the prophet Abinadi’s defense before King Noah. (See Mosiah 12–16.) Abinadi makes several prophecies concerning the coming of the Redeemer, and in most of them he uses the future tense. However, in Mosiah 16:6, Abinadi shifts to the past tense: “And now if Christ had not come …” (Italics added here and in the following quotations.) He also explains his choice of the past tense: “speaking of things to come as though they had already come …” In other words, the future events about which Abinadi speaks are so vivid in his mind that it is as though they had already occurred.

Some Old Testament prophets make similar use of the past tense for future events. Biblical scholars E. Kautsch and A. E. Cowley note (in words that are strikingly similar to those in Mosiah 16) that the past form—referred to as the “perfect” in biblical Hebrew—is sometimes used “to express facts which are undoubtedly imminent, and therefore, in the imagination of the speaker, already accomplished. … [In] this use of the 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.” (Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970, pp. 312–13; see also Paul Joüon, Grammaire de l’hébreu biblique, Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute, 1965, pp. 298–99.)

Thus, in Isaiah 5:13 [Isa. 5:13], which is rendered in the King James Version as “Therefore my people are gone into captivity,” the Hebrew verb translated as “are gone” is a past tense form that might also be rendered by a future tense form, as it is in the New International Version, where the scripture reads: “Therefore my people will go into exile.” In another prophecy, Isaiah 11:9 [Isa. 11:9], the past form in Hebrew of “be full” is translated as a future tense form: “They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.”

Another striking example can be found in 2 Chronicles 20:37 [2 Chr. 20:37], translated in the King James Version as “Then Eliezer the son of Dodavah of Mareshah prophesied against Jehoshaphat, saying, Because thou hast joined thyself with Ahaziah, the Lord hath broken thy works.” Again, the Hebrew verb translated in the King James Version as “hath broken” is a past tense but, given the prophetic context of the verse, its sense is clearly future, and it is rendered as a future tense in other versions of the Bible. (For example, in the New International Version, the verse reads, “Because you have made an alliance with Ahaziah, the Lord will destroy what you have made.” See Isa. 10:28, Isa. 19:7, and Job 5:20 for other examples.)

The scriptures also provide clear instances of prophecies that may be fulfilled at more than one time. An example can be found in Joel 2:28: “And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions.” (See also Joel 2:29–32.) After the Holy Spirit descended on the Apostles at Pentecost, Peter addressed the crowd that had gathered around, citing these verses from Joel and declaring: “Ye men of Judaea, and all ye that dwell at Jerusalem, be this known unto you, and hearken to my words:

“For these are not drunken, as ye suppose, seeing it is but the third hour of the day.

“But this is that which was spoken by the prophet Joel.” (Acts 2:14–16.)

The angel Moroni cited these same verses when he appeared to the young Joseph Smith in 1823, telling Joseph that the prophecy “was not yet fulfilled, but was soon to be.” (JS—H 1:41.) Clearly, this prophecy from Joel was fulfilled not only at the time when Peter was speaking, but also in our own dispensation. The possibility that prophecies may have more than one fulfillment indicates the richness and relevance of the writings of the prophets.