As good as done

August 5, 2009 by No Comments

I finished the exegetical check on Jeremiah in Kasem on Friday. Hooooray. It has been going on a long time, not helped by bouts of uncharacteristic sickness, probably part of a spiritual battle. Anyway, here is something else I came across, which may be of interest.

The prophets had a habit of referring to future events as if they were already completed. They ‘saw’ them so clearly that they were ‘as good as done’. One of the Hebrew words for a prophet was ‘seer’, and God’s revelation to them must at times have been vividly alive, happening before their very eyes. It is probably true to say that the primary differentiation in Hebrew verb forms is between completed actions (perfect aspect) and on-going or incomplete actions (imperfect aspect). Allowing for the dangers of over-simplifying, imperfect verbs refer to non-past (present or future) events, or to on-going or habitual events in the past, while perfect aspect verbs normally refer to past events. But the prophets used perfect aspect verbs to refer to future events, completed but yet-to-happen, as good as done. This is recognised in many Hebrew grammars as the prophetic perfect. I have come to think of it as the ‘as-good-as-done’ tense.

This is another example of the diversity of different languages. It isn’t just words and their meanings that don’t correspond one-to-one across languages. The same applies to grammatical categories, such as verb systems, gender categories, pronouns, and so on.

How does the translator cope with the Hebrew prophetic perfect? It is interesting to see the approach taken by different English versions. Taking an example in Jeremiah 48:4, where there are two prophetic perfect verbs, the Good News Bible (GNB) translates with a past tense, while the New International Version (NIV) uses a future tense, and New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) a vivid present tense—

Moab has been destroyed; listen to the children crying. (GNB)
Moab will be broken; her little ones will cry out. (NIV)
“Moab is destroyed!” her little ones cry out. (NRSV)

After that, the Hebrew verb forms are imperfect, and so are consistently translated with a future tense by all versions. Jeremiah 48:9—

Set up a tombstone for Moab; it will soon be destroyed.
Its towns will be left in ruins, and no one will live there again. (GNB)

This leaves me feeling that the past tense used by GNB in verse 4 is at odds with the future tense of verse 9. But what would adequately capture the flavour of the prophetic perfect? How about Philip’s Improved Version (PIV)—

Moab is as good as done for! (98:4)
… it will surely be destroyed. (98:9)

Well now, at least if you are reading the prophetic books in different English versions and you are confused by some using future tenses, where others use past tenses, you know what the probable explanation is. It is also a good reminder of God’s perspective on events. He sees the future as clearly as the past. But we (usually) don’t, so we need to trust him.

Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. Hebrews 11:1 (NIV)

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