UNTO US A CHILD IS BORN
ISAIAH 9:6-7 AND THE PROPHETIC PERFECT
James Scott Trimm
We read in Isaiah 9:6-7:
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, Counsellor,
The mighty God, The everlasting Father,
The Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and peace there shall
be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom,
to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with
justice from henceforth even for ever. The zeal of the LORD
of hosts will perform this.
(Is. 9:6-7 KJV)
Is. 9:6, 7 … anti-missionaries including Tovia Singer LOVE to claim this must be past tense and refer to an event prior to Isaiah’s writing.
In reality there is no such thing as tense in Hebrew grammar. In reality Hebrew verbs do not take past, present and future forms, but perfect (completed action) or imperfect (incomplete action).
In Hebrew thinking, an action is regarded as
being either completed or incomplete. Hebrew,
therefore, knows no past, present, or future tenses,
but has instead a Perfect and an Imperfect. …
The Hebrew Perfect may be taken to represent
action in the past… the equivalent of the English
present tense is supplied by the participle…. and the
[equivalent of] the English future tense (with other
varieties) by the imperfect.
(A Practical Grammer for Classical Hebrew. 2nd Ed.
Clarendon Press; Oxford; 1959; J. A. Weingreen pp. 56-57)
To be strictly accurate we should speak of “forms” rather than “tenses” of the verb, since it is the completeness or otherwise of an action which is being expressed and not the time factor, as in English….
…Hebrew has no “tenses” in the normal sense of
the word. Instead there are two “states”…
(Teach Yourself Biblical Hebrew; R.K. Harrison;
1984; pages 68, 80)
Normally a verb in the perfect form would imply a past tense which is why Singer insists this must be past tense and that it therefore refers to Hezekiah.
In reality there is a special idiom in Hebrew called the “Prophetic Perfect” this is where prophet speaks of future events in the perfect form because he has seen them in the future where they have already happened.
Gesenius’ mentions the Prophetic Perfect idiom and describes it this way:
…he [the prophetic writer] describes the future
event as if it had been already seen or heard by him.
(Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar. 2nd edition
Translated by A. E. Crowley; Clarendon Press;
Oxford; 1956; Edited by E. Klautzsch; pp. 312-313)
There are many examples of the Prophetic Perfect in the Tanak:
Isaiah 5:13 “Therefore My people are gone into captivity, for want of knowledge; and their honorable men are famished, and their multitude are parched with thirst” (JPS)
In this verse (Is. 5:13) this verb is in the perfect form but it is clearly a future event because the captivity spoken of did not occur in Isaiah’s lifetime.
Other examples are:
Isaiah 10:28-32 “He is come to Aiath, he is passed through Migron; at Michmas he layeth up his baggage; They are gone over the pass; they have taken up their lodging at Geba; Ramah trembleth; Gibeath-shaul is fled. Cry thou with a shrill voice, O daughter of Gallim! Hearken, O Laish! O thou poor Anathoth! Madmenah is in mad flight; the inhabitants of Gebim flee to cover. This very day shall he halt at Nob, shaking his hand at the mount of the daughter of Zion, the hill of Jerusalem.” (JPS)
Jeremiah 23:2 “Therefore thus saith the Lord, the God of Israel, against the shepherds that feed My people: Ye have scattered My flock, and driven them away, and have not taken care of them; behold, I will visit upon you the evil of your doings, saith the Lord.” (JPS)
Amos 5:2 “The virgin of Israel is fallen, she shall no more rise; she is cast down upon her land, there is none to raise her up” (JPS)
In fact the Targum Jonathan to Isaiah 9:6-7 clearly identifies the figure spoken of in Is. 9:6-7 as the Messiah.
“The prophet says to the house of David, A child has been born to us, a son has been given to us; and he has taken the law upon himself to keep it, and his name has been called from of old, Wonderful counselor, Mighty God, he who lives forever, the Messiah, in whose days peace shall increase upon us”
(Targum Jonathan Is. 9:6)
And we read in the Midrash Rabbah:
Rabbi Jose the Galilean says: The name of the Messiah too is
“peace”; as it is written: “God the mighty, the everlasting Father,
the ruler of peace” (Quoting Is. 9:5-6 (6-7))
(PEREK HA SHALOM; NUMBERS RABBAH XI, 16-20)
He said to him: ‘I have yet to raise up the Messiah,’ of whom it is written, For a child is born to us (Isa. IX, 5). Until I come unto my Lord unto Seir (Gen. XXXIII, I4). R. Samuel b. Nahman said: We have searched all the Scriptures and we have nowhere found [it stated] that Jacob ever came together with Esau at Seir. What then is the meaning of, ‘Unto Seir’? Jacob [meant] to say to him: ‘I have yet to raise up judges and saviours to exact punishment from you.’ Whence this? For it is said, And saviours shall come up on mount Zion to judge the mount of Esau (Obad. I, 21). Israel asked God: ‘Master of the Universe, how long shall we remain subjected to him?’ He replied: ‘Until the day comes of which it is written, There shall step forth a star out of Jacob and a sceptre shall rise out of Israel (Num. XXIV, 17); when a star shall step forth from Jacob and devour the stubble of Esau.’
(Midrash Rabbah – Deuteronomy I:20)
And we read in the Zohar:
“As for the expression El Gibbor, the whole verse in which this occurs in an epitome of the holy supernal faith. The word “Wonderful” alludes to the supernal Wisdom, which is wondrous and concealed beyond the reach of all; “Counsellor” is the supernal stream which issues forth perennially and counsels all and waters all; “El” refers to Abraham, “Gibbor” to Issac, and “Everlasting Father” to Jacob, who lays hold of both sides and attains perfection. The “Prince of Peace” is the Zaddik, who brings peace to the world, peace to the House, peace to the Matrona.”
So even the ancient sages understood Isaiah 9:5-6 (6-7 in some editions) to refer to a FUTURE MESSIAH. Why would they do this if this passage supposedly obviously speaks of the past? Obviously it does NOT have to be in the past tense. Like Isaiah 5:13 it is written in the prophetic perfect.
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