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There is a debate about the grammatical tense used in Isaiah 9:6.

Some translations like the Young's Literal Translation (YLT) translate Isaiah 9:6 in the past tense ( i.e “For a Child hath been born to us”)

Therefore, some argue that based on translations like the YLT, it would indicate that Isaiah 9:6 is not referring to Jesus Christ, the Messiah

However, lets try to take the perspective that Isaiah wrote Isaiah 9 in order to relate a Godly revelation( i.e. a middle of the day vision in broad daylight Or a dream he had while sleeping ) that he might have just had a short while ago.

If a bible reader thinks about it, it’s almost as if Isaiah had a Godly revelation just like we might have when we watched a film.

From that perspective, Isaiah could be describing the Godly revelation in the past tense because said experience happened in the past for him.

To elaborate, Isaiah saw a Godly revelation where a child was born ( similarly to how we might see a child being delivered at a hospital in a movie).

Essentially, I’m saying that the Godly revelation happened in the past, therefore, Isaiah would be writing Isaiah 9 in the past tense.

Some people highlight the importance of translations like the YLT that use the grammatical past tense for Isaiah 9:6.

Therefore, said people claim that the use of the past tense means Isaiah 9:6 is not referring to Jesus Christ, the Messiah because Jesus Christ’s birth on earth was long after Isaiah's period of existence.

However, if you take the perspective recounted above in this post, it would make the grammatical tense used in Isaiah 9:6 as being irrelevant. To elaborate, if a person is relating a Godly revelation( i.e. a middle of the day vision in broad daylight Or a dream he had while sleeping ) then that person could be describing said revelation in whatever grammatical tense that she/he wants.

Could you please give feedback on said interpretation?

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    search about prophetic past or prophetic present. This is a duplicate of various questions. hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/search?q=isaiah+past+tense
    – Michael16
    Commented May 20, 2023 at 16:29
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    @Michael16 The only question in your list that refers to Isaiah 9:6 is about 'he was called' not about 'a child hath been born'. I do not see it as a duplicate. Up-voted +1.
    – Nigel J
    Commented May 20, 2023 at 20:35
  • @NigelJ One of the answer postings (from Michael16 link) is relevant to my posting because it states "it is a typical behavior of the past tense verbs in the holy language to use a past tense verb in place of a future tense verb (which are [indicated by] the letters איתן), and this is mostly in prophecies because the matter is clear as if it passed, because it has already been decreed" ( Credit: Rabbi David Kimchi (דוד קמחי), also known as RaDaK (רד"ק), who lived from 1160–1235 A.D ) : hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/a/17155/15888 Commented May 20, 2023 at 20:39
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    Relevant, indeed, but that relevance needs to be applied to Isaiah 9:6 and this question seeks that application. So, not a duplicate (I suggest).
    – Nigel J
    Commented May 20, 2023 at 20:42
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    I would recommend putting the actual text of the scripture into the question so that it is searchable by future users that may have a similar question.
    – agarza
    Commented May 21, 2023 at 3:45

5 Answers 5

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First, Hebrew verbs do not have tense - there is no past, present and future tense in Hebrew. We have various forms of the Hebrew verbs such as Qal, Niphal, Pual, perfect, etc, for which English has no equivalent at all. In various constructions these imply tense but not rigidly.

Second, the Hebrew prophets almost always spoke about future events as completed acts of God to indicate the certainty of their predictions. Take almost any passage about the future Messiah such as Isa 53 or any of Isaiah's many other prophecies.

The verbs in Isa 9:6 are as follows:

  • "born" = Pual perfect
  • "given" = Niphal perfect
  • "will be" or "is" or "was" = Qal consecutive perfect
  • "called" = Qal consecutive perfect

The fact that all these verbs are perfect implies a completed act, ie in English past tense, but that is typical of Hebrew prophecy. Isa 9:1-6 is a messianic hymn praising the future Messiah.

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  • (+1 (Upvote)) "the Hebrew prophets almost always spoke about future events as completed acts of God to indicate the certainty of their predictions." Commented May 21, 2023 at 0:09
  • +1 this is helpful, but the question of how the tense should be understood is still relevant to the debate. Commented May 21, 2023 at 0:49
  • @DanFefferman - the perfect form of the Hebrew verb is usually translated as a past tense (as stated above) in English but this is not uniform, especially when discussing future events.
    – Dottard
    Commented May 21, 2023 at 1:41
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If we are talking about a debate, rather than arguing for one side of it, then the tense is definitely relevant. (However, the OP makes an important point about prophecy. Future events are sometimes framed in the past tense, as if already realized. As @NigelJ points out, following Kimchi, the implication is that God, being outside of time, sees them that way.)

Regarding the debate, a Jewish opinion is that Isaiah and God both hoped Hezekiah would be the Messiah, and the messianic prophecies of Isaiah 9 were originally meant to apply to him. The Talmud, Sanhedrin 94, says:

Apropos Hezekiah... "the Holy One, Blessed be He, sought to designate King Hezekiah as the Messiah and to designate Sennacherib and Assyria, respectively, as Gog and Magog... The Holy One said: "Let Hezekiah, who has eight names, come, and exact retribution from Sennacherib, who has eight names." The Gemara elaborates: "The eight names of Hezekiah are as it is written: “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government is upon his shoulder; and his name is called Pele Joez El Gibbor Abi Ad Sar Shalom” (Isaiah 9:5).

Based on the above, the tense of Isaiah 9:6 is definitely relevant to the question of whether the verse refers to Jesus. Hezekiah was already born when the historical Isaiah prophesied. So, if the verses referred to Hezekiah, it would make sense that the prophet would say "a child has (already) been born."

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  • I don't think I understand "Isaiah and God both hoped" in this context. God does not need to hope, He knows. Isaiah undoubtedly had hopes, but to any extent that he prophesied his hopes instead of the messages that God gave him, those would have been false prophecies. Commented May 21, 2023 at 14:06
  • I can certainly believe that there was general hope in Hezekiah's day that he would be the Messiah, but he wasn't. So is the modern-day Jewish opinion to which you refer that the prophecy was wrong? Because the alternative is that it has not come true yet, which would rule out it being about Hezekiah. I think. Commented May 21, 2023 at 14:12
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Future prophecy in Hebrew is often in the perfect tense, called the prophetic perfect:

(ii) As a rhetorical means of presenting future events as if they have already happened. This use of the perfect is often called the prophetic perfect. לָכֵן גָּלָה עַמִּי מִבְּלִי־דָעַת ‍Therefore my people will go into exile for want of knowledge (Isa. 5:13).‍ -- Van der Merwe, C., Naudé, J., Kroeze, J., Van der Merwe, C., Naudé, J., & Kroeze, J. (1999). A Biblical Hebrew Reference Grammar (electronic ed., p. 146). Sheffield Academic Press.

In the case of Isaiah 9:6 many agree that this has dual meaning, but both are prophetic, for Hezekiah in the near future and for the Messiah centuries later. Note related to this verse is Isaiah 7:14.

Matthew references Isaiah 7:14 as refering to Christ.

All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (Matt. 1:22–23, ESV)

Here is another example of Matthew pointing out where a passage has a dual meaning related to prophecy:

 And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.” (Matt 2:14–15, ESV)

The language in Isaiah looks too extreme to be fulfilled only in Hezekiah's time. Also look at the next verse:

         Of the increase of his government and of peace 
  there will be no end, 
              on the throne of David and over his kingdom, 
  to establish it and to uphold it 
              with justice and with righteousness 
  from this time forth and forevermore. 
              The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this. 
                         (Isa. 9:7, ESV)

How can you say "there will be no end" is fulfilled in Hezekiah's time?

Even those in Jesus' time, not fully understanding this prophecy, understood it to be Messianic:

So the crowd answered him, “We have heard from the Law that the Christ remains forever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?” (John 12:34, ESV)

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If I may add my two cents. Before Isaiah 9:6 we have an event in which Isaiah saw the glory of YHWH. There is only ONE time that Isaiah saw the glory of YHWH; it is at Isaiah 6;1

The Apostle John says that Isaiah saw "his" gory, the glory of Jesus at John 12:40-41. The verb Isaiah used for "saw" in 6:1 is ("ra'ah"). In the qal, it refers to the act of seeing in the literal sense, to see with the eyes, as opposed to, for example, "machazeh", which is the act or event or an ecstatic "vision".

In referring to this event, John uses the Greek word ("eidon")--also a verb referring to the act of seeing with the eyes in the natural sense. I would definitely say this would be "relevant" information in support of Isaiah 9:6 referring to Jesus Christ as the Messiah.

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  • an interesting take but the OP question was whether the tense of 9:6 is relevant, and I don't see how this addresses the question. How about framing a question of your own about who is being seen in 6;1? Commented May 21, 2023 at 16:26
  • @DanFefferman Don't you think I know that. I was just making a point of order that Isaiah 6:1 would support/back up what he stated at Isaiah 9:6. Btw, I already posted about Isaiah 6 in the past years.
    – Mr. Bond
    Commented May 21, 2023 at 17:35
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This is not relevant for just one reason. Transmission.

In the Bible and the Talmud, every piece of knowledge is based on transmission.

You have the transmission or you do not have it.

Why?

Because what is the matter about a text without an explanation from the source?

So you will ask if after you got the transmission, the tense is relevant.

Yes, it is. Of course, some logic is mandatory.

Personally, I have a list of Rabbi from the last 3000 years, when they lived, and from which master/Rabbi they got their knowledge, this is transmission!

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    Commented May 22, 2023 at 19:35

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