Psalm 148 refers to God’s creation as a “command” and “a decree that will never pass away” (Psalm 148:5–6). These words prompt us to take a closer look at God’s decrees: What is special about them? What if we follow the psalmist and analyze the events of Genesis 1 as God’s decrees? Does this analysis shed light on the timing of God’s creative activity?
Meaning of God’s Will
First consider the three aspects of God’s will as identified by theologian Leslie Weatherhead:1 intentional/benelovent, permissive/concessive, and ultimate/decretive. These are generally summarized as follows:
God’s Intentional/Benevolent Will: This is God’s desire for us, such as that none should be lost. God “is not willing that any of these little ones should perish” (Matthew 18:14).
God’s Permissive/Concessive Will: This is what God allows so as to not limit the free will he has given us. Joshua charged the Israelites to “choose for yourselves” (Joshua 24:15) whether or not to serve God. Humans are free to disobey the Ten Commandments, and God accepts that some will be lost: “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing” (1 Corinthians 1:18).
God’s Ultimate/Decretive Will: What God decrees will come to pass, even if it takes a long time. God has a plan, and that plan will be fulfilled without regard to human choices. When God proclaims something in his decretive will, it is a certainty. As theologian R. C. Sproul writes: “When God said, ‘Let there be light,’ He issued a divine imperative. . . . It was impossible for the light not to appear. . . . The decretive will can have no other effect, no other consequence than what God sovereignly commands. . . . It was a matter of the authority and power vainly sought by the king of Siam when he said to Anna (to no avail), ‘So let it be said; so let it be done.’”2
Sproul’s contrast between Genesis 1:3 and the movie The King and I makes an important point. When an earthly king makes a decree, he expects it to be carried out. He may be so confident that he proclaims it in past tense—yet for any number of reasons, it may never happen.
Biblical Use of Prophetic Perfect
By contrast, when God proclaims something in his decretive will, fulfillment is certain—even if it takes a long time. This idea segues into the biblical “prophetic perfect”: when God decrees something, it is so certain to happen that the Bible may use the Hebrew unconverted perfect— which is past tense—to foretell a future event.
Nineteenth-century theologian E. W. Bullinger describes “prophetic perfect” as follows:
The past [tense is used] for the future [tense] . . . 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 [of speech] is to show the absolute certainty of the things spoken of.3
Amos 5:2 is an example of prophetic perfect: “Fallen is Virgin Israel, never to rise again.” The prophet Amos wrote this in a time of prosperity in the nation of Israel—more than 30 years before Assyria conquered it and deported the people.
Nahum 2:1–7 (ESV)—especially 2:2—is another: “The LORD is restoring the majesty of Jacob as the majesty of Israel, for plunderers have plundered them and ruined their branches.”4 The writing of Nahum is variously dated before 654 BC or soon after the fall of Nineveh in 612 BC—in either case well before the decree of Cyrus in 539 BC which allowed the exiles to return and restore their kingdom.
The Hebrew Bible contains many other examples of the prophetic perfect—including at least one clear example in the Mosaic historical narratives.5 Modern English Bibles usually render these in future tense, as recommended by Hebrew grammarian C. L. Seow6 and others; yet the original past tense is usually found in the nineteenth-century Young’s Literal Translation.
This usage of past tense demonstrates the mindset of the ancient Hebrews. They believed that when God spoke in his decretive will, it was a “done deal”—even if it might happen in the distant future.
Applying Prophetic Perfect to Genesis 1
Now consider Genesis 1, which is a litany of decrees in God’s decretive will, proclaimed on each of six successive yôm. An earlier article discussed biblical evidence for a heavenly court and observed that the language in Genesis 1 resembles court language; thus the yôm might represent heavenly court sessions.
God’s words in Genesis 1 were spoken long before Moses, but were revealed to—and transcribed by—Moses in the middle of the second millennium. Since the words are in past tense, it is generally assumed that each yôm represents creative acts begun and completed. But when God speaks in past tense in his decretive will, the possibility of something like the prophetic perfect must be considered.
Suppose for the sake of argument that God dictated Genesis 1 to Moses as a summary transcript of each of six successive court sessions. The past tense could thus resemble prophetic perfect in that God’s declarations were probably historical, each of the creative acts was surely begun when God spoke, and their completion was certain. However, the acts need not necessarily have been completed within each yôm.
Imagining Genesis 1 in this way supports progressive creation (like RTB’s old-earth view) and provides flexibility for God’s creative activity. For example:
Creation of vegetation need not have been completed on yôm three, nor avian and marine animals on yôm five; these could continue up through yôm six.
There is no biblical problem affirming the extinction/creation cycle observed by paleontology.
In general, Genesis 1 is a thumbnail sketch of the order of creation; it does not necessarily address all the fine points. This view renders secular scientists’ criticism of minutiae in the biblical creation account as irrelevant.
Support for this thesis is found in the biblical description of the seventh yôm of rest. Genesis 2:2–3 states that God “had finished the work . . . of creating” so he “rested” on the seventh yôm. This wording is in the Hebrew converted imperfect—which is past tense. If we interpret this text as young-earth creationists, the seventh day is 24 hours and it happened long ago. According to the standard interpretation of Genesis 1, the past tense means God’s rest is finished. However, Hebrews 4 reveals that the seventh day is ongoing; it has not been completed. This understanding of the seventh yôm resembles the prophetic perfect pattern of using past tense for an event not necessarily completed.
We cannot say for sure that this analysis is correct. The prophetic perfect of Amos 5:2, Nahum 2:2, and other texts is identified by the narrative timeline; by contrast, this is not possible with Genesis 1:1–2:3, which occurred long before Moses. We can only say that Genesis 1 resembles prophetic perfect tense and that this usage presents an intriguing proposition for understanding the nature of the creation days.
Leslie D. Weatherhead, The Will of God (New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1944).
R. C. Sproul, “Discerning God’s Will: The Three Wills of God,” Monergism, adapted from Tabletalk magazine (August 1993), https://www.monergism.com/discerning-god%E2%80%99s-will-three-wills-god.
E. W. Bullinger, “Figures of Speech Used in the Bible” (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1898), 518; available at https://archive.org/details/figuresofspeechu00bull/page/518/mode/2up.
The original Hebrew uses past tense. ESV is cited here because it at least renders present tense, whereas the NIV uses future tense.
C. L. Seow, A Grammar for Biblical Hebrew, rev. ed. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1987), 93.