Isaiah 55:7 is often cited as proof that repentance must necessarily precede pardon and forgiveness. Without confession, repentance, and contrition, there can be no pardon.
Let the wicked forsake his way,
And the unrighteous man his thoughts;
Let him return to the Lord,
And He will have mercy on him;
And to our God,
For He will abundantly pardon (NKJV).
It seems pretty straightforward, doesn’t it? The formula is simple: forsake your ways and thoughts, return to the Lord, and He will then have mercy and abundantly pardon.
But it’s not so simple. There are some grammatical issues in the Hebrew that leave some ambiguity in the text.
First, a quick Hebrew lesson: in Hebrew, there is no such thing as the “future” tense. There are only two tenses in the language. To put it in simple terms: there is the past tense, and then there is everything else (which may include past events). So a verb can either be in the past tense (the “perfect” tense) or it can be in the past/present/future tense (what is called the “imperfect” tense).
Thus, when one encounters this latter tense, he or she has to consider the context to determine whether it should be interpreted as a past, present, or future verb. And, quite often, an interpreter’s presuppositions influence whether he or she translates an imperfect as a past, present, or future tense.
In Isaiah 55:7, the verb for “mercy” (racham) is an imperfect verb – thus forcing us to determine whether mercy in this instance is a past, present, or future reality. (Racham is also in the piel form, which signifies intensity: God has/is/will have an intense mercy). Similarly, although it may not come through in English, the word for “abundantly” (rabah) is actually a verb and it, too, is in the imperfect tense.
This second imperfect verb relates directly to the last verb in the verse – “pardon” (salach). This verb doesn’t have a “tense” however. It is what is known as an “infinitive construct.” In English, we translate infinitives as “to pardon” or “pardoning.” To some extent, the verb before an infinite determines the timing and tense of the infinitive. Thus, our construct, to put it in literal terms, would be something like “He has/is/will greatly to pardon/pardoning.” (What complicates it even more is that the verb for rabah is a hiphil, which typically has a causative sense – thus, “he has/is/will cause to be greatly pardoned.”)
What this adds up to is that it must be determined whether God’s mercy and pardon is a past, present, or future concept. And in order to figure that out, we need to consider the immediate and larger context.
What I find significant, which I had never noticed before, is what God says in vv. 10-11. He says that just as “the rain comes down” and waters the earth, making “it bring forth and bud . . . so shall My word be that goes forth from My mouth; it shall not return to me void, but it shall accomplish what I please, and it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it.”
God is here signifying the power and reality of His creative Word. He speaks for the purpose of creating. What He declares becomes so. His Word is not a response to reality; it creates reality – it is the cause of reality, not its effect. This point must not be missed. (It has parallels in what Paul declares in Romans 4:17 that “God, who gives life to the dead and calls those things which do not exist as though they did.”)
Previously in Isaiah, God declared through the prophet that “I have redeemed you” (43:1). The verb is in the perfect/past tense. Then again, in 44:22, He announced that “I have blotted out like a thick cloud, your transgressions, and like a cloud, your sins. Return to Me, for I have redeemed you.” Again, the “blotting” and “redeeming” are both perfect/past tense verbs – with the “returning” (the same word, shuv, that is invited upon the reader in 55:7) subsequent to – and a result of – the blotting and redeeming.
Then, of course, the denouement of Isaiah’s gospel comes just two chapters before our present passage, in chapter 53, which details the dramatic experience of the “Suffering Servant.” There, this servant has “borne our griefs” and “carried our sorrows.” Both are perfect/past tense verbs, with the verb for “borne” (nasa’) frequently the Hebrew word of choice signifying the act of forgiveness.
In v. 11, Isaiah declares that the Suffering Servant would “justify many.” The word for “justify” is in the imperfect, just as the word for “bear” in the next clause is in the imperfect. However, this word for “bear” (sabal) has already been used earlier in the chapter (v. 4) in the perfect/past tense. The bearing is already an accomplished reality; should the “justification” of the “many” also be considered so?
What all this adds up to is that Isaiah 55:7 describes the reality of an accomplished pardon for the purpose of producing in the life of the “wicked” and “unrighteous” man a forsaking of his ways and a returning to the Lord. God declares pardon (His “word” that “goes forth from” His “mouth”), which will “accomplish” what He pleases – the experience of pardon and repentance in the life of His people.
At the same time, there is probably a rightful ambiguity, to some extent. Pardon and forgiveness are a process – something that has happened in the past, is presently happening, and will happen in the future. For this reason, the JPS (Jewish Publication Society) translation of this passage brings out the nuance, translating it as a timeless “He freely forgives” (all other major translations render it is a future possibility: “He will abundantly pardon,” which doesn’t bring out the grammatical ambiguity).