Saturday, January 17, 2015

Eternal or Eonian? Part Two (The Hebrew Word Olam)

"There is no word either in the O.T. Hebrew or in the N.T. Greek to express the abstract idea of eternity." (Hasting's Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol. 1, p. 542, art. Christ and the Gospels)

"Let me say to Bible students that we must be very careful how we use the word "eternity." We have fallen into great error in our constant usage of that word. There is no word in the whole Book of God corresponding with our "eternal," which as commonly used among us, means absolutely without end." (G. Campbell Morgan, God's Methods With Men, pp. 185-186)

Although the New Testament Scriptures were written in Greek, they were not written by Greeks but by Hebrew men using the Greek language to express their ideas. Such ideas would've been distinctively Jewish, and largely shaped by the writings of their Hebrew scriptures (the "Old Testament"). Tom Holland (Head of Biblical Research at the Wales Evangelical School of Theology) notes that, "While the vocabulary of the NT could be found throughout the Hellenistic world, it did not have the same meaning when it was used in the religious sense within the Jewish community." Holland goes on to say that when a New Testament writer wrote in Greek, it was "Hebrew in its mind-set and essential meaning."[1]This means that the meanings ascribed to words and expressions by the authors of the New Testament scriptures would have been derived largely from the "Old Testament" Hebrew scriptures rather than from secular Greek literature. 

As we'll see, the word translated "eternal" or "everlasting" in the most popular translations of the Greek Scriptures is the Greek adjective aiónios, which is the adjective form of the Greek noun aion. Because the authors of the "New Testament" Scriptures were Jewish and thought as Jews, we must not turn to secular Greek literature in order to understand the correct meaning of these words, but rather to the Hebrew Scriptures and the Greek translation of these Scriptures. Both of these words were used by the authors of the Greek Scriptures and the translators of the LXX as the Greek equivalents of the Hebrew noun olam, and were intended to convey the same basic meaning.

The Hebrew Noun Olam

The Greek words aión (a noun) and aiónios (an adjective) were used by the Jewish authors of the New Testament - as well as by the Jewish translators of the LXX - as the Greek equivalents of the Hebrew noun olam. In The Encyclopedia Dictionary of the Bible (p. 693), the entry on "eternity" is as follows: 

"ETERNITY: The Bible hardly speaks of eternity in the philosophical sense of infinite duration without beginning or end. The Hebrew word olam, which is used alone (Ps. 61:8; etc.) or with various prepositions (Gn. 3:22; etc.) in contexts where it is traditionally translated as "forever," means in itself no more than "for an indefinitely long period." Thus, me olam does not mean "from eternity" but "of old" (Gn. 6:4, etc.). In the N.T. aionis used as the equivalent of olam." 

The noun olam was derived from the verb âlam, which is defined by Strong's Concordance as follows: "To veil from sight, that is, conceal (literally or figuratively)."  

Olam thus came to mean a long and/or indefinite (or "concealed") duration of time, whether past or future. Strong's defines olamas "long duration, antiquity, futurity." Being a relative word like "great" or "small," the unspecified duration to which olam refers could be longer or shorter depending on the subject with which it is connected. There are numerous things that are called "eternal," "everlasting," or "forever" in many translations of Scripture, but which are actually of limited duration (and have no reference to "eternity"). Consider the following examples from the Hebrew Scriptures (ESV translation) in which the word olam appears:  

The hills are said to be "everlasting" (olam) (Gen. 49:26; Deut. 33:15; Hab. 3:6).  

The Feast of Unleavened Bread was to be observed by the Hebrew people as a statute "forever (olam)," which meant throughout their generations (Ex. 12:17; cf. Ex 27:20-21; 28:43; 29:28; 30:21; 31:16-17).  

We are told that the Aaronic priesthood would be an "everlasting (olam) priesthood" (Ex. 40:15; Num 25:13), although it has since been superseded by the priesthood of Melchizedek (Heb. 7:14-18).  

The servitude of bondmen was to be "forever" (olam) (Ex. 21:6; Deut. 15:17; Lev. 25:45-46; cf. Philemon 15), though every fiftieth year all Hebrew slaves were to be freed (Lev. 25:10). 

The right of the Levites to redeem the houses in the cities they possessed was said to be "for all time" (olam) (Lev 25:32). 

Israel's annual observance of the Day of Atonement was to be an "everlasting (olam) statute" (Lev 16:34).  

The Mosaic covenant was said to be an "everlasting" (olam) covenant (1 Chron. 16:17; Isaiah 24:5), and its ceremonial statutes "forever" (olam) (Ex 27:20-21; Lev. 24:3, 8; Num. 10:8; etc.). However, this covenant has since been superseded by the new covenant, which was ratified by Christ (Heb 8:13).  

The blowing of the trumpets by the sons of Aaron was to be a "statute forever (olam)" which meant throughout their generations (Num. 10:8).  

The children of Israel are told to "remember the days of old (olam)," which meant the years of past generations (Deut 32:7; cf. Eccl 1:10; Isaiah 46:9; 51:9; Mal 3:4). 

Joshua said that the twelve stones from the Jordan were to be to the children of Israel a memorial "forever" (olam) (Josh 4:7). 

The times past in which the idolatrous ancestors of the children of Israel lived is said to be "of long ago (olam)" (Josh 24:2).  
Samuel was set apart for service in the temple "forever" (olam) (1 Sam. 1:22), which meant as long as he lived (v. 28).  

The Geshurites, Girzites, and Amalekites are said to have been the inhabitants of the land "from of old (olam)" (1 Sam 27:8). 

God was to dwell in Solomon's temple "forever" (olam) (1 Kings 8:13; 2 Chron. 6:2), although both this temple and the temple built after it were subsequently destroyed. 

Gehazi's leprosy was to cling to him "forever" (olam) (2 Kings 5:27), which meant as long as he lived.[2]  

In Psalm 115:18, David said that he and his fellow Israelites would "bless the LORD from this time forth and forevermore" (‛ad olam). However, we know that the expression translated "forevermore" must mean "as long as we live," for in the preceding verse he wrote that "the dead do not praise the LORD, nor do any who go down into silence" (cf. Psalm 6:4-5; 30:9; 88:10-12).

Solomon speaks of the grave as being man's "eternal (olam) home" (Eccl 12:5; cf. Eccl 9:10; Job 17:13; 30:23), although we find elsewhere in Scripture that the dead are to be redeemed from it (Hos. 13:14; 1 Cor. 15:26).  

Isaiah states that "the palaces will be forsaken, the bustling city will be deserted, the forts and towers will become lairs forever" (olam) - that is, "until the Spirit is poured upon us from on high, and the wilderness becomes a fruitful field, and the fruitful field is deemed a forest" (Isaiah 32:14-15). 

The smoke of Edom’s judgment (circa 400 B.C.) was to rise "forever" (olam) (Isaiah 34:10).

In Isaiah 57:11, God is said to have held his peace "even for a long time (olam)."  

It was prophesied that the "ancient (olam) ruins" of Israel would be rebuilt (Isaiah 58:12; 61:4; cf. Amos 9:11).  

The angel of the LORD is said to have lifted up the children of Israel and carried them "all the days of old (olam)" (Isaiah 63:9; cf. v. 11).  

God said that he was going to bring "an ancient (olam) nation" against Israel (Jer. 5:15). 

We're told that God "placed the sand as the boundary for the sea, a perpetual (olam) barrier that it cannot pass; though the waves toss, they cannot prevail; though they roar, they cannot pass over it" (Jer. 5:22). But the perpetual duration of this sea-boundary is relative to the existence of the sea itself. The sand can only be considered a barrier for the sea as long as both the sand and the sea exist together. But since the present heavens and earth are not "eternal" or "everlasting," neither is the sea (Psalm 102:25-27; Mark 13:31). And in the new earth, we are explicitly told that there will be no more sea (Rev 21:1). 

Because of their unfaithfulness, we are told the land of Israel would become "a horror and a thing to be hissed at forever" (olam) (Jer. 18:16). 

In reference to unfaithful Israel, God states, "I will make you serve your enemies in a land that you do not know, for in my anger a fire is kindled that shall burn forever" (olam)(Jer. 17:4). But later, Jeremiah states that "the fierce anger of the Lord" would be turned back after God had "executed and accomplished the intents of his mind" (Jer. 30:24).  

God said that he would bring upon Israel an "everlasting (olam) reproach and a perpetual shame which shall not be forgotten" (Jer. 23:40), and that he would make Jerusalem an "everlasting (olam) desolation" (Jer. 25:9). However, the judgment upon Israel that is in view lasted only 70 years (Jer. 25:12).  

Jonadab commanded his children not to drink wine "forever" (olam) (Jer. 35:6), which meant as long as they lived (v. 8).  

Because Mount Seir (Edom) is said to have cherished "perpetual (olam) enmity" against the nation of Israel, God promised that he would make it a "perpetual (olam) desolation" (Ez. 35:5, 9).  

Jonah's three-day stay in the belly of the great fish was said to be "forever" (olam) (Jonah 2:6).  

In all of the above verses, the inspired writers used the word olam to refer to things that most Christians would concede were of limited duration rather than things of literally "eternal" or "everlasting" duration. Both promised temporal blessings and threatened temporal punishments are referred to as being olam (of an indefinite, "hidden" duration of time).  

Moreover, it is noteworthy that ina number of these verses, the translators chose words from the English language which literally mean "lasting without end" (i.e., "forever" and "everlasting") to translate olam, even when the word was clearly used in reference to things that were of limited duration. This should alert every reader to the fact that a scriptural word may have a meaning that is not immediately apparent from the English word (or words) with which it has been translated in certain Bibles. This does not necessarily mean that those who translated the above verses into English were knowingly misleading the reader, or that such translations are completely unreliable or worthless. What it does mean is that we should use discernment and critical thinking when reading any translation of Scripture. We must carefully consider and explore the options available to us rather than jumping to conclusions - especially when the subject is as weighty as the one under consideration in this study.

[1] Contours of Pauline Theology, Christian Focus Publications, 2004; p. 252 

[2] On 2 Kings 5:27, Methodist theologian and biblical scholar Adam Clark remarks, "The 'forever' implies as long as any of his [Gehazi's] posterity should remain. This is the import of the word le-olam. It takes in the whole extent or duration of the thing to which it is applied. The 'forever' of Gehazi was till his posterity became extinct."


  1. It never ceases to amaze me how many are blind to the correct interpretation. Only God could direct this because it is so blatantly clear. So thankful I can see it.

  2. Growing up I never took forever literally. LOL I took it as "For ever" Until it's not. :P

    Guess I wasn't completely bamboozled.