Time and Eternity
A Biblical Study
Chapter Three

by G.T. Stevenson


We shall now look at some passages where 'olam' is obviously used of periods limited by context respecting beginning or ending, or both. The total number is too great to permit comment on every case so a typical sample is taken from each book of the O.T. in which 'olam' occurs.

Gen.6:4 serves as a useful staring point.

'The Nephilim were in the earth in those (pre-flood) days...mighty men which were of old,',literally 'from olam'. Hence 'olam' must mean ancient times and one might well translate 'from obscure or remote time'. These Nephilim had had their day and ceased to be so long ago, the writer of Genesis could refer to their time as olam, obscure.

In Gen.13:15 is recorded the promise to Abraham, 'All the land which thou seest, to thee will I give and to thy seed to olam'.

The implementation of the promise was then seen as future. Possession would begin in time and the terrestrial nature of the covenant items raises doubts about any proposal that the writer or editor of Genesis had either unending time or timeless eternity in mind. There is no clear indication respecting the period envisaged. The intermittent occupation of the Land of Promise, the subsequent history of the nation and the present (1977) Middle Eastern situation do not clarify the matter - 'olam' remains obscure.

In Genesis 49:26 we have Jacob's blessing upon Joseph, 'Unto the utmost bounds of the olam hills', but we find in Isa.54:10 'The mountains shall depart and the hills be removed'. All these are poetic expressions, not being quoted here with any object of showing contradictions in the Bible, since contradictions appears only if we translate olam here as either 'eternal' or 'everlasting'.

By mankind in general, the terrestrial hills are regarded as symbolic of long lasting stability, but Isaiah uses them but as foils for the concept of the permanency of the future 'glory of the Lord' when 'all flesh shall see it together'. The hills are old (but not eternal); they appear immutable, but their longevity falls far short of Yahweh's glory and grace.

How long will the hills endure? No one knows; but not for ever. the period is obscure, so olam is the fitting term for use here.

In Exodus 21:6 (and Deut.15:17) the 'open-eared' slave is bound to his master le-olam. His servitude lasted till he died; its termination is certain, but the date is obscure.

A somewhat similar case occurs in Leviticus 25:46, where the Israelites were enjoined to purchase as bond slaves, the children of strangers, le-olam. For how long? Obviously while the opportunity existed. The period may have been long ; it came to a close; and the situation was reversed, the Hebrews themselves becoming servants to strangers in Assyria and Babylon.

In Numbers 10:8, the trumpets signals for the march are described as olam. Surely no one then or since would suppose that these would continue when the need had passed, much less 'for ever'; but the time when the circumstances for which the signals catered would conclude was an obscure matter (olam).

The arrangement was temporary.

Deuteronomy 32:7 commands, 'Remember the days of olam. Consider the years of many generations, Ask thy father...thine elders about the time when the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance'. The whole context suggests a period long past, remote, shrouded in mystery, but still within history.

Joshua 4:7 states that the twelve stones carried out of Jordon were set up as a memorial ad olam. It is possible that someone thought the cairn would last 'for ever'. It has long since been lost. 'Permanently' with the meaning set out earlier seems appropriate here.

Similarly in Joshua 8:28, of Ai, it is reported that Joshua made the city a tel olam. Archaeological evidence shows Ai was occupied again in the Iron Age. The question of the dating of Joshua is still debated, but as in Joshua 4:7 above, 'permanent' meaning 'with no ending of the period foreseeable at the time', appears adequate.

In Samuel 1:22 Hannah is said to have promised that when her son was weaned she would take him to Shiloh that he might abide there ad olam, obviously for his lifetime - the duration of which at that stage was unpredictable, but still not limitless. I Chronicles 23:25 records David's words, 'The Lord...hath given rest unto his people and he dwelleth in Jerusalem ad le olam'. If David or the author-editor of Chronicles envisaged Jerusalem as God's abode throughout endless time or timeless eternity, such expectation has been sadly disproved, not only by history, but by condemnatory pronouncements of later prophets. If we keep to the basic idea of indefinite duration or obscure point or period, then all become consistent, David saw no end to the happy theo-centered kingdom. That does not imply that he had infinity in view.

In Ezra, the two cases of olam are very simple and clear. In Chapter 4:15, the Jews are reported to the Persian king as 'seditious subjects olam', and in verse 19, 'had made insurrection olam', obviously in past time, no specific date being given. The period of revolt had a beginning and had passed. Nothing precise as to time or times is stated.

Nehemiah 13:1 states that the exiles read 'in the book of Moses... that the Ammonite and the Moabite should not enter into the assembly of God ad olam'. There can be little doubt that the reading was from Deuteronomy 23:3, where the specified period of exclusion was ten generations, no fixed number of years, a long indefinite period.

Job 22:15 asks "Wilt thou keep the olam away which wicked men have trodden?' The common rendering is commended - 'old, ancient, or old-time way', the customs of some past era.

In Job 41:4 the question is whether man may tame the crocodile to be his servant olam, for the beast's lifetime, not the 'for ever' of common versions.

Psalm 21:4 reads, 'He (the king) asked life of thee, Thou gavest it (to) him, even length of days olam wa ad. The A.V. and R.V. have 'for ever and ever'. One wonders what the second 'ever' can mean. If the king was one of the monarchs of Israel the period must be limited to a long lifetime. Since olam so often means for the rest of someone's life, it may be that the meaning

of the formula is 'for a normal life span and something more beyond'. As no specific monarch can be identified and a check of his life span made, it may be correct to regard this as a liturgic type of hymn. To treat the passage as Messianic is to open the door to various interpretations which cannot be proved to have been in the author's mind. It is here suggested that an extra long life was the original thought.

There seems to be a good reason for holding that Psalms 24 was the triumphant antiphonal anthem which was sung to celebrate the Davidic carrying up of the Ark into the city of Zion after its capture from the Jebusites (II Sam.6:12-19). In verses 7 and 9 we have, 'Be lifted up ye doors olam.' Various Messianic interpretations have been advanced for this psalm but there is not evidence to show that such far off matters were the subject of the poet's song. Though the versions give 'everlasting doors', the construct expression should, one would think, be translated 'doors of old time' or 'ancient doors'. Even if a future reference could be proved, since the doors were terrestrial objects, they would not be 'everlasting'. The view that the psalmist here envisaged the entry of the Messiah into 'heaven', involves concepts not found elsewhere in the O.T., so is not considered here.

The many other examples of olam in the pslams, referring to times periods, bounded in some way by their contexts may be grouped thus; (a) those meaning 'for all one's lifetime' (Psa.78:66, 79:13, 86:12, 89:1, 110:4, 112:6, 115:18 etc.) or (b) 'while the occasion or need exits'. (89:2, 100:5, 106:1, 107:1, 118:1,2,3 and 4 and so on).

Proverbs contains two examples - the same sentence repeated. (Proverbs 22:28 and 23:10) 'Remove not the olam landmarks'. 'Ancient landmarks' is obviously meant.

Ecclesiastes 1:10 contains the plural olamim, and will be discussed later. In Ecc.2:16 the preacher remarks, ' For the wise man even as the fool, there is no remembrance le-olam'. The context refers to death. 'No remembrance at all' seems adequate - both are forgiven, 'out of sight, out of mind'.

Isaiah and Jeremiah both contain many examples of olam bounded both as to beginning and ending. In Isaiah 42:14, 'I

have held my peace me olam. Now I will cry out'. Me olam must mean 'from long ago' or 'for a long time'. In 58:12, 'They shall build the waste places of olam', offers no alternative to 'ancient' or 'old time'.

Jeremiah 5:15 states, 'I will bring upon you an olam nation', 'ancient' obviously fits as also in 6:6, 'olam paths'.

The many other similar cases of olam in Isaiah indubitably referring to limited periods of time need not be quoted here.

Lamentations 3:6 mentions 'those olam dead' where 'ancient' or 'long time fits'.

Ezekiel 25:15, 35:5, 36:2 all have the same sense - 'ancient' as also Joel 2:2, Amos 9:11. Micah 5:2, and 7:14 and Malachi 3:4.

In Daniel the following contain examples of ritualistic court flattery.

('O King live le olamin') Daniel 2:4, 3:9, 5:10, 6:6, 6:21, (M.T.22). What the speakers had in mind, if anything, respecting the time factor, is a moot question not regarded as worth any attempt at analysis here. Daniel 9:24, a much more important passage, is discussed later along with other examples of the plural, in Chapter 4. The question may now be asked, 'What do the above passages, covering all the O.T. writings, suggest about the most common meaning of olam?' In the case quoted, and these are representative of the great majority of occurrences, olam certainly refers to periods of time, which when considered contextually cannot possibly be rightly rendered 'for ever', or 'everlasting', much less 'eternal'; and these words should be eliminated from English translations of all the passages in which olam is bounded by contexts.


[Return to main indexpage]