Time and Eternity
A Biblical Study
Chapter Four

by G.T. Stevenson


The form of these Hebrew words suggests a normal noun and its plural. Unless there are convincing arguments to prove otherwise, we should so regard them. However during the last century much discussion has centered around the question of whether the plural when used in the O.T. represents a concept of eternity, or is in fact indicative of a plurality of the entity covered by the singular. A related question might be put thus. If it can be shown that 'olam' expressed the concept of an 'age'. some identifiable period of time, should we then conclude that 'olamim' represented a concept of a number of such periods or may it have been used in a loose way as meaning an extended time, as when we say, 'I've been waiting here for ages'? In the latter case 'olamim would be a plural of grammatical form, but scarcely of concepts. This matter will be discussed later when the occurrences of 'ha olam' and the plural are listed synoptically and some conclusions suggested.

For the present the questions to be kept in mind are these,

(a) If the assumption that the Hebrew had some concept of endlessness as to both past and future, was not injected into the 'olamim' passages, would these bear a rational interpretation consistent with the contexts in which this word occurs and with the Bible in general? In other words, should we use 'for ever', 'everlasting' or 'eternal' to translate 'olamim'?

(b) Are there better alternatives?

In I Kings 8:13, Solomon is quoted as saying regarding the temple,

'I have built Thee a house to dwell in olamim'. It appears most unlikely that Solomon had in mind a 'timeless eternity' or eternity at all; but rather long periods or extension of time stretching into obscurity. We can scarcely think that he or his editor thought his edifice of wood and stone would last for ever.

Besides, it could be only a future duration anyway, and so but a portion of 'eternity'. Actually the temple stood about five hundred years. And thus it belonged to a limited time. II Chron.6:2 repeats I Ki.8:13.

Pslam 61:4 has 'I shall dwell in Thy tabernacle 'olamim'. If we could be sure that the Hebrews had expectation of resurrection life in some state figuratively represented by, 'Thy tabernacle', we would have some grounds for regarding this statement as approximating to endless future bliss in heaven.

If we take this verse literally we still find difficulty unless we regard 'olamim' as having connotations similar to those 'olam' frequently possesses, i.e. constantly till the end of one's life. The passage may well be understood as a pious aspiration of longing to practice the presence of God all one's days. At any rate the 'dwelling' began in this life and so cannot be 'eternal'. In Psalm 77:5 the psalmist with poetic hyperbole expresses his state of depression. He looks back over past history - presumably Israel's - seeking comfort.

'I have considered the days of old, years of ancient times (olamim).'

One seriously doubts whether anyone should hold that 'olamim' here could refer to 'eternity', 'everlasting' or even 'perpetuity'.

In all probability 'the days of old' and 'years of ancient times' are meant to cover the same periods of past history with 'olamim' signifying the plural 'periods'. We express the same thought, 'O God, our help in ages past'.

The R.V. 'ancient times' appears a quite satisfactory translation.

In Pslam 77:7 the writer continues his lament,

'Will the Lord cast off le olamim?' (A.V. & R.V. 'for ever')

The Hebrew may be translated literally.

"For ages will my Lord reject,

And not again grant favour any more?'

Rotherham, 'Hath his loving kindness come to a perpetual end?'

If one reads the poetic couplets of verses 7,8 and 9, in any translation, the impression gained is that the Psalmist is asking, 'Hath God withdrawn His Grace from us altogether? Shall we see it no more at all?' (cf. Ex.14:13). Since the plea refers to the future, 'everlasting' might be acceptable, but 'eternity' is ruled out since in the past God's favor had been enjoyed. It seems very far fetched to claim that the writer had any thought of eternity in mind any more than when we say, 'He doesn't love me any more'.

Psa.145:13 states,

'Thy kingdom is kingdom of all olamim,

And thy dominion over all, generation and generation (Lit.).'

R.V. 'over all generations'

Rotherham 'generation after generation'.

'Thy kingdom is a kingdom of all ages' (or even periods of time) fits well with 'all generations'. It is possible to construe this into meaning that the rule of Yahweh is co- existent with the being of the Eternal but 'all generations' suggests that the thought of the writer was that God rules in the affairs of men (Daniel 4:25) and there seems to be no reason to think the psalmist had any concept beyond time in mind. The literal 'all ages' appears to be quite satisfactory.

It seems obvious that these two probably liturgic expressions in this poetic couplet cover the same duration of time. Evidence must be very scarce, if it exists at all, to show that O.T. authors, even if exilic, had any expectation of an everlasting future, whether in time or timeless, in which generations of humans would go on reproducing their kind ad infinitum. When the Sadducees (Matt.22:23, Luke 20:27) posed the question of the much married woman's relationship with her seven husbands in resurrection life, our Lord is recorded as answering, 'Ye do err, not knowing the Scriptures nor the power of God, for in resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage'. The phrase 'not knowing the Scriptures' of course must refer to the O.T., and the force of the reply must be, 'The Scriptures will teach you that in the future life there are no generations at all'. Hence the idea that 'all generations' and 'all ages' refer to duration beyond the period of human life on earth appears untenable.

Isaiah 26:4 (b) has , 'in the Lord Jehovah is an everlasting Rock'. R.V. (Heb. a rock 'olamim'). The R.V. note reads 'a rock of ages' and so also Rotherham. The A.V. text has 'the rock of ages' a concept enshrined in the time honored hymn. the thought appears to be that Yahweh is a safe refuge in any time of need. Isa.45:17 reads; 'Israel shall be saved by the lord olamim. Ye shall not be ashamed nor confounded.' The difficulty of the Hebrew tenseless verbs is apparent here. The A.V. and R.V. (1884) give 'Israel shall be saved'; the R.S.V. and Rotherham, 'hath been saved (delivered),' which, in view of Israel's history from Isaiah's time until now, and her present (1977) condition, make one wonder what the latter translators took the passage to mean. The use of the future tense avoids the clash with the facts of Israel's history. There seems to be no sensible alternative to "Israel shall be saved by the Lord, olamim'. But then, of course 'olamim' can scarcely be the plural of extension meaning 'eternal' for obviously this 'eternity' has not even began yet. Apart from holding that the biblical writer was mistaken in his expectations, there are but two alternatives. Either (a) the time of Israel's deliverance has not yet begun, or (b) there is a big interim gap of several millenniums in the period. Neither (a) nor (b) will accord with the concept of eternal.

'Salvation of ages' may better be thought of as deliverance for which Israel has waited 'long time'. This interpretation avoids the dilemma, and shows the verse to be in harmony with Israel's history and the prophet's expectations.

The parallel, "Ye shall not be confounded 'ad olamei ad' is universally rendered future in English. The A.V. and R.V. 'world without end' cannot be regarded as translation at all. Jerome's 'aeternum plus ultra' may be considered feasible only if we accept the probability that in his day 'aeternum' did not mean 'endlessness', otherwise to speak of a 'beyond' is a contradiction in terms which one is not prepared to ascribe to a scholar of Jerome's skill and devotion. It is here suggested that the meaning is 'unto the ages of the future' or 'for ages of times to come' a concept consonant with inter testamental writings and the Qumran scrolls.

That the faithful in Israel even today, still retain this hope that the deliverance awaited so long, for ages (olamim), will someday come and will extend beyond the foreseeable future periods - indefinitely or to obscurity - shows that their understanding corresponds with the view set out above. The introduction of the terms 'eternal', 'everlasting' or 'forever' involves incongruities at variance with known facts.

Isa.51:9 'Awake , awake put on strength, O arm of the Lord. Awake as in the days of old, the generations of ancient times (olamim)'. For this latter phrase, the A.V. has 'in generations of old'; R.V., 'of ancient times'; R.S.V., 'of long ago'; Rotherham 'of by-gone ages'.

Any if these makes good sense. Obviously 'olamim' coupled with 'generations' and 'days of old' must be limited to humanity's history. The apposition of the two phrases confirms the reasoning of the discussion above.

Ecclesiastes 1:10

'Is there a thing whereof men say, See this is new? It hath been already in the ages which were before us' (olamim) (R.V. and R.S.V.). The A.V. has 'of old time'. More literally the verse would run, 'Already hath it been for ages; it is something which was before us', and so Rotherham renders it.

The use of 'old time or times', 'Ages before us' or 'for ages past' would seem to reproduce both the wording and the thought of the text.

Daniel 9:24, "Seventy weeks have been divided (A.V. 'determined', R.V. 'decreed', Rotherham 'divided') concerning thy people and concerning thy holy city,

(a) to put an end to the transgression,

(b) and fill up the measure of sin,

(c) and put a propitiatory cover over iniquity.


(d) bring in the righteousness of ages, (olamim),

(e) and fix a seal to vision and prophecy,

(f) and anoint the Holy of Holies (or most holy)'.

We have here first a definite time period, 'seventy weeks' (probably weeks of years). Then follow six items indicating the objectives to be accomplished in the divided period. The first three (a), (b) and (c) above, are preparatory, negative prerequisites for the three long-awaited positives (d), (e) and (f) to emerge.

Of these latter (d) mentions 'olamim'. Perhaps one way to think of this 'righteousness' may be as an attribute of the Deity and hence as 'eternal', but the context in which the passage is to be understood must be that of the author who is thinking of 'thy people' and the 'holy city'. If that interpretation is right then righteousness 'olamim', may well mean a righteousness that rectifies the wrongs of ages and last for ages. There is considerable evidence, as we shall later see, to indicate that the time of writing of the book of Daniel, the concept of 'an age' and 'the age' had evolved. 'Righteousness of ages' is commended as a satisfactory translation.

It can now be claimed, with considerable assurance, that the above examination of all the 'olamim' passages indicates that the questions posed earlier should be answered thus.

(a) All the texts containing 'olamim' can be logically translated and interpreted without any reference to eternity at all.

(b) The introduction of concepts of endless time or timelessness leads to incongruities in almost every case.

(c) The view that 'olamim' is a normal plural signifying extensive periods of time, often obscure as to dating either of inauguration, or ending, or both, provides meaningful renderings consistently throughout, and consonant with the context, in every case.

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