Time and Eternity
A Biblical Study
Chapter Five

by G.T. Stevenson


The phrases 'from olam and to olam' and 'from the olam and to the olam' are not common in the O.T. There are eleven examples of which eight are liturgical. The phrase follows such expressions as 'Blessed the Lord or Blessed be the Lord' (six cases). "Thou art God' (Psa.90:2) and 'The mercy of the Lord', (Psa. 103:17). Three others refer to the promise or possession of the land or kingdom. (Jer.7:7 and 25:5, Dan.7:18).

Some cases are anarthrous (no 'the') a few contain the definite article. These latter are in Chronicles, Nehemiah, Daniel and the Psalms (41:13; 106:48). The use of the definite article strongly suggests the existence of some concept of time which we may call 'ages'.

The very use of 'min', (from) and 'ad' (to) demands a distinguishable difference between two entities. In respect to time (as of course to space) one may speak of passing 'to' and 'from' a single entity (to-X-from); but to go 'from' one point or period 'to' another logically requires two entities (from X to Y). Of course if we are talking about eternity itself then 'from' and 'to' can have no meaning at all.

Therefore the form of the phrase 'from the olam and to the olam' demands the concepts of separate periods and proves that the idea of periods of some sort expressed by olam had developed.

In Jer.7:7 and in 25:5, the Jews are urged to mend their ways that 'I may cause you to dwell in the land which I gave to your fathers 'from olam to olam'. One Jer.7:7 Rotherham comments,

'From times long past even unto times long to come. Scarcely from everlasting to everlasting'.

We might add, certainly not 'from all eternity to all eternity'. Both the promise of the land and its occupancy had a beginning in history, so cannot be eternal, but are terrestrial in location and scope. There must be an element of devious eisegesis in introducing either 'everlasting' or 'eternal' into these two passages.

Daniel 7:18 states (R.V.) 'The saints of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom for ever, even for ever and ever' (to olam and to olam of olams).

The form of this composite phrase is unique in the O.T. There are no other identical formulae for comparison. the following comments are offered as likely pointers to its original meaning.

(a) The repetition of 'olam' suggests that this term did not of itself represent unlimited duration, otherwise the first 'olam' would have covered all time.

(b) The whole context is oriented to a future period, which had then not even begun.

(c) In the one phrase we have both singular (olam) and plural (olamim). A plural eternity is by definition an impossibility, so the terms must refer to some periods of time.

(d) 'Remotest time' is more plausible; but 'remotest time and remotest time of remotest times is self contradictory.

(e) To a remote time even a remote time of remote times would conform to Hebrew idiom making the second phrase a normal Hebraic polytotonic superlative. (Compare King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Holy of holies, Song of songs, etc.)

(f) Presently evidence will be advanced to show that at least by the time of the writing of the book of Daniel, late by any theory of dating, the concept of an age, and of 'periods' of time had developed. If this be accepted, the text may then be translated 'to (or for?) an age, even an age of ages'. By treating 'an age of ages' as a normal Hebraic superlative we get, "the saints...shall possess the kingdom unto (perhaps, for) an age even (the best) age of ages'.

From the standpoint of the Jew of the exile even to the present day, the envisaged age of their nation's possessing the kingdom has been regarded as the 'age of ages', the time of restoration and promised blessing of which the O.T. has much to say.

This rendering and interpretation is simple, direct, and consistent with Hebrew grammar, with the context, with the overwhelming majority of the cases of olam, and with the Bible throughout.

Further, acceptance of the above remarks removes all difficulty from Jeremiah 25:5, "Return...from the wickedness of your doings, so shall ye remain on the soil which Yahweh hath given you and to your fathers even from age to age'.

Of the eight liturgical passages containing 'from olam and to olam' or 'from the olam and to the olam' four call for blessing of the Deity. (I Chron.16:36,29: 29:10, Neh.9:5 and Psa.41:13). What does it mean to 'bless the Lord'? In each case the root of the verb is barak. Davidson gives the primary adoration, meaning as "to bend the knee', 'to worship'. This suggests adoration, and if the verb were applied only to man's attitude to God, this would suffice; but often the order is reversed and God is said to 'bless' individuals, groups and nations; and this seems to mean the conferring of benefits.

However in the texts now being considered the expression appears to be a call to worship the Lord, made to human beings and as such must apply at the most to a period co-terminus with that of the human race. This sets a limit so far as the past is concerned.

Liturgical expressions tend to be poetic and unsure grounds for precise doctrinal statements of fact. The common liturgical expression 'world without end' is in conflict with credal statements about 'the end of the world', and eschatological matters related thereto.

The sentences calling for "blessing Yahweh" from olam and to olam read like pious aspirations or desires that men would remember God's goodness and thank him always. If it could be shown that in other contexts the phrase (or its component terms) embraced infinite duration, then it would be fair to regard it so here also. The evidence set out in the preceding pages suggests, 'Bless the Lord from age to age" is a proper translation. Probably the writers had nothing more definite in mind than 'all the time'.

In Psa. 90:2 "From olam and to olam Thou art God', the author appears to be struggling to express the concept that the existence of Deity precedes all creation, reaching into the past beyond the capacity of the human mind to comprehend, and likewise with regard to the future, but the repetition of olam and the form of the phrase show that this Hebrew word did not

itself compass infinity. The same conclusion arises from the present survey of the cases of olam repeated.

It may of course be urged that it is the whole formula which is meant to convey the sense of eternity. For those who think of eternity as time extended beyond measure into both past and future that could be a possible interpretation wherever the content will permit, but then it would not be olam which implied unbounded duration since when that concept is attributed to the term itself incongruities continually emerge.

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