Time and Eternity
A Biblical Study
Chapter Six

by G.T. Stevenson


The question of whether 'olam' in O.T. times ever represented a concept of an age or period of time possessing some distinctive characteristics and therefore recognizable as separate in some sense from another age or ages, has some importance in this attempt to discover the meaning of the above terms during the composition of the O.T.

In modern times we commonly speak of 'the stone age', 'the scientific age', 'the age of reason' and so on without envisaging any exact limiting date lines. the beginning and end are obscure, but nevertheless the use of the definite article and some qualifying adjective or phrase indicates the existence of the idea of a recognizable period in some way individualistic. Such periods often overlap, and many complex factors are involved, so precise limits cannot be determined.

Also when we use the term 'age' figuratively and hyperbolically, we omit the definite article e.g. 'She takes an age (or ages) to choose a frock'. the relatively long time, and the uncertainty of the moment of conclusion of the project correspond, as we have seen, with the majority of the O.T. cases of the use of 'olam'.

While it is common knowledge that the Hebrew of O.T. times showed little regard for the sort of logical systematic thought patterns for which Greek philosophers are noted, it seems both rational and psychologically sound to expect that if the concept of an age existed, and did not mean the whole time, there would also accompany it, not only the plural form of the word but also the concept of a plurality of ages. The two ideas are necessarily related and supplementary - the one cannot exist without the other and the use of one presupposes the existence of the other.

The argument might be set out thus.

(a) Unless 'an age' means all the time i.e. if it means a part of time, there must be another part or parts. Hence the existence of 'one age' necessitates a plurality.

(b) Normally a plural for which a singular exists presupposes the existence of single individual entities. There cannot be more than 'one' of an entity of which there do not exist separate 'ones'.

Therefore we present in this chapter a list of the occurrences of the terms 'the olam', 'olam' repeated and 'olamim' in the O.T., and the following questions should be kept in mind as the passages are considered.

(a) Can we establish the period in which 'the olam' appeared in writing?

(b) Does its usage (the way it is used) indicate the nature of the concept it represented?

(c) Is the emergence of "the olam' in any way contemporaneous with the earliest cases of the plural and/or with 'olam' repeated?



I Chron.16:36 I Chron.16:36 II Chron.6:2

17:14 29:10 I Kings 8:13

Psa.28:9 Psa.41:13 Psa.61:4

41:13 90:2 77:5

106:48 103:17 77:7

133:3 106:48 145:13

Eccles.3:11 Jer.7:7 Eccles.1:10

Jer.28:8 25:5 Isa.26:4

Neh.9:5 Neh.9:5 45:17

Dan.12:7 Dan.7:18 (a and b)

Joel 2:2 51:9



Since dating of O.T. books can be no more than approximation,

no precise conclusions can be drawn from these lists. The following notes are suggestive only.

Chronicles is now generally regarded as a late compilation.

It is placed first on the list because in it all three terms appear.

From this we may infer that by the time of its editing into the form we have, "the olam" and the plural "olamim" were being used concurrently.

In I Ki.8:13 'olamim' is used in Solomon's prayer at the temple dedication. If these words are those actually used by him, that would show that the plural was then in use. It is likely that many psalms should be dated earlier than this; Psalms 41 is commonly attributed to David. Both 'the olam' and 'olam' repeated occur in verse 13. the fact that all three expressions appear a number of times in the Psalms suggests that in answer to question (a) (Can we establish the time when 'the olam' appeared in writing?) we may tentatively reply, 'Yes, broadly speaking in the days of the Undivided Kingdom'. The fact that in Psa.41:13 we have 'from the olam to the olam'. which implies two periods and hence plurality, supports the view that 'the olam' and 'olamim' if not contemporary in emergence, at least were linked in usage.

Since the expression here, as is common with most cases of 'the olam,' is liturgic, it probably does not justify any specific statement respecting the idea behind the term. For example it gives no indication of any idea of a beginning or an end, nor any characteristic features. This obscurity or indefiniteness is not to be equated with eternity; non-clarity is not equivalent to endlessness.

To our second question (b) (Does the way 'the olam' is used indicate the nature of the concept it represented?) the answer must be , 'No. It is not at all clear'.

To the third question (c) (Is the emergence of 'the olam' in any way contemporaneous with the earliest cases of the plural, or of 'olam' repeated?) the answer must be, 'Yes. These terms appear in the same books or those usually ascribed to the same period'.

In this regard, we repeat, it is important to keep in mind that the element of obscurity regarding a concept of time does not at all justify the introduction of endlessness when time periods are indefinite. In such cases the imposing of post biblical or philosophic concepts upon the text instead of admitting that we do not know, is worse than useless; it impedes the progress of the search for the truth.

The synoptic lists above suggest that the development of the use of 'olam' in the sense of a period of time similar to that covered by 'aion' and accompanied by the use of the plural 'olamim' arose during the existence of Israel as a united nation somewhere about 1000 B.C.

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