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By John Wesley Hanson
Jansen, McClurg, & Company.
The word that is rendered aiõn-aiõnios in the Greek Septuagint, and everlasting, eternal, etc., in the English Bible, is õlam, in the original Hebrew Scriptures, derived from olm to cover, or conceal. It literally means hidden, unknown, and, when applied to time, it signifies indefinite duration, whether past or future. Thus, the hills are said to exist from olam. As the Hebrew knew that they had a beginning with the creation of the earth, and would end with its destruction, of course he did not mean to say that the hills are literally everlasting when he termed them olamic. As he knew that they had a beginning, so he knew they would have an end; but as the period of their duration was unknown, he said they were from olam. The word is used in one text in both a limited and unlimited sense; and it signifies in one case only three days and three nights.
So of future time,
some things were to exist to olam, e.
g., the Covenant, the Law, the Mosaic Economy, the Levitical
Priesthood, etc., though it was supposed they would cease at Messiah's
advent. They are olamic, because their duration is indefinite,
hidden, concealed from man. Dr. T. Clowes observes: — "The word olam
is used 459 times in the Old Testament; and when we consider
how uniformly the Septuagint translators and the writers of the New
Testament have rendered the word by aiõn and aiõnios,
being probably not ten instances of deviation from this uniformity by
the Septuagint translators, and not so many by the New Testament
writers; and when we consider further, the manifest advantage of this
uniformity to those who in former ages read the
Septuagint and the New Testament in their mother tongue, in giving them
a clear and definite idea of olam, we
are led to express a deep regret that the English translators did not
give their readers a similar advantage. But our translators have
rendered this virtually one word, olam, occurring 657 times in
the Bible, by almost thirty different words and phrases; most of them
signifying duration, to be sure, but varying their signification as to
its extent from a three days' duration, to a duration without beginning
and without end. The first five places in which olam occurs in
the Old Testament are rendered by no less than five different
words:—Gen. iii: 22, forever; Gen. vi: 3, always; Gen.
vi: 4, of old; Gen. ix: 12, perpetual; Gen. ix: 16, everlasting."
In Gen. xiii: 15, he shows that olam signifies the
duration of human life, and remarks:—"And let no one be surprised that
we use the word olam in this limited sense. This is one of the
most usual significations of the Hebrew olam and the Greek aiõn,
and it is perfectly right to use Scripture terms in Scripture
senses. This sense of olam and aiõn runs
through all the writers in Greek, Latin and English. . . . There is no
evidence that any words in the Old Testament implying duration refer to
the future' life of man. Neither is it certain that the ancients, by
the terms of duration which they employed to describe the Divine
existence, fully comprehended the. idea of interminable existence.
Indeed, this is an idea beyond the reach of any human intelligence. The
Hebrew spoke of the earthly existence of man as his õlam. The
Greeks and Latins had the same manner of speaking. The aiõn or
cevum of man, meant the period of his existence, consisting of
a few years on earth; the aiõn
or oevum of
God conveyed the idea of existence without beginning of years or end of
life." Parkhurst says:—"It denotes a hidden duration, and it seems to
be used much more frequently for indefinite, than for infinite time."
If the ancient Hebrew wished to express great but unknown duration, past or future, he resorted to reduplications and intensified forms, as in Micah:—"We will walk in the name of the Lord our God for an olain and an olam of olams," according to the Syriac version, or, in the Hebrew, for an olam of ads,—the latter word being a synomym of the former. The phrases, "generations of olams," and "olams of ads," are intensified forms of the word for the purpose of describing indefinite, but still limited, duration; for at the time the Old Testament was written the Hebrew mind had not cognized the metaphysical idea of endless duration, and therefore could have no word expressive of eternity. Says a French author: —"It is certain that in the Hebrew there is no word which, properly speaking, signifies eternity or a time which has no end. Gnolam signifies only a time, of which we know not the beginning or the end; according to the signification of its root, which means to conceal, to hide. Thus it is to be understood more or less strictly according to the object to which it is applied. When it relates to God or his attributes we should take it in its largest possible extent, that is to say, of an absolute eternity. But when it is applied to things that have a beginning or an end, we must understand it in a manner so limited as the subject requires. Thus, when God says of the Jewish laws that they should be observed le gnolam, forever, we must understand a space of time as long as God should find it proper, a space of which the Jews, before the coming of the Messiah, did not know the end." An equally eminent German writer declares:—"The pure idea of eternity is too abstract to have been conceived in the early ages of the world, and accordingly is not found expressed by any word in the ancient languages. But as cultivation advanced and this idea became more distinctly developed, it became necessary in order to express it to invent new words in a new sense, as was done with the words eternitas, perennitas, etc. The Hebrews were destitute of any single word to express endless duration. To express a past eternity they said, before the world was; a future, when the world shall be no more. . . . The Hebrews and other ancient people have no one word for expressing the precise idea of eternity." To render olam by eternal or everlasting, is therefore manifestly incorreftt, or to translate its intensified forms by forever, forever and ever, etc., is equally inaccurate. The exact' equivalent of the noun olam is age, epoch, seon. The double form of aiõn is a rendering of the Hebrew olam va ad. Olam is long time, olam va ad, longer time. But if olam were eternity, to affix words denoting longer would be absurd. In the Septuagint ton aiõna, kai ep' aiõna, kai eti, and in the New Testament eis tous aiõnas ton aiõnõn, etc., are Greek equivalents of olam va ad, meaning literally, in English, long, but limited duration.
Duncan, in his Hebrew Lexicon, thus defines olam:—1. "A long indefinite period. Tempus homini absconditum tarn infinitum et eternum quam finitum, ut Gen. xvii: 8, etc., plerumque est perpetuum, eternum, sempiternum. Robertson's Thesaurus. Exod. xxi: 6.—2. Perpetuity, durability, Is. lxiv: 4.—But most frequently eternity.—3. The world, Eccles. iii: 11." Buxtorf and Schindler define olam as "A hidden time, an age, time hidden from man." "Gesenius, in the last edition of his Hebrew Lexicon, gives eternity as the first meaning of olam, but remarks that "it is frequently used in a limited sense." J. W. Haley asserts that "the Hebrew olam, rendered forever, does not imply the metaphysical idea of absolute endlessness, but a period of indefinite length, as Rambach says, "a very long time, the end of which is hidden from us."
Of course the Greek word aiõn into which the Hebrew olam is almost always rendered, must, in the Old Testament, have the precise meaning of the word it represents; and all the modifications of aiõn, its reduplications and intensified forms, must carry the same force as do the Hebrew expressions whence they are derived. As from olam signifies from an indefinite past time, and to olam an unknown time in the future, to be interpreted by the subject treated, so from an aiõn or to an aiõn, must denote indefinite time. An olamic period is an aiõnian period, and an olam of olams or an olam of ads is an age of ages. It follows that the corresponding Greek form els tous aiõnas ton aiõnon, instead of being rendered forever, or forever and ever, should in English, be represented by an age of ages, or ages of ages, or some other phrase indicating an indefinite period to be determined by the subject treated. Of their own intrinsic force the words cannot denote endless duration."
The "Comparative Hebrew Lexicon" of Meier says that olam (as a verb) is derived from olaph, to cover, to conceal, to hide away. He also gives as the meaning of olam (as a noun), undetermined (or indefinite) time, past or future,— hence, remote time and eternity; thus averring that eternity is not the original but the derived meaning. He gives also as a later meaning time, timehood, (German, zeitlichkeif). Besides, he says that eeitlichkeit also means world.
It has long been a prevalent opinion that the words forever, everlasting, eternal, and their cognates in the English Bible, signify endless duration, because it has been supposed that the Hebrew and Greek words from which they are rendered have that meaning, and, as they are found qualifying punishment, it is believed that the occurrence of the words in such a connection demonstrates the endlessness of punishment. The author of this treatise has endeavored to put within brief compass the essential facts pertaining to the history and use of the word, and he thinks he conclusively shows that it does not afford any support whatever to the erroneous doctrine. It will generally be conceded that this tenet is not contained in the Scriptures if the meaning of endless duration does not reside in the controverted word. The reader is implored to examine the evidence presented, as the author trusts it has been collected, with a sincere desire to learn the truth. The inquiry is pursued in a manner intended to be satisfactory to the scholar, while it shall also be within the apprehension of the ordinary reader, so that the learned and the unlearned may be able to see the subject in a light that shall relieve the Scriptures of seeming to teach a doctrine that blackens the character of God, and plunges a deadly sting into the believing heart.
is not going too far to say that if the word in question does not carry
the force of endless duration, then the dogma of endless punishment is
not found in the Bible. This excursus shows that interminable
duration does not reside in the word.