When Does For Ever Not Mean For Ever?
This next topic will need two segments. Actually I can’t possible cover this topic to the degree that I need to. I can only hope to give you a few examples that will perhaps help you see that some things aren’t nearly as black and white as we may think they are. In this segment we will take a look at the Old Testament and then deal with the New Testament in the next.
Question: When do the words for ever, everlasting and eternal not mean what they seem to mean in the English?
Answer: Almost all the time in the Bible!
You would think that the meaning of forever, everlasting and eternal should be rather black and white and in English they are, though as you will see they are often used to mean something very different. The problem is that the Bible wasn’t written in English originally. Though it probably seems ridiculous to suggest that for ever, everlasting and eternal may not mean “never ending,” take a look at these examples, all taken from the KJV, and then see if it seems so ridiculous.
Let’s start with Jonah 2:6 - “I went down to the bottoms of the mountains; the earth with her bars was about me for ever: yet hast thou brought up my life from corruption, O LORD my God.”
I don’t know anyone who thinks Jonah was trapped in the great fish at the bottom of the ocean FOR EVER and yet that is what it says. Furthermore, how could Jonah be in that trouble FOR EVER and then be freed from that same trouble? Doesn’t that totally contradict the statement that he was in trouble FOR EVER? It is obvious that in this case there is no way that “FOR EVER” can mean never ending. In fact, according to the biblical account, “forever” was about 3 days and nights in this case.
Here is another example in Deuteronomy 23:3 - “An Ammonite or Moabite shall not enter into the congregation of the LORD; even to their tenth generation shall they not enter into the congregation of the LORD for ever.”
So which is it? Are Ammonites or Moabites banned from entering the congregation of the Lord for 10 generations or FOR EVER? 10 generations may be a long time but it certainly doesn’t seem to be for ever.
Christianity teaches the sacrifices and offerings in the Old Testament have been replaced by the sacrifice of Jesus. Apparently someone forgot to tell God because Leviticus 10:15 says something much different about two of the sacrifices.
“The heave shoulder and the wave breast shall they bring with the offerings made by fire of the fat, to wave it for a wave offering before the LORD; and it shall be thine, and thy sons' with thee, by a statute for ever; as the LORD hath commanded.”
Note carefully that is “the LORD” who has commanded that these sacrifices/offerings are to be forever. Christianity declares that all of the sacrifices etc. were done away with by the once and for all sacrifice by Jesus. How is that possible if God says these are to be done FOR EVER?
Here is one more example that again throws a huge monkey wrench into Christian theology if, in this case, everlasting, means never ending. It is Exodus 40:15 and the topic is the Aaronic priesthood which would by extension also include the Levitical priesthood.
“And thou shalt anoint them, as thou didst anoint their father, that they may minister unto me in the priest's office: for their anointing shall surely be an everlasting priesthood throughout their generations.”
Christianity claims that the Levitical/Aaronic priesthood has passed away and been replaced by Jesus’ priesthood. Either Christianity would seem to have it all wrong or everlasting, at least in this case, can’t mean what we think it means, i.e. never ending.
In Deuteronomy 15:16-17 we read about a slave who has the opportunity to become a free person but chooses to remain as a slave to his owner.
“And it shall be, if he say unto thee, I will not go away from thee; because he loveth thee and thine house, because he is well with thee; Then thou shalt take an aul, and thrust it through his ear unto the door, and he shall be thy servant for ever. And also unto thy maidservant thou shalt do likewise.”
Does anyone think that this person is going to be a slave for all of eternity? The reality is that the person will remain a slave until he or she dies. It may be for a very long time. Though no one may be able to perceive just how long it will be, it will definitely not be for ever.
The Hebrew word in all these cases is olam. I would like to turn to a man far more knowledgeable than I when it comes to ancient Hebrew for an explanation regarding olam. That man is Jeff Benner of the Ancient Hebrew Reseach Center. He uses Psalm 90:2 in his explanation - “Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, thou art God.”
Jeff writes, “The Hebrew word olam is often translated as eternal, everlasting or forever, all of which have a meaning of “continual existence,” an existence without end. Again, this concept misses the meaning of the original Hebrew. The ancient Hebrew mind would not concern himself with what is beyond his known world.” (My comment - “That explains why there is no Hebrew word for hell. It wasn’t a concern which leads to the realization that God didn’t say anything about it to the Hebrews.) Jeff continues, “Anything that is beyond his world, or beyond his understanding, is “beyond the horizon,” the actual meaning of the Hebrew word “olam.” When David says that God is “olam,” he is acknowledging that God is beyond his understanding.
Notice that the introductory passage repeats the word everlasting twice. The ancient Hebrew language has no way to say that something is “best” or “greatest.” Instead the Hebrew language doubles a word to give it emphasis such as in the passage above. God is not just “beyond the horizon;” he is “far beyond the horizon.”
I appreciate very much Jeff Benner’s ministry which is totally focused on the ancient Hebrew language. When you read that something is “olam” or for ever or everlasting or even eternal, you aren’t being told that it is never ending when it relates to time. Instead, you are being told that something is going to last for a long time but just exactly how long that will be is probably “out of sight” or “beyond the horizon” meaning it is unknown. Olam can also be used in reference to quality so that something that was olam could be indescribable or even olam olam which is often translated as for ever and ever and basically means indescribably indescribable. If you’ve ever wondered why you read things like for ever and ever, now you can understand it. It is the way the Hebrew language emphasizes things and turns words into superlatives.
Using what Jeff Benner has said we can see that Jonah was in trouble for what may have seemed like forever but it wasn’t. He probably had no idea as to how long he was beneath the waves but it wasn’t for ever. Biblically the sacrifices were to go on for a long time and no one could tell when they were to end but they were not to go on “for ever.” The Aaronic priesthood would go on for an indeterminable period of time as well but again, not for ever.
We use the term for ever in very similar ways. Perhaps you went to a conference where someone’s speech went on “for ever” or you waited an extraordinarily long time for your food at a restaurant and so you say the service took “for ever.” I am sure you who have read some of my articles felt like they went on FOR EVER! We don’t mean that we never got our food or that the speech never ended or that the article never came to an end. We simply mean it went on a long time or took a long time to occur.
Olam is a very difficult word to understand. It appears 438 times in the Old Testament and is translated in many ways including for ever, everlasting, perpetual, old, long, eternal, ancient, beginning and time. We really could spend a lot more time looking at this word but we need to move on.
In the next segment we will gain some more understanding as we look at the Greek word that is used to translate olam in the Septuagint (Greek Old Testament) and the New Testament.
Blessings, shalom, namaste