What does the Hebrew word ‘olam mean in the Bible?

Q. What does the Hebrew word ‘olam mean in the Bible?

The Hebrew word ‘olam means “to indefinite futurity,” that is, “for as far into the future as anyone can imagine.” For example, when at the dedication of the ark in Jerusalem David tells the people to “remember [God’s] covenant for ever” and that it is an “everlasting covenant,” he is using the word in both cases. He wants the people to obey the covenant for as far into the future as anyone can imagine, and he is saying that God himself intends to keep the covenant for that long.

But the word can also indicate “from as long ago in the past as anyone can imagine.” Wisdom says of herself in Proverbs, “I was set up from everlasting, from the beginning, before the earth was.” In other words, “I was formed (or appointed) from as long ago in the past as anyone can imagine.”

Sometimes the word is used in both senses at the same time. We see this usage in Psalm 90, “Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the whole world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.” In other words, “You have been God from from as long ago in the past as anyone can imagine, and you will continue to be God for as far into the future as anyone can imagine.”

In many English Bibles, ‘olam is thus understandably translated with adverbs such as “forever” and with adjectives such as “everlasting.” I certainly don’t see a sense in ‘olam that the time period is finite or expected ever to end.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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