Word Studies: Forever? What does the Hebrew word “olam” mean?

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Forever?​​ What Does the Hebrew Word “olam” mean?

Rick Moffett​​ 


In the Bible,​​ the Hebrew word​​ olam​​ is​​ used​​ more than 400 times. It is often translated into the English words -​​ forever, everlasting, perpetual, evermore, ancient, long, etc. As you might imagine, there are many​​ difficulties​​ in translating a Hebrew word into English.​​ A single English word can​​ rarely convey the meaning of​​ a single​​ Hebrew word.​​ The primary purpose of this article is to clear up a common​​ misinterpretation of​​ the Hebrew word​​ olam​​ when​​ translated into the English words​​ forever​​ or​​ everlasting​​ and misunderstood to mean​​ a never-ending​​ duration​​ of time. ​​ 


The word​​ olam​​ is likely derived from the Hebrew word​​ alam,​​ which​​ literally means “beyond the horizon”, in other words, hidden or concealed from view, either in the future or in the past.​​ Thus,​​ the word​​ olam​​ refers​​ to​​ a time in​​ the distant past or​​ in​​ the distant future, i.e., a time that is difficult to perceive.​​ 


The Hebrew word olam literally means "beyond the horizon." When looking off in the far distance it is difficult to make out any details and what is beyond that horizon cannot be seen. This concept is the olam.​​ Eternity;​​ Jeff A. Benner


The word​​ olam​​ simply means "long duration," "antiquity," "futurity,"​​ or​​ "until the end of a period of time"​​ with that period of time​​ determined by the context. Sometimes it​​ refers to the length of a man's life, sometimes it is an age, and sometimes it is a dispensation, but the Hebrew does not support the concept of eternity as the English word “forever” does.​​ 


Here are some​​ scriptural​​ examples of the Hebrew word​​ olam​​ when referring to the​​ past,​​ often expressed as “of old”, “days of old”, “old times” or “old way”, etc.​​ –​​ 


1.​​ The scriptures mentioned below refer to a limited time in the past.​​ 


 There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old​​ <olam>, men of renown.​​ Genesis 6:4 (KJV)​​ 

 "Remember the days of old​​ <olam>, Consider the years of all generations. Ask your father, and he will inform you, Your elders, and they will tell you.​​ Deuteronomy​​ 32:7 (NASB)​​ *words in chevrons (< >) supplied by this author


See also -​​ Joshua 24:2; 1 Samuel 27:8; Job 22:15; Isaiah 42:14.


Here are​​ a few of the many​​ scriptural​​ examples of the Hebrew word​​ olam​​ translated as “forever”​​ referring to​​ the future​​ when it​​ is clear that​​ the​​ thing, event, or period at hand was limited​​ ​​ 


1.​​ ​​ The Lord instructed the sons of Israel​​ to​​ keep a supply of​​ oil​​ on hand in the tent of meeting​​ to keep​​ the​​ lamp​​ burning​​ continually. It was​​ to be​​ a​​ “statute forever”.​​ 


In the tabernacle of the congregation without the vail, which is before the testimony, Aaron and his sons shall order it from evening to morning before the LORD: it shall be​​ a statute for ever​​ <olam*>​​ unto their generations on the behalf of the children of Israel.​​ Exodus 27:21 (KJV)​​ *words in chevrons (< >) supplied by this​​ author



This​​ statute​​ was part of the Old Mosaic Covenant which was fulfilled by Jesus Christ​​ and​​ thus did not last forever​​ (Matthew 5:17).​​ See similar examples of the Old Mosaic Covenant rituals​​ that were said to be forever (olam)​​ which have been fulfilled by Jesus Christ –​​ Lev. 7:34, 16:33-34, 24:7-8; Deut. 12:27-28. The Old Mosaic Covenant rituals served as a type or shadow of the real thing (Jesus).​​ It was always only temporary.​​ When Jesus came and died on the cross, there was no​​ longer a​​ need for the Mosaic Covenant​​ and its 613 laws, thus​​ olam​​ did not mean forever, but rather a long, but finite period of time.​​ 


23​​  But before faith came, we were kept in custody under the law, being shut up to the faith which was later to be revealed.​​ 24​​  Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith.​​ 25​​  But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor.​​ Gal.​​ 3:23-25 (NASB)

 When He said, "A new covenant," He has made the first obsolete. But whatever is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to disappear.​​ Hebrews 8:13 (NASB)



2.​​ The Levitical priesthood was said to be an​​ everlasting priesthood.


13​​  And thou shalt put upon Aaron the holy garments, and anoint him, and sanctify him; that he may minister unto me in the priest's office.​​ 14​​  And thou shalt bring his sons, and clothe them with coats:​​ 15​​  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​​ <olam*>​​ priesthood throughout their generations.​​ Exodus 40:13-15 (KJV)​​ See also​​ 1 Chron. 23:14​​ *words in chevrons (< >) supplied by this​​ author


However, in​​ Hebrews​​ chapter​​ 7, we see that the Levitical priesthood was replaced by Jesus,​​ who has become our high priest forever​​ (Heb. 6:19-20).



3.​​ Solomon builds a house (aka the temple) for the Lord (1 Kings 5 -8). In 1 Kings 8:13, Solomon declares the house he built would be a place for the Lord to dwell forever.​​ 


12​​  Then Solomon said, "The LORD has said that He would dwell in the thick cloud.​​ 13​​  "I have surely built You a lofty house, A place for Your dwelling forever <olam*>."​​ 1 Kings 8:12-13 (NASB)​​ *words in chevrons (< >) supplied by this author


Here again, we see that the word​​ olam​​ does not mean forever. While the house (temple) that Solomon built had stood for over 400 years, it was destroyed under the rule of Nebuchadnezzar in 587 - 586 BC.​​ 


8​​  Now on the seventh day of the fifth month, which was the nineteenth year of King Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, Nebuzaradan the captain of the guard, a servant of the king of Babylon, came to Jerusalem.​​ 9​​  He burned the house of the LORD, the​​ king's house, and all the houses of Jerusalem; even every great house he burned with fire.​​ 2 Kings 25:8-9 (NASB)​​ 


See also​​ Exodus 19:9, 21:6; 1 Chron. 15:2; Gen. 17:13;​​ etc.





As we look for an understanding of the word that will account for its usage, we will find that the word consistently refers to an open-ended situation. An ‘olam covenant refers to an open-ended agreement with no stated termination. It is an enduring or perpetual covenant. As​​ 2 Sam 2:30, mentioned above, shows, that does not mean it can never be ended or revoked. When there is no possibility of a situation ever changing, then that which is carried forth “in perpetuity” will indeed be eternal. This is how we would naturally understand the references to God’s character and attributes. But when covenants or the status of individuals might be considered, we have to proceed with caution. There is a thin line between a situation that endures and a situation that is eternal.” –​​ When is forever not forever?;​​ John H. Walton


Translating one language to another is not an exact science. Often it comes down to the translator’s opinion, thus making the translator also a commentator.​​ Translating​​ olam​​ as “forever” or “everlasting” has been a source of many misunderstood prophecies​​ and other proclamations by those in the Scriptures.​​ 



Recommended reading -​​ ​​ Bible Linguistics and the Problems of Translating the Bible;​​ Ancient Hebrew Research Center




1.​​ How Long is Forever?;​​ https://jewishroots.net/library/anti_missionary_objections/how_long_is_forever.html​​ 

2.​​ Eternity; Jeff A. Benner;​​ https://www.ancient-hebrew.org/definition/eternity.htm

3.​​ Theological Workbook of the Old Testament;

4.​​ On the meaning of the old Hebrew word olam;​​ www.biblepages.web.surftown.se/fg09.htm

5.​​ Αἰων and עֹלָֽם (olam);​​ Robert Beecham;​​ http://www.growthingod.org.uk/aion-and-olam.htm

6.​​ Bible Linguistics and the Problems of Translating the Bible; Claud Mariottini;  ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​​​ https://claudemariottini.com/2022/07/11/bible-linguistics-and-the-problems-of-translating-the-bible/

7.​​ Ancient Hebrew Research Center; Jeff A. Benner;​​ https://www.ancient-hebrew.org/



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