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Hebrew Corner 7: When is forever not forever?
by John H. Walton
In the Davidic Covenant the statement is made by God that “I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever” (2 Sam 7:13), and then “Your throne will be established forever” (2 Sam 7:16). These statements are often used to build some significant Messianic theology. Nevertheless, we cannot help but notice that in 1 Sam 2:30, the Lord (through a prophet) says to Eli, “’I promised that your house and your father’s house would minister before me forever.’ But now the Lord declares, ‘Far be it from me!’”
So what are we to make of this? Can the Lord discard a “forever” promise? The Hebrew expression is the same in all three places (‘ad ‘olam). We must take a look at the words before we jump to any rash conclusions in either passage.
In our theology and culture the abstract concept of eternity is familiar. The ancient Israelites could easily comprehend such an idea, but the question we must ask is whether their terminology might have a broader range of usage.
A study of the word reveals that it can look either backward or forward a long ways. Looking backward it refers to antiquity—days of old. Looking forward it looks at the long, unbroken future. God’s activity and existence are appropriately affirmed “from days of old” (min ‘olam) and stretching into the future (‘ad ‘olam). But in both cases the reference need not be to an eternal, timeless expanse. For example, in 1 Sam 1:22 Hannah indicates that after Samuel is weaned he will live before the Lord at the temple ‘ad ‘olam” (NIV: “always”). “Always” has a bit of a different nuance to it than “forever.”
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.
More information on this fascinating word may be found in A. Tomasino, “’olam” in the New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis 3:345-51 (ed. W. VanGemeren).
John H. Walton (PhD, Hebrew Union College) teaches Old Testament at Wheaton College Graduate School. He is the author or coauthor of several books, including Chronological and Background Charts of the Old Testament and the forthcoming A Survey of the Old Testament (Third Edition).
by Clinton Arnold
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