Many readers of the English Bible are inclined at some time or other to interpret Hebrew (or Greek) concepts by the present English meaning of the term. This is particularly noticeable with the word forever and its cognate form. To them the word forever generally means "for an eternity," or "eternally."
From a study of this word forever in the originals, one is led to the conclusion that the Hebrew concept thus expressed was one of continuity (a lineal concept). The English reader is inclined to make the durative idea uppermost in his interpretation. The Hebrew author allowed the context to express the durative concept, but to him the word forever held only the idea of continuity of the inferno and not of its duration. In other words, in the example given the fire kept burning from start to finish, and there was no possible hope of putting it out. This Hebrew concept was carried into the Septuagint and then into the Greek New Testament.
It may be an advantage to digress for one moment and make a few comments on the value of the Septuagint. This was translated before the New Testament was written, and what is more important, it was translated into Greek. Many students look up the classics, the papyri, and other words, but too often they seem to ignore the LXX. In our study of this word forever we will see the value of the LXX.
Detailed Analysis of the Above Statement
Let us consider the Hebrew term as used in the Old Testament. The Hebrew word under discussion is eolam. In the K.J.V. it has been rendered in the following ways: ancient time (1); beginning of the world (1); continuance (1); ever (267); everlasting (11); evermore (15); old (7); old time (1); world (2); always (1); ancient (5); at any time (1); eternal (1); everlasting (53); for ever (3); lasting (1); long (2); old (6); perpetual (20).* The frequent occurrence of this word makes it imperative that we have a clear understanding of it.
As we look at this word in context we see that it is used quite regularly to express an idea that has nothing whatsoever to do with eternity. Let us look at some interesting examples that will illustrate the point. It is used of a slave in Deuteronomy 15:17, and in Exodus 21:6 to show that he would continue to be a slave as long as life should last. The idea here is one of continuance and not one of duration. Continuance emphasizes the daily relationship to his master, whereas duration would only think of the time. In Psalm 30:12; 29:12, LXX, praise is pictured as ascending to God forever. The context reveals that it means as long as man continues to live. The thought is that every day in every way man when faithful will cause praise to ascend to God. Not praise spread over a long time, but praise every moment of every day. When God spoke of an everlasting covenant He was not emphasizing a long, drawn-out affair, but one that would continue as an hour-by-hour and day-by-day relationship (see Genesis 17:7). We could multiply examples of this type of usage.
The question of passages that seem to contradict our above statement is a relevant one. What about the occasions when this word is used with reference to God? Does it not there mean for an eternity, or eternally? No, the word itself does not inherently have that meaning, it is the context that gives it the concept of eternity. The word itself has the idea of God as an ever-present reality, but not necessarily as an eternal being. However, we know that in actual fact God has had no beginning and that He will never come to an end, and therefore the context here gives the idea of eternity to our word. The word `olam emphasizes the continual presence of God, whereas the context emphasizes the durative nature of the God of heaven. This may look like a hair-splitting definition of terms. Maybe it is, but if the Hebrews saw it that way, so should we if we are to get the correct meaning of the many passages where the expression occurs.
If we get a clear insight into the Hebrew thought pattern behind the English word forever (and its cognate forms) in the English Bible, it will help to clear away many of the difficult passages of Scripture where the word `olarn occurs. This word could be used for expressing something that transpired in a few seconds, or lasted for an eternity. The idea is that of continuity from a couple of seconds to time unlimited. In other words, there is nothing that is intermittent, for once it has started it continues until it has finished. Fire that burns forever is fire that burns everything to ash and then goes out; a slave forever is one that serves faithfully all the days of his life; a man who receives eternal life is a man who continues to experience life as long as God lasts, and that by actual fact is time without end; a man who receives the punishment of eternal death has the reward meted out to him, and this takes the form of ultimate death, which continues to be for all time (man is not conscious at all, he is completely destroyed in the second death, and the destruction continues to be for all time).
Some will probably retort at this point by saying that the above may apply to the Old Testament Hebrew, but it certainly will not stand up to investigation in the Greek sources. When the classics are studied, the papyri reviewed, and the profane authors considered the Greek idea seems to be different from the Hebrew concept. That may be quite true, but let us look a little closer at this question.
The Influence of the Septuagint
I am not in a position to determine the thoughts that ran through the minds of the men who translated the Septuagint. However, I can look and see what they have done. Also as I look I can compare the way the LXX rendered Hebrew thoughts with the way the New Testament writers did.
With the expression 'olarn the LXX has followed the general pattern of using the Greek word aion or aiOnios. It must be admitted that these words do not necessarily mean an eternity. However, it should be mentioned that many have tended to give them that concept in passages that have to deal with the destiny of man and kindred subjects, for example, the popular teaching of soul torment in a continually burning hell.
Even if the translators of the LXX believed in innate immortality it does not necessarily follow that because the New Testament writers used the same words as did the LXX they too condoned and accepted this doctrine. The New Testament uses the words aion and aionios, but let it ever be remembered that the inspired writers looked back through the LXX to the underlying Hebrew concept. In the New Testament the word forever and its cognate forms have a similar meaning to that of its Old Testament counterpart.
We can illustrate the point that we have been trying to make by quoting two texts from the King James Version:
"Even as Sodom and Gomorrha, . . . are set forth for an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire" (Jude 7).
"And turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrha into ashes" (2 Peter 2:6).
Let us remember the underlying Hebrew concept in the references to hell fire, the statements about the nature of man, the promises to the overcomer, and the warnings to the faithless, and many others, and thus save ourselves some difficulties when preaching on these subjects.