Forever and ever.

Hebrew עולם, Greek αιων, and expressions of eternity.


The ancient Jews expressed their concepts of eternity, or foreverness, with the Hebrew word עולם and the Greek word αιων. When standing on its own, each of these words used to be translated into English as world, though in more contemporary English the translation age is probably to be preferred. When standing as part of a phrase indicating duration of time, however, the phrase as a whole is usually best translated as forever.

I call such phrases expressions of eternity.

It is my purpose here to touch upon some of the more common expressions of eternity in the ancient Jewish writings, both in Hebrew and in Greek.

Refer also to my discussion of the two ages.

Eternity past and eternity future.

We like to think of eternity in terms of the future, but the words עולם and αιων were equally fit for expressing eternity in terms of the past. The concept of an eternal future would seem to be as far into the future as you can go. The concept of an eternal past, then, would seem to be as far into the past as you can go.

Of all the many instances of the word עולם in the Hebrew Bible, it just so happens that the first is an example of eternity future, while the second is an example of eternity past.

Genesis 3.22 (Masoretic and LXX) famously expresses eternity future:

ויאמר יהוה אלהים הן האדם היה כאחד ממנו לדעת טוב ורע ועתה פן־ישלח ידו ולקח גם מעץ החיים ואכל וחי לעלם׃

Και ειπεν ο θεος· Ιδου Αδαμ γεγονεν ως εις εξ ημων του γινωσκειν καλον και πονηρον, και νυν μηποτε εκτεινη την χειρα και λαβη του ξυλου της ζωης και φαγη και ζησεται εις τον αιωνα....

And the Lord God said: Behold, Adam has become as one of us, knowing good and evil, and now, lest he stretch out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live unto the age....

Genesis 6.4 (Masoretic and LXX) famously expresses eternity past:

הנפלים היו בארץ בימים ההם וגם אחרי־כן אשר יבאו בני האלהים אל־בנות האדם וילדו להם המה הגברים אשר מעולם אנשי השם׃

Οι δε γιγαντες ησαν επι της γης εν ταις ημεραις εκειναις και μετ εκεινο ως αν εισεπορευοντο οι υιοι του θεου προς τας θυγατερας των ανθρωπων και εγεννωσαν εαυτοις· εκεινοι ησαν οι γιγαντες οι απ αιωνος οι ανθρωποι οι ονομαστοι.

The nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also after that, whenever the sons of God came in to the daughters of man and they bore them children. Those were the giants who were from the age, men of name.

Note that my English translations retain age instead of the smoother and more usual forever. This is intentional, and is intended to keep us from forgetting what the word actually means. There was no separate word for forever in ancient Hebrew. The ancient Hebrews used the expression unto the age instead.

That phrase from the age in the latter passage is often rendered into English as of old, or from ancient times.

Ecclesiastes 3.11 is a somewhat strange case, but seems to point eternity both backward and forward through history at the same time:

את־הכל עשה יפה בעתו גם את־העלם נתן בלבם מבלי אשר לא־ימצא האדם את־המעשה אשר־עשה האלהים מראש ועד־סוף׃

Συν τα παντα εποιησεν καλα εν καιρω αυτου, και γε συν τον αιωνα εδωκεν εν καρδια αυτων οπως μη ευρη ο ανθρωπος το ποιημα ο εποιησεν ο θεος απ αρχης και μεχρι τελους.

He made all things beatiful in their time, and indeed gave the age to their heart, yet so that man might not find what God has made from the beginning even until the end.

Some versions translate that difficult phrase as he set eternity in their hearts, or some such. Others render it as he set the world in their hearts. In either case, the sense of time appears to point both backward and forward at the same time.

There are more examples of future eternity in the Hebrew sciptures than would be practical to list, and quite a few also of past eternity. My main point here is that the age was seen as the entire duration of time, and therefore eternity could point both forward and backward through history, from its beginning to its very end.

Hyperbolic expressions of eternity.

The ancient authors were not always content to say that something would merely last forever. They not infrequently dressed up their expressions of eternity, especially in doxological contexts, employing a range of phrases that we might best translate as forever and ever.

I classify the ancient expressions of eternity into five basic groups, laid out on the table below. Simple expressions are those that use עולם or αιων only once, whether singular or plural. Compound expressions are those that use עולם or αιων twice, whether two singulars, two plurals, or one of each.

Simple
singular.
- Simple
plural.
Compound
singular.
Compound
mixed.
Compound
plural.

An example, in English, of each category might be in order:

  • Simple singular: ...unto the age.
  • Simple plural: ...unto the ages.
  • Compound singular: ...unto the age of the age.
  • Compound mixed: ...unto the age of the ages.
  • Compound plural: ...unto the ages of the ages.

The simple singular category is not always hyperbolic. It is just the usual way of saying forever. I include it with the other categories both for the sake of completeness and because it can sometimes amount to hyperbole.

I also throw in an extra category for special cases that ought to be pointed out, but do not exactly fit into any of the other slots.

The basic principle that I hope to demonstrate throughout the various examples is this:

In expressions of eternity neither the Hebrew עולם nor the Greek αιων can be pressed to mean any more than forever. Whether expressed in singular or in plural number, or in simple or in compound format, or pointing to times past or to times future, the exact number and format is not intended to have any bearing on the actual extent of the time imagined, nor is it meant in any way to count the ages.

On with the textual examples....

Simple singular.

The simple expression unto the age is by far the most common in the Hebrew scriptures. There is no need to list its many occurrences.

I wish to point out, however, that even the simple plural may be hyperbolic. To our modern English ears, words like forever and eternity, especially in religious contexts, signify a span of time that never ends. We think of it almost in the mathematical terms of infinity. In the Hebrew scriptures, however, expressions of eternity often seem to designate spans of time somewhat less than forever. Consider Deuteronomy 23.3 (Masoretic; LXX 23.4):

לא־יבא עמוני ומואבי בקהל יהוה גם דור עשירי לא־יבא להם בקהל יהוה עד־עולם׃

Ουκ εισελευσεται Αμμανιτης και Μωαβιτης εις εκκλησιαν κυριου και εως δεκατης γενεας· ουκ εισελευσεται εις εκκλησιαν κυριου και εως εις τον αιωνα.

An Ammonite and a Moabite shall not come into the assembly of the Lord even until the tenth generation. He shall not come into the assembly of the Lord even up unto the age.

Ten generations may well be a long span of time, but they are hardly forever. Such a usage would seem to imply just a long indefinite extent of time, and the use of עולם might be overdoing it. The simple singular, in other words, would be hyperbole.

See also 1 Samuel 1.22. No one lives forever, so to serve in the tabernacle forever must be hyperbole.

What is vital to grasp with regard to the simple singular is that, even in later writings in which two ages, and not just one, are squarely in view, the simple singular remained a normal way of saying that something will last forever.

We know, for example, that the author of the epistle to the Hebrews held to two ages (see Hebrews 5.6; confer 9.26). Yet when he says that Jesus Christ abides forever, and thus holds his priesthood forever, in 7.24, he uses the simple singular:

Ο δε δια το μενειν αυτον εις τον αιωνα απαραβατον εχει την ιερωσυνην.

But he, because he remains unto the age, holds the priesthood permanently.

I would say that we do see a sharp increase in the plural and the compound expressions of eternity as we get away from the Hebrew scriptures and into the apocryphal and apostolic writings, but the familiar old simple singular remained untarnished, and meant forever as much for those who held to two ages as for those who were aware of only one.

Simple plural.

The Hebrew עולם appears only twelve times in the Old Testament in the plural:

  • 1 Kings 8.13.
  • 2 Chronicles 6.2.
  • Psalm 61.5; 77.6, 8; 145.13.
  • Ecclesiastes 1.10.
  • Isaiah 26.4; 45.17 (twice); 51.9.
  • Daniel 9.24.

Of these twelve instances, Psalm 77.6, Ecclesiastes 1.10, and Isaiah 51.9 refer to past ages, and the rest apply to future ages. 1 Kings 8.13 and 2 Chronicles 6.2 are parallel (Solomon describing the temple as a place for the Lord to indwell forever in both passages).

That these plurals are hyperbole, and do not necessarily show an awareness of more than one actual age, is especially clear in Isaiah 45.17. There are two instances of the plural עולמים in the Masoretic text of the Hebrew. The Septuagint translates the first of these with the adjective αιωνιος, and, since adjectives agree in number with the nouns that they modify, we can tell nothing about the singularity or plurality of the concept of the age there. The second instance, however, the Septuagint translates with the singular noun αιων. Isaiah 45.17 (Masoretic and LXX):

ישראל נושע ביהוה תשועת עולמים לא־תבשו ולא־תכלמו עד־עולמי עד׃

Ισραηλ σωζεται υπο κυριου σωτηριαν αιωνιον· ουκ αισχυνθησονται ουδε μη εντραπωσιν εως του αιωνος.

Israel is saved by the Lord with an age-lasting salvation. You will not be ashamed or humiliated through the age[s].

(Note that the Greek word αιωνιον is simply the adjectival form of αιων. It is usually translated as eternal.)

I bracket the final s of the word ages in my English translation precisely because the Hebrew of that word is plural while the Greek is singular. The ancient translators who put together the Septuagint, in other words, recognized the plural עולמים for what it was, an exaggerated hyperbolic expression just as easily rendered in the singular as in the plural.

The Septuagint gives us a few more simple plurals:

  • Psalm 54.20; 60.5; 71.17; 76.8; 144.13.
  • Daniel 2.44.
  • 1 Esdras 4.40; 5.58.
  • Tobit 3.11; 8.5, 15; 11.14; 13.2, 4, 7, 11, 18.
  • Wisdom 3.8.
  • Psalm of Solomon 8.26.
  • Sirach 24.33; 36.17; 45.24.
  • 1 Maccabees 2.57.

Tobit 3.11 parallels a singular instance with a plural, another sign that the plural is hyperbolic:

Και εδεηθη προς τη θυριδι και ειπεν· Ευλογητος ει κυριε ο θεος μου και ευλογητον το ονομα σου το αγιον και εντιμον εις τους αιωνας· ευλογησαισαν σε παντα τα εργα σου εις τον αιωνα.

And she prayed toward the window and said: Blessed are you, Lord my God, and blessed and honored is your holy name unto the ages! Let all your works bless you unto the age!

I do not think that two different extents of time are in view in this verse. The plural appears to mean no more than the singular.

The Odes of Solomon employ the plural in the sense of forever in 7.26; 12.15; 14.35. In the eighth Ode we find the Prayer of Azariah and the Song of the Three Children, in which the plural is present twice in 8.52 and exactly once per verse in 8.53-88. These same songs are present in the Septuagint between what we find in our Bibles as Daniel 3.23 and 3.24. Much the same distribution of plurals, therefore, is found in Prayer of Azariah 1.29-66 (Daniel 3.52-88) as in Ode 8.52-88.

The New Testament is a good source for eternal hyperbole. The epistle to the Ephesians gives us both a future and a past example at 2.7 and 3.9:

...ινα ενδειξηται εν τοις αιωσιν τοις επερχομενοις το υπερβαλλον πλουτος της χαριτος αυτου εν χρηστοτητι εφ ημας εν Χριστω Ιησου.

...in order that in the ages to come he might show the surpassing riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.

...και φωτισαι τις η οικονομια του μυστηριου του αποκεκρυμμενου απο των αιωνων εν τω θεω τω τα παντα κτισαντι.

...and to bring to light what is the economy of the mystery which has been hidden from the ages in God, who created all things.

Colossians 1.26 carries the same idea as Ephesians 3.9, likewise speaking of το μυστηριον το αποκεκρυμμενον απο των αιωνων (the mystery hidden from the ages).

Compound singular.

The compound singular is relatively rare compared to some of the other expressions. One example is Psalm 72.19 (Masoretic; LXX 71.19):

וברוך שם כבודו לעולם וימלא כבודו את־כל הארץ אמן ואמן׃

Και ευλογητον το ονομα της δοξης αυτου εις τον αιωνα, και εις τον αιωνα του αιωνος, και πληρωθησεται της δοξης αυτου πασα η γη. γενοιτο. γενοιτο.

And blessed by his name of glory unto the age, and unto the age of the age. And may the whole earth be filled with his glory. Let it be. Let it be.

Note that the original Hebrew is less adorned than its Greek translation, which adds to the original simple singular a compound singular.

But the best example is probably Psalm 48.15 (Masoretic; LXX 47.15):

...כי זה אלהים אלהינו עולם ועד הוא ינהגנו על־מות׃

...οτι ουτος εστιν ο θεος ο θεος ημων εις τον αιωνα, και εις τον αιωνα του αιωνος· αυτος ποιμανει ημας εις τους αιωνας.

...since God himself is our God unto the age, and unto the age of the age. He himself will shepherd us unto the ages.

Were there any thought in our minds that the different expressions of eternity were meant to express different extents of time, this verse from the Septuagint would dispel them. The Hebrew again has only a simple singular. But to this bare expression the Greek translation adds both a compound singular and a simple plural.

And what does that compound singular, the age of the age, mean? It makes no more syntactical sense in Greek than it does in English. It is hyperbole, through and through.

Compound mixed.

We find a good example of the compound mixed form of expression in the Greek of Daniel 7.18 (LXX):

Και παραληψονται την βασιλειαν αγιοι υψιστου και καθεξουσι την βασιλειαν εως του αιωνος και εως του αιωνος των αιωνων.

And the saints of the most high shall receive the kingdom and shall possess the kingdom until the age and until the age of the ages.

Another example, from Prayer of Azariah 1.68:

Ευλογειτε παντες οι σεβομενοι τον θεον των θεων, υμνειτε και εξομολογεισθε οτι εις τον αιωνα το ελεος αυτου και εις τον αιωνα των αιωνων.

All who worship the God of Gods, bless him, sing and confess that his mercy is unto the age and unto the age of the ages.

From the New Testament, Ephesians 3.21:

Αυτω η δοξα εν τη εκκλησια και εν Χριστω Ιησου εις πασας τας γενεας του αιωνος των αιωνων· αμην.

To him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all the generations of the age of the ages. Amen.

Again, the preferred translation in each case would be forever and ever.

Compound plural.

Our most hyperbolic of all hyperbolic expressions is the compound plural. Consider Psalm 83.5 (LXX):

Μακαριοι οι κατοικουντες εν τω οικω σου· εις τους αιωνας των αιωνων αινεσουσιν σε. διαψαλμα.

Blessed are those that house themselves in your house. Unto the ages of the ages they shall praise you. Musical interlude.

Or 4 Maccabees 18.24.

...ω η δοξα εις τους αιωνας των αιωνων. αμην.

...to whom be glory unto the ages of the ages. Amen.

From apostolic times, Galatians 1.4-5:

...του δοντος εαυτον υπερ των αμαρτιων ημων οπως εξεληται ημας εκ του αιωνος του ενεστωτος πονηρου κατα το θελημα του θεου και πατρος ημων, ω η δοξα εις τους αιωνας των αιωνων· αμην.

...who gave himself for our sins, that he might take us out of this present evil age according to the will of our God and father, to whom be glory unto the ages of the ages. Amen.

What exactly are the ages of the ages? Again, such an expression, which is also found in the following New Testament passages...:

  • Philippians 4.20.
  • 1 Timothy 1.17.
  • 2 Timothy 4.18.
  • Hebrews 13.21.
  • 1 Peter 4.11.
  • Revelation 1.6, 18; 4.9, 10; 5.13; 7.12; 10.6; 11.15; 15.7; 19.3; 20.10; 22.5 (confer the similar expression in 14.11).

...means no more than forever and ever.

Special cases.

These are cases in which the concept of eternity is expressed clearly enough, but not with any of the patterned expressions that we have seen so far. These examples do not fall neatly into any of our categories. That they are hyperbolic in much the same way as we have already seen, however, will be clear, I trust.

Exodus 15.18 (Masoretic and LXX):

יהוה ימלך לעלם ועד׃

Κυριος βασιλευων τον αιωνα και επ αιωνα και ετι.

The Lord shall be king unto the age [and upon age] and still.

1 Corinthians 10.11:

Ταυτα δε τυπικως συνεβαινεν εκεινοις, εγραφη δε προς νουθεσιαν ημων, εις ους τα τελη των αιωνων κατηντηκεν.

And these things fell upon them as a type, and were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come.

Hebrews 9.26:

Επει εδει αυτον πολλακις παθειν απο καταβολης κοσμου· νυνι δε απαξ επι συντελεια των αιωνων εις αθετησιν αμαρτιας δια της θυσιας αυτου πεφανερωται.

Then it would be necessary for him to suffer often from the onset of the world, but now once, upon the consummation of the ages, he has appeared to put away sin through his sacrifice.

To enunciate our basic principle once more:

In expressions of eternity neither the Hebrew עולם nor the Greek αιων can be pressed to mean any more than forever. Whether expressed in singular or in plural number, or in simple or in compound format, or pointing to times past or to times future, the exact number and format is not intended to have any bearing on the actual extent of the time imagined, nor is it meant in any way to count the ages.

This principle will be important to keep in mind while tracing the course of the two-age structure so prevalent in later Jewish apocalyptic and rabbinic thought.