The Bible is wonderful. You can read it quickly and get one level of understanding or you can slow down and savor each word. You can also continue to go over the same verse or passage again and again and continue to mine new meaning and application to one’s life. We can easily forget that the Bible wasn’t written in English. It was written mostly in Hebrew and Greek with some Aramaic thrown in. Furthermore, some parts of the Bible were written over 3,500 years ago! It stands to reason that when so much time passes, we could lose some of the nuances and meanings of certain words. One of those words is the English word forever.
When you hear the word forever, what do you think of? Generally we think of something that will go on for eternity. Something that never ends. It will always continue. Indeed, many times the word ‘forever’ carries this meaning but not always. There are a number of times in the Old Testament where the word normally translated ‘forever’ simply means until they die or for the rest of their life. Let’s look at a few examples.
Exodus 19:9, the LORD appears to Moses says, “And the Lord said to Moses, “Behold, I am coming to you in a thick cloud, that the people may hear when I speak with you, and may also believe you forever.” The word found here translated as ‘forever’ comes from the Hebrew word עוֹלָם olam, doesn’t automatically translate as eternity. Instead, it normally translates as a long period of time either in the future or in the past. In Exodus 19:9, God is telling Moses that the people will believe him for the rest of his life.
1 Samuel 1:22, Hannah, the prophet Samuel’s mother, makes a vow to the Lord. “As soon as the child is weaned, I will bring him, so that he may appear in the presence of the Lord and dwell there forever.” Here again we see that the term forever is used. It is the same underlying Hebrew word olam that we saw in Exodus 19:9. If we look at the context we can clearly see that this word here also means for the rest of his life.
1 Kings 1:31 and Nehemiah 2:3 both venerate their king and wish him to live forever. The meaning of the word here however does not convey the idea that the people thought that David and other kings that followed him would actually live forever. Their wish was for the respective kings to have a long life.
Olam can also mean in perpetuity
Olam can also mean in perpetuity, what we would understand as forever. Psalms 78:69; 104:5; and Ecclesiastes 1:4 all describe how the earth will last forever. Psalms 148 mentions that the angels, the heavens, the earth and all of creation are established forever.
I don’t intend to discuss this topic exhaustively but to simply help you to understand that when the Bible says, ‘forever’ it doesn’t necessarily mean in perpetuity. When referencing human beings it usually means until they die or for the rest of their life. The effects could continue throughout all eternity but the vow or condition often ends at the death of the person.