This is taken from the late C. Ryder Smith's book on The Doctrine of the Hereafter.
Here there are three Hebrew 'compound' words, each consisting of the preposition le, meaning 'to' or 'for,' and a noun. One of the three is la-netzach (39 times), rendered by 'for ever' 24 times. The noun netzach, which only occurs by itself four times, is derived from a root that denotes 'prevailingness.' Samuel calls, God 'the netzach of Israel' when He wants to assert that in His choice of David instead 'of Saul He will prevail (1. Samuel 15:29; cf. 1. Chron. 29:11; Isaiah 63:6). That which prevails is that which lasts, and 'lastingly' would often be a good rendering for the adverbial phrase. In the great majority of passages the phrase refers to something that lasts in 'this life'—that is, in history. There are examples in Abner's question, 'Shall the sword devour continually?' (2. Samuel 2:26), and in Amos' declaration that Edom has 'kept his wrath lastingly' (Amos 1:11. cf. Jeremiah 3:5; Psalm l03:9), When used with a negative, it may be rendered 'never,' as when the wicked man says that God 'will never see' his sin (Psalm 10:11). There are a few passages where the context refers to death. In all of these the reference is to the historical event called 'death' that makes an end of life,—not to the state of the dead in Sheol. At the moment when God takes life away, His withdrawal of it 'prevails' lastingly in the sense that now there is no more life (Job 14:20; Psalm 52:5). When a man dies and 'goes to the generations of his fathers,' he never again 'sees the light' any more than a dead 'beast' does (Psalm 49:19). The idea is 'no life.' Except in this negative way, la-netzach is never used of the dead. It always refers to history—that is, to events on earth.
The fundamental idea of the second noun, 'ad,' is 'going,on and on.' The adverbial phrase la'ad (49 times) means 'continuously,' though it is generally rendered 'for ever' (42 times). In 20 of these instances it occurs along with a similar phrase formed from the next word, le'olam, the combined phrases being rendered 'for ever and ever.' 'Always' would be a better translation, for this English word, like la'ad, but unlike 'for ever,' has various 'universes of discourse' and therefore various meanings. For example, in 'he always talks like that now,' 'always' means 'in his present phase'; in 'When the Houses have passed a Bill, the King always signs it,' it means 'since the death of Queen Anne'; in 'the sun will always rise in the east,' it means 'for many, many trillions of years.' Such variations are not less real because they are made unconsciously. When a speaker is challenged, he admits them. In most texts la-ad is used of God and His actions in history. Here the notion of 'endlessness,' however vaguely conceived, occurs. Yet the notion is not that God is 'eternal' because He transcends 'time,' or even that 'time' is endless, for 'time' is an abstract term. The concrete term is 'history,' and the idea is that God and history 'go on and on' together endlessly—and repeatedly. For instance, in Isaiah 57:15, the meaning is that God, because He 'abides perpetually,' abides continually, 'with him that is of a contrite and humble spirit.' 'That inhabiteth eternity,' the rendering of the English versions in this text, is a great phrase, but it does not express the Hebrew concept, for 'eternity' does not suggest history. The phrase 'the Lord shall reign for ever and ever' means 'the Lord shall always reign.' Psalm 3., with its threefold la'ad (verses 3, 8, 10), is an exposition of this idea. The passage where God says 'I create new heavens and a new earth' is addressed to people who will live through that crisis and thereafter 'rejoice always' (Isaiah 65:17). Even here, 'rejoice for ever' gives the wrong idea, for it is presently assumed that some time these men will die. It is their seed and name that is to remain as long as the new creation (Isaiah 66:22). La'ad, when used of God refers to His endless activity in history, and when used at Israel refers to its perpetuity in history, but when used of a man it means 'as long as he lives.' For instance, while Zion is to be the Lord's lasting 'resting-place' (Psalm 132 : 14), and while Israel is to 'walk in the name of the Lord (her) God perpetually (Micah 4:5; cf. Psalm 61:8), when a particular righteous man pledges himself to 'observe (God's) law continually' (Psalm 119:44), he means 'as long as I live.' The Davidic kingship is to last as long as history (Psalm 89: 29). When a Prophet, speaking of a newly born king, calls him 'Father of 'ad' , (Isaiah 9:6), he docs not mean that he is 'Father of Eternity' (RV margin), with its supratemporal suggestion, or even that he is to be 'an everlasting Father,' but that he will always be a father to his people. When a Psalmist declares that 'all the worker s of iniquity' will be destroyed la'ad, he means, as with parallel phrases under la-netzach, that God, by a decisive act of premature death, will end their part in history (Psalm 92:7; cf. 9, 11, 14).
The third noun 'olam' is much the commonest (439 times). It has some 20 renderings, the most frequent being 'ever' or 'for ever' (270 times), 'everlasting' (64 times), and 'perpetual' (20 times). It is a very elastic term, probably more so that any of the relevant English words, though the varying 'universes of discourse' under 'ever' in such English questions as the following may give some hint of its range—'Was there ever such a thing?' 'Shall I ever finish? ' , Will war ever cease?' 'Will the stars ever burn out?' 'olam is occasionally used of long past history (42 times), the best rendering being 'ancient.' Sometimes its reference is to God's ways 'of old' (e.g. Isaiah 46:9; Psalm 25:6). Here the phrase 'from everlasting' (Psalm 93:2; cf. Proverbs 8:23) probably implies that for God there was somehow history before the creation. The hills, 'gates,' the Nephilim, the line of prophets and a nation, are all 'ancient' in varying senses (Gen. 49:26; Psalm 24:7; Gen. 6:4; Jeremiah 28:8, 5:15). 'The days of old' may be used vaguely (Psalm 77:6; cf. 143:5), or refer to the 'days' of Moses or of David (Isaiah 63:11; Amos 9:11), when used of the past the term always refers to distant history. When used of the future it means 'endless' in history even when it describes God (e.g. Gen. 21:33; Isaiah 40:28). For instance, the phrase 'His mercy (endureth) for ever' (33 times) means that it is 'everlasting' in this sense as its contexts show (e.g. Psalm 136). Similarly, His covenant and laws and promises and so on are 'ever lasting' (e.g. Sam. 23:5; Psalm 119:89; Isaiah 40:8). There is the same reference to the history of the far future when 'olam is used of the earth (Psalm 78:69), the Davidic house (1. Kings 2:33; Psalm 72:17), 'the righteous' as a class (e.g. Psalm 37:27-29, Micah 4:5), and a righteous nation or family (e.g. Isaiah 47:7, 1. Sam. 13:13, cf. Lev. 25:34). But where 'olam' is used of the future of an individual man, it means no more than 'as long as he lives.'
The very few exceptions (Jonah 2:6, Daniel 12:2) are discussed in a later chapter. They belong to the latest Old Testament period. Until then 'during his life time' is the uniform meaning (e.g. 1. Sam. 1:22, 27:12, Deut. 15:17, Psalm 15:5). There is an exception that proves the rule when Bathsheba used the conventional phrase 'May the king live for ever,' for she is asking David to arrange for a successor (1. Kings 1:31)! The rendering 'always' sometimes occurs, but it too means 'as long as life lasts' (e.g. Psalm 41:13; 61:8; 121:8). The phrase "(God) hath set 'olam' in (men's) heart" (Eccles. 3:11) seems to mean, as the context suggests and as suits Koheleth, that men can look a long way both into the past and into the future, but that, as this gift of God is useless, a man's wisdom is to make the best of the immediate present. In another passage this writer says. sarcastically that 'the living do know that they will die' but 'the dead know nothing,' for they have no more 'portion for ever under the sun'—i.e. in history (Eccles. 9:5, cf. verse 10). In the last chapter of the book the Hebrew phrase rendered 'his long home' means "the house of his 'olam,'" and denotes 'the (lasting) grave' to which an old man, as the many signs of his physical decay show, is 'going' (Eccles. 12:1-8).
The prevalence of the translation 'for ever' in the English versions for this term, as for the other two, gives a wrong impression. While they rarely describe the state of the dead because it was just taken for granted that the dead had done with life, occasionally they occur for the sake of emphasis, as in 'they sleep a perpetual sleep and do not wake' (Jeremiah 51:39, 57). It would not be inaccurate to use the para phrase: 'They have no further part in history.' In their positive use, at any rate, the three phrases always refer to history. It follows that, when the overtones of the words are considered, the rendering 'always' suits the three phrases better than 'for ever.' The word 'everlasting,' if it be used in its literal sense, is sometimes admissible. On the other hand, 'eternal,' if it be used, as it should be, to mean 'transcending history,' is not admissible. Even when the Hebrew used the phrases about God, he did not mean 'transcendent.' A philosopher, examining the implications of the use, rightly argues that a doctrine of transcendence is involved, but the Hebrew did not examine the philosophical implications of his thought any more than 'practical men' do in any period. For him God controlled history, both before and after the Day, and that was enough.
A.T. Last updated 27.4.2006