It is interesting to note, when considering eternal hope, that the Hebrew word “forever” (olam) appears more than 300 times in the Old Testament. It can refer to anything between remote time and perpetuity. No general word exits for time in Hebrew, nor for ideas like past, present, future, and eternity. Combined with “live,” i.e., “live forever” olam appears approximately thirteen times. Of these, the first references the Tree of Life: “And the LORD God said: ‘Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil; and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever.’” Another refers to God: “For I lift up My hand to heaven, and say: As I live for ever…” Six more appear in reference to the phrase, “Let the king live forever.” Job says that he does not want to live forever, obviously referring to temporal existence: “I loathe my life; I would not live for ever. Let me alone, for my days are a breath.” In the Psalms David say, “The afflicted shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him shall praise the LORD! May your hearts live forever!” I am not sure if David means eternally, or if he uses it in the sense of “Let the king live forever.” Another Psalm calls attention to the folly of trusting in wealth, noting that such a person thinks, “that he should continue to live on for ever, and never see the Pit.” Finally, the prophet reminds the people: “Your fathers, where are they? and the prophets, do they live for ever?”
Most translations render olam “everlasting” when referring to God or His commitment to Israel. For example, the Lord says to Abraham, “And I will establish My covenant between Me and thee and thy seed after thee throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee and to thy seed after thee.” The Lord refers to Himself as an “everlasting God.” “And Abraham planted a tamarisk-tree in Beer-sheba, and called there on the name of the LORD, the Everlasting God.” Note that Jacob, when blessing his sons, says that God “…said unto me: Behold, I will make thee fruitful, and multiply thee, and I will make of thee a company of peoples; and will give this land to thy seed after thee for an everlasting possession.” God calls His commandments “everlasting:” “’And this shall be an everlasting statute unto you, to make atonement for the children of Israel because of all their sins once in the year.’ And he did as the LORD commanded Moses.” When Moses blesses the nation, he talks of the land in the same terms: “And for the tops of the ancient mountains, and for the precious things of the everlasting hills.”
When Isaiah prophesizes against the wicked he says, “The sinners in Zion are afraid; trembling hath seized the ungodly: ‘Who among us shall dwell with the devouring fire? Who among us shall dwell with everlasting burnings?’” Does olam mean “eternal,” or is the NAS correct when it translates the word “continual?” When Isaiah talks of the return of the Jews he says, “And the ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come with singing unto Zion, and everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.” Again, should olam be read to mean “eternal” or “continual?” When prophesizing the ultimate restoration of Israel he says, “O Israel, that art saved by the LORD with an everlasting salvation; ye shall not be ashamed nor confounded world without end.” When condemning the false prophets, does Jeremiah mean that “everlasting” and “perpetual” are the same, or different? “… and I will bring an everlasting reproach upon you, and a perpetual shame, which shall not be forgotten.”
Ad, another Hebrew word similar to olam, can mean “eternal, forever,” etc., usually denoting the unforeseeable future. Thus, the prophet uses the word to communicate, “He standeth, and shaketh the earth, He beholdeth, and maketh the nations to tremble; and the everlasting (ad) mountains are dashed in pieces, the ancient (olam) hills do bow; His goings are as of old (olam).”
These references, all using olam and ad, call attention to the ambiguity you face when choosing an English equivalent. From what I can tell, the context seldom helps; mostly you must decide on the basis of your theological bias.
Reflections on 1 Chronicles through Nehemiah
1 Chronicles – When King David brought the Ark of God from the house of Obed-edom, he commissioned Asaph to write a Psalm, which in part says, “Remember His covenant for ever, the word which He commanded to a thousand generations; The covenant which He made with Abraham, and His oath unto Isaac; And He established it unto Jacob for a statute, to Israel for an everlasting covenant.” Here we see a clear “everlasting covenant” established with the nation. I know of no such commitment on the part of God to an individual in the Old Testament. David wanted to build a house for God (Temple) and God wanted to build a house for David (dynasty). This covenant with David regarding his dynasty was perpetual, but God never promised David eternal life.
David warns his son Solomon as he is about to turn his kingdom over to his son: “And you, Solomon my son, know the God of your father, and serve him with a whole heart and with a willing mind; for the LORD searches all hearts, and understands every plan and thought. If you seek him, he will be found by you; but if you forsake him, he will cast you off for ever.” Note the conditional aspect of the relationship; evidently, forsaking God was an unpardonable sin. Later David prays, “For we are sojourners before Thee, and tenants, as all our fathers were; our days on the earth are like a shadow, and there is no hope.” Does David tell us that he died with no hope, or that this life contains nothing worthy of a man’s hope? If the latter, then David does not amplify by telling us the object of his hope or that he has an eternal hope.
2 Chronicles – The word “heaven” appears 24 times in this book, 12 of them in Solomon’s dedication of the Temple. All refer either to the abode of God or the sky above, and none to the object of man’s hope. “Sheol” and “hope” do not appear in 2 Chronicles, nor does any expression of man’s anticipating an eternity with God when he dies.
Ezra – Ezra, possibly the first scribe, was commissioned of God to get the Temple rebuilt after Cyrus decreed that the Jews could return to the Promise Land. Upon laying the foundation of the Temple, the people rejoiced: “And they sang one to another in praising and giving thanks unto the LORD: ‘for He is good, for His mercy endureth for ever toward Israel.’ And all the people shouted with a great shout, when they praised the LORD, because the foundation of the house of the LORD was laid.” At the end of the book of Ezra, the people repent of their sin of intermarrying, and in their prayer say: “Now therefore give not your daughters unto their sons, neither take their daughters unto your sons, nor seek their peace or their prosperity for ever; that ye may be strong, and eat the good of the land, and leave it for an inheritance to your children for ever.” These are the only two verses using olam in Ezra. The first refers to God’s covenant with Israel, and the second with an appeal on the part of the Jews to be God’s covenant children. The word “heaven” appears nine times, all in the phrase “the God of heaven.” In their prayer acknowledging their guilt regarding marrying foreign wives, the people refer to their “hope” in God. This is the only use of “hope” in Ezra; the word “Sheol” does not appear at all.
As far as I can tell, Ezra doesn’t mention anything pertaining to the eternal, with the possible exception of the above two verses using the word olam. No individual expresses hope in spending eternity with God and God does not offer eternal life to any individual.
Nehemiah – The book of Nehemiah follows the same pattern as Ezra with the exception that God commissions Ezra with the task of rebuilding the Temple, Nehemiah with rebuilding the wall of Jerusalem. Four of the ten times he uses “heaven” referencing “the God of heaven,” with the rest referencing where God lives, what God does from heaven, or the sky from which acts of God come. At no time does he refer to heaven as the place where people go. He uses olam “forever/everlasting” three times, once in reference to the king: “And I said unto the king: ‘Let the king live for ever: why should not my countenance be sad, when the city, the place of my fathers’ sepulchres, lieth waste, and the gates thereof are consumed with fire?’” Twice he uses it in reference to God: “Then the Levites, Jeshua, and Kadmiel, Bani, Hashabneiah, Sherebiah, Hodiah, Shebaniah, and Pethahiah, said: ‘Stand up and bless the LORD your God from everlasting to everlasting; and let them say: Blessed be Thy glorious Name, that is exalted above all blessing and praise.”
The words “hope” and “Sheol” do not appear. As with Ezra, I cannot find any individual expressing even a desire to be with God in heaven forever, nor can I find God making such an offer to an individual.
In the OT, because God committed Himself to the nation and established no eternal commitment to any individual, and because no individual expressed an eternal hope, we can conclude that from the OT people’s perspective, there would be no need for Messiah to function as a sin substitute. God did not say anything in the OT, that I can find, that suggests the need for propitiation. I tie the propitious death of Christ to an eternal hope, for without an eternal hope, why would the death of Christ be necessary? In the Old Testament, God’s people don’t look for Him who would be “just and the justifier,” for the temporal circumstances of those favored by God do not differ appreciably from the circumstances of those who ignore God. Can we say, for example, that the temporal circumstances of Israel were more favorable than those of ancient Midian, Moab, Philistia, Greece or Rome? I think not. For this reason (as noted in an earlier issue), Naomi counseled her daughter’s in law to return to their gods; she saw no practical reason to encourage Ruth to worship the God of Israel. God killed her husband and two sons. Why would Ruth consider the worship of Yahweh superior to that of the gods of Moab?
When the OT Hebrew committed willful sin, no redemption remained open to him; he was either executed or exiled. Christ’s death for the satisfaction of sin only becomes relevant from an eternal perspective. The moment you introduce the possibility of an eternal hope, you are forced to answer the question, “How can a holy and just God take the sinner to heaven without violating His justice and making heaven dirty?” Without this eternal dimension, you may see from the perspective of ultimate reality why people should worship Yahweh, but you find no pragmatic reason.
Grateful for the hope of heaven,
 Harris, R. Laird, editor, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, Moody Press, Chicago, 1980, page 645
 Genesis 3:22, JPS
 Deuteronomy 32:40, JPS
 Job 7:16, RSV
 Psalm 22:6, RSV
 Psalm 49:9, RSV
 Zechariah 1:5, JPS
 Genesis 17:7, JPS
 Genesis 21:33, JPS
 Genesis 48:4, JPS
 Leviticus 16:34, JPS
 Deuteronomy 33:15, JPS
 Isaiah 33:14, JPS
 Isaiah 35:10, JPS
 Isaiah 45:17, JPS
 Jeremiah 23:40, JPS
 Habakkuk 3:6, JPS
 1Chronicles 16:15-17, JPS
 Cf. 1 Chronicles 17:1-14
 1Chronicles 28:9, JPS
 1 Chronicles 29:15, NAS. I chose the NAS because, as best I can tell, the Hebrew word means “no hope” rather than “no abiding,” or as the JPS says, “nothing in prospect.”
 Cf. Ezra 7:6
 Ezra 3:11, JPS
 Ezra 9:12, JPS
 Ezra 10:2
 Nehemiah 2:3, JPS
 Nehemiah 9:5, JPS
 In Leviticus 6:1-7 God makes an exception for one who sins in a property matter and confesses before being discovered by another.