December 4, 2021

I was teaching Ecclesiastes 1 in an adult, Sunday morning class. My focus had been on some of the key terms in chapter one: vanity/lit. vapor, gain, under the sun, and chasing the wind. When I had a student comment on verse 4: “but the earth remains forever.” Then he said, “That’s not true.” He was thinking of the following passages.

But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, in which the heavens will pass away with a roar and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat, and the earth and its works will be burned up.

Since all these things are to be destroyed in this way, what sort of people ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness… (2 Peter 3:10–11, NASB)

My reply was the word translated eternal in Hebrew is ꜥolam. This word has a wider range of meaning than our word eternal. It certainly does mean eternal in many contexts, but it can also mean for a very long time.

After class, I did some checking. Certainly “forever” is a consistent reading with our major translations: KJV, NKJV, NASB, NIV, ESV, NRSV, CSB. But the NET Bible has a different translation. If you are not familiar with the NET Bible, it is an evangelical translation that is noted for their very helpful translation notes. These notes bring Greek and Hebrew information to English readers. Even for those of us who access Greek and Hebrew resources, the notes provide concise statements of various translation issues, and the notes provide a good place to point others to for such information. The NET reads:

“but the earth remains the same through the ages.”
(Ecclesiastes 1:4, NET)

The note on this verse gives the explanation for a different reading.

The term עוֹלָם (ꜥolam) has a wide range of meanings: (1) indefinite time: “long time, duration,” often “eternal” or “eternity”; (2) future time: “things to come”; and (3) past time: “a long time back,” that is, the dark age of prehistory (HALOT 798-99 s.v. ‏עוֹלָם‎; BDB 761-63 s.v. III ‏עלם‎). It may also denote an indefinite period of “continuous existence” (BDB 762 s.v. III ‏עלם 2.b). It is used in this sense in reference to things that remain the same for long periods: the earth (Eccl 1:4), the heavens (Ps 148:6), ruined cities (Isa 25:2; 32:14), ruined lands (Jer 18:16), nations (Isa 47:7), families (Ps 49:12; Isa 14:20), the dynasty of Saul (1 Sam 13:13), the house of Eli (2 Sam 2:30), continual enmity between nations (Ezek 25:15; 35:5), the exclusion of certain nations from the assembly (Deut 23:4; Neh 13:1), a perpetual reproach (Ps 78:66). NET Bible notes on Ecclesiastes 1:4.

Getting a handle on the range of meaning for the Hebrew word, ꜥolam, may help us in some passages which would otherwise perplex us.

— Russ Holden