The English word “forever” essentially means “without end; ever-continuing.” However, the Hebrew word ‘olam, from which it is translated, has various shades of meaning and must therefore be understood in light of the context in which it is used. Sometimes it carries the same sense as the English word (see Psa. 29:10; 45:6). In the largest number of its occurrences, however, ‘olam merely denotes simple duration. In this sense it can mean “day by day” or “continually,” as in Psa. 61:8: “So I will sing praise to Your name forever [‘olam], that I may daily perform my vows” (NKJV). It can also mean “in olden times,” as in Gen. 6:4: “the mighty men who were of old [‘olam]…” It can be used to signify “for a long time,” such as Isa. 42:14: “I have held my peace a long time [‘olam]…” It can carry the idea, “into the indefinite future,” as in Deut. 23:3: “to the tenth generation none of his descendants shall enter the assembly of the Lord forever [‘olam].” It sometimes means “as long as one lives,” such as 1 Sam. 1:22-28: “then I will take him, that he may appear before the Lord and remain there forever [‘olam]…. as long as he lives he shall be lent to the Lord” (cf. Ex. 21:6; Deut. 15:17; 1 Sam. 27:12).
When ‘olam is used with reference to temporary things, it clearly carries the idea of that which lasts its allotted amount of time. For example, the Levitical priesthood was to abide “forever” (Deut. 18:5), yet the priesthood was subsequently changed (Heb. 7:12). The same idea is found with reference to the Israelite land promise and circumcision (Gen. 17:7-13; Ex. 32:13), the Passover (Ex. 12:14-17), the tabernacle’s lampstand (Ex. 27:21; Lev. 24:3), the priests’ trousers (Ex. 28:43), heave offerings (Ex. 29:28), ritual washings (Ex. 30:21), the Sabbath (Ex. 31:17), grain and drink offerings (Lev. 6:18-22; Num. 15:15), offerings to the priests (Lev. 7:34-36; 10:15), annual Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:29-34; 23:31), feasts and offerings of firstfruits, Pentecost and booths (Lev. 23:14, 21, 41), ceremonial bread (Lev. 24:8-9), trumpet blowing (Num. 10:8), sacrifice of purification (Num. 19:10), the memorial stones (Josh. 4:7), Caleb’s inheritance (Josh. 14:9), Israel as God’s people (2 Sam. 7:24), the temple (1 Kgs. 9:3), Jerusalem (Psa. 48:8), et al. Since the earth is not permanent (Psa. 102:25-26; Matt. 24:35; 2 Pet. 3:10-12), whenever the Bible speaks of the earth abiding ‘olam (“forever”), it simply means that it will last as long at it was intended to last – until Christ returns.
--Kevin L. Moore
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