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Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, thou art God. - Psalm 90:2 (KJV)

'Everlasting' is translated from the same word (עלם / עולם ‛ôlâm) and is apparently applied equally to both past and future in Psalm 90:2.

Regardless of what the correct definition of ‛ôlâm might be is there any hermeneutic legitimacy to assigning different meaning to the two uses of 'everlasting' in this verse?

For example, would it be appropriate to say that 'from everlasting' means from a distant but finite point in time whereas 'to everlasting' means infinite future?

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    Robert Young renders this as 'from age to age'. Rather than expressing the non-sequitir of limitless 'past time' and limitless 'future time' (neither of which concepts appear in scripture) Young renders the words as within time, the ages (pre-Noah and post-Noah, for example). Eternity, not expressed in Hebrew, is not a 'long period of time'. The state, expressed only in the New Testament (when time shall end) is other than time.
    – Nigel J
    Commented Dec 26, 2023 at 17:30

2 Answers 2

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The Meaning of עוֹלָם

עוֹלָם simply means "a long, continued amount of time."

Most of the time, that long amount of time will mean forever or into eternity:

  • Cf. 1 Ch 16:34, 16:41, 2 Ch 5:13, 7:3, 7:6, 20:21, Ezr 3:11, ψ 100:5, 106:1, 107:1, 118:1, 118:2, 118:3, 118:4, 118:29, 136:1

But there are times that it just simply means, "a long time" (with no end in sight—but, yet, there might be an end at some point):

  • Cf. Dt 1517 1S 2712 Jb 4028

In theses examples, the person was a slave for life. But that earthly life had an end point.

The Meaning of עוֹלָם in Psalm 90

Psalm 90:2 is listed in my notes as one of the key passages in the bible that shows us one of the attributes of our God: eternity:

  1. Eternity (aeternitas Dei).

a) God in His essence, His will, and His actions knows no succession of events. cf Ps 90:2; Is 57:15; Dan 4:3; 7:14,27; He 1:12; 2 Pe 3:8; Ps 90:4.

b) God views all in a never changing absolute present, to which there is no transition from a past, from which there is no transition to a future. cf Ps 2:7.

c) Particularly are the decrees of God and their execution not to be considered as separated in time. Both are one. cf Ac 15:18; Ps 33:9,11; Re 13:8; Gn 1:3,9,11,14,15,20–21,24.

Conclusion

While, exegetically, Psalm 90:2 could be taken as a passage with the 'limited use' of עוֹלָם in mind, far more likely (esp. when taken in context with similar passages speaking about the eternality within the Trinity) it's a passage that speaks of how God's existence stretches back into eternity ( <— | ) and also stretches into eternity ( | —> ).

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  • To be clear, it wouldn't be appropriate to have the first usage be the limited usage and the second usage be the unlimited usage? Commented Dec 26, 2023 at 17:13
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    indeed, exactly
    – Epimanes
    Commented Dec 26, 2023 at 17:29
  • I appreciate the candor of the meaning "a long time". On what basis do you say that mixed usage within a couplet must categorically be inappropriate? Occam's Razor, or another argument?
    – pygosceles
    Commented Dec 26, 2023 at 18:56
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    @pygosceles meaning is determined by how the word is used in context. In this case we can look at how it's used with hundreds of examples and determine pretty clearly what the meaning is and what the semantic range is.
    – Epimanes
    Commented Dec 26, 2023 at 20:44
  • @Epimanes There are hundreds of examples given in context of comparable couplets in Scripture, where the meaning is explicitly given for both uses of the term as "forever", not "a long time"?
    – pygosceles
    Commented Dec 26, 2023 at 21:34
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It is quite true that the concept of infinity in any form is completely absent in Hebrew thought - such was first introduced, probably by Greek philosophy.

However, the Hebrew text attempts in several places to try to hint at infinite time.

In Ps 90, we have a good example of this. Idiomatically, the text appears to be saying something like:

Think of the oldest thing you know, for example mountains or even the world - well, God is older than that and will exist into the future longer than that! [Dottard's extreme paraphrase]

There is a second sense that the phrase וּֽמֵעֹולָ֥ם עַד־עֹ֝ולָ֗ם conveys, and this is hinted at in Young's Literal Translation of "from age to age", meaning "continuously", ie, without interruption.

Thus, we have several distinct ideas presented about God in Ps 90:2 -

  • that God existed before anything else that exists
  • that God will exist just as long into the future
  • that God has been God without interruption (and always will be so)
  • that God, because He pre-existed all other things, was the cause of all other things and thus is the primal cause

It is for this reason that many commentators state thing such as the following:

Benson:

Before the mountains — The most fixed and stable parts of the earth; were brought forth — That is, arose out of the waters; or ever thou hadst formed the earth, &c. — That is, from eternity, which is frequently described in this manner; even from everlasting thou art God

Pulpit Commentary:

Before the mountains were brought forth (comp. Proverbs 8:25). The "mountains" are mentioned as perhaps the grandest, and certainly among the oldest, of all the works of God. Or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world; literally, or thou gavest birth to the earth and the world (comp. Deuteronomy 32:18). Even from everlasting to everlasting thou art God (comp. Psalm 93:2; Proverbs 8:23; Micah 5:2; Habakkuk 1:12). Psalm 90:2

Matthew Poole

The mountains; which he mentions as the most fixed and stable part of the earth. Or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world, i.e. from eternity; which is frequently described in this manner, as Proverbs 8:25,26 Joh 17:24 Ephesians 1:4, because there was nothing before the creation of the world but eternity.

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  • To be clear, it wouldn't be appropriate to have the first usage carry a temporal meaning and the second usage carry an eternal meaning? Commented Dec 26, 2023 at 23:06
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    @MikeBorden - both mean the Hebrew equivalent of eternal.
    – Dottard
    Commented Dec 27, 2023 at 0:54
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    @Dottard I appreciate your comment that the "concept of infinity in any form is completely absent in Hebrew thought." It's best to start by not shoe-horning a Greek mindset (handed down to us) to retrofit the Hebrew.
    – Epimanes
    Commented Dec 27, 2023 at 8:35

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