But the biography of that momentous word, aion would be incomplete if I should neglect to notice its destinies in connection with the Septuagint; that is, the Greek translation of the Old Testament made at Alexandria, according to tradition, by seventy translators, over two centuries before Christ. Think what it was. It was practically the only bible of the early church, and it had been in use over four centuries when Christ came. It furnished terms for the theology of the early church. By a careful examination of it we can be sure of the usage of aion and aionios when Christ came. The word aion occurs in it about four hundred times in every variety of combination. The adjective aionios derived from it, is used over one hundred times, and often in circumstances imparting to it an absolute definiteness of meaning; It is always pleasant to pass from the ground of mere opinion to that of absolute certainty. This was never more possible than in the present case.
In this translation (aion) is universally used as the equivalent of olam. What, then, is the meaning of olam? Is it eternity? I answer, no. It is derived from a verb denoting to hide, or to conceal, and denotes a period of time past or future, the boundaries of which are concealed, obscure, unseen, or unknown. So say Taylor and Furst in their Hebrew Concordances. It is true of eternity, past and future, that their boundaries are unseen and unknown. But it is also true of other undefined periods that are not eternal, and that may be called ages or dispensations. Of olam thus viewed aion is the universal representative.
Moreover, in the Septuagint the adjective aionios for the first time came into extensive use, for previously it had been rarely used in all Greek literature. And as aion denoted an age, great or small, so the adjective aionios expressed the idea pertaining to or belonging to the aion, whether great or small. Cremer, taking aion as denoting time, defines aionios as “belonging to the aion, that is, to time in its movement.” But in every case this adjective derives its character and duration from the aion to which it refers.
Let us now enter the Hebrew Bible, and the Septuagint version of it, and note the use of olam and its equivalent aion, and its adjective aionios. Olam has no Hebrew adjective, but certain forms of it are rendered by the Greek aionios. Thus a covenant of olam is rendered an aioinian covenant.
Creation, Time, and eternity, in the Old Testament.
On entering the Old Testament, two great facts strike us – the absolute eternity of God, and the absolute creation of all things by him. There is no self-existent matter, as in the Greek philosophy, to limit the former of the universe, and to give rise to moral evil by its intractable nature, as in the Platonic and Gnostic systems.
Again, we find in the Old Testament no Platonic speculations as to an eternity in which there is no past or future, but one eternal now. On the other hand, all time is divided into the present, the past, and the future. Time, also, is divided in two ways: one by the measurements of the solar system, which God is represented as making to measure time by days, hours, weeks, months, and years; the other by indefinite periods.
This indefinite division of time is represented by olam (Greek, aion). Hence we find, since there are many ages or periods, that the word is used in the plural. Moreover, since one great period or age can comprehend under it subordinate ages, we find such expressions as an age of ages, or an olam of olams, or an aion of aions, and other reduplications.
Olam and Temporary Ages.
Of the fact that olam is used to denote limited periods, notice has been often taken in incidental cases; such as, “He shall be his servant forever;” i.e., for his olam or his aion, in this case his life (Ex. xxi. 5). But no proper notice has been taken of the extent and variety of this usage. Let us, then, take a general survey of temporary ages, and of the application of olam and aion to them.
There are six ages, or aggregates of ages, involving temporary systems, spoken of in the Old Testament.
These ages are distinctly stated to be temporary, and yet to them all are applied olam and aion and their reduplications, as fully and as emphatically as they are to God. This is positive demonstration that the word olam, as is confirmed by Taylor and Furst in their Hebrew Concordances, means an indefinite period or age, past or future, and not an absolute eternity. When applied to God, the idea of eternity is derived from him and not from the word.
1. The first temporary system that occurs is that of the material universe. The Bible teaches the absolute creation of all things out of nothing. It also teaches the ultimate passing away of the system, especially in those sublime passages, Ps. cii., 25-27, and Is. li, 6: “They shall perish, but thou shalt endure; yea all of them shall wax old like a garment; as a vesture shalt thou change them, and they shall be changed, but thou art the same, and thy years shall have no end.” “Lift up your eyes to the heavens, and look upon the earth beneath; for the heavens shall vanish away like smoke, and the earth shall wax old as a garment, and they that dwell therein shall die in like manner.” I call attention to these definite statements, that they may be compared with the words said to denote an absolute future eternity, when applied, as they often are, to the material system.
Of this an instance occurs in Ps. cxlviii. 6, in which it is said of the sun, moon, and stars, and the whole system, “he hath established them forever and ever (eis ton aiona kai eis ton aiona tou aionos), he hath made a decree that shall not pass.” The same is said in Ps. civ. 5, with great emphasis, “He laid the foundations of the earth that it should not be removed forever and ever.” See, also, Eccl. i. 4, “The earth abideth forever.” The same is repeated in Ps. lxxxix, again and again, as to the sun and moon, v. 28-37. In all these cases olam and aion are used. They denote the great but indefinite and unknown period of the heavens and the earth.
2. We next notice the system of past ages, before and since the creation, up to the time then present. The existence of ages before the creation is distinctly brought out in that sublime passage, Prov. viii, 22-29, when Wisdom says, “I was from everlasting, before the earth was.” Of these past ages in the great abyss of past eternity, there is only an indefinite knowledge given in the Word of God. But they are often referred to. Besides these ages there are others since the creation, down to the days of the inspired writers, to which they refer as the past olams, aions, or ages.
I call attention also to the fact that to these past ages, even those since the creation, the same terms are applied that are said to denote absolute eternity. See Jer. ii. 20, “Of old time I have broken thy yoke,” and Prov. viii. 23, “I was set up from everlasting.” In these passages, the same word, olam, is used to denote the eternity of Wisdom, and the time of the early ages of the Jewish nation. In both cases it is from olam.
So also in Ps. xciii. 2, “Thou art from everlasting” (from olam), the same identical forms of olam and aion are used to denote the eternity of God that are used in Gen. vi. 4, to denote the antiquity of the mighty antediluvian giants, or in Josh. xxiv. 2, to denote the antiquity of the ancestors of Abraham, on the other side of the flood; or in 1 Sam. xxvii. 8, to denote the ancient ages of the inhabitants of Canaan and the parts adjacent. In every one of these cases it is from olam; Septuagint, from aion.
3. We note next the Abrahamic or patriarchal system, founded on a covenant with Abraham, and which in its final results was to bless all the families of the earth in his seed. This covenant included also the possession of the land of Canaan by his descendants. I call particular attention to this system, and the covenant, and the possession of the promised land, for the terms olam and aionios, said to denote eternity, are applied to them with great emphasis. See Gen. xiii. 5, and xvii. 7, 8, and 13 and 19. Here, in the Septuagint, the covenant is said to be aionian, and so is the inheritance of the land. See also Jer. vii. 7, and xxv. 5.
4. The Mosaic typical and ceremonial system was introduced by the deliverance of the Israelites from Egypt, and by their organization in the wilderness. This was followed by the conquest of the promised land, and the establishment of the system in it. It was designed to be, and was, in fact, a temporary system, and its passing away was clearly foretold. Especially do I call attention to this system since in all its parts the words olam and aionios, said to denote eternity, are applied to it abundantly and with great emphasis. The Mosaic covenant was olamic and aionian. So was the priesthood; so was every ordinance and rite. The Passover was an aionian ordinance, and, if olam and aion mean absolute eternity, it was ordained unto eternity. The same was true as to olive-oil in the lamps, as to the priests wearing linen breeches, as to the heave-offering, as to the priests washing hands and feet at the laver, as to the Sabbath, as to not eating fat or blood, as to the meat-offering, as to the priests not drinking wine or strong drink, as to the shew-bread, as to the great day of atonement; all these, and other ordinances, too numerous to mention, are eternal ordinances, by the same words that declare the eternity of God – olam, aion, and aionios.
5. There is presented also the future Messianic system under which redemption is completed, and the kingdom of God is established in this world. I call attention to the fact that it is clearly said to be established in this temporary world, both in Dan. vii. and in Rev. xxi. and xxii. The Ancient of Days comes, and judgment is given to the saints, and the time comes that the saints possess the kingdom. This is the kingdom elsewhere represented as given in this world to the Son of Man, that all peoples, nations, and languages, should serve him. This kingdom is therefore temporary, as this world is. Yet to this kingdom are applied the terms said to denote eternity. It is said the saints of the Most High shall, in this world, take the kingdom, and possess the kingdom forever, even forever and ever. So many and so various are the temporary ages and dispensations characterized by olam and aionios.
Covenant With Noah.
6. Besides these, there is also the covenant with Noah, after the flood, in its scope embracing the natural world and all its inhabitants, man and beasts, for all future generations; giving a guarantee against another flood, and insuring the perpetuity of the seasons. Of this covenant the rainbow was the sign. It deserves particular notice that to this covenant, also, are applied the terms that are said to denote eternity. It is olamic and aionian (Gen. ix. 12-16).
These designations of ages are in Hebrew, for the most part forms of the word olam. In a few instances other words are used. But, as a general fact, to denote indefinite ages or periods, olam is the term used; and of olam, aion is the general translation.
Development of “Aionios.”
We are now prepared to understand the peculiar development of the word aionios, used by our Lord in his account of the judgment. It was developed and became a common word, by the Septuagint translation of the Old Testament into Greek. Before the times of Plato it was a very rare word in classic Greek. It does not occur in Homer or in Pindar, and very rarely, if at all, in the dramatic writers, or in the orators, and historians. It was first made a common word in popular religious use by the Septuagint. Its origin was this: When olam was governed by the preceding noun, it was translated as an adjective, and instead of aion, aionios was used. Thus a covenant of olam is translated an aionian covenant, and not a covenant of aion. Hence, in the Mosaic ritual, its usage became very frequent. It was also used in many other cases, till it must have been a household word.
Here, now, we are brought face to face with an extended use of the word aionios, the same word that was used by Christ in the judgment. Occurring so often in the Septuagint, with regard to all the rites of the Mosaic system, and other dispensations spoken of in the Bible, it must have been one of the most familiar words. What, then, did it mean to the readers of the Septuagint? What did it mean in common life? To this question two answers can be given. One has already been stated. It assumes the falsely alleged Aristotelian sense of aion as denoting absolute eternity, and declares that the original and primary sense of aionios is eternal.
To this we reply that the original and primary sense of aion was not eternity, as has been shown, and that the word derived its sense not from classic Greek, but from olam, in the Old Testament; and again we say that the assumption of this sense fills the Old Testament with contradictions, for it would make it declare the absolute eternity of systems which it often and emphatically declares to be temporary. Nor can it be said that aionios denotes lasting as long as the nature of things permits. The Mosaic ordinances might have lasted at least to the end of the world, but did not. The possession of Palestine might have lasted to the end of the world, but did not. Moreover, on this principle, the exceptions to the true sense of the word exceed its proper use; for, in the majority of cases in the Old Testament, aionios is applied to that which is limited and temporary.
One other view is possible: that aionios means pertaining to an age or dispensation. It may also mean pertaining to ages or dispensations. This view is sustained by the fact that there are cases in which no other sense is possible.
Take the case of a familiar proverb, in Prov. xxii. 28: “Remove not the ancient landmarks, which thy fathers have set.” In Hebrew it is, remove not the landmarks of olam; in the Greek it is, remove not the aionian landmarks. Here our translators saw at once the folly of translating aionios eternal, as applied to landmarks which the fathers of the Jewish nation had placed, and which could be easily removed. They saw that they were simply the landmarks of former ages, placed by the fathers, and therefore they translated aionios ancient, and not eternal. Here the sense existing in, or pertaining to past ages, is absolutely necessary in translating aionios. The word aionios means pertaining to, or existing in, an age or ages. The context shows whether the age is past or future.
Take another case. The prophet Jeremiah, in a time of apostacy to idolatry, commands the nation to ask for the old paths of the founders of the nation. What does he call the old paths? Theyare the paths of olam. What are they called in the Septuagint? They are called the aionian paths. The context at once shows that these paths were those of the early ages, as they were established by Moses. Hence they called them the old paths, that is, the paths of the early ages. Here aionios must mean pertaining to the former ages.
So in Ps. lxxvii. 5, Asaph, reviewing the works of God in the earlier ages of Jewish history, calls them the years of the olams; the Septuagint calls them the aionian years; our translators call them the years of ancient times. The most exact sense is the years of former ages. So, in two other instances, in Is. lviii. 12, and lxi. 4, the ancient ruins of Jerusalem that are to be rebuilt are called aionian, that is, the ruins of former ages. In our translation they are called old waste places. It deserves notice, also, that the new foundations to be laid are called aionian. This cannot mean lasting as long even as the world, for soon after Christ they were subverted. Aionian in this case denotes only foundations for future ages, just as elsewhere it denotes past ages.
There are many other cases in which the sense “pertaining to the age, or the ages,” is necessary to avoid contradiction. On the other hand, in all cases this meaning makes good sense, and avoids all inconsistency. Introduce eternal, as the translation of aionios, and all the laws and dispensations which are elsewhere spoken of in the Old Testament as temporary, like the covenants with Noah and Abraham and the Mosaic ritual, are called eternal. The system of this world is declared in the strongest language to be eternal, and to endure forever.
On the other hand, let olam, or aion, denote an age or a dispensation, and aionios mean pertaining to an age, and all is consistent and harmonious. Now, the aionian covenant with Noah is simply a covenant pertaining to the coming ages of the world. The aionian covenant with Abraham is a covenant for the future ages of this world. The aionian covenant and ordinances of the Mosaic dispensation are not eternal, but for the ages until the coming of Christ. The aionian inheritance of the promised land becomes an inheritance for coming ages.
Even in the case of God himself, the same translation would hold good. The aionian God is now the God of the ages. This mode of denoting God is used in the sublime passage, 1Tim. i. 17, in which God is called the King eternal, immortal, invisible. In the original, the King eternal is designated as the King of the ages (aions). A similar usage occurs in Ecclesiasticus, in which God is called “the God of the ages,” and in Tobit xiii. 6, in which he is called “the King of the ages.”
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