O give thanks to YHWH, for He is good; for His lovingkindness is everlasting. Psalm 107:1
Is Everlasting – How long will God’s hesed last? The psalmist answers, ki le-olam hasdo (for the very long time his lovingkindness). But olam is quite an unusual word. It doesn’t always mean a long time in the future. Sometimes it means a long time in the past. The orientation of “future” or “past” must be provided by the interpreter of the text. Allan MacRae suggests the word comes from ‘alam (to hide), pointing toward what is unknown in the past and the future.
Did you notice that olam is connected to the preposition le in this verse? In fact, olam is always connected with some preposition. In this case, it literally says, “up to a long continuance.” That doesn’t necessarily mean that God’s hesed will only last up to a certain time. After all, the same word, olam, is used in Genesis 21:33 to describe God’s existence. But other than descriptions of God’s eternity, olam always seems to imply some kind of terminating period, even if the termination is a long way off. English translations really struggle with olam, opting for “forever,” “everlasting,” “forever and ever,” “eternally,” or some other similar expression, but as you can see, none of these English equivalents contain the temporal limits associated with most uses of olam. That means our English translations don’t capture the ambiguity built into this word. As a result, we tend to think of an endless, linear, temporal progression – a very Greek idea based in mathematical theory, while the Hebrew word itself may not portray endless temporal extension. If MacRae is right about the word’s origin, Hebrew thinking about temporal extension is much more about mystery than it is about events.
Of course, we can also see something else in this verse. The Hebrew sentence contains no copulas (“is”). It just isn’t the case that God exists independently of hesed, as though lovingkindness is simply an added characteristic. In Hebrew, God and lovingkindness are completely united. One without the other is impossible. It is exactly the same as God and good (YHWH ki-tov). God, good and lovingkindness are the same thing. This implies that we can be pretty certain hesed is not a temporary condition of God’s relationship toward His creation.
Does this allow us to relax our obedience, knowing that God’s hesed is completely identical with His being? As Paul would say, “May it never be!” hesed is not the same as unlimited lack of accountability. God’s lovingkindness includes His wrath toward evil and His punishment of the wicked. There is no time to lose even if olam expresses His mercy. Now is the time of salvation. Now is the time of commitment for only God really knows what time it is.
Topical Index: time, olam, forever, everlasting, Psalm 107:1