Psalm 90:2

This is some useful commentary on this important passage often brought up by critics of Mormonism.

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

The Hebrew word for “everlasting” being used here is ‘owlam or ‘olam. The New Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance defines the word ‘owlam like this:

5769 ‘owlam; or ‘olam

  • properly: concealed, i.e. the vanishing point
  • generally: time out of mind (past or future), i.e. (practically) eternity
  • frequentative: adv. (especially with prep. Pref.) always, alway(-s), ancient (time), any more, continuance, eternal, (for, |n-|) ever (-lasting, -more, of old), lasting long (time), (of ) old (time), perpetual, at any time, (beginning of the) world (+ without end).1

Barry Bickmore makes some observations about the Hebrew conception of “eternity” and “everlasting” as well:

Our detractors constantly point out Bible verses concerning God’s unchanging and eternal nature to show that the scriptures do contradict the Prophets teachings.  Even the Book of Mormon states, “I know that God is not a partial God, neither a changeable being; but he is unchangeable from all eternity to all eternity.” (Moroni 8:18)   However, it can easily be shown that the LDS interpretation of the scriptures is in harmony with the mindset of the ancient Hebrews, while mainstream Christians apply Hellenistic assumptions to the text.

The ancient Greeks were absolutely enamored with metaphysics – with “being,” “essence,” “eternity,” etc.  The Greek philosophers pondered incessantly about how the material world relates to the true reality, whereas for the Hebrews the material world was reality.  When they wrote about God, they didn’t obsess about his “being” or “essence,” but rather focused on His relationship to men and the world.  Likewise, when they spoke of God’s nature and eternity, they used relative terms — relative, that is, to them.  For example, many of the Biblical passages which speak of God’s immutability do so in terms of His honesty, justice, mercy, and constancy.  (See Titus 1:2; Numbers 23:19; 1 Samuel 15:29; Hebrews 6:18; Genesis 18:25; Ezekiel 18:14-32; Isaiah 46:10-11; Mark 13:31; Matt. 24:35; Luke 1:20; James 1:17; Daniel 6:26: Hebrews 6:18-19)

Christopher Stead explains, “The Old Testament writers sometimes speak of God as unchanging.  In Christian writers influenced by Greek philosophy this doctrine is developed in an absolute metaphysical sense.  Hebrew writers are more concrete, and their thinking includes two main points:  (1) God has the dignity appropriate to old age, but without its disabilities . . . ; and (2) God is faithful to his covenant promises, even though men break theirs . . .”  (Cf. Isaiah 40:28; Exodus 34:9-10)

When God is described as “From everlasting to everlasting” (Psalm 41:13 NEB), the word translated as “everlasting” is the Hebrew olam, which means “(practically) eternity” or “time out of mind.” Another Psalm (104:5 NASB) says that God “established the earth upon its foundations, so that it will not totter forever and ever.”  And yet Isaiah (24:20 NEB) saw a future time when “the earth reels to and fro like a drunken man . . ..”  To the Hebrew mind these passages were not contradictory, because terms like “everlasting” and “forever” were relative terms, and they had no conception of “eternity” and “infinity” as modern people see them.

So it is with the Latter-day Saints.  We see such scriptural statements about the “everlasting” and “unchanging” God as an indication of God’s perfect and unchanging moral character, as well as God’s eternity relative to men.  God is spoken of as the “only true God,” because in relation to us this is perfectly true.  Given this Hebrew mindset, it is easy to see how Latter-day Saints can accept the biblical statements about God and also believe that God was once a man…. 2

The footnote in Bickmore’s essay that cites Stead’s words reads:

Stead, Philosophy in Christian Antiquity, 102. Stead uses the example of Revelation 1:4: “‘From Him who Is and who Was and who Is to Come’ expresses God’s perpetuity within and throughout all ages.” However, he points out that when Christianity became Hellenized, “This doctrine came to be developed in an absolute sense which goes well beyond anything that we find in the Bible.” Stead, Philosophy in Christian Antiquity, 128, emphasis in original. For an excellent discussion of the scriptural evidence for this point, see Richard R. Hopkins, How Greek Philosophy Corrupted the Christian Concept of God (Bountiful, UT: Horizon Publishers & Distributors, Inc., 1998), 345-370. 3

Other uses of the idea of “eternal” or “everlasting” in the Bible are described by Wade Englund:

The remaining biblical passages refer to God as the “everlasting God” (Gen 2:33; Isa 40:28; Rom 16:26), or the “Eternal God”(De 33:27), and that “from everlasting to everlasting, thou art God.”(Ps 90:2). While these passages may seem clear as to how long God has been God–particularly the last passage, an exegetical case can be made that even these passages do not negate the possibility of God having been something other than God, nor do they necessarily mean that there has never been a time when God has not been God.

Take for example those biblical passages which talk of the “Lord God of Israel, from eternity, and to eternity”(Ps 41:13, 106:48). Given the finite existence of Israel, do these passage negate the possibility of God having been something other than the God of Israel, and do they necessarily mean that there has never been a time when God has not been the God of Israel?

What about the several “eternal covenants”(1 Chron 16:17; Ps 89:34; 105:8-10; 111:9; Isa 54:10; 55:3; 61:8; Jer 32:40; 50:5; Ezek 37:26; Heb 13:20-21), or “everlasting covenants”(Ge 17:7; Le 16:34; 24:8; 2Sa 23:5; Isa 24:5), which God has made with Israel? Given that these covenants were first made, and some were even changed, or subsumed, at some point during mortal history (Heb 7:22; 9:15;12:24); does the designation “eternal covenant” mean that there has never been a time when each of these covenants did not exist as a covenant?

Finally, there are numerous biblical passages which speak in the present tense of things which are not yet, but will be “eternal”, or “everlasting”, in the future. (Ps 112:6; Isa. 51:11; 55:3; 56:5; 60:15; Mt 19:29; Lk 16:9; Jn 10:28; 17:22; Act 13:48; Heb 9:15; 1Jn 2:25), or where they have become such at some point in time (Jn 3:36; 2 Th 2:16; Heb 5:9; 9:12; 1Jn 5:11).

With this understanding in mind, it is clear that, while the biblical passage that refer to God as an “eternal” or “everlasting” God, may be interpreted by some to mean that he has always been God; they do not, in light of other biblical passages, require such an interpretation; and can even leave open the consistent belief that God has not always been God. And, given the fact that the LDS have long held that the contents of the Bible, and other books of canon, are the “word of God”, and true; and given the wide-spread belief (though not doctrine) of LDS members, which they share in common with Joseph Smith, that God, the Father, was once a spirit personage, who became a mortal man, died and was resurrected, even as was the case with his Son, who has done nothing save what the Father has also done (Jn 5:19); and given that the LDS see God’s eternal nature, and his having once been a man, to be consistent concepts that are simple and true; one should easily be able to determine that Joseph Smith, and the members of the LDS faith, accept, as valid, the later interpretation of the “eternal” and “everlasting” passages. Since it is the LDS perspective that is under question, this is the perspective that counts. 4

Notes

1. Strong, James. New Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance Nelson Reference & Electronic. Nashville, Tennesee. 2005. pg 103 (of dictionary section)

2. Barry R. Bickmore, “Mormonism in the Early Jewish Christian Milieu”, 1st Annual  FAIR  Mormon Apologetics Symposium, June 17-19, 1999
http://www.fairlds.org/FAIR_Conferences/1999_Mormonism_in_the_Early_Jewish_Christian_Mi  lieu.html#enloc116
As quoted in Kevin C. Hill; Breaking Down Barriers or Building Them Up?: A response to Breaking Down Barriers Between Latter-day Saints and Mainline Christians by Tom Jones.        http://www.mormonfortress.com/break.html
3. Barry R. Bickmore, “Mormonism in the Early Jewish Christian Milieu”, 1st Annual            FAIR       Mormon Apologetics Symposium, June 17-19, 1999
http://www.fairlds.org/FAIR_Conferences/1999_Mormonism_in_the_Early_Jewish_Christian_Mi  lieu.html#enloc116
footnote #116
4. Wade Englund; Evolving or Changing Doctrines? p. 2. As quoted in Kevin C. Hill; Breaking Down Barriers or Building Them Up?: A response to Breaking Down Barriers Between Latter-day Saints  and Mainline Christians by Tom Jones http://www.mormonfortress.com/break.html
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7 comments on “Psalm 90:2

  1. James says:

    Thanks Andrew! I enjoyed your post as well.

  2. wo says:

    The concept of eternity is widely misunderstood. For example In Jude, verse 7: “Even as Sodom and Gomorrha, …, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire.” Here we
    are told that the fire which burned Sodom and Gomorrha was eternal fire—but is it still burning today?

    I could name a dozen more examples like that. Eternal simply means an unspecified amount of time. But it does appear Joeseph Smith has some trouble with his timelines according to the book of Abraham. See
    http://tinyurl.com/acfrcx

  3. James says:

    wo,

    What other examples do you have of “eternal” in the bible?

    Concerning the Book of Abraham, c’mon man, seriously? It has absolutely nothing to do with this post. I guess your website is in need of advertising.

  4. wo says:

    First, if I wanted to advertise a website I would have put one in where it asks for my websites.
    Second, it’s not my website.
    Third, I can tell from the tone of your post you don’t really want examples of eternal in the Bible you just want to attack personally. Which is a tactic when you have a very weak argument.

  5. James says:

    I actually liked your example from Jude, and I was asking for more examples since you said you had more. I actually agree with your interpretation of Jude.

    Now, what conclusions do you think I should draw from the fact that in your comment you linked to a webpage critical of the Book of Abraham, an important topic but one that has absolutely nothing to do, whatsoever, with the topic of this post? I mean, it came completely out of the blue.

    So, I tried to come up with a reason for why someone would do that. Why would someone insert a link to a webpage critical of the BoA into a blog comment that is about the meaning of “eternal” in the bible? My initial reaction is that you are trying to get some cheap advertising for that webpage.

    If I’m wrong in that guess, fine. I don’t care. So, perhaps you could enlighten me. Why did you insert a completely irrelevant link into your initial comment?

  6. wo says:

    Example: “The earth with her bars was about me forever [olam].” Jonah 2:6. Yet this “forever” was only “three days and three nights” long. Jonah 1:17. Rather a short “forever.”

    In response to your question about the BoA. The point I was indirectly showing was that J.S. has many truths in his writings. The post on this page presents a truth that “olam” is misunderstood in it’s meaning. The fact that is true. While his view of time is correct here, it’s not so accurate in other interpretations.

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