The other day I was reading through the Book of Isaiah when I came to 34.9-10 where the prophet tells of the judgment to come upon Edom. It says, “Its streams will be turned into pitch, and its loose earth into brimstone, and its land will become a burning pitch. It will not be quenched night or day; its smoke will go up forever. From generation to generation it will be desolate; none will pass through it forever.”
What we have here is elevated speech. The prophet’s rhetoric means “utter destruction”, but the words, if read hyper-literally, indicate that this is something that maybe should be going even today. Well, the land that was Edom is currently under the rule of the nation of Jordan. After this prophecy it does appear that the area has been inhabited by people here and there. Therefore, it is best to not over-read this text.
Then I read a post yesterday by Justin Taylor (read here) quoting Moses Stuart indicating that when Scripture speaks of something as being forever it must be forever. If hell is said to be forever and heaven forever, yet we say hell is temporal in some way, then heaven must be temporal in some way as well. This is not the argument that concerns me (there seems to be decent reason for such an assertion). Rather, I was taken back by the assertion that the lexical meaning of biblical words for forever must means “forever” as we ponder it.
In the LXX translates לעולם as αἰῶνα χρόνον which can be translated into English as “forever”, but it can also convey a very long time. Even if we choose “forever” it is apparent from this text in 34.9-10, and history, that the lexical definition should not be narrowed too much.
What is interesting is how much this text sounds like Rev. 14.10-11 which says of the fiery punishment of the wicked that it will last εἰς αἰῶνας αἰώνων. This does seem to intensify things a bit, but the imagery is still very similar. Both passages speak of the smoke rising and the fire burning “night and day/day and night” (νυκτὸς καὶ ἡμέρας in Is. 34.10 and ἡμέρας καὶ νυκτός in Rev. 14.11).
Now I am not saying that because Is. 34.9-10 uses exalted language that in reality proved to be a temporal punishment that we should transfer this to Rev. 14.10-11, especially because the latter passage has the important qualifier that it is the smoke “of their torment” (ὁ καπνὸς τοῦ βασανισμοῦ αὐτῶν). What must be debated here is whether or not the “smoke of their torment” going up forever means their torment happens forever. I do not know.
What is important is that we must be careful when making proposals like Taylor made that seem to indicate “forever” always means “forever” as we understand the word. I am not saying it does, nor am I saying it does not. I think we must proceed with a bit more caution.
What do you think? Is there a conceptual connection between these two passages? Is the imagery intended to convey something that lexical definitions alone cannot convey? What about biblical words for “forever”? What hermeneutical principles would you apply to determine if the text means for a long, long time or literally “forever”?