The phrase sleeping in the dust of the earth, is of course employed figuratively, to indicate sloth, spiritual lethargy, as in Ps. 44:25; Isa. 25:12; 26:5; 1 Tim. 5:6; Rev. 3:1,
"For our soul is bowed down to the dust." "And the fortress of the high fort of thy walls shall he bring down, lay low, and bring to the ground, even to the dust." "For he bringeth down them that dwell on high; the lofty city, he layeth it low; he layeth it low, even to the ground; he bringeth it even to the dust." "But she that liveth in pleasure is dead while she liveth." "I know thy works; that thou hast a name, and that thou livest and art dead."
It was a prophecy of the moral awakening that came at the time of the advent of Jesus, and was then fulfilled. When we come to Matt. 24 and 25 we shall see the exact nature of this judgment. Walter Balfour describes it,(47) "They," (those who obeyed the call of Jesus) "heard the voice of the Son of God, and lived" See John 5:21,25,28,29, Eph. 5:14. The rest kept on till the wrath of God came on them to the uttermost. They all, at last, awoke; but it was to shame and everlasting contempt, in being dispersed among all nations, and they have become a by-word and an hissing even unto this day. Jeremiah in chapter 23:39,40, predicted this very punishment and calls it an "everlasting reproach and a perpetual shame."
These few passages, not one of which conveys a hint of endless punishment, are all that connect our word denoting duration with punishment in the Old Testament.
Out of more than five hundred occurrences of our disputed word in the Old Testament, more than four hundred denote limited duration, so that the great preponderance of Old Testament usage fully agrees with the Greek classics. The remaining instances follow the rule given by the best lexicographers, that it only means endless when it derives its meaning or endlessness from the nature of the subject with which it is connected.
Dr. Beecher(48) remarks that the sense of endless given to the aionian phraseology "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. 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."
Now if endless punishment awaits millions of the human race, and if it is denoted by this word, is it possible that only David, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, and Malachi use the word to define punishment, in all less than a dozen times, while Job, Moses, Joshua, Ruth, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Solomon, Ezekiel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habbakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, and Zachariah never employ it thus? Such silence is criminal, on the popular hypothesis. These holy men should and would have made every sentence bristle with the word, and thus have borne the awful message to the soul with an emphasis that could be neither resisted nor disputed. The fact that the word is so seldom, and by so few applied to punishment, and never in the Old Testament to punishment beyond death, demonstrates that it cannot mean endless.
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