In the Jewish mind the subject of numbers is very significant. Throughout the Scriptures there are obvious references to specific numbers that were undeniably placed there by the Holy Spirit because of some special significance.
Patrick Fairbairn said:
"If God has given all things their significance, and defined their bounds according to time, space, power, and number, and if He has appointed certain measurements to regulate things and times, Biblical numbers must be symbolical, and be worthy of our study; and if a fit subject for study, the laws by which this symbolism of numbers is controlled, require to be ascertained."
The precise symbolic intent of any of these numbers in a specific passage in the Bible can never be proved to the satisfaction of all interpreters, but some generalizations hold true in many cases.
The Number 3
The number 3 seems to represent triads of completeness in the Bible. Sometimes of good and sometimes of evil. For example:
The Triune God- Father, son, and Holy Spirit.
The trinity of evil- The dragon, antichrist, and false prophet.
The trinity of blessing- grace, mercy, and peace.
The trinity of wickedness- The world, the flesh, & the devil.
Heaven, earth, and the underworld.
Beginning, middle, and end.
Notice in Thessalonians all the three-fold statements.
The trinity of the Scriptures- The law, prophets, and writings.
Jesus rose on the third day.
Notice what Paul mentions about Salvation:
2Cor 1:10 who delivered us from so great a death, and does deliver us; in whom we trust that He will still deliver us,
Man is body, soul and spirit.
Time is past, present, and future.
Space is 3-dimensional: length, width, and height.
The universe is space, time, and matter.
Similarly in the Bible, many rituals are carried out in threes-daily prayers and yearly fasts. Three is also associated with sacrifices-animals often had to be three years old (Genesis 15:9); fruit was not to be harvested until three years after the tree was planted (Leviticus 19:23).
The Number 4
The Number 4 is thought to represent Gods absolute control over the world.
4 Directions on the earth (north, south, east, and west).
4 Seasons (summer, autumn, winter, and spring).
4 Things that make up the universe (time, energy, space, and matter).
4 Major provisions for man (earth, air, fire, and water).
4 Divisions of the day (morning, noon, evening, and midnight).
4 Winds (Matt 24:31)
The Bible mentions the number 4 many times: (Here's just a few)
Jn 11:17 So when Jesus came, He found that he had already been in the tomb four days.
Jn 19:23 Then the soldiers, when they had crucified Jesus, took His garments and made four parts, to each soldier a part, and also the tunic. Now the tunic was without seam, woven from the top in one piece.
Rev 7:1 After these things I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding the four winds of the earth, that the wind should not blow on the earth, on the sea, or on any tree.
Rev 9:13 Then the sixth angel sounded: And I heard a voice from the four horns of the golden altar which is before God,
Rev 21:16 The city is laid out as a square; its length is as great as its breadth. And he measured the city with the reed: twelve thousand furlongs. Its length, breadth, and height are equal.
Notice all the times 4 is used in Proverbs 30
The fourth man in the fiery furnace
The 4 generals who took over Alexanders kingdom (broken by God)
The 4 world empires (beasts) of Daniel
The 4 horns (gentile powers) of Zechariah
Four seems to represent cosmic order, as in the four phases of the moon, the four cardinal points of the earth, the four rivers of Paradise (Genesis 2:10), the four winds of heaven Jeremiah 49:36), the four guardians of the throne of God, and so forth.
But the number four can also represent God bringing disorder for example, the Four Horsemen who bring calamity on the earth (Revelation 6:1-8) and the four acts of Judgment (sword, famine, evil beasts, and pestilence) with which God condemns the idolators of Jerusalem (Ezekiel 14:21).
The Number 5
Because man has 5 fingers, 5 toes, and 5 senses the number 5 is significant and thought to be the number of human weakness. He is considered weak and dependant. The number 5 may speak of man's weakness and inability or God's strength and ability. Some interesting examples:
The 5 loaves were not enough to feed the great multitude.
The 5 brothers in Lk 16 could not keep themselves out of hades.
The 5 husbands could not satisfy the woman at the well.
The Number 6
The number 6 is thought to represent man's weakness and inability to achieve perfection and sinlessness. Because of sin man must work for 6 days to remember his sin. 6 can also be seen as the number of evil and its full development. Rebellion will run its full course with the man of sin and the number of his name, 666.
The Number 7
The number 7 perhaps speaks of perfection or completeness. God's complete provision in His dealings with men.
7 days make a complete week
7 colors make a perfect spectrum
7 great land masses form a complete earth
7 notes make a perfect scale
7 great bodies of water form a complete ocean
There were the 7 days of creation as well as many other examples throughout the Scriptures:
Zech 3:9 For behold, the stone that I have laid before Joshua: upon the stone are seven eyes. Behold, I will engrave its inscription,' says the LORD of hosts, `And I will remove the iniquity of that land in one day.
Rev 1:4 John, to the seven churches which are in Asia: Grace to you and peace from Him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven Spirits who are before His throne,
To the Jew every 7th day was a Sabbath.
Every 7th year was a Sabbatical year.
After the 7th Sabbatical year was the year of Jubilee.
Every 7th month was holy and had 3 feasts.
There were 7 weeks between Passover and Pentecost.
The Passover feast lasted 7 days.
The feast of Tabernacles lasted 7 days.
At Passover 14 lambs (7 twice) were offered daily.
At Tabernacles 14 lambs (7 twice) and 70 bullocks were offered.
At Pentecost 7 lambs were offered.
The time of mourning the dead was fixed to 7 days.
and so on...
Seven continues to have symbolic prominence in the New Testament, with Jesus telling Peter that it is not enough that he forgive the brother who had sinned against him seven times, but "seventy times seven" (Matthew 18:21-22). Seven is also the number of Greek-speaking Christians appointed by the Twelve Apostles in Acts 6:3.
The New Testament concludes in a "great surge of sevens, with heptads, explicit and implicit, tumbling forth from many verses."
According to Jewish tradition the creation of the first man was completed in 7 hours:
"How was Adam created? In the first hour his dust was collected; in the second his form was created; in the third he became a shapeless mass; in the fourth his members were joined; in the fifth his apertures were opened; in the sixth he received his soul; in the seventh he stood up on his feet . . ." [The Talmud]
The Number 8
The Number 8 is thought to represent the number of new beginnings. A male child was circumcised on the 8th day. The Sabbath lasted 7 days and the 8th day was the Lord's day, the new day. The number 8 speaks of Jesus and the New Covenant. The church met on the 8th day or the first day, the new day.
The Number 10
The number 10 is a very significant number in the Bible. In examining the uses of the number 10 in Scripture it seems to represent human failure and God's provision. For example:
- The 10 spies failed to see Gods power and provision, so they brought back an evil report:
Num 13:32 And they gave the children of Israel a bad report of the land which they had spied out, saying, "The land through which we have gone as spies is a land that devours its inhabitants, and all the people whom we saw in it are men of great stature.
- The 10 tribes failed to walk with God and to do His will. Therefore, they established a separate kingdom given to idolatry:
Ki 11:31 And he said to Jeroboam, "Take for yourself ten pieces, for thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: `Behold, I will tear the kingdom out of the hand of Solomon and will give ten tribes to you
Ki 17:22-23 For the children of Israel walked in all the sins of Jeroboam which he did; they did not depart from them, until the LORD removed Israel out of His sight, as He had said by all His servants the prophets. So Israel was carried away from their own land to Assyria, as it is to this day.
- The magicians and astrologers were 10 times as weak and insufficient as Daniel:
Dan 1:20 And in all matters of wisdom and understanding about which the king examined them, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and astrologers who were in all his realm.
- The 10 lepers were unable to cure themselves, they needed Jesus:
Lk 17:12 Then as He entered a certain village, there met Him ten men who were lepers, who stood afar off.
The Number 12
The number 12 has been thought to represent the number of God's government. The ancient people recognized 12 lunar cycles corresponding loosely to 12 months in the year, and they divided the day and the night into 12-hour periods. They went on to organize the stars into the 12 signs of the Zodiac, and from their observations of the wanderings of the 7 planets through the 12 houses of heaven was born astrology.
The Bible tells that Jacob-Israel had 12 sons (Genesis 35:22-27) and that each of these became the founder of one of the Twelve Tribes of Israel, the people of God (Genesis 49:28). Jesus chose Twelve Apostles (Matthew 10:2-4) for the beginnings of the Church. There were 24 classes of priests and Levites (1 Chronicles 24:4) and 48 Levitical cities (Numbers 35:7).
And again in the Book of Revelation, the number 12 becomes very important when symbolizing the salvation of God's people. There are 24 elders around the throne of God and 144,000 of the saved (Revelation 4:4; 7:4). The perfection of the new Jerusalem is seen in its 12 gates, each "a single pearl," and 12 foundations, each adorned with jewels. Its circumference is 12,000 furlongs, and its walls are 144 cubits high (Revelation 21:10-21; Ezekiel 48:30-35).
The Number 40
The number 40 seems to be a round number in Scripture denoting a generation. Some of the judges judged for 40 years (Othniel, Deborah, Barak, and Gideon). Saul, David, and Solomon each reigned as king for 40 years.
The Scriptures speak of the number 40 often:
The flood rains lasted 40 days and 40 nights
Moses was in the Egypt 40 years, Midian 40 years, and on the mountain 40 days.
Israel wandered in the wilderness 40 years.
The spies were in Canaan for 40 days.
Elijah fasted 40 days.
40 days was given to Nineveh.
Jesus fasted 40 days
Jesus was with His disciples for 40 days after His resurrection (Acts 1:3).