The Number Forty
Q: As the number seven in Scripture often stands for completion, what does the number forty represent?
Depending upon the translation, the number forty appears between ninety and one hundred sixty times in most English language Bibles. This happens in large part because some translators omit duplicate occurrences in the same verse. Thus “forty days and forty nights” is sometimes rendered “forty days and nights.”
We have no “one size fits all” symbolic interpretation of the number, but in general it seems to occur in times of testing, probation, judgment, or separation. Among its many mentions in the Old Testament, we see forty days in the active flooding of the earth (Genesis 7:4), the period spent by Moses on Sinai (Exodus 24:18), and the length of Elijah’s journey (1 Kings 19:8).
Israel spent forty years wandering in the Wilderness during the Exodus because of their faithlessness in believing the cowardly spies (Numbers 14:20-38). Moses’ own life was expressed in three forty-year periods by Stephen (Acts 7:23-36). Jonah proclaimed, “Yet forty days, and Ninevah shall be overthrown! (3:4)”
Forty was also the maximum number of lashes that could be inflicted in corporal punishment (Deuteronomy 25:3) and was the number of days of purification a woman underwent after the birth of a boy (Leviticus 12; Luke 2:22). Other events could also be listed.
Since Christ is the New Israel, He experienced forty days of testing, fasting, and prayer in the Wilderness (Mark 1:13), just as His earthly fathers spent forty years. Yet while they continued in their sin, Jesus continued in righteousness.
Also, as God poured out His wrath upon during the days of Noah for forty days, so the wrath of God turned on His Son, who “who knew no sin,” but whom God made “made to be sin” in order that “in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:21)”
After His resurrection, Jesus “presented himself alive after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. (Acts 1:3)” One of the most vivid of these appearances came when He showed Himself to the disbelieving disciple Thomas (see John 20:24-29). Throughout this time, rather than testing or judging the faithful, He worked to strengthen them for the extended trials His Church would experience after His ascension.
Scripture quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version™, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles.
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Walter Snyder is the pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Emma, Missouri and coauthor of the book What Do Lutherans Believe.
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