Numbers can often carry a meaning in the Bible. The meaning is derived from a pattern of usage throughout the Scriptures.
The number forty appears 146 times in the Bible and it is usually associated with a period of testing and hardship. The number first occurs in Genesis 7:12 “And rain fell upon the earth forty days and forty nights.” The flood represented God’s judgment of a sinful world and thus we find the concept of judgment associated with forty. Additionally, Israel wandered through the wilderness for forty years because of their disobedience (Joshua 5:6); Jonah preached to Nineveh warning of God’s impending destruction (in forty days) and they subsequently repented (Jonah 3:4); Israel sinned against God and were made a tribute nation to their enemies for forty years (Judges 13:1).
The number forty also occurs in relation to a period of fasting as in cases of Moses (Exodus 34:28), Elijah (1 Kings 19:8) and Jesus (Matthew 4:2). These were periods of spiritual strengthening and renewal at the outset of important missions. The fasts began a transition in work to be accomplished.
Additionally, forty years were the length of the reigns of the first three kings of the twelve tribes of Israel. Saul reigned 40 years, David reigned 40 years, and Solomon reigned 40 years. Here there is a beautiful type of the Jewish Age (Saul), the current Gospel Age (David) and the Millennial Kingdom (Solomon).
Key numbers in the Bible can be used in different ways:
- To allude to a certain concept such as trial, testing and judgment as in the case of number forty;
- To act as a type with a symbolic meaning;
- To indicate a period of time pointing to a prophetic event, according to “a day for a year” principles as the days in Daniel 12;
- To indicate a literal fulfillment of a prophetic element, such as in Revelation 20:1-3 referring to the 1,000 year kingdom on Earth.