Q: #318. What is the significance of the number 40 (forty) in the Bible?
A: First off, let me begin by saying that I think we need to be careful about searching for hidden messages, meanings, or codes in certain significant numbers in the Bible. If you put the word “Numerology” in a Google search, what you get for a definition is: “The branch of knowledge that deals with the occult significance of numbers.” Hence, “numerology” is associated with such things as the occult, the paranormal, astrology, paganism, divination, and wiccans.” But, if we put “Biblical” in front of “numerology” (“Biblical Numerology”), this is then supposed to make searching for the significance of number meanings in the Bible acceptable.
Now, I am not saying that there isn’t some significance to certain numbers in the Bible, all I am saying is that we should be careful about trying to interpret what these meanings are. Ultimately, I believe God did have reasons for using certain numbers over and over in the Bible, but only He may know the true reasons. Having said this, I do think it is fascinating to see how many times certain key numbers are used over and over in the Bible. In six studies, we will be looking at how six of what I believe are the most key numbers in the Bible are used: 3, 6, 7, 10, 12, 40.
The final number we will look at is the number “40.” This number is used 159 times in the Bible. Those who assign meaning to this number are generally agreed that it is a number symbolizing trial, testing, or judgment. This certainly seems to be borne out in a number of places in the Bible, however, it also is used for more than that. Let’s first look at the ways it could be taken as a number signifying trial, testing, or judgment, then we will look some other significant uses.
Trial, Testing, Or Judgment:
When God destroyed every living thing on the Earth by flood, it rained 40 days and 40 nights (Gen 7:4,12,17).
Three men in the Bible fasted 40 days and 40 nights: Moses (Ex 34:28)(Deut 9:9,18,25)(Deut 10:10), Elijah (1 Kin 19:8), and Jesus (Mt 4:2)(Lk 4:2)(Mk 1:13).
Because Israel refused to enter the Promised Land, God condemned them to wander in the “wilderness” for 40 years (Num 14:33-34)(Num 32:11-13)(Deut 8:2)(Josh 5:6).
(God also kept their clothing and sandals from wearing out for the whole 40 years: Deut 29:5, Deut 8:4.)
The Israelites were given manna in the desert for 40 years to “test” and “humble” them (Ex 16:35)(Deut 8:3,16)
When scourging someone, they could not receive more than 40 lashes (Deut 25:3)(2 Cor 11:24).
The Israelites were in captivity to the Philistines for 40 years for doing evil (Judg 13:1).
Goliath taunted Israel for 40 days and nights (1 Sam 17:16), until David defeated him.
Ezekiel laid on his right side for 40 days to “bear the iniquity” of Judah’s sins (Ezek 4:6).
God proclaimed judgment against Egypt, saying it would be desolate for 40 years (Ezek 29:10-12).
God gave Nineveh 40 days to repent or be overthrown (Jonah 3:4).
After the flood waters had receded, and the tops of the mountains were visible, Noah waited another 40 days to open the window of the Ark (Gen 8:6).
Isaac was 40 years old when he took Rebekah as his wife (Gen 25:20).
Esau, Isaac’s son, also got married when he was 40 (Gen 26:34).
Embalming took 40 days in early Bible times (Gen 50:3).
Moses was on Mt. Sinai for 40 days and 40 nights (twice!) (Ex 24:18)(Ex 34:28)(Deut 9:9,11,18,25)(Deut 10:10).
The spies that Moses sent to spy out the Promised Land were there for 40 days (Num 13:25)(Num 14:34).
One of those spies was Joshua, and he was forty years old when he went (Josh 14:7).
Moses died when he was 120 years old (Deut 34:7). His life can be divided into 3 sections of 40 years: (first 40) being born and growing up in Pharaoh’s house in Egypt (Acts 7:20-23), (middle 40) fleeing to Midian after killing the Egyptian, and living there for 40 years (Acts 7:29-30), (last 40) returning to Egypt, the exodus, and the events that followed (Acts 7:36)(Ex 7:7).
Aaron died 40 years after the Israelites had left Egypt (Num 33:38).
Three different times in Judges, the land had rest for 40 years (Judg 3:11)(Judg 5:31)(Judg 8:28).
Eli judged Israel for 40 years (1 Sam 4:18).
Ishbosheth became king over Israel when he was 40 years old (2 Sam 2:10).
Three kings reigned for 40 years: David (1 Kin 2:11)(2 Sam 5:4-5), Solomon (1 Kin 11:42), and Joash (2 Chr 24:1)(2 Kin 12:1).
(Saul may also be a part of this group [Acts 13:21], but this is controversial [1 Sam 13:1].)
The 10 lavers in the Temple each held “40 baths” (about 230 gal.) of water (1 Kin 7:38).
The time period between Jesus’ resurrection and ascension was 40 days (Acts 1:3).
The book of Exodus has 40 chapters.
The average length of a woman’s pregnancy is 40 weeks.
Lent is the 40 days before Easter (not counting Sundays).