One of the areas in which many Christians lack understanding is the use of numbers in the Bible. In what ways are they symbolic of deeper truths? When are numbers meaningful (or meaningless)? Does every use of a number infer a profound spiritual idea? “Biblical symbolism is, in many respects, one of the most difficult subjects with which one must deal in the science of hermeneutics. The idea of symbolic numbers raises several questions which are unique to this subject, and present the interpreter with what appears to be an insurmountable difficulty” (Biblical Numerology, J.J. Davis, p. 103). The first question regards whether we should even attempt to interpret the use of numbers in the Bible. Some scholars have balked at the idea that they mean anything, and see endeavors in this field as beyond the scope of God’s intended revelation. The argument is that if God wanted us to know what numbers meant in His word, He would have revealed more clearly and precisely what that information. In a sense, the only number in the entire Bible that is declared to have symbolic meaning is “666” (Revelation 13:18). Everywhere else, we must use human judgment to affirm or deny the symbolic value of a number.
On the other hand, it is clear that some numbers are used consistently in one way or another. The repetition of 3, 7, 10, and 12 (and their multiples) leads the inquisitive Bible student to conclude that something must be inferred by their use, especially in apocalyptic writing, which is so richly infused with symbolic images. The fact that almost every other detail in the visions of Daniel, Ezekiel, and John have significance may be enough for us to see significance in numbers as well.
There are some dangers to Biblical numerology, however, that we must be aware of. It is tempting for Bible students to interpret numbers too heavily, or not enough. Let us consider some practical lessons before delving into the specific use of certain numbers in the Bible.
Is this lesson important to you?
Though dry by some standards, this topic is nevertheless important because it deals with information from the Bible. How can any investigation of the Word of God be unimportant? And if there are valuable lessons to be learned from Biblical numerology, then are we not obligated to investigate? “The sum of Thy word is truth, and every one of Thy righteous ordinances is everlasting” (Psalm 119:160). If the “sum” or entirety of the Bible constitutes truth, then even the numbers themselves bear fruit in the honest heart. Perhaps some numbers have no symbolism (such as census figures or casualties in a battle) and others are rich with it (“666” or the use of the “twelve tribes” in Old Testament prophecies), but they all teach lessons. The less symbolic numbers help make the Bible become reality to us. The fact that population figures and dates match up perfectly with more secular historical sources proves the accuracy of the Bible. The staggering numbers of lives lost in Old Testament battles leaves us with a sense of awe at the power of God and frailty of the human body. It is my deep conviction that every word of the Lord is valuable for something, since every word is inspired by Him and is profitable (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
This lesson is also important because we can learn great spiritual lessons by the symbolic use of certain numbers. If we know what numbers mean in apocalyptic literature, it makes books like Revelation and Daniel much more accessible. Instead of finding ourselves awash in a sea of mysterious language, we can have the basic tools that are necessary to interpret these scriptures with at least a basic level of proficiency. The most severe abuse of such books has come about as a result of misunderstandings about numbers and their value. The unstable and untaught distort the scriptures because they reject education of this sort (2 Peter 3:16). Even though Biblical numerology may be difficult to understand, it is not impossible, for nothing in the Bible is out of reach to those who love the Word (“For God desires all men to come to the knowledge of the truth” [1 Timothy 2:4]). Also, we need to recognize that there is significance given by God to numbers and their meanings. He is, after all, an orderly and well-arranged God, who by nature follows logical patterns.
Seeing more than just “numbers”
More dangerous than seeing no symbolic value to numbers is seeing too much. One of the problems that has faced proper Biblical interpretation over the centuries is getting past the influence of those who see only cultic or cryptic symbolism in Biblical numbers. Every single reference to a number becomes a sign leading somewhere, and the Bible becomes more of a puzzle than a revelation. There is, in fact, a movement even in our society that seeks a complete awareness of the mysteries of Bible numbers. Some Bible “scholars” have asserted that there is a hidden meaning to the Bible which must be arrived at through careful observation of a Bible “code”. That is, every numeric detail in the book is a puzzle piece leading the reader from one place to the next. By measuring the length of words, the number of syllables in a book, chapter, or verse, and by properly interpreting (literally) every single reference to a number, the Rosetta Stone of true Biblical understanding can be found. “Did God place a secret code in the Old Testament? Did He know humans would someday invent the computer and discover this code? That's what some people think. Is that how God works? In his 1997 bestseller The Bible Code (New York: Simon & Schuster), Drosnin claims that this code reveals the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and Saddam Hussein's attack on Israel (both the date and the kind of weapons). By letting the computer adjust the number of letters in each line of text, then treating the result as a giant word search puzzle, using what are known as "equidistant letter sequences," the author finds that the Bible reveals the future. (In some of these sequences, the letters are equidistant, but separated by over 13,000 other letters. No wonder we had to wait for computers to be invented!)” (“Does the Bible Code Bear the Signature of God?”, Dr. E. Christian, http://www.jesus-is-lord.com/numerolo.htm).
But such cryptic approaches to the Bible are not new. In the intertestamental era, numbers were given special attention be teachers who were interested in predicting future events, such as the coming of the Messiah. Numerical patterns were manipulated frequently and freely in order see into the future. One writer states, “In their attempts to fulfill unfulfilled prophecy, they make fairly frequent use of what we might call allegorical arithmetic in which much play is made with figures and cycles and number patterns. Such calculations as these led inevitably to frustration and disappointment on the part of the people when it was found that the appointed time had come and gone and the end was not yet” (The Method and Message of Jewish Apocalyptic, D.S. Russel, p. 187).
The same thing happens today every time somebody predicts when the world will end, basing it entirely on misapplied numbers in the Bible. It was predicted by many that the world would end at the millennium, and all goes on as it has. The problem with such extreme views of Bible numbers is that some numbers just are not meant to mean anything, while many others are not intended for the purpose mankind thrusts upon them.
In the years after the close of Bible writing, numerous early New Testament exegeticists thought they discovered numerical secrets throughout the story of Christ’s life. Believing they had stumbled upon vast treasures of untapped divine wisdom, these mistaken scholars invented grand interpretations of the numbers, all the way from how many apostles Jesus called, to how many fish there were (153) in John 21:11. Everything and anything took on special meaning. With the rise of Gnosticism in the post-apostolic era, considerable attention was given to the theological value of numbers and their mystical use in scriptures. “The Gnostics relied heavily on mystical numerology in support of their views. The numerological data presented by the Gnostics were indeed impressive and seemed to indicate that divine truth could be expressed and explained with such phenomena” (Davis, p. 112). However, many church leaders were severe critics of Gnosticism and its mysterious nature. The very idea that secrets were contained in the Bible that could only be found through thorough and convoluted investigation was blasphemous. The Bible agrees with this assessment:
· Deuteronomy 30:11 states, “For this commandment which I command thee this day, it is not hidden from thee, neither is it far off.”
· Exodus 32:16 says, “The writing was the writing of God, graven upon the tables” (and not in a computer program).
· We don't need a secret code when we have God's clear word: "To the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them" (Isaiah 8:19–20).
· In John 14:16-18, notice that our Helper is from God in the form of the Spirit, not in the form of a secret Bible number code.
Significant Numbers In The Bible
Seven is one of the only numbers that is given special attention throughout the entire Bible. It is consistently applied to people, time, arrangements, countries, and armies. It occurs in nearly six hundred passages in the Bible, and according to one writer represents sacredness. “In regard to 7, the ritual arrangements found in the Pentateuch would alone warrant the conclusion that this number was regarded as in some sense sacred. If we read that God blessed the 7th day and sanctified it (Genesis 2:3), and find that peculiar religious observances or customs with a religious basis attached, not only to the 7th day, but to the 7th month, the 7th year, and the 7 x 7th year, we seem warranted in saying that, among the people of the Bible, 7 represents a mystic cycle of work and rest, within which God both accomplishes His purpose I the universe and cooperates with sanctified men” (“Numbers”, Dictionary of the Apostolic Church, ed. J. Hastings, p. 92).
· Jacob served seven years for Rachel in Genesis 29;
· Seven years of famine and plenty in Genesis 41:53;
· Samson’s seven day marriage feast;
· The seven daughters of Jethro (Exodus 2:16);
· Seven sons of Jesse;
· Seven sons of Saul;
· Seventh year as sabbatical year (Exodus 21:2);
· Seven days of the Feast of Booths;
· Seven days of unleavened bread (Exodus 34:18);
· Naaman required to dip seven times (2 Kings 5:10);
· Deliverance from seven troubles (Job 5:19);
· Praise of God seven times a day (Psalm 119:164);
· It is generally agreed that the fundamental idea conveyed by the symbolic use of seven is that of “completeness” or “perfection” with regard to cycles.
Three is a bit more difficult to determine, since many scholars are in disagreement over its significance. Because it has such a vast usage in the Bible, both negative and positive, it is very difficult to assign a meaning to it. With regard to God, it may mean divinity or fullness. The number may be related to the occurrence of triads in nature, such as “beginning, middle, end”, “Father, Mother, Child”, “Morning, Noon, Night”, “Right, Middle, Left”, or “Heaven, Earth, Sea”. It seems to carry with it the idea of “union, approval, approbation, coordination, completeness, and perfection” (Davis, p. 121). There are three parts to the Godhead, for example, as well as three sons of Noah (and, therefore, three lines of human kind). A feast was required of the men of Israel three times a year (Exodus 23:14,17). Jonah was trapped in the belly of the fish three days, just as Jesus was in the tomb three days before resurrection (John 2:18-22).
Could refer to the creation, or the earth according to many numerology scholars. Today, we have similar ideas with regard to the world, such as the phrase “the four corners of the earth”, or the “four winds”, or even North, South, East, and West.
Perfect judgment of God. If three represents God’s wholeness and solidarity, then three times three would take the idea a great step further. It means that in God’s perfect holiness, He judges perfectly.
May mean completeness as well, but in the sense of the divine order of things. Consider, for example, the fact that there were Ten Commandments, ten curtains in the tabernacle (Exodus 26:1), ten pillars (Exodus 27:12), pillars, drapes, and curtains were measured in ten cubits, and the gold pan was measured as ten shekels (Numbers 7:14). Ten seems to be even in our culture a number that represents order and neatness.
Twelve likely symbolizes governmental rule, or the perfect number in administration, both by God and man. We see twelve occurring often as a mystical number that represents the totality of God’s chosen people. The twelve sons of Jacob, of course, symbolize the twelve tribes of Israel. These twelve tribes symbolize the completeness of God’s people in this world. The number twelve is seen again the number of chosen disciples by Christ in His ministry, and again in the Revelation of John, referring to the tribes of the earth, and those who rule on thrones in the eternal dwelling places. We see judgment, administration, and authority all tied into this number.