Friday, May 30, 2014

Number Symbolism in the Bible

by Pastor Paul Wolff

There seems to be different ways that people interpret symbolic numbers in the Holy Scriptures. I have studied the symbolic use of numbers in the Bible and I have found some very consistent interpretations for the numbers which make more sense than many interpretations I have heard. This is not to say that these interpretations are original to me, but that these are the best interpretations of how the Scriptures use numbers as symbols.

Not all the numbers in the Scriptures are used symbolically. A good part of the Scriptures are simple historical accounts and the numbers are simply counting things accurately without symbolism. A good example is the 153 fish (John 21:11) caught by the disciples after Christ’s Resurrection. There is no deep significance about this number except that it was a large number and the disciples must have felt the need to count them because they were impressed by this miracle that Jesus did for them. Another example is the seven days of creation. Although seven is used elsewhere symbolically, the creation account in Genesis 1 clearly describes each day as “evening and morning the (nth) day” so this is not symbolic, but descriptive.

The proper interpretation of symbolic numbers is not difficult when you use a little common sense. When numbers are used symbolically they always refer to something concrete – something in history or everyday life that is easily recognizable as having something to do with a particular number. The numbers aren’t chosen at random, nor is there some great secret as to how the symbolic numbers get their meaning.

1 – The number “one” is not usually used symbolically. It is mostly used to describe a single solitary thing or person. When “one” is used symbolically it is used in much the same way as its descriptive use, which is to describe something or someone unique or particular. It is also used to describe unity of essence or purpose. I love it when the Old Testament describes God’s people acting under God’s direction “as one man,” which is to say that the whole people of God are acting to fulfill God’s Word as if they were all one person, or they are all together doing God’s work as he would do it.

God is described as “one,” which is descriptive, and not symbolic, even though God’s Triune nature (Father, Son and Holy Spirit – see “three” below) is shown even in the Old Testament. Right from Genesis 1:1 when the generic word for God is used to refer to the one true God it takes the plural form (“Elohim” usually means “gods”) but it takes masculine singular verbs. Also there is the triple “Holy” of Isaiah 6:3 “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory.” These are some ways the Old Testament testifies to the Triune character of God, yet there is still only one God – God is singular (“is” not “are”; & “His” not “their”).

from Holy Cross Lutheran Church,
Detroit, Michigan
3 – The number “three” refers to God, or things having to do with God, when used symbolically in the Scriptures. For example, the three days Jonah was in the belly of the fish is descriptive, and not symbolic, but it is also used prophetically to point to the three days (also literal, and not symbolic) Jesus was in the tomb. However, even these examples can be viewed symbolically as the work of God to bring salvation. First, Jonah, himself, is saved from God’s wrath and drowning by the fish, then Jonah is sent to bring salvation to Nineveh, which all points forward to the work of Jesus to pay for the sins of the world by his death and burial. The three days being important so that Jesus fulfills the Sabbath day rest by being in the tomb for the whole Sabbath day (see “seven” below).

4 – The number “four” refers to the world, or creation, or mankind when used symbolically in the Bible. We can think of the four points of the compass (north, south, east, west) to describe the world.

6 – The number “six” is very interesting when used symbolically in the Scriptures. “Six” doesn’t seem to have a particular meaning on its own, but only in its relation to “seven” (see below). The symbolic use of “six” describes something incomplete – as if it were trying to reach “seven,” but missed the mark or fell short. The most famous symbolic use of “six” actually triples the digits to “666” in Revelation 13:18. The tripling of the digits suggests that this has something to do with God (see “3” above), but it falls short in every way. This makes sense in Rev. 13 because this number is the number of the blasphemous beast which was allowed to make war on God’s saints for a time. The number of the beast is “666” because he tries to portray himself as if he were God, but he misses the mark in every way. The world may follow the beast, thinking he is a god, but God’s people are not fooled (see Matthew 24:24).

7 – The number “seven” refers to Christ when used symbolically. “Seven” represents Christ because he is both God (“3”) and Man (“4”) in one person (3+4=7). John addresses his revelation letter to the seven churches not just because they are seven particular churches, but the Revelation of Jesus is to go to all Christians because the Christian church is Christ’s church. The comfort of the Revelation is for all who belong to Christ in the church, wherever they are.

Even in the creation we can see it pointing to Christ. Although the seven days of the creation are literal seven days (see the introduction above), the creation culminates in a day of rest from work to the glory and worship of God. God didn’t need to rest from His work of creation, but He knew we needed both a day to rest from our work, and a day to worship Him and study His Word. The Sabbath day’s rest was fulfilled when Jesus rested in His tomb the whole Sabbath day after He died, and before He rose from the dead on the first day of the week.

The number “seven” is very often misinterpreted as a symbolic number in the Scriptures (according to my understanding). Interpreters often say that “seven” is a number of completeness, but I don’t find that in the Scriptures. The only way this would be a number of completeness is if it referred to a week (or a number of weeks), but I don’t really find it used that way symbolically. There is a better number which is used for completeness much more clearly (see “ten” below), and “seven” makes much more sense when we see it as symbolically referring to Christ and His work. Though you may see above that I mentioned above that “six” was incomplete in relation to “seven” that doesn’t necessarily point to “seven” as the number of completeness. I still see “seven” as symbolic of Christ and His work, which certainly is complete in all that He set out to do, but the symbolism refers to Jesus, and not to completeness as “ten” does.

10 – The number “10” (and multiples) signifies completion, or perfection, or fulfillment. Just as ten fingers or ten toes are a complete set for a normal person, so the number “ten” signifies the full number of something when used symbolically in the Scriptures. Many times this number is intensified to 1,000 (103) which symbolizes the fullness of what God intended, as in Revelation 20 where the 1,000 years are not literally 1,000 years, but the fulfillment of the whole time which God has ordained for these events to unfold.

The Last Supper window
from Holy Cross Lutheran Church,
Detroit, Michigan
12 – The number “twelve” represents God’s people, the church. In Old Testament times the church was the 12 tribes of Israel (after the days of Jacob’s 12 sons, of course). In the New Testament Jesus chose 12 disciples, and after His ascension Matthias was chosen to take the place of Judas, who killed himself, so there would be 12 Apostles to proclaim the Gospel beginning at Pentecost to make disciples of all nations – which continues to this day.

40 – The number “forty” is used quite frequently in the Scriptures, and it usually is not symbolic, but descriptive. However, it does show up many times in Scripture, and may have symbolic meaning behind it. If we apply my above descriptions to “forty” we might see it as 4×10 which is a completion of something having to do with the world. In Exodus the Israelites were made to wander in the wilderness for 40 years, which was a time of testing and learning to rely on God for their sustenance, protection, and salvation. Many of Israel’s faithful kings were given reigns lasting 40 years, which seemed to show God’s favor for their faithfulness by their being given a “full” reign. Jonah’s message to Nineveh was that God’s judgment would come in 40 days, which was a time of testing that they used to good effect by repenting of their sins. In the Gospels, Jesus fasted in the wilderness 40 days, and had to rely on God, the Father, for survival, and He was also tested and tempted by the devil.

144,000 – The number “one hundred forty four thousand” in Revelation 7 and 14 is symbolic of all the people who receive the salvation won by Christ. We know this number is symbolic because in Rev. 7:9 John describes the 144,000 as “a great multitude that no one could count.” Since they can’t be counted then they must be more than 144,000 that he just described and so that number is symbolic. “One hundred forty four” is 12×12, which symbolically represents the Old Testament saints and the New Testament saints, and this is multiplied by 1,000 which is 103, which is the number of completeness raised to the third power. This symbolizes the complete number of God’s people in both the Old and New Testament times, which is the whole Christian Church.

Much more could be said about symbols in the Scriptures, but this is just a brief explanation of the way I view how numbers are used symbolically in the Holy Bible. Just because numbers are sometimes used symbolically in the Scriptures does not mean there is some mysterious “secret code” which must be discovered for understanding. The Holy Scriptures were written for our understanding, not our confusion.  The main thing to keep in mind when trying to understand the Bible is that the whole of the Scriptures point to Christ as our salvation from Sin (see John 5:39) so that we might believe in Jesus and receive God’s gift of forgiveness and eternal life (see John 20:30-31 and John 3:16-17).

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