Numbers such as 7, 10, 12 and 40 appear often in Scripture. Do they have special meaning? Is it important to find meaning in all the numbers in the Bible?
Many students of the Bible have noted that certain numbers show up again and again in the Bible. Why? Is there a deeper meaning for some of these numbers?
The simple answer is, yes. There are some significant numbers in the Bible that have a spiritual or symbolic meaning.
However, there can be a danger in getting too caught up in looking for hidden meanings.
Spiritual significance of 7
The word seven is found 461 times in the New King James Version of the Bible. We find seven days of creation, Pharaoh’s dreams about seven good years and seven years of famine, seven days of Unleavened Bread, seven days of the Feast of Tabernacles, seven lamps on the gold lampstand in the tabernacle, seven days of marching around Jericho, seven churches of Revelation, seven seals, seven trumpets, seven last plagues and much more.
Numerous Bible reference works mention the significance of 7. For example, “Seven has an eminent place among sacred numbers in the Scriptures, and is associated with completion, fulfilment and perfection. In the creation narrative God rested from his work on the 7th day, and sanctified it” (New Bible Dictionary, Second Edition, “Number,” p. 845).
The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia notes that the significance of the number seven was widespread—from Babylon to India and China, as well as among the Celts and Germans. Could this not relate to God’s initial revelation of the seven-day week to all of mankind?
“The number 7 plays a conspicuous part in a multitude of passages giving rules for worship or purification, or recording ritual actions. The 7th day of the week was holy (see Sabbath). There were 7 days of unleavened bread (Ex 34:18, etc.), and 7 days of the Feast of Tabernacles (Le 23:34). The 7th year was the sabbatical year (Ex 21:2, etc.)” (International Standard Bible Encyclopedia Online, “Number”).
The power of 10
The word ten occurs 226 times in the New King James Version.
The fact that God created us with 10 fingers has made the decimal system natural throughout much of the world, including the ancient Holy Land.
In the Bible we find 10 plagues on Egypt, 10 Commandments and 1/10 being a tithe.
Jesus often used 10 in His teachings, including the woman with 10 silver coins (Luke 15:8-10); the 10 servants, 10 minas and 10 cities (Luke 19:11-27); and 10 wise and foolish virgins (Matthew 25:2).
The number 12 in the Bible
The word twelve is found 187 times in the New King James Version.
Noting that Israel had 12 sons, who were the progenitors of the 12 tribes of Israel (Genesis 35:23-26; 49:28), and that Christ chose 12 apostles (Matthew 10:2-4), the New Bible Dictionary article suggests that 12 is “linked with the elective purposes of God.”
What does 40 mean in the Bible?
The word forty appears 159 times in the New King James.
The Zondervan Expository Dictionary of Bible Words says, “The number forty is symbolic at times. It is primarily linked with divine testing or punishment . . . It is also associated with the giving of law (Ex 24:18) and is the span of time within which Jesus showed himself on earth after the Resurrection” (“forty,” p. 292).
Some examples include the 40 days and nights of rain God sent to cause the Flood of Noah’s day (Genesis 7:4, 12, 17), the 40 years of wandering the Israelites brought on themselves through rebellion (Numbers 14:33; 32:13), Jonah’s 40-day warning for Nineveh (Jonah 3:4) and Jesus’ 40 days of fasting to prepare to face Satan’ temptations (Matthew 4:2).
Numbers in Revelation
The numbers 7, 10 and 12 and multiples of these numbers appear throughout the last book of the Bible. For more understanding of this mysterious book, see our booklet The Book of Revelation: The Storm Before the Calm.
The hazards of biblical numerology
Though it is clear that the Bible attaches significance to some numbers, does that mean that all numbers in the Bible have significance? The danger with trying to find meaning in every number—from David’s five stones (1 Samuel 17:40) to the 153 fish the disciples caught (John 21:11)—is that much will be based on guesswork. It can be too easy to come up with meanings that actually distract from the plain messages of the text itself.
The Zondervan Expository Dictionary of Bible Words warns about numerology that doesn’t have a basis in Scripture. “Many have tried to give the numbers found in the Bible symbolic or mystical value . . . We would not be wise to attempt numerological interpretations beyond the obvious” (“seven,” p. 555).
For more about how to study the Bible with a teachable approach, see our article “How to Study the Bible.”