The biblical authors loved numbers. Some numbers are good. Some are bad. Some numbers are repeated so often that we can rightly become a bit suspicious. For example, you might be surprised to know that the number forty occurs nearly 200 times in the Bible. The Israelites wandered the desert for 40 days; Moses remained on the mountaintop for 40 days; Jesus spent 40 days in the desert. It is obvious that this number is being used as a symbol and not strictly to communicate fact. Specifically, the number forty represents a significant period of time during which a person’s faithfulness is tested and can be judged or determined. Other numbers are used frequently in the Bible to convey symbolic meaning.
The number three appears hundreds of times in the Bible. In biblical tradition, it is always on the third day that God saves. Jonah emerged from the large fish on the third day. Paul regained his sight on the third day. Mary and Joseph found the twelve-year-old Jesus in the temple on the third day. Jesus rose from the dead on the third day. Needless to say, the number three is one of those “good” numbers in the Bible because God always comes through on the third day.
The number six, on the other hand, is not such a good number. Not that it’s bad, but it tends to represent incompleteness. Of course, in the book of Revelation, the “beast” is represented by the number 666. Think about that: three is a good number, representing completeness. Six represents incompleteness. Three sixes, or 666, represents complete incompleteness! In other words, the use of 666 in the book of Revelation is not some secret code to tell us who the Antichrist will be. It is simply a symbolic way of representing evil in whatever form it may take in any age.
The number seven . . . ah, back to the good numbers. Seven tends to represent fullness or perfection. God rested on the seventh day. Noah took seven pairs of all clean animals aboard the ark. The walls of Jericho came tumbling down after seven days of trumpet playing. Jesus tells Peter to forgive his brother seventy times seven times. The book of Revelation speaks to the seven churches. The same book also tells us that the seventh trumpet will signal the end of the world. Whenever we encounter the number seven, it tends to be satisfying.
Last but not least is the number twelve. Twelve, of course, symbolizes first and foremost the fullness of the people of Israel, with its twelve tribes. Jesus, of course, had twelve apostles. And, once again, the book of Revelation tops it all off by telling us that 144,000 people will be saved at the end of the world; a number that is divisible by twelve, representing twelve thousand from each of the twelve tribes of Israel: not a restrictive or exclusive number of people but an expansive and inclusive number. In other words, God wants all people to be saved.
The bottom line to all this is that numbers in the Bible are often a clue to the reader: pay attention and look for the deeper meaning. The numbers are often not meant to be taken literally nor are they some sort of secret code. They are symbolic ways of conveying God’s truth.