40! What is it about the number “40”?
40 years, 40 months, 40 weeks, 40 days
Many numbers in general have a symbolic meaning in the Bible: eg. 3, 7, 12. The number 40 is mentioned over 150 times in Scripture and often symbolizes a period of testing, trial … and then, triumph.
Just a few examples:
- The rain fell on Noah’s Ark, and all the earth, for 40 days and nights (Genesis 7:4) – and THEN God made an everlasting covenant with the human race.
- The Israelites wandered in the wilderness, living on Manna, for 40 years (Exodus 16:35) – and THEN they reached the Promised Land.
- Moses was with God on the mountain for 40 days and nights, without eating bread or water (Exodus 24:18; 34:28) (on two occasions) and THEN he received the Ten Commandments from God
- God allowed the land to rest for 40 years (Judges 3:11, 5:31, 8:28)
- Elijah had one meal that gave him strength for 40 days (1 Kings 19:8)
- Jesus fasted and was tempted in the desert for 40 days and nights (Matthew 4:1-2, Luke 4:2, Mark 1:13).
Of course there is nothing magical or mysterious about the number “40” per se – it’s just a number – but it’s fascinating to see how often it shows up in the Bible, and the context in which it appears.
It seems that through particular seasons of hardship lasting 40 days or 40 years – whatever the cause of those hardships may be – God’s people emerge stronger, more spiritually aware, and more equipped to serve.
On a personal note, those of you who know me best, know that after nearly 40 years of full-time “professional ministry”, the past few years have been very different for me as I have found myself working in a hospital, driving for Uber, and living life as a “normal person” in a real and broken world rubbing shoulders with real and hurting people. It’s been a liminal period, a season, that I never expected to go through. But I’m so glad that I have. I have learned, among other things, that my salvation and my honor truly depend on God (Psalm 62:7) and NOT my gifts and abilities, my marital status, or my role as a pastor. I have learned what it means to be deeply loved and cherished by the Almighty God of the Universe (Psalm 136:23; 147:11; 149:4; Zephaniah 3:17 …). I have learned, and perhaps am still learning, the difficult but beautiful truth that as I intentionally become less, He becomes greater in the eyes and estimation of those around me (John 3:30).
So what does all of this have to do with the number 40?
Maybe nothing. Maybe it’s purely coincidental.
But I think not.
As I was praying the other day for clarity in my life and where He might be leading me in my “final third”, the number “40” just kept sweeping across my brain. No matter what I did, no matter how I tried to divert my thoughts, the number “40” was constantly present.
40! Forty what? Forty years? Forty days? Forty lashes? Forty ….
Wait a minute! I did some quick math (definitely a “God thing” since math was never my forte), and I suddenly realized: It’s been exactly 40 MONTHS that I have been in this liminal season.
What an epiphany!
Is the “season” over? It seems that way. Several circumstances have very recently converged to lead me to vacate my present place of residence and resign my position at the hospital at the end of this month. What’s next? Where will I be living three weeks from now? What will I be doing? I’m not entirely sure, but God knows, and I’m ok with that. I’ve been in a similar spot before, and God always leads.
Whatever the number 40 may portray or symbolize in the Bible, one of the primary purposes of testing is to humble us and to show us how strong or weak our faith really is. God doesn’t test our faith so that HE will know, but so that WE will know. We all have times of trials and testing, and we all have our seasons in the wilderness; for some that season may seem like a lifetime, for others it may simply be a brief “dark night of the soul”; but rest assured, joy comes in the morning for those who put their trust in God.
“Another season ended – another tear is shed
Another chapter finished – and all the pages read
But a Voice is leading me onward to walk through the open door
And I know that I must follow, like before.
“Another plan unfolding – another flag unfurled
Another day is dawning – across a darkened world
And I don’t know where I’m going, but I will not be afraid
Because the One who goes before me knows the way.
“ Lead me beside Your quiet streams
Take me to feed in pastures green
Restore my soul, and lead me home
Oh Lord, I’m trusting You.
“Another day is over – another song is sung
Another chance to praise Him for the victories won
And I, I have no regrets now though I may not understand
I know that I am guided, by His hand.
And I know that we’ll be guided by His hand.”
“Another”, by Steve Hughes ©2010