The lens of periods of 40 in the bible & what God is accomplishing on our wilderness journey
We recently explored the theme of wilderness in the bible, and how—for God’s people—the wilderness symbolizes the spiritual challenges we face as we do our best to navigate life in this carnal world.
Specifically, we talked about how people often associate the idea of a spiritual wilderness only with harsh, debilitating times of trial—but instead we should view our entire journey through this life as a journey through the wilderness. Sometimes it’s lush pasture, other times barren desert, but always a place where God is guiding us with a purpose.
In fact, the only way to reach the Promised Land lies through the wilderness. It’s where God calls His people to begin their journey, out of this present carnal world (represented by Egypt) to a place of preparation for the world to come. It’s also where He reveals more of Himself and His ways, and teaches us how to fully rely on Him to provide.
And while our focus is on reaching the Promised Land of God’s eternal kingdom, we must remember that the experiences we have on the way are critical to our spiritual growth, key to reaching the destination itself. Even the Hebrew word for wilderness (midbar) implies momentum, driving forward, and a journey with a purpose.
God is accomplishing something in us as we journey through the wilderness, and we have to surrender to Him fully, and trust that He is leading us in the right direction. And this brings us to one really interesting thematic connection to the wilderness that I couldn’t dig into in the other study, but did want to explore further—how God uses the number 40 in the bible.
This isn’t getting into mystical numerology or anything like that, but God does use certain numbers symbolically throughout His word, and we’d be wise to pause and consider what lessons we can glean. This study may seem quite long, but each of the examples can be read on their own, a little at a time.
What is the significance of the number 40 in the bible?
The number “40” in the bible appears to be connected to many of the same themes as we saw with the idea of wilderness, and the more I dig into the nuances, I really see the wilderness and the number 40 as two sides of the same coin. We often see wilderness experiences (literal or symbolic) timebound by periods of 40…days, years, etc.
These shared themes include periods of significant trial or testing, or sometimes punishment for rebelling against God. Some examples focus on the teaching and preparation of God’s chosen leaders. And in many examples the number 40 shows how God is redeeming His people from the world, bringing a time of restoration and renewal.
In other words, these are all facets of how God is bringing His people out of (spiritual) bondage, through the wilderness (of this physical life), and eventually into the (eternal) Promised Land. They showcase examples of God’s intent and direction in His people’s lives.
The number 40 in the bible appears to symbolize completion and accomplishment of God’s purpose, but in more of a physical sense (whereas the number 7 is more about Godly perfection and completion). It is sometimes 40 years, though often a period of 40 days and nights—a person’s or nation’s success in completing the 40 days/years requires humility, trust in God’s promises, and reliance on Him to sustain.