Scripture is filled with symbols, from the Ark of the Covenant to the tzitzit on the Israelites garment, down to the number of the Beast recorded in the Book of Revelation.
God uses symbols to communicate spiritual truths to mankind, including numbers.
Understanding the meanings behind these numbers can help you understand the self-revelation of God a little better.
It is important at the outset that we make it very clear that while God did inspire the use of specific numbers for symbolic reasons, we have to be careful not to place too much emphasis on numbers.
Such exaggerated emphasis can and has led to dangerous mystical ideas, bad theology, fringe eschatological approaches, and even outright occultism — believing that numbers hold a mystical power that can be tapped into for divination purposes.
Scripture forbids and condemns all such divinatory practices (Deuteronomy 18:10-12). The Church Fathers were also unanimous in their condemnation of using numbers for divination, or foretelling future events, etc.
They noted that the practice originated in Babylonian paganism, as well as Pythagorean mystery teachings and Gnosticism. For example, St. Ambrose wrote:
“The number seven is good, but we do not explain it after the doctrine of Pythagoras and the other philosophers, but rather according to the manifestation and division of the grace of the Spirit; for the prophet Isaiah has enumerated the principle gifts of the Holy Spirit as seven” (Epistle to Horontianus).
Likewise, Anatolius wrote: “Pythagoras was not the only one who duly honored arithmetic (numbers). His best-known disciples did so too.”
The Church Fathers wrote prolifically condemning all forms of divination and mystery cults, such as those which employ numerology.
“The wisdom of the princes of the world...we understand to be things like the secret and occult philosophy (as they call it) of the Egyptians and the astrology of the Chaldeans and Indians” (Origen).
All such “philosophies,” practices, rites, rituals, and even seemingly harmless party games stand condemned by both Scripture and the various great theologians of the Christian faith throughout history.
That said, they clearly recognized that the Word of God does contain a divinely inspired system of numbers. Two excellent examples of biblical books containing such number references are Daniel (Daniel 7:3) and Revelation (Revelation 13:15-18).
Let’s take a brief look at the most common numbers and their biblical meanings.
One: Symbolic of unity (Deuteronomy 6:4). God is one, Jesus and the Father are one, etc.
The Tabernacle contained five curtains, five pillars, five sockets, five bars, and the altar was five cubits by five cubits, etc.
Eight: Symbolic of a new beginning (Genesis 17:2; Mark 16:9-11; Genesis 7:13). Christ appeared eight times after His resurrection, God saved eight people from the Flood, newborns were circumcised on the eighth day.
Twelve symbolizes spiritual authority (Matthew 10:2-4; Revelation 7; 10:2-4). Twelve tribes, twelve apostles, Jacob had twelve sons, God ordered that twelve loaves of unleavened bread be present in the temple each week, etc.
Thirty symbolizes dedication to a calling (Numbers 4:3; Luke 3:23; 2 Samuel 5:4). Aaronic priests were initially dedicated at 30 years old. Christ began His public ministry at 30 years of age, David was 30 years old when he began his reign over Israel.
Forty: Symbolic of trials (Genesis 7:4; Exodus 24:18; Numbers 14:33; Matthew 4:2). Moses lived 40 years in the desert, 40 years in Egypt, and was on Mount Sinai for 40 days, Jonah preached in Nineveh for 40 days, Ezekiel slept on his right side for 40 days, etc.
Seventy: Symbolic of judgment (Numbers 11:16; Ezekiel 8:11; Jeremiah 29:10). God provided 70 priests for Moses in passing judgment. For seventy years, the Israelites were kept in Babylonian captivity.
Perhaps the most notorious number found in Scripture is that associated with the Anti-Christ: 666.
The Church Fathers noted several other instances wherein the number six featured prominently.
“Fittingly, therefore, will his name possess the number six hundred and sixty-six, since the Anti-Christ sums up in his own person all the mixture of wickedness that took place previous to the deluge, due to the apostasy of the angels. For Noah was six hundred years old when the deluge came upon the earth...Furthermore, that image which was set up by Nebuchadnezzar had indeed a height of sixty cubits, while the breadth was six cubits...This, then, the six hundred years of Noah...indicate the number of the name of that man in whom is concentrated the whole apostasy of six thousand years” (Irenaeus).
What Does This Mean?
The Word of God is indeed a fascinating study, filled with many mysteries for the diligent disciple of Christ to explore.
However, as was cautioned at the start of this article, some of these mysteries require discernment and the guidance of a seasoned theologian, pastor, or student of Scripture if we are to avoid the pitfalls that come from poor sources.
Few people make a study of such things as biblical numerology, and fewer still correctly comprehend the information available.
While the internet has placed many excellent sources at our easy disposal, it must be said that it also provides far more sources that are nothing less than false teaching, heresy, and outright occultism.
Always approach Scripture as God-breathed and seek out your pastor or trusted church leader when such difficult topics arise.
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J. Davila-Ashcraft is an Anglican priest, Theologian, and Apologist, and holds a B.A. in Biblical Studies and Theology from God’s Bible College in Cincinnati, Ohio. He is a recognized authority on the topic of exorcism, and in that capacity has contributed to and/or appeared on programming for The National Geographic Channel, Discovery Channel, and CNN. He is the host of Expedition Truth, a one-hour apologetics radio talk show.