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Looking at the number 40 in the Bible is fascinating. It is mentioned 146 (or 149) times in scripture, depending on the translation. The symbolism of 40 in the Bible generally symbolizes a period of testing, trial and then, finally, triumph. Through hardships lasting 40 days or years, we endure to become more spiritually aware of our need for God.
Many numbers in general have a symbolic meaning in the Bible. The number “40” is particularly interesting and connected to the fulfillment of God’s promises, not all of them positive, however. As mentioned above, it is often associated with the time of testing, trials and judgment.
40 in the Bible: A Time of Testing
I’ve already pointed out that the meaning of 40 in the Bible is usually related to testing. There are truly dozens of examples which exemplify this, but we’ll take a look at a few to connect the dots. From Jesus to the Israelites wandering in the wilderness, 40 in the Bible features prominently. Why? Biblical scholars have pointed out, and God makes clear in scripture, that faith that is not tested is vulnerable.
Let’s take a look at nine examples of 40 in the Bible.
The Significance of 40 in the Bible: Examples of Testing and Trials
The Israelites Wandered in the Desert for 40 years
After being freed from Egypt, Moses and the Israelites weren’t sure what their next step was. God wanted them to head to the Promised Land, but only after the generation of men who’d doubted His plan had passed. So God made the Hebrews roam the wilderness, living on manna, for 40 years. Only when the last of the previous generation had died did God allow His people to proceed further, showing that sometimes patience is necessary to fully reveal God’s divine will.
The people of Israel ate the manna forty years, till they came to a habitable land. They ate the manna till they came to the border of the land of Canaan. – Exodus 16:35 (ESV)
Jesus fasted for forty days and forty nights and it wasn’t until after He fasted that He faced the greatest temptation that anyone has ever experienced…and He passed this difficult test. Can you imagine fasting for forty days and nights? (I often struggle with one day!) What must that have felt like? How hungry and tired He must have been!
Fasting is a powerful tool for us to use when battling a major sin or temptation (Isaiah 58) and by Jesus’ example of fasting for so many days He was able to resist the Devil and his three temptations in putting Jesus, God, to the test. Being hungry, how hard it must have been for Jesus to not turn stones into bread, yet Jesus defeated the Devil at his own game.
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread. – Matthew 4:1-3 (ESV)
Moses’ Forty Day Fast
Moses was up on the mountain in the presence of God and while there, “he neither ate bread nor drank water.” This seems to fit a pattern of seeking the presence of the Lord while fasting. Many people fast when they are trying to overcome a major sin or temptation or when they are laying their needs out to God because of a difficult trial in their life. While God was carving the Ten Commandments in stone, the nation of Israel was already doubting and and worshiping an idol.
Moses was also on Mount Sinai for 40 days and nights, on two separate occasions, receiving God’s laws. In addition, he also sent spies, for forty days, to investigate the land God promised the Israelites as an inheritance.
Moses entered the cloud and went up on the mountain. And Moses was on the mountain forty days and forty nights. – Exodus 24:18 (ESV)
At the end of forty days they returned from spying out the land. – Numbers 13:25 (ESV)
According to the number of the days in which you spied out the land, forty days, a year for each day, you shall bear your iniquity forty years, and you shall know my displeasure.’ – Numbers 14:34 (ESV)
Refer also to Exodus 34:1-28
Ezekiel Had Laid on His Right Side For 40 Days
The prophet Ezekiel was informed by God to lay on his left side for 390 days and his right side for 40 days to “bear the iniquities” of Israel and Judea (respectively). The days corresponded to the number of years each kingdom dishonored the name of God through their wickedness and rebellion. Ezekiel suffered greatly for the sake of his people and ancestors, but his understanding and insights helped prepare the Israelites for the coming of Jesus.
And when you have completed these, you shall lie down a second time, but on your right side, and bear the punishment of the house of Judah. Forty days I assign you, a day for each year. – Ezekiel 4:6 (ESV)
God Flooded the Earth For 40 Days
Most are familiar with this story of 40 in the Bible.
When God saw the increasing sins of man, he was agrieved. He called on Noah, a devout believer. He instructed him to build an ark that could hold two of every living creature on earth, as well as Noah’s entire family. Once the ark was completed, God flooded the earth 40 days and nights. Once the rain had stopped, Noah and his family found land again and God made a covenant that He would never flood the Earth so completely again, thus reestablishing a level of trust between Him and His people that had been lost since Adam and Eve.
For in seven days I will send rain on the earth forty days and forty nights, and every living thing that I have made I will blot out from the face of the ground.” – Genesis 7:4 (ESV)
Goliath Mocked and Taunted Israel for 40 Days
Goliath, as you likely know from the famous story in the Bible, was a huge and intimidating Philistine soldier who took pleasure in humiliating the Israelites. The Philistine and Israelite armies stood on opposite sides for 40 days. Every day, a new Hebrew warrior or solider would come out to meet Goliath face-to-face, only to be destroyed. After 40 days, David, a young shepherd from Bethlehem, the youngest and smallest of his family, was sent by God to defeat the Philistines, opening a new chapter for the Israelites—namely, the solidification of the kingdom of Israel.
For forty days the Philistine came forward and took his stand, morning and evening. – 1 Samuel 17:16 (ESV)
Three Kings in the Bible Reigned For 40 Years Each: Saul, David and Solomon
The three great and well-known Hebrew kings, Saul, David and Solomon, each ruled for 40 years. That’s not a coincidence. 40 years is considered a generation in the Bible (this means that a new group of Israelites that rises up, sustains itself, then dies off).
For these three kings, this time period of 40 years also contains a warning: 20 years of their rule was marked by prosperity and 20 years by ruin. It characterizes the Prophet Samuel’s trepidations over instituting kings in the first place: eventually, they’ll take from the people more than they give.
And the time that Solomon reigned in Jerusalem over all Israel was forty years. – 1 Kings 11:42 (ESV)
Then they asked for a king, and God gave them Saul the son of Kish, a man of the tribe of Benjamin, for forty years. – Acts 13:21 (ESV)
David was thirty years old when he began to reign, and he reigned forty years. – 2 Samuel 5:4 (ESV)
Here are some additional examples of 40 in the Bible:
- 40 lashes (stripes) was the maximum whipping penalty (Deuteronomy 25:3)
- God allowed the land to rest for 40 years (Judges 3:11, 5:31, 8:28)
- Abdon, a judge in Israel, had 40 sons (Judges 12:14)
- Israel did evil; God gave them to an enemy for 40 years (Judges 13:1)
- Eli judged Israel for 40 years (1 Samuel 4:18)
- Ishbosheth (Saul’s son) was 40 years old when he began to reign (2 Samuel 2:10)
- The holy place of the temple was 40 cubits long (1 Kings 6:17)
- Elijah had one meal that gave him strength for 40 days (1 Kings 19:8)
- Joash reigned 40 years in Jerusalem (2 Kings 12:1)
- Egypt to be laid desolate for 40 years (Ezekiel 29:11-12)
- God gave Ninevah 40 days to repent (Jonah 3:4)
- Jesus remained on earth 40 days after the resurrection (Acts 1:3)
Today, God continues to test His children and often, (as in the case of Job), this testing is not always for punishment or correction but to see if His children will seek God and still praise Him even in the storms of life.
As I wrote earlier, a faith that is not tested cannot be trusted so if you are presently experiencing a trial or a test, don’t grow weary or faint and don’t give up because God may not necessarily be disciplining you but may be testing you to see how strong your faith and trust in Him really is. I pray we can all pass the test and remain obedient to God and have our trust in Him remain unshaken.
We’ll have times of trials, tests, sufferings, and we may be wandering in a spiritual wilderness for a time, but rest is coming; the true rest that is found when we place our trust in Jesus Christ.
You may also enjoy this short video on the meaning of 40 in the Bible. Sort of an overview of this post.