The Numbers of the Book

Diligent students have long since noted that the Bible is structured mathematically. This structure is enhanced by the fact that in both Hebrew and Greek there are no separate symbols for numbers, each letter serving a dual function of letter and number. Thus the letters of the alphabet A, B, C … are used for 1, 2, 3…This gives rise to each word, phrase, clause and sentence in the Bible having a distinct numerical value producing a mathematical structure to the whole. This is known as gematria. My intention is not to pursue this matter further, deeply interesting though it is, as it requires some familiarity with the original languages and also a fair amount of mathematical patience. However, on a more simple plane it can be said that the numbers used in the text are never employed in a haphazard fashion and have their own significance. Not only that but the number of times a word or a phrase occurs in the Bible is not without meaning. My object is to offer the reader a few suggestions as to the significance of God’s use of numbers.

In 1 Cor. 11: 14, concerning a certain matter, the apostle Paul asks “Does not even nature itself teach you…?”. Without doubt, consideration of the natural world often gives an insight into the spiritual world. Let me introduce our subject by asking a few questions about numbers. Why is it universally recognised that there are there seven days in the week––not six or eight? Why does the year have twelve months and the day and night each have twelve hours? Again, why has the year just four seasons and time but three divisions––past present and future? Why are there three dimensions but four cardinal points to the compass––North, South, East and West? Take the human body. Why are there five digits on each hand––four fingers plus one thumb? Why ten toes on two feet? None of these numbers are arbitrary––they are fixed by the Creator. The same Creator has given to each of the numbers in the Bible its own distinctive meaning. I trust that I have said enough to whet your appetite. For the sake of brevity I do not propose looking at every number in Scripture (such as Abram’s 318 servants or the disciples’ 153 fishes) but only some of those that are frequent in their occurrence.

It will help if we recall that numbers are classed as cardinal or ordinal. Cardinal numbers are one, two three etc; ordinal numbers are first, second, third etc. Again, some numbers are classed as prime numbers. These are numbers that can be divided only by themselves and one. Five is a prime number as it can only be divided by itself and one. Four is not a prime number as it can be divided by two as well as four and one. Thus one, two, three, five, seven, and eleven are prime numbers whereas four, six, eight, nine, ten and twelve are not. Let us begin with the prime numbers one, two and three.

ONE

All numbers are divisible into other numbers except one. One is made up of no other numbers (three, for example, may be viewed as two plus one). Thus one does not owe its existence to any other number. It is unique and is the number particularly identified with God for God alone does not owe His existence to another and is independent of all. Every number owes its existence to the number one. For what is two if not one plus one and three if not one plus one plus one etc? Likewise all owe their existence to God as the apostle says “for in him we live and move and exist” (Acts 17: 28). One asserts that in God there is a sufficiency that needs no other, an independency that admits no other. While all stand in need of God, He needs assistance from no one. Independence in God is His glory but independence in man is sin. The word to Israel was “Hear, Israel: Jehovah our God is one Jehovah” (Deut. 6: 4)––one Jehovah (Lord) to the exclusion of all other authority (any other authority is idolatry).

Now as a cardinal number one denotes unity, not only in the Godhead but in creation as well. Thus a man “shall be united to his wife, and the two shall be one flesh” (Eph 5: 31). One also speaks of uniqueness: “[There is] one body, and one Spirit …” (Eph 4: 4). However, when one is an ordinal number it denotes primacy. The first book in the Bible is Genesis (The Beginning) which has rightly been called the Book of Beginnings or the seed plot of the Bible. The germ of all other books is to be found there. Primacy is also identified with Christ. He is not only the Alpha and the Omega but the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End (see Rev. 22: 13). Hence the essential concepts in one, depending on the context, are independancy, uniqueness, unity and primacy, concepts that belong in a peculiar way to God Himself.

TWO

Two is the first number that we can use to divide and get a different answer (while six divided by one is still six, six divided by two is three). Just as one excludes all difference and thus denotes what is sovereign, the number two clearly affirms that there is a difference. The fundamental concept in the number two is division or difference––a difference which may be for good or evil. The second day of creation had division as its main characteristic: “And God said, Let there be an expanse in the midst of the waters, and let it be a division between waters and waters” (Gen. 1: 6). Hence God made a difference between the waters below and the waters above the expanse.

Now Scripture presents many things in pairs so that we may learn by comparison and contrast. A few examples among the many are two goats (Lev. 16: 7); two opinions (1 Kings 18: 21); two vessels (Jer. 18: 4); two masters (Matt. 6: 24); two foundations (Matt. 7: 24–27); two covenants (Gal. 4: 24); two sons (Luke 15: 11); two men (Luke 18: 10). The difference inherent in two may be for oppression or hindrance or it may be for association and help, but there will always be a difference. Thus we read of Rachel and Leah “Which two did build the house of Israel” (Ruth 4: 11). In the Gospels you will remember that the disciples were sent out in pairs and the Scripture says “Two are better than one; because they have a good reward for their labour. For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow; but woe to him that is alone when he falleth, and who hath not another to lift him up!” (Ecc. 4: 9, 10). Hence in a secondary sense the difference between two may serve as a testimony. The Lord said that the testimony of two men is true. (see John 8: 17, 18). If two different persons agree in testimony, then the matter is conclusive. Thus in the law it was said “At the mouth of two witnesses…” (Deut. 17: 6). The whole testimony of the law hung on two commandments (Matt. 22: 40). However, the difference inherent in two may also indicate opposition, enmity and division. Examples of this are the use of the word double as in James 1: 8: “a double–minded (literally two–souled) man unstable in all his ways”. Similarly in Ps 12: 2 we have a “double heart” and in 1 Tim. 3: 8 “double–tongued”. The basic thought in the number two is always difference or division which may also introduce the idea of testimony as a secondary thought.

THREE

In the natural world, two dimensions cannot fully describe a physical object. We need the third dimension; we need length, breadth and height (or depth). The number three then suggests completion. Again, two straight lines joined together cannot completely enclose any space. A third line is needed to complete the figure (a triangle). Past, present and future give the complete expression of time. Human capability is fully expressed in ‘thought, word and deed’. All that is in the natural world is completely embraced by ‘animal, vegetable and mineral’. Thus three is identified with completeness.

The number three is also used in Scripture  to denote what is complete, but complete in relation to God. It is the number of divine perfection. While the number one expresses God’s uniqueness and independence (There is one God––see Mal. 2: 10) and the unity of the Godhead (God is one––see Gal. 3: 20 and 1 Tim. 2: 5), the number three gives His fulness––His complete manifestation as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. As man was created in the image of God, he is complete in “spirit, and soul, and body” (1 Thess. 5: 23). While man is identified with the earth, God is identified with the heavens of which there are three (see 2 Cor. 12: 2). God’s attributes are completely expressed as omniscience, omnipresence and omnipotence.

The number three not only suggests what is of God and complete but also entirety of opposition to God. The world is against the Father (1 John 2: 15, 16), the flesh is against the Spirit (Gal. 5: 17) and the devil is against the Son (Matt. 4: 1 etc.). The entirety of the flesh’s opposition to God is seen in its three facets: “the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life” (1 John 2: 16). When God took Israel out from Egypt, they had to go “three days journey into the wilderness” (Ex. 3: 18)––the separation from that which was against God must be complete! Again, it was three years of seeking fruit that witnessed to Israel’s complete failure to provide anything to satisfy God (Luke 13: 7). The three languages of the inscription on the cross fully testified to the Lord’s complete rejection by man––whether religious (Hebrew), cultured (Greek) or vulgar (Latin). Man’s apostasy from God is completely manifest in “the way of Cain … the error of Balaam … and the gainsaying of Core” (Jude 11). The vicarious sufferings of the Lord were completed in three hours (see Mark 15: 33 and John 19: 30). The Lord’s death (not just His dying) was complete in that He lay in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights (Matt. 12: 40) and so the Scripture says that it was on the third day that He was perfected (Luke 13: 32). Thus three is also the number of resurrection because it is in resurrection that God’s power is fully manifest (see Rom. 1: 4). The essence of the meaning of the number three is the manifestation of what is complete in relation to God.

We have looked at the first three numbers and I have sought to show the essential symbolic meaning of them. To summarise: One suggests uniqueness or unity, two indicates difference or division and three what is complete in relation to God. One, two and three are primary numbers and are unique in that they are the only primary numbers that follow one another in an unbroken sequence.

FOUR

When we come to four we have the first number that can be divided. However, its only possible division is by two, which, as we have seen, is the number of difference and division. Indeed, four is unique among numbers in that it is the only number in which a sum (two plus two) gives the same result as the same number multiplied by itself (two by two) and this serves to intensify the thought of division that is associated with two. It was on the fourth day that the sun and the moon were set in the heavens to divide between day and night and between light and darkness (four things) and to be for signs, seasons, days and years (again, four things) (Gen. 1: 14–18). The number four is the great number of creation and its divisions. The earth has four regions: North, South, East and West (see Gen. 28: 14). The year has four seasons, which in Biblical terminology are seed time, harvest, summer and winter (Gen. 8: 22). The night has four divisions, given in Mark 13: 35 as evening, midnight, cockcrow and morning. The nations have a fourfold division “according to their land, every one after his tongue, after their families, in their nations” (Gen. 10: 5, 20, 31). The order of land, tongue, family and nation varies but the number of the division is always four. The number four thus has regard to what is universal in relation to man on the earth but which can be divided. It is the world’s number.

Often when four things are given, they divided into three plus one in which the one is the outstanding part of the four. The river that went out of Eden was parted into four main streams (see Gen. 2: 10–15). Only one of the rivers (Euphrates) has retained its original name throughout time (see Rev. 16: 12). Creation’s division into its four heads is expressed by the living creatures of Ez. 1: 5–12 and Rev. 4: 6–8 which have four faces. Of these three (lion, ox and eagle) are animal but the dominating one is man (see Gen.1 : 26). In Daniel’s dream of the four beasts (Dan. 7) representing the four great world–powers, three are named (lion, bear and leopard) but the dominant fourth power is only described. There are four Gospels, which divide into three plus one, since John’s Gospel is distinct from the other three. All four present the Lord as man in the world but John uniquely presents Him as God manifest in flesh. Thus four is the universal number of the world and man in it. There are many, many more examples of the number four in the Bible but these few examples should be sufficient to indicate its meaning.

As three is the number of what is complete in relation to God, and four is the number of man’s world, we will next look at the two numbers that are composed of these rather than go on to consider five. These are seven, which is four plus three, and twelve, which is four multiplied by three.

SEVEN

There is no other number that occurs so often in the Scriptures as the number seven. In the book of Revelation alone we have more than 50 sevens! If three denotes what is divinely complete, seven denotes what is spiritually complete. Indeed, the Hebrew word used for seven has a root meaning of “full” or “satisfied”. As mentioned previously, the week has seven days and the musical scale has seven notes––both examples giving the idea of completeness. In nature too the rainbow has seven colours, three of which are primary colours (red, green and blue) and four secondary colours (orange, yellow, indigo and violet). Like the seven colours of the rainbow, the major sevens in Scripture often divide into three and four. However, firstly let us consider this number as it is––seven. It is the number of spiritual perfection (whether in things good or bad). Abraham’s complete blessing was seven fold (Gen. 12: 2, 3) and the Lord gave seven things that spiritually defile a man (Matt. 15: 19). Rom. 12: 6–8 lists seven spiritual gifts and Eph. 4: 4–6 gives seven spiritual unities. As already mentioned most of the major sevens of the Bible are presented as three plus four. The spiritual completeness of God’s ways is seen in the typical teaching of the seven feasts of Jehovah as given in Lev. 23, the spiritual completeness of the kingdom of the heavens in the seven parables of Matt. 13 and the spiritual completeness of the Church’s testimony on earth in the seven assemblies of Rev. 2, 3. These and other major sevens are divided into three and four. Consider the parables of Matt. 13 to illustrate this. The first four (Sower, Wheat, Darnel and Mustard seed) were given by the sea (Matt. 13: 1, 2) to the crowds, and embrace what is external and universal in the kingdom in relation to man (as suggested by the number four); the last three (Treasure, Pearl and Net) were given inside the house (Matt. 13: 36) to the disciples alone, and give what is complete in the kingdom in relation to God.

TWELVE

TEN

Before looking at the number five, it is as well to complete the list of numbers associated with the thought of perfection. Ten is that number. It is a number that occurs often in the Bible and like three, seven and twelve, it is a number symbolic of perfection. Ten is the number of perfection in divine order. The complete counting system consists of so many tens. Hence ten is the completeness of divine order with nothing wanting. However, in parallel with this, ten indicates man’s responsibility to recognise and to keep that order. Thus ten is also the number of human responsibility. Man has ten fingers on his hands and ten toes on his feet, and is responsible for what he does and where he goes. The antediluvian age was completed in Noah who was the tenth generation. God’s order for man under law and man’s responsibility is set out in the ten commandments (Ex. 20). Ten times Pharaoh was said to have hardened his heart––his complete failure in responsibility (Ex. 7–11). Likewise in Num. 14: 22 we read that Israel tempted God ten times––again showing failure in responsibility. In contrast Daniel and his companions fully met their responsibility after he had requested the prince of the eunuchs to “Prove thy servants, I beseech thee, ten days” (Dan. 1: 12) with the result that at the end they were “ten times better than all the scribes” (Dan. 1: 20). In the NT man’s responsibility to go to meet the bridegroom is seen in the ten virgins (Matt. 25: 1–13); to return and give thanks in the ten lepers (Luke 17: 11–19); and to use what he is given profitably in the ten bondmen (Luke 19: 11–27).

Previously we have considered the numbers, one, two, three, four, seven, twelve, and ten. One speaks of uniqueness or unity, two indicates difference or division and three what is complete in relation to God. The number four suggests what is universal in relation to man on the earth but which can be divided, seven is what is spiritually complete, twelve is governmental perfection and ten is perfection in divine order and hence the number of human responsibility. We will now consider five, six, eight, nine, eleven and thirteen.

FIVE

Man has five senses but people often speak of certain persons having a sixth sense. When they do so, they infer that there is an inadequacy in man with just five senses. In Scripture five very often does indicate human weakness but not always. On the fifth day of creation we have the thought of excess and extremity introduced. The creation of the fifth day had nothing to do with the earth but with the depths of the seas and the heights of the heavens––spheres where, even today, man, who was created for the earth, is at his weakest. Twice we read the word multiply and three times we have the word swarm or swarms (Gen. 1: 20–23). If five is the number that identifies man at his weakest, it also sets the scene for an excess of divine grace, as perhaps indicated by the apostle’s word in 2 Cor. 12: 9 “My grace suffices thee; for [my] power is perfected in weakness”. Human inadequacy and grace Paul knew for he could “desire to speak five words with my understanding” in the assembly rather “than ten thousand words in a tongue” (1 Cor. 14: 19). The impotent man lay with a “multitude of sick…” (John 5: 3) at the pool of Bethesda with its five porches and the Lord in grace healed him. The great example of the excess of divine grace in the OT is seen in the story of Mephibosheth (dead dog to king’s son) which begins when he fell at the age of five and was subsequently lame on both his feet (2 Sam. 4: 4). Such human weakness is again seen with David’s five stones when he met Goliath (1 Sam. 17: 40) and in the inadequacy of the five loaves of 1 Sam. 21: 3. Yet it is the excess of grace that is seen in Benjamin’s portion being five times greater than that of his brethren in Gen 43: 34. The weakness of the flesh was seen in the five husbands of the woman at the well along with the excess of grace in that the Lord deigned to converse with her, a Samaritan, on the subject of worship (John 4: 5–30). Thus while five expresses man’s weakness and inadequacy it also often leads on to the expression of divine grace.

SIX

The number six is identified with labour and secular (non spiritual or physical) completeness: “For in six days Jehovah made the heavens and the earth…” (Ex. 20: 11). Yet it was also the day on which man was created (Gen. 1: 26, 27) and it is his number in a distinctive way. In Rev. 13: 18 we have 666, the number of the beast and we are told that it is a man’s number. In regard to work we are told that man was to work for six days (Ex. 23: 12), the land was to be sown and harvested for six years (Ex. 23: 10), a Hebrew bondman was to serve for six years (Ex. 21: 2), and in the wilderness manna was to be gathered for six days (Ex. 16: 26). Viewed negatively, six is seven minus one and as we have seen seven is the number of spiritual perfection. Thus six is often used for imperfection. The Lord spoke of Solomon in all his glory (see Luke 12: 27) and yet it was a glory that came short of the glory of God (see Rom. 3: 23). In 1 Kings 10: 23 we read that “king Solomon was greater than all the kings of the earth in riches and in wisdom”, but a few verses later we have one of the pointed “buts” of the Bible: “But king Solomon loved many foreign women…” (1 Kings 11: 1). Material greatness, but along with it spiritual imperfection. Thus we find that Solomon’s throne had six steps (1 Kings 10: 19) and the weight of gold that came to him in one year was 666 talents (1 Kings 10: 14). Six is also the number used when man is seen in opposition to God. Pharaoh pursued Israel with six hundred  chariots (Ex. 14: 7), Goliath was six cubits high and a span, and had a spear’s head weighing six hundred shekels (1 Sam. 17: 4, 7), and the man who defied Israel, as recorded in 2 Sam. 21: 20, had six fingers on each hand and six toes on each foot. The Lord Jesus was charged six times with having a demon: Matt. 12: 24 (and Mark 3: 22); Luke 11: 15; John 7: 20; John 8: 48; John 8: 52; John 10: 20. If five is man’s weakness, six is man’s power and labour, which is sadly often exercised in opposition to God.

EIGHT

The number eight is seven plus one and the eighth note on the musical scale is a repetition of the first only an octave higher. There is thus an identity between the eighth and the first although the eighth begins the new octave. Thus the Sabbath is the seventh day of the week, making the Lord’s Day the eighth day as well as the first day of the week. Eight is therefore identified with what is new. Noah is described as “[the] eighth” (2 Pet. 2: 5) as he was one of “eight souls” (1 Pet. 3: 20) who stepped out on to a new earth. Circumcision was on the eighth day and was first given in Gen. 17: 12 as the sign of the covenant that God made with Abram when he got a new name––Abraham (Gen. 17: 5). David was the eighth son of Jesse (1 Sam. 17: 12, 14) and significantly the kingdom was taken up anew in him. (Saul, the first king, being of the tribe of Benjamin, whereas David was of the tribe of Judah.) The cleansing of the leper was completed on the eighth day (Lev. 14: 10, 23) allowing him to start a new life. Finally the feast of Tabernacles was the only feast that was kept for eight days (Lev. 23: 33–36) and it was on the last of those days (the eighth day), the great day of the feast, that the Lord made the new offer (John 7: 37).

NINE

If eight indicates a new beginning then nine suggests the very opposite––what is final. It is the last number that is expressed by a single digit––all other numbers have two or more (for example, 10, 153 etc.). The significance of nine is that it is the conclusion of a matter and that conclusion will often end in judgement. The reason for this is that nine is one short of ten, which is the number of man’s responsibility, and when there is a coming short in meeting that responsibility, the result is judgement. Except in gematria, nine is a fairly rare number in Scripture on account of judgement being God’s strange work (see Is. 28: 21). In Deut. 3: 11 we read of Og and his bedstead which had a length of nine cubits (and a width of four cubits) and it is recorded there “For only Og the king of Bashan remained of the residue of giants”––he was the last of the giants. Nine generations (Adam, Seth, Enosh, Cainan, Mahaleleel, Jared, Enoch, Methushelah and Lemech) ended before the judgement of the flood. (Perhaps I should point out a little something to those who are not mathematically minded, namely that the number nine has unique properties possessed by no other number. One of these is that the sum of the digits that form its multiples are themselves always a multiple of nine. For example, 3x9=27 and 2+7=9. Again, 2x4x6x9=432 and 4+3+2=9.) Now the flood occurred in the six hundredth year of Noah’s life which was exactly 1656 years from the creation of Adam. But 1+6+5+6=18 and 1+8=9––the number of judgement! God’s judgement on the land given in Hag. 1: 11 had nine features. Nine people are recorded in the Bible as being stoned: the reviler (Lev. 24: 23); the sabbath–breaker (Num. 15: 32–36); Achan (Josh. 7: 25); Abimilech (Jud. 9: 53); Adoram (1 Kings 12: 18); Naboth (1 Kings 21: 10); Zechariah (2 Chron. 24: 21); Stephen (Acts 7: 59) and Paul (Acts 14: 19). However, the greatest judgement of all took place at the cross. There the judgement of God against sin fell on the Lamb of God and was exhausted at the ninth hour when Jesus cried “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matt. 27: 46).

ELEVEN

If ten is the number of perfection in divine order, then eleven is an addition to it and is thus subversive of that order. Again, if twelve is perfection in divine government, then eleven, being one short of twelve, suggests a defection in that government. Hence the thoughts that are identified with the number eleven are disorganisation, imperfection, disorder, incompleteness and disintegration. While God’s order in government was to be seen in the twelve tribes of Israel, Jacob’s brother Esau, who despised his birthright (Gen. 25: 34), married Hittites who “were a grief of mind to Isaac and to Rebecca” (Gen. 26: 35), and the nation of Edom that developed from him was marked by eleven chiefs ” (Gen. 36: 40–43). Even though Jacob had twelve sons, eleven of them were marked by disorder and warranted Joseph’s word to them “Do not quarrel on the way” (Gen. 45: 24). The dream of Joseph in which the eleven stars bowed down to him (Gen. 37: 9) is but an incomplete type of the One to whom in a day to come every knee shall bow (Phil. 2: 10). The break up of Israel’s administration centred in Jerusalem is stamped with the number eleven. Nebuchadnezzar came to Jerusalem in the days of Jehoiakim who reigned eleven years (see 2 Kings 23: 36–24: 1) and the city was besieged until the eleventh year of Zedekiah’s reign when it was finally broken into (2 Kings 25: 2). Finally the thought of incompleteness is clearly seen in the actions of the eleven disciples to find a replacement for Judas in order to administer the truth of the Lord’s resurrection (Acts 1: 15–26).

THIRTEEN

This is the addition of one to twelve––the number of government and rule. Its essential meaning is seen in its first mention in the Bible: “Twelve years had they served Chedorlaomer; and in the thirteenth year they rebelled” (Gen. 14: 4). Thirteen is thus indicative of rebellion, of apostasy, of defection and of opposition to established government. Ishmael was thirteen years old when Abraham circumcised him and thus admitted him into the covenant to which he was a stranger at heart, and before long he was marked by rebellion and rejection (see Gen. 17: 25; 21: 9). While Solomon took seven years to build the house of the Lord, he took thirteen years to build his own house (1 Kings 7: 1) a house that was ultimately to be so full of apostasy. Finally, it was in the thirteenth year of Josiah (Jer. 1: 2) that the prophet began to prophesy against the apostasy of Judah.

We have looked at the first thirteen numbers and I have sought to indicate their significance in the Word of God. Other numbers such as twenty, twenty–four, thirty and forty frequently occur and carry their own individual significance. However, I leave these and other numbers to the further study of the reader trusting that, whatever the reader may have gained from this article, he might have gained a deeper appreciation of the fact that “Every scripture [is] divinely inspired…” (2 Tim. 3: 16).