The Forty-Day Period In Scripture

From the Men’s Society of our Edgerton Church comes this question: Does the forty days of Jonah 3:4have any relationship to those of Exodus 34:28I Kings 19:8, and Matthew 4:2Gen. 7:17 and Acts 1:3? What is the typical significance of this period of time? 

Let us first take note of the contents of these various passages. In Jonah 3:4 we find the record of Jonah’s preaching: “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” In Exodus 34:28 is recorded the length of Moses’ stay on Mt. Sinai: “And he was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights; he did neither eat bread, nor drink water.” In I Kings 19:8 we read of Elijah: “And he arose, and did eat and drink, and went in the strength of that meat forty days and forty nights unto Horeb the mount of God.” In Matthew 4:2 we read of the Lord Jesus at the time of His temptation in the wilderness: “And when he had fasted forty days and forty nights, he was afterward an hungred.” Genesis 7:17tells us in regard to the flood: “And the flood was forty days upon the earth; and the waters increased, and bare up the ark, and it was lift up above the earth.” Finally, Acts 1:3 refers to the forty days from the resurrection to the ascension of our Lord: “. . . being seen of them forty days . . . .” 

In addition to the above references, we may call attention to: 1) The fact that Moses repeatedly makes mention of the forty days and forty nights that he was in the mount in the book of Deuteronomy. 2) The fact that the children of Israel wandered forty years in the wilderness. This also is mentioned repeatedly in Scripture, not only in the books of Numbers and Deuteronomy, but also in Psalm 95Amos 5Acts 7 and Acts 13. Let me quote just one passage, Numbers 32:13: “And the Lord’s anger was kindled against Israel, and he made them wander in the wilderness forty years, until all the generation, that had done evil in the sight of the Lord, was consumed.” It is evident here, of course, that while this is a period of years rather than days, the number forty is on the foreground. 

On the basis of the above data, I would suggest that the answer to this question lies along the following lines: 

1) I can see no typical significance, on the basis of Scripture, either in the number forty as such or in the period of forty days or forty years. A type may be defined as a pre-ordained, historical person, event, or institution of the Old Testament dispensation, real in itself, yet also foreshadowing a future and higher form of that reality. Thus, for example, Moses was a type of Christ. 

2) The number forty, the product of ten times four, may very well have symbolic significance. A symbol we may define as a visible, earthly sign, representing a spiritual, heavenly reality. Thus, the numbers one, three, four, six, seven, ten, and twelve, and their various combinations and products occur in Scripture rather frequently. This does not mean that all numbers are symbols, nor that all symbolic numbers always occur symbolically in Scripture. 

3) As to the concrete question, whether in the instances cited above the number forty and the period of forty days and forty years has symbolic significance, the following: 

a) The very fact that this number occurs so often and in connection with such significant events should cause us to consider the possibility of its having symbolic significance.

b) If we understand the number four as the number of the earthly creature in its fulness, and the number ten as the symbol of the fulness of God’s determinate will with respect to anything, then the product of ten times four would express the fulness of the extent of the earthly creature according to God’s determinate will. 

c) And then the period of forty days would express the fulness of the endurance of the earthly creature according to God’s determinate will. 

d) At this point, of course, this idea must be applied also to the particular circumstances of the various events mentioned in the Scripture passages cited. Thus, for example, Elijah went forty days and nights, in the strength of the food which the angel supplied him, to Mt. Horeb. The Lord Jesus was forty days in the wilderness fasting, and he was an hungred. Moses was forty days in the mount, also without food and drink, and he came down. It seems to me that in all these instances there is denoted the idea of the full limit of endurance of the earthly creature. In Jonah 3:4 you have basically the same idea: forty days is the full limit of the endurance of Nineveh if it does not repent. In connection with the flood, the flood itself continued to increase for forty days,—the full limit of endurance of the earthly creation,—and the first world perished. And Israel wanders forty years in the wilderness,—the full limit,—until the unbelieving generation perishes. And if this must be applied to the forty days before the Lord’s ascension, then it seems to me that these forty days denote the limit of the earthly manifestation of the risen Lord. 

I hope that this will help toward an answer of the question submitted by the Edgerton Men’s Society. If not, call again!