THE SIGNIFICANCE OF NUMBERS IN SCRIPTURE
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Who has measured the waters in the hollow of His hand;
and meted out heaven with a span;
and comprehended the dust of the earth in a measure,
and weighed the mountains in scales,
and the hills in a balance?
Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain wisdom of heart.
As for God His way is perfect.
All God's ways are perfect. His works are perfect and His words are perfect. Can there also be perfection in His use of numbers? The Jews and Jewish Christians of the Old and New Testaments thought so and so did the Fathers of the Catholic Church. St. Jerome, St. Augustine, and Pope St. Gregory I (the Great) all wrote extensively of God's design and the significance in His plan of salvation in the use of numbers.
In sacred Scripture numbers usually have more significance than their quantitative indicators. More often than not even when a number is used to indicate a certain quantity the individual number given may point beyond the numerical value to a symbolic significance. At other times the number given is not to be taken literally and may represent an approximate value, a symbolic value, or may indicate the use of hyperbole—an exaggeration or amplification to illustrate a teaching point in the Biblical text. For example:
The six day period of Creation may be literal but it might also not be literal, representing a symbolic period of time that was perfected on the seventh day when God rested—seven being one of the four "perfect" numbers.
The number of the 144,000 heavenly souls were marked with the "seal of the living God" in Revelation chapter 7. Bible scholars both ancient and modern have interpreted this number as reflecting the symbolic perfection of redeemed man in terms of the "perfect" number 12 which signifies perfection of government in Scripture multiplied by divine order (the number ten signifies divine order in scripture). 144,000 is the square of 12 times the cube of 10.
In Matthew 18:22 Simon-Peter asks Jesus how many times he must forgive a bother who has sinned against him. Peter asks, As many as seven times? Jesus' response is, I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times, indicating not a literal seventy-seven times but that Peter's forgiveness is to be given without limit—an abundance of forgiveness using the "perfect" number 7 which represents fullness, perfecting, covenant union and spiritual perfection.
In addition to the study of the symbolic significance of numbers in Scripture, there is also the study of the number equivalents of alphabetical symbols and numerical value of the words formed by the letters, which is known by the Greek word gematria. The Hebrews, Greeks, Romans, and many other ancient peoples used their alphabets for numbers. The Hebrews used all 22 letters of their alphabet plus 5 finals. The Greeks used a 24 letter alphabet and 3 additional finals. The Romans only used 6 letters of their alphabet and their combinations to form numbers: I= 1, V = 5, X = 10, L = 50, C = 100, D = 500. The number 1,000 was formed by two D's (combined to form an M like figure). The Apostle John, writing during the time of the first great Roman persecution of Christians, recorded in the Book of Revelation that the number of the Beast was 666. Most ancient MSS (hand-written manuscripts) of the book of Revelation record 666 as this significant number while others manuscripts record the number as 616. Is it a coincidence that all the Roman numeral added together total 666 (excluding the symbol for 1,000 which was not a separate letter/ number but two "D"= 500 placed back to back)? Is it also a coincidence that the gematria for Neron Caesar (an alternate Hebrew spelling of the Emperor's name in wide use in the 1st century AD) totals 666 while the Greek spelling of Nero Caesar totals 616? Six is the number of the beasts and of man (both created on the 6th day). It is also the number which is symbolic of man's nature to rebel against the sovereignty of God.
According to ancient tradition each number has significance, for example:
Three is the number of perfect completion for the Jews, and for Christians the number three symbolized the perfection of the Godhead—the Most Holy Trinity.
Eight is the number of salvation. It is the number of Christ, of the resurrection, and of the Second Coming. The gematria of the name Jesus in Greek (the language of the New Testament) is 888: a trinity of eights, the fullness of salvation! As a matter of fact, every name identifying the second person of the Trinity is a multiple of 8 in Greek: Jesus Christ = 1480 (8 x 185); Lord = 800 (8 x 100); Savior = 1,408 (8 sq. x 32); Emmanuel = 25,600 (8 cubed x 50); Messiah = 656 (8x 82); Son 880 (8 x110).
The study of the significance of the use of numbers in Scripture requires a lifetime of study and reflection, but a brief summary of some of the most significant numbers may be enough to wet one's appetite for future study.