What Is the Significance of 40 Days in the Bible?
- Whitney Hopler Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
- Updated Jun 20, 2022
The number 40 appears often in the Bible, in ways that have symbolic meaning and importance. 40 days in the Bible is especially prominent – God flooded the Earth for 40 days, Jesus spent 40 days between his Resurrection and Ascension, and much more. Let’s discover the meaning and significance and 40 days in the Bible.
How Many Times Is '40 Days' Mentioned in the Bible?
The phrase “40 days” is mentioned in the Bible more than 20 times – some in the Old Testament and some in the New Testament. Here are highlights of those instances.
We first encounter it in Genesis 7:4, which records God describing his plans for dealing with the rampant sin on our planet: “Seven days from now I will send rain on the earth for forty days and forty nights, and I will wipe from the face of the earth every living creature I have made.” Then, in Genesis 7:12, we read, “And rain fell on the earth forty days and forty nights.” As the Bible describes God’s mercy on faithful people through the story of Noah’s Ark, the timing of 40 days shows up again in Genesis 7:17 and Genesis 8:6.
Moses met with God on Mount Sinai for 40 days and 40 nights. Exodus 24:18 records: “Then Moses entered the cloud as he went on up the mountain. And he stayed on the mountain forty days and forty nights.” Later, Exodus 34:28 notes: “Moses was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights without eating bread or drinking water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant – the Ten Commandments.” The book of Deuteronomy mentions that several times, as well.
In 1 Kings 19:8, we read about how the prophet Elijah fasts for 40 days as he travels, after the angel of the Lord tells him to eat and drink to help him make a spiritual journey: “So he got up and ate and drank. Strengthened by that food, he traveled forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God.”
The Philistine soldier Goliath threatened the Israelites for 40 days before God sent the courageous shepherd David to defeat Goliath against all odds (1 Samuel chapter 17). Through the 40-day trial, God tested the Israelite people’s faith and gave them an opportunity to strengthen their faith. After the victory, God opened up a new chapter for the Israelites, solidifying their kingdom.
God instructed the prophet Ezekiel to lay on his right side for 40 days (and on his left side for 390 days) to symbolically bear the sins of Judea and Israel, which had rebelled against God for 40 years and 390 years, respectively (Ezekiel 4:5-6).
In Jonah 3:4, Jonah delivered a prophecy, warning that the city of Nineveh would be overthrown: “Jonah began by going a day's journey into the city, proclaiming, ‘Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.’” The people of Nineveh took that warning seriously and used the 40 days to repent of their sins. As a result, God spared them.
Jesus spent 40 days in the desert wilderness before he began his public ministry. During those 40 days, Jesus was tempted by evil to sin in ways that are common to all humanity in this fallen world. Mark 1:13 mentions that Jesus “… was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.” During those 40 days, Jesus was tempted by evil to sin in ways that are common to all humanity in this fallen world. But each time, Jesus fought back and overcame the temptations. He fasted during the 40 days as well (Matthew 4:2 and Luke 4:2), focusing on his spiritual goals and preparing to start ministering publicly.
After his Resurrection, Jesus spent 40 days visiting with people, and hundreds of people saw and spoke with him before his Ascension into heaven. Acts 1:3 reports: “After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God.”
What Is the Meaning of 40 Days in the Bible?
The phrase “40 days” in the Bible designates a period of time to complete an important spiritual challenge. When the Bible uses that phrase, something challenging that leads to spiritual growth is always taking place within the context of 40 days. Often, the spiritual challenge involves repentance from sin and strengthening faith, such as the story of the great flood and Noah’s Ark and the stories of Ezekiel, Jonah, and David and Goliath. At other times, the spiritual challenge involves overcoming temptation, as Jesus did in the desert wilderness. A 40-day challenge may also involve a vital meeting with God, like Moses’ encounter with God on Mount Sinai and Elijah’s journey to meet with God on Mount Horeb. Finally, the Bible uses the phrase “40 days” to refer to the challenge that Jesus gave people who encountered him between his Resurrection and Ascension – to believe in the good news of the Gospel and to begin saving relationships with God. The Bible’s use of “40 days” is consistent with its use of the number 40 overall, which also signifies the time during which some sort of spiritual challenge takes place – such as the 40 years that Israelites spent wandering in the desert before reaching the Promised Land.
Why Is '40 Days' Significant?
The significance of 40 days in the Bible is that God allows us to go through challenges in order to grow spiritually. The 40-day time period highlights the importance of strengthening our faith by relying on God’s help in challenging circumstances. Also, 40 days highlights God’s patience with us. By using that generous amount of time to symbolize a period of spiritual growth in the Bible, God is sending a message that growing spiritually is a process that takes time to complete.
Just like all biblical symbolism, the significance of 40 days is multifaceted and deep. It may seem mysterious. But mysteries are worth exploring. In my book Wake Up to Wonder, I describe research on curiosity that shows how seeking new knowledge from mysteries can lead us to experience joy as we explore them. God has designed us all to be lifelong learners. Whenever you’re intrigued by the mystery of something with symbolic meaning in the Bible – like 40 days – let that inspire you to seek God more through learning, reflection, and prayer. Don’t get preoccupied with the symbolism itself. Trying to find a secret code of some sort through numerology or other means can frustrate you and actually shift your focus away from God. Instead, as you explore the significance of 40 days in the Bible, follow the advice in Proverbs 3:5-6: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.” Keep your focus on God, and ask your Counselor – the Holy Spirit – to help you discover what the mystery means and how that wisdom can strengthen your relationship with God.
The 40-day time period from the Bible is reflected in the church calendar, as well. Liturgical seasons that are intended for spiritual growth – such as Lent before Easter and Advent before Christmas – are 40 days long.
When we read the biblical instances of 40 days, we see that God is working powerfully in those challenging situations to accomplish some type of important spiritual purpose, such as helping people overcome temptation, repent from sin, or strengthen their faith. The time of 40 days in the Bible shows that the challenges we encounter can help us grow spiritually when we rely on God during those challenges. God is always at work in our lives, but 40 days symbolizes special times when God asks us to focus on moving closer to him.
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Whitney Hopler is the author of the Wake Up to Wonder book and the Wake Up to Wonder blog, which help people thrive through experiencing awe. She leads the communications work at George Mason University’s Center for the Advancement of Well-Being. Whitney has served as a writer, editor, and website developer for leading media organizations, including Crosswalk.com, The Salvation Army USA’s national publications, and Dotdash.com (where she produced a popular channel on angels and miracles). She has also written the young adult novel Dream Factory. Connect with Whitney on Twitter and Facebook.
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