In ancient Hebrew, numbers were spelled out. Sometime after the exile to Babylon, the Jews adopted to some extent the practice of using their alphabetic letters as symbols of numerical figures. However, this usage does not appear even in postexilic Hebrew Bible manuscripts. One of the oldest extant specimens of Hebrew writing is the inscription taken from the Siloam water tunnel (probably from the time of Hezekiah’s reign [745-717 B.C.E.]), in which the measurements are written out in full. Spelling out the numbers provides an added measure of accuracy and dependability in the manuscripts of the Hebrew Scriptures, which have been copied many times, for, in copying, a numeral is usually easier to mistake than a word.
In Hebrew, numbers above ten are a combination of words, such as 12 (two and ten) (Ge 14:4), except that 20 is the plural of ten; 30 a plural word derived from three; 40 a plural word derived from four, and so on. One hundred is a separate word; 200 is the dual form. Other “hundreds” are composed of two words, as, 300. The highest number expressed by one Hebrew word is 20,000, the dual form of 10,000 (myriad). Larger numbers are a combination of words. For example, at 1 Chronicles 5:18 the number 44,760 is, literally, forty and four thousand and seven of hundreds and sixty. A million is written as a thousand thousands. (2Ch 14:9) Rebekah’s family blessed her, saying: “O you, our sister, may you become thousands times ten thousand [literally, thousands of myriads].” (Rebekah’s posterity actually came to number many millions.) (Ge 24:55, 60) In Daniel’s vision Jehovah is shown as having “ten thousand times ten thousand [literally, a myriad of myriads]” standing before him.—Da 7:10.
Occasionally numbers are used in an approximate sense, as round numbers, for example, at Psalm 90:10, where the psalmist speaks of man’s age limit, and possibly also at 1 Kings 19:18 (7,000 who had not bowed to Baal) and 2 Chronicles 14:9 (the million Ethiopians defeated by Asa).
In the Christian Greek Scriptures numerals are generally expressed in words. The number of “the wild beast” is in words in the Sinaitic and the Alexandrine manuscripts.—Re 13:18.
Bible Usage Not Numerology. Since the Bible is a book of both history and prophecy, the numbers given therein may be either literal or symbolic. The context usually reveals in which sense a number is used. Certain numbers appear often in the Bible in an illustrative, figurative, or symbolic sense, and in such cases an understanding of their significance is vital to an understanding of the text. However, this Bible usage of numbers should not be confused with numerology, in which occult mysticism is attached to figures, their combinations, and numerical totals. Numerology apparently had its origin in ancient Babylon and, along with other forms of divination, comes under divine condemnation.—De 18:10-12.
In the following we will discuss a few of the figurative uses of certain numbers that are used prominently in the Bible.
One. This number, when used figuratively, conveys the thought of singleness, uniqueness, as well as unity and agreement in purpose and action. “Jehovah our God is one Jehovah,” said Moses. (De 6:4) He alone is Sovereign. He is unique. He does not share his glory with another, as is the case with pagan trinitarian gods. (Ac 4:24; Re 6:10; Isa 42:8) There is oneness in purpose and activity between Jehovah and Jesus Christ (Joh 10:30) and there should be complete unity of Christ’s disciples with God, with his Son, and with one another. (Joh 17:21; Ga 3:28) Such oneness is illustrated in the marriage arrangement.—Ge 2:24; Mt 19:6; Eph 5:28-32.
Two. The number two frequently appears in a legal setting. Agreement in the accounts of two witnesses adds to the force of the testimony. Two witnesses, or even three, were required to establish a matter before the judges. This principle is also followed in the Christian congregation. (De 17:6; 19:15; Mt 18:16; 2Co 13:1; 1Ti 5:19; Heb 10:28) God adhered to this principle in presenting his Son to the people as mankind’s Savior. Jesus said: “In your own Law it is written, ‘The witness of two men is true.’ I am one that bears witness about myself, and the Father who sent me bears witness about me.”—Joh 8:17, 18.
Doing something a second time—for example, repetition of a statement or vision, even in only a parallel way—firmly established the matter as sure and true (as in Pharaoh’s dream of the cows and the ears of grain; Ge 41:32). Biblical Hebrew poetry is full of thought parallelism, which establishes more firmly in mind the truths stated and at the same time clarifies matters by the variety of wording in the parallelism.—See Ps 2, 44, and others.
Three. While the testifying of two witnesses to the same matter established proof sufficient for legal action, three made the testimony even stronger. The number three, therefore, is used at times to represent intensity, emphasis, or added strength. “A threefold cord cannot quickly be torn in two.” (Ec 4:12) Emphasis was achieved in Jesus’ threefold questioning of Peter after Peter’s three denials of Jesus. (Mt 26:34, 75; Joh 21:15-17) The vision telling Peter to eat of all kinds of animals, including those unclean according to the Law, was intensified by being given to him three times. This doubtless made it easier for Peter to understand, when Cornelius and his household accepted the good news, that God was now turning his attention to uncircumcised people of the nations, considered unclean by the Jews.—Ac 10:1-16, 28-35, 47, 48.
The intensity of Jehovah’s holiness and cleanness is emphasized by the declaration of heavenly creatures: “Holy, holy, holy is Jehovah.” (Isa 6:3; Re 4:8) Before taking the last earthly king of the line of David off the throne, Jehovah said: “A ruin, a ruin, a ruin I shall make it. As for this also, it will certainly become no one’s until he comes who has the legal right, and I must give it to him.” Here he emphatically showed there would be no Davidic kings sitting upon the throne at Jerusalem in his name—the throne would be absolutely vacant—until God’s time to establish his Messiah in Kingdom power. (Eze 21:27) The intensity of woes to come to those dwelling on earth is forecast by the triple repetition of the declaration “woe.”—Re 8:13.
Four. Four is a number sometimes expressing universalness or foursquareness in symmetry and form. It is found three times at Revelation 7:1. Here the “four angels” (all those in charge of “the four winds,” ready for complete destruction) stood on earth’s “four corners” (they could let loose the winds obliquely or diagonally, and no quarter of the earth would be spared). (Compare Da 8:8; Isa 11:12; Jer 49:36; Zec 2:6; Mt 24:31.) The New Jerusalem is “foursquare,” equal in every dimension, being in fact cubical in shape. (Re 21:16) Other figurative expressions using the number four are found at Zechariah 1:18-21; 6:1-3; Revelation 9:14, 15.
Six. This number at times represents imperfection. The number of “the wild beast” is 666 and is called “a man’s number,” indicating that it has to do with imperfect, fallen man, and it seems to symbolize the imperfection of that which is represented by “the wild beast.” The number six being emphasized to a third degree (the six appearing in the position of units, tens, and hundreds) therefore highlights the imperfection and deficiency of that which the beast represents, or pictures.—Re 13:18.
Seven. Seven is used frequently in the Scriptures to signify completeness. At times it has reference to bringing a work toward completion. Or it can refer to the complete cycle of things as established or allowed by God. By completing his work toward the earth in six creative days and resting on the seventh day, Jehovah set the pattern for the whole Sabbath arrangement, from the seven-day week to the Jubilee year that followed the seven-times-seven–year cycle. (Ex 20:10; Le 25:2, 6, 8) The Festival of Unleavened Bread and the Festival of Booths were each seven days long. (Ex 34:18; Le 23:34) Seven appears often in connection with the Levitical rules for offerings (Le 4:6; 16:14, 19; Nu 28:11) and for cleansings.—Le 14:7, 8, 16, 27, 51; 2Ki 5:10.
The “seven congregations” of Revelation, with their characteristics, give a complete picture of all the congregations of God on earth.—Re 1:20–3:22.
The “seven heads” of the “wild beast” (Re 13:1) show the limit to which the beast would be allowed to develop. Although the “scarlet-colored wild beast” is called “an eighth” king, it springs from the seven and does not exist apart from the seven-headed wild beast (Re 17:3, 9-11), as is true also of the “image” of “the wild beast.” (Re 13:14) Similarly, the two-horned “wild beast” is actually coexistent with the original “wild beast” whose “mark” it tries to put on all persons.—Re 13:11, 16, 17.
In historical sections of the Scriptures, seven frequently occurs to denote completeness, or doing a work completely. The Israelites exercised full faith and obedience by marching for seven days around Jericho, encompassing it seven times on the seventh day, after which the city wall collapsed. (Jos 6:2-4, 15) Elijah showed full faith in the efficacy of his prayer to God by commanding his servant up on Mount Carmel to go looking at the sky seven times before a rain cloud appeared. (1Ki 18:42-44) Naaman the leper had to bathe seven times in the Jordan River. He, as a mighty Syrian general, had to display considerable humility to carry out this procedure recommended by the prophet Elisha, but for his obediently doing it, Jehovah cleansed him. (2Ki 5:10, 12) The purity, completeness, perfection, and fineness of Jehovah’s sayings are likened with poetic force and intensity to silver refined in a smelting furnace, clarified seven times. (Ps 12:6) Jehovah’s mercy is magnified by the statement: “The righteous one may fall even seven times, and he will certainly get up.” (Pr 24:16) His deserving all praise is declared by the psalmist: “Seven times in the day I have praised you.”—Ps 119:164.
The book of Revelation abounds with symbolic use of the number seven in connection with the things of God and his congregation, and also the things of God’s Adversary, Satan the Devil, in his all-out fight to oppose God and his people.—Re 1:4, 12, 16; 5:1, 6; 8:2; 10:3; 12:3; 13:1; 15:1, 7; 17:3, 10; and other texts.
Multiples of seven are used in a similar sense of completeness. Seventy (ten times seven) is employed prophetically in the “seventy weeks” of Daniel’s prophecy dealing with Messiah’s coming. (Da 9:24-27; see SEVENTY WEEKS.) Jerusalem and Judah lay desolate 70 years, because of disobedience to God, “until the land had paid off [completely] its sabbaths.”—2Ch 36:21; Jer 25:11; 29:10; Da 9:2; Zec 1:12; 7:5.
Seventy-seven, a repetition of seven in a number, was equivalent to saying “indefinitely” or “without limit.” Jesus counsels Christians to forgive their brothers to that extent. (Mt 18:21, 22) Since God had ruled that anyone killing Cain, the murderer, must “suffer vengeance seven times,” Lamech, who apparently killed a man in self-defense, said: “If seven times Cain is to be avenged, then Lamech seventy times and seven.”—Ge 4:15, 23, 24.
Eight. The number eight was also used to add emphasis to the completeness of something (one more than seven, the number generally used for completeness), thus sometimes representing abundance. Jehovah reassured his people of deliverance from the threat of Assyria, saying that there should be raised up against the Assyrian “seven shepherds, yes, [not merely seven, but] eight dukes of mankind.” (Mic 5:5) As a fitting climax to the final festival of the sacred year, the Festival of Booths, the eighth day was to be one of holy convention, solemn assembly, a day of complete rest.—Le 23:36, 39; Nu 29:35.
Ten. Ten is a number denoting fullness, entirety, the aggregate, the sum of all that exists of something. It may be noted also that, where the numbers seven and ten are used together, the seven represents that which is higher or superior and ten represents something of a subordinate nature.
The Ten Plagues poured upon Egypt fully expressed God’s judgments upon Egypt—all that were needed to humiliate fully the false gods of Egypt and to break the hold of Egypt upon God’s people Israel. The “Ten Words” formed the basic laws of the Law covenant, the approximately 600 other laws merely enlarging on these, elucidating them, and explaining their application. (Ex 20:3-17; 34:28) Jesus used the number ten in several of his illustrations to denote entirety or the full number of something.—Mt 25:1; Lu 15:8; 19:13, 16, 17.
One of the beasts of Daniel’s vision and certain beasts described in Revelation had ten horns. These evidently represented all the powers, or “kings,” of earth making up the beastly arrangement. (Da 7:7, 20, 24; Re 12:3; 13:1; 17:3, 7, 12) The fullness of the test or period of test that God determines for his servants or allows them to undergo is expressed at Revelation 2:10: “Do not be afraid of the things you are about to suffer. Look! The Devil will keep on throwing some of you into prison that you may be fully put to the test, and that you may have tribulation ten days.”
Twelve. The patriarch Jacob had 12 sons, who became the foundations of the 12 tribes of Israel. Their offspring were organized by God under the Law covenant as God’s nation. Twelve therefore seems to represent a complete, balanced, divinely constituted arrangement. (Ge 35:22; 49:28) Jehovah chose 12 apostles, who form the secondary foundations of the New Jerusalem, built upon Jesus Christ. (Mt 10:2-4; Re 21:14) There are 12 tribes of “the sons of [spiritual] Israel,” each tribe consisting of 12,000 members.—Re 7:4-8.
Multiples of 12 are also sometimes significant. David established 24 divisions of the priesthood to serve by turn in the temple later built by Solomon. (1Ch 24:1-18) This assists in identifying the “twenty-four elders” who were seated round about God’s throne in white outer garments and who were wearing crowns. (Re 4:4) The footstep followers of Jesus Christ, his spiritual brothers, are promised kingship and priesthood with him in the heavens. These elders could not be only the apostles, who numbered just 12. They therefore evidently represent the entire body of the “royal priesthood,” the 144,000 (as represented in the 24 priestly divisions serving at the temple) in their positions in the heavens, as crowned kings and priests.—1Pe 2:9; Re 7:4-8; 20:6.
Forty. In a few instances periods of judgment or punishment seem to be associated with the number 40. (Ge 7:4; Eze 29:11, 12) Nineveh was given 40 days to repent. (Jon 3:4) Another use of the number 40 points out a parallel in the life of Jesus Christ with that of Moses, who typified Christ. Both of these men experienced 40-day periods of fasting.—Ex 24:18; 34:28; De 9:9, 11; Mt 4:1, 2.