This doesn’t mean that 40 is entirely symbolic; it still has a literal meaning in Scripture. “Forty days” means “forty days,” but it does seem that God has chosen this number to help emphasize times of trouble and hardship.
Here are just a few examples of how the number 40 features prominently in the Bible and what it may mean.
1. Moses, Elijah and Jesus fasted in the desert for 40 days each
Three of the Bible’s most important figures each endured 40 days without food or water. As the ultimate test of faith, these Biblical greats used their fasts to achieve specific goals. Moses proved his loyalty to God and received the Ten Commandments.
Exodus 34:28 (NLT2)28 Moses remained there on the mountain with the LORD forty days and forty nights. In all that time he ate no bread and drank no water. And the LORD wrote the terms of the covenant—the Ten Commandments—on the stone tablets.
Elijah gained instruction on how to lead the people of Israel.
1 Kings 19:8-18 (NLT2)8 So he got up and ate and drank, and the food gave him enough strength to travel forty days and forty nights to Mount Sinai, the mountain of God.9 There he came to a cave, where he spent the night. But the LORD said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”10 Elijah replied, “I have zealously served the LORD God Almighty. But the people of Israel have broken their covenant with you, torn down your altars, and killed every one of your prophets. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me, too.”11 “Go out and stand before me on the mountain,” the LORD told him. And as Elijah stood there, the LORD passed by, and a mighty windstorm hit the mountain. It was such a terrible blast that the rocks were torn loose, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake.12 And after the earthquake there was a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire there was the sound of a gentle whisper.13 When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And a voice said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”14 He replied again, “I have zealously served the LORD God Almighty. But the people of Israel have broken their covenant with you, torn down your altars, and killed every one of your prophets. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me, too.”15 Then the LORD told him, “Go back the same way you came, and travel to the wilderness of Damascus. When you arrive there, anoint Hazael to be king of Aram.16 Then anoint Jehu son of Nimshi to be king of Israel, and anoint Elisha son of Shaphat from the town of Abel-meholah to replace you as my prophet.17 Anyone who escapes from Hazael will be killed by Jehu, and those who escape Jehu will be killed by Elisha!18 Yet I will preserve 7,000 others in Israel who have never bowed down to Baal or kissed him!”
And Jesus was victorious over Satan’s temptations.
Matthew 4:1-11 (NLT2)1 Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted there by the devil.2 For forty days and forty nights he fasted and became very hungry.3 During that time the devil came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become loaves of bread.”4 But Jesus told him, “No! The Scriptures say, ‘People do not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”5 Then the devil took him to the holy city, Jerusalem, to the highest point of the Temple,6 and said, “If you are the Son of God, jump off! For the Scriptures say, ‘He will order his angels to protect you. And they will hold you up with their hands so you won’t even hurt your foot on a stone.’”7 Jesus responded, “The Scriptures also say, ‘You must not test the LORD your God.’”8 Next the devil took him to the peak of a very high mountain and showed him the kingdoms of the world and all their glory.9 “I will give it all to you,” he said, “if you will kneel down and worship me.”10 “Get out of here, Satan,” Jesus told him. “For the Scriptures say, ‘You must worship the LORD your God and serve only him.’”11 Then the devil went away, and angels came and took care of Jesus.
In each case, they passed their tests and gained new insights into God’s ultimate plans.
2. The Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years
After being freed from Egypt, Moses and the Israelites weren’t sure what to do next. God wanted them to find the Promised Land, but only after the generation of men who’d doubted His plan had passed. So God made the Hebrews roam the wilderness, subsisting on manna, for 40 years. Only when the last of the preceding generation was gone did God allow His people to proceed further, showing that sometimes patience is necessary to fully reveal God’s divine will.
Deuteronomy 8:1-5 (NLT2)1 “Be careful to obey all the commands I am giving you today. Then you will live and multiply, and you will enter and occupy the land the LORD swore to give your ancestors.2 Remember how the LORD your God led you through the wilderness for these forty years, humbling you and testing you to prove your character, and to find out whether or not you would obey his commands.3 Yes, he humbled you by letting you go hungry and then feeding you with manna, a food previously unknown to you and your ancestors. He did it to teach you that people do not live by bread alone; rather, we live by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.4 For all these forty years your clothes didn’t wear out, and your feet didn’t blister or swell.5 Think about it: Just as a parent disciplines a child, the LORD your God disciplines you for your own good.
The prophet Ezekiel was instructed by God to lay on his left side for 390 days and his right side for 40 days to “bear the iniquities” of Israel and Judea (respectively). The days corresponded to the number of years each kingdom insulted the name of God through wickedness and rebellion.
Ezekiel 4:5-6 (NLT2)5 I am requiring you to bear Israel’s sins for 390 days—one day for each year of their sin.6 After that, turn over and lie on your right side for 40 days—one day for each year of Judah’s sin. (emphasis mine)
Ezekiel suffered greatly for the sake of his forbearers, but his insights helped prepare the Israelites for the coming of Jesus.
4. Goliath taunted Israel for 40 days before David defeated him
Before David and Goliath became the stuff of legends, Goliath was just a hugh Philistine soldier who took pleasure in humiliating the Israelites. The Philistine and Israelite armies stood on opposite sides for 40 days.
1 Samuel 17:16 (NLT2)16 For forty days, every morning and evening, the Philistine champion strutted in front of the Israelite army.
After 40 days, David, a young shepherd from Bethlehem, was sent by God to defeat the Philistines, opening a new chapter for the Israelites namely, the solidification of the kingdom of Israel.
1 Samuel 17:45-51 (NLT2)45 David replied to the Philistine, “You come to me with sword, spear, and javelin, but I come to you in the name of the LORD of Heaven’s Armies—the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied.46 Today the LORD will conquer you, and I will kill you and cut off your head. And then I will give the dead bodies of your men to the birds and wild animals, and the whole world will know that there is a God in Israel!47 And everyone assembled here will know that the LORD rescues his people, but not with sword and spear. This is the LORD’s battle, and he will give you to us!”48 As Goliath moved closer to attack, David quickly ran out to meet him.49 Reaching into his shepherd’s bag and taking out a stone, he hurled it with his sling and hit the Philistine in the forehead. The stone sank in, and Goliath stumbled and fell face down on the ground.50 So David triumphed over the Philistine with only a sling and a stone, for he had no sword.51 Then David ran over and pulled Goliath’s sword from its sheath. David used it to kill him and cut off his head. When the Philistines saw that their champion was dead, they turned and ran.
6. God destroyed every living thing on Earth by causing it to rain for 40 days
Seeing that the sins of man had become too great, God called on Noah, a pious believer. He told him to build an ark that could hold two of every living creature on earth, as well as Noah’s family. Then God caused it to rain for 40 days and nights to flood the land.
Genesis 7:1-4, 17-23 (NLT2)1 When everything was ready, the LORD said to Noah, “Go into the boat with all your family, for among all the people of the earth, I can see that you alone are righteous.2 Take with you seven pairs—male and female—of each animal I have approved for eating and for sacrifice, and take one pair of each of the others.3 Also take seven pairs of every kind of bird. There must be a male and a female in each pair to ensure that all life will survive on the earth after the flood.4 Seven days from now I will make the rains pour down on the earth. And it will rain for forty days and forty nights, until I have wiped from the earth all the living things I have created.” 17 For forty days the floodwaters grew deeper, covering the ground and lifting the boat high above the earth.18 As the waters rose higher and higher above the ground, the boat floated safely on the surface.19 Finally, the water covered even the highest mountains on the earth,20 rising more than twenty-two feet above the highest peaks.21 All the living things on earth died—birds, domestic animals, wild animals, small animals that scurry along the ground, and all the people.22 Everything that breathed and lived on dry land died.23 God wiped out every living thing on the earth—people, livestock, small animals that scurry along the ground, and the birds of the sky. All were destroyed. The only people who survived were Noah and those with him in the boat. (emphasis mine)
When the earth had dried enough for Noah and his family to leave the ark God made a covenant that He would never flood the Earth so completely again, thus reestablishing a level of trust between Him and His people that had been lost since Adam and Eve.
Whether or not the number 40 really has any significance is still debated. The Bible definitely seems to use 40 to emphasize a spiritual truth, but we must point out that the Bible nowhere specifically assigns any special meaning to the number 40.
Some people place too much significance on numerology, trying to find a special meaning behind every number in the Bible. Often, a number in the Bible is simply a number, including the number 40. God does not call us to search for secret meanings, hidden messages, or codes in the Bible. There is more than enough truth in the plain words of Scripture to meet all our needs and make us “complete and thoroughly equipped for every good work”.
2 Timothy 3:16-17 (NLT2)16 All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right.17 God uses it to prepare and equip his people to do every good work.
Parallels and patterns should never be used to form doctrine. However, they should be used to support what has already been revealed by God’s Spirit through the clear teaching of the Word.