Symbolism of Numbers: Numerology
by Dave Brown
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THE SYMBOLISM OF NUMBERS
Source: Ray Summers, Worthy is the Lamb (Nashville: Broadman Press), pp. 21-25
The inner significance of numbers was a kind of device which always had fascination for the Oriental mind. In that early day, when language was primitive and the vocabulary meager, one Hebrew word sometimes was compelled to do duty for a score of diverse meanings. Under such conditions men came naturally to use numbers as we use words. They were the symbols of moral or spiritual truth. A certain number would suggest a definite concept. The conceptions arose quite naturally through certain primitive associations- Just as the sound of a given word by long habit calls up the corresponding idea, so a certain number, by acquired association, called up a definite concept. Such numbers become symbols and cannot be read with the literal exactness that we employ when interpreting mathematical formulae.
The Number "1" After this fashion men saw a single object and came to associate with the number "1" the idea of unity or independent existence. It stood for that which was unique and alone. This word does not appear symbolically in the book of Revelation. It is, of course, at the base of other numbers that do appear--some frequently.
The Number "2" Amid the dangers of primitive life, with a fear of wild beasts, or of hostile attack by his enemies constantly before him, man gained courage in companionship. Two were far stronger and more effective than one. Thus the number "2" came to stand for strengthening, for confirmation, for redoubled courage and energy. There was a symbolic significance in the fact that Jesus sent his disciples forth two by two. Two witnesses confirmed the truth, and their testimony which otherwise would have been weak was made strong. Always this number meant augmented strength, redoubled energy, confirmed power. So in the book of Revelation the truth of God is confirmed by two witnesses who are slain and rise again and ascend to heaven. This symbolizes a strong witness which prospers then seems to be beaten to earth only to rise again to heavenly triumph. Likewise there are two wild beasts mutually confirming and supporting each other as they wage war against the cause of righteousness. They present a formidable foe. But over against them God has a "twofold" instrument of warfare--the conquering Christ and the sickle of judgment. These prove to be too great for the two beasts to defeat. Thus, symbolically, we see the cause of righteousness triumph over evil.
The Number "3" Wishart suggests that man found in his primitive home the divinest thing that life had of offer him—father love, mother love, filial love. He found God reflected in the interplay of love and kindness and affection in his own household and began to think of the number "3" as a symbol of the divine. In his more thoughtful moments he carried that idea back into his conception of God, For this reason, doubtless, there appear glimmerings of a Trinity not only in the theology of the Hebrews but in the dreams of the Greeks. The divinest thing in life was "3" and the divine origin of life was "3." Here in the ultimate world ground were father love, mother love, and child love. Here, too, were the glimpses of the great mysteries which we express in the terms "Father," "Son," and "Holy Ghost". Three came to carry the thought of the divine.
The Number "4" When man went outside his home and looked about him, he had no conception of the modern world as we know it. No Copernicus had ever opened his eyes to the vast significance of the universe. To him the world was a great flat surface with four boundaries, east and west and north and south. There were four winds from the four sides of the earth. There were four angels, he thought, to govern the four winds. In the town he placed himself within the limit of four walls. Thus when he thought of the world he thought in terms of four. Four became the cosmic number. In Revelation there appear four living creatures symbolical of the four divisions of animal life of the world. There are four horsemen symbolical of the destructive powers of the world at war. The world in which men lived and worked and died was conveniently symbolized by "4".
The Numbers "5" and "10" Next, man turned from the study of his home and the world about him to study himself. Perhaps our decimal system arose from the intensive study by a man of his own fingers and toes. That was a crude and cruel age where many were maimed and crippled through disease, accident, or warfare. A perfect, full-rounded man was one who had all his members intact. So the number "5" doubled to "10" came to stand for human completeness. The whole duty of man was summed up in "10" commandments. The picture of complete power in government was that of a beast with ten horns. In Revelation the dragon, the first beast, and the scarlet beast have ten horns each, and in the case of this last beast the ten horns are called ten kings — complete world power as it appeared to belong to Rome with her provincial system. As a multiple, "10" occurs also in many of the higher numbers of Revelation; "70" = a very sacred number, "1000" = ultimate completeness—completeness raised to the nth degree, etc.
The Number "7" When man began to analyze and combine numbers, he developed other interesting symbols. He took the perfect world number "4" and added to it the perfect divine number "3" and got "7," the most sacred number to the Hebrews. It was earth crowned with heaven--the four-square earth plus the divine completeness of God. So we have "7" expressing completeness through union of earth with heaven. This number runs throughout the book of Revelation, There are seven Spirits, seven churches, seven golden candlesticks, seven stars, seven sections to the book, each, save the last, divided into seven parts. The sacred number, multiplied by the compete number "10," resulted in the very-sacred "70." There were seventy member of the Jewish high court, Jesus sent out seventy prepared workers. In a sweeping figure he presented the idea of an unlimited Christian forgiveness when he told a disciple to forgive his brother seventy times seven.
The Number "12" In the field of multiplication, "4" was multiplied by "3," and the resultant "12" became a well-known symbol. In Hebrew religious thought it was the symbol of organized religion in the world. There were twelve tribes of Israel, twelve apostles, twelve gates to the Holy City in Revelation. This number was reduplicated to 144,000 when the writer of our Apocalypse wanted to picture the security of a perfect number sealed from the wrath of God visited upon the world.
The Number "3 and 1/2" In the realm of division the perfect number "7" was cut in half. The resulting "3 and 1/2" came to express the incomplete, that which was imperfect. It symbolized restless longings not yet fulfilled, aspirations unrealized. When the writer of apocalyptic wished to describe that condition, when he found it necessary to picture the world waiting for something which had not arrived, when he saw men in despair and confusion seeking for peace and light, he used "3 and 1/2." This takes several forms: "3 and 1/2," "a time, times, and a half time," "forty-two months," "1,260 days,"--all have the same meaning. In Revelation two witnesses preached "3 and 1/2" years--an indefinite time; the court of the Temple was trampled by the ungodly "3 and 1/2" years; the saints were persecuted "forty-two months;" the church was in the wilderness "1,260 days." Always "3 and 1/2" or its equivalent stood for the indefinite, the incomplete, the dissatisfied; but in it all were the hope and patient waiting for a better day when truth would be delivered from the scaffold and placed on the throne usurped by wrong.
The Number "6" One last number must be treated in this study of symbolism. To the Jew the number "6" had a sinister meaning. As "7" was the sacred, "6" fell short of it and failed. "Six" was the charge that met defeat, with success just in its grasp. It had within it the stroke of doom. It had the ability to be great but failed to measure up. It was for the Jew what "13" is for many today—an evil number. Some building skip from floor twelve to fourteen because thirteen is a bad rental proposition. Many hotels have rooms 12, 12A, and 14, but no 13, because no one wants to sleep in that room. It is possible that the dread of this number goes back to a night when thirteen man broke bread at the same table. From that room went one to commit the blackest betrayal in history and one to make the supreme sacrifice of history. Thus "6" was an evil number for the Jews. It is important to keep this in mind when we come to the number "666" in Revelation.
Conclusion From this observation of the symbolic use of numbers, it follows that the numbers which occur in the book of Revelation cannot be understood with real numerical value, nor even as round numbers. They are purely symbolic, and we must discard our mathematical ideas and seek to discover their symbolic significance. A large part of the unscriptural dispensationalism of the past and present is based upon a false view of the value of the numbers employed by the writer.
Apart from this symbolism of numbers in Revelation, there is an abundance of other figurative language. Many objects are used symbolically. Birds, beasts, persons, cities, elements of nature, weapons, qualities (1ight, darkness, etc.), precious stones--all these and many others are made to serve the writer's purpose as he gives to us his picture book of the triumph of righteousness over evil. "In this weird world of fantasy, peopled by a rich Oriental imagination with spectral shapes and uncouth figures, where angels flit, eagles and altars speak, and monsters rose from sea and land--in a world of this kind many Asiatic Christians of that age evidently were at home, and there the prophet's message had to find them." (James Moffatt) One cannot possibly approach the true interpretation of Revelation if he ignores this central characteristic.
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