The Spirituality of Numbers

September 1, 2013

Summary

Robin McGonigle
University Congregational Church
Sept. 1, 2013

“The Spirituality of Numbers”
Psalm 90

Read Psalm 90.
On this Labor Day weekend, I thought we would talk about numbers. Numbers are an inescapable part of our lives and our work. Have you noticed how we measure effectiveness by numbers?
• Companies are judged on their numbers. What are your production numbers? How much is your stock worth?
• People are judged by their numbers. How many cars, children, or things do you have? What is your age, your level of education, your salary?
Numbers in the Bible have interested, even fascinated people through the ages. Psalm 90 reminds us that we need to “number our days” and live wisely and well. Since we’re talking about numbers today, listen for the quantitative and the qualitative words in this psalm.
Read Psalm 90.
What numbers – either specific or general – did you hear in the text?
• Forever
• Long ago
• All the time in the world
• 70 years
• 80 years, with luck
• Daybreak
St. Augustine showed more than just a curiosity about biblical numbers. He studied the symbolic meaning of Biblical numbers. I’ve provided a place in your bulletin for you to take notes if you want about what each of these numbers represent. I hope you brought writing utensils!
At least 15 numbers stand out in the Bible: 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 12, 30, 40, 50 and 70. These numbers are highly symbolic and are usually not used in our Bible as literal values. The ancient people did not measure time and space the way we do. They did not have calendars like ours. They didn’t always keep track of days and years. Numbers in the Bible are representative. But what do they mean?
The number “two” indicates support. The Ten Commandments were written on two stones. The animals went into the ark – two by two. Jesus’ disciples were sent out in twos. And an often remembered phrase in the Bible “Where two or more are gathered, God is in the midst of them.” We even have an adage about this… “There is safety in numbers.” So 2 = support.
The number “three” is mentioned numerous times in the Bible. The number three is known as the divine number; it is the number of unity, of accomplishment, and of the universe. The human race is traced to Noah’s three sons. Jesus’ earthly ministry lasted three years; he rose from the dead on the third day; and the idea of God in three parts – the Trinity. What’s with so many 3’s in the Bible? Over the centuries, thinkers such as Aristotle, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, Dante, Soren Kierkegaard, Karl Marx Sigmund Freud and others have emphasized triadic groupings in their writings. One of the most fascinating things about 3’s is that in our very DNA there is a triadic structure. It makes me think of Genesis 1:26 “Let us make humans in our image after our likeness.” Are we made up of the same manifestations God exhibits in Creator, Redeemer & Sustainer? These are ponderous questions that may never be answered… but remember that 3 = divinity.
The number “four” is more of an earth-related number: four directions; four seasons; four corners of the earth, Jerusalem as the “four square” city. Four represents the totality of earth, or worldwide inclusivity. Four, compared to three is like comparing the divine (3) to earth (4). 4 = earth.
The number “five” is the number of grace. There were five wise virgins; and five barley loaves used by Jesus to feed the 5000. 5 = grace. When the number 5 is used in a Biblical story, you can guess that the subject of the story is grace.
“Seven” is considered God’s number or the number of divine perfection because after the creation, God rested on the seventh day. Jesus told Peter to forgive 70 times 7. The seven churches of the New Testament are representatives for the church in its totality. 7 = divine perfection.
You may have noticed that I skipped 6. That is because it is 1 short of 7. If 7 is divine perfection, then “six” is the number pertaining to humanity. The world was created in six days. Israel marched around Jericho six times. Anything mentioned in the Bible about the number six typically implies that humanity fell short of God’s intentions.
And the terrible number 666 which you hear about? It is 1 short of divine perfection, 3 times. So it is humans (the number 6) trying over and over to be divine (the number 3) or humans repeatedly falling short of divinit – humans playing God. 666 is not an actual count for something – it’s a highly symbolic code for humanity falling short of divinity. Some say 666 is the sign of the beast. If so, symbolic number theory would argue that the number 666 is a sign of the beast in humanity – us!
Let’s review:
2 = support
3 = divinity
4 = earth
5 = grace
6 = humanity
7 = divine perfection
“Eight” is the new beginning number. Eight were saved from the flood. Circumcision was to be performed on the eighth day. If you think about this, we have adopted the cycle of 7’s. Each week is 7 days. The beginning of a new week is day 8, but we call it day 1 – because it is time for a new beginning. If you are ready to begin again – a new habit, a diet, a new book, a project – do it on the 8th of the month or on the 8th day. So 8 = new beginnings.
“Nine” is the fullness of blessings number. The fruit of the Spirit is ninefold. What would it be like to lie in bed each night and count the day’s blessings until you thought of nine? 9 = blessing.
“Ten” is said to be the human government number. The northern kingdom had ten tribes. The revived Roman Empire will consist of ten nations. Remember that right before or right after a divine number is often a human number? Well, if 9 = God’s blessings, then 10 = a human number… is how we structure ourselves. 10 = human gov’t.
“Twelve” is the divine government number. There were 12 tribes of Israel. Jesus chose 12 apostles. Can you think of other biblical examples of 12? (12 sons of Jacob, twelve baskets of bread, twelve gates of Jerusalem).
Oh, and by the way… have you ever heard of the 144,000 souls who are going to be in heaven? I realize that some people think that is an exact count. But it is a very obvious symbolic number. To the ancient people a thousand was the number used to represent anything extremely large (we do this too: “he must weigh a THOUSAND pounds! “She is a THOUSAND years old!”). So, because 12 is the divine government number…. If you take 12 x 12 x 1000… you get the number of people in God’s incredible presence. 12 = divine gov’t.
“Thirty” is associated with sorrow and mourning. Israel mourned for Moses for 30 days.
“Forty” is the number for trial and testing. It rained for 40 days during the flood. Moses spent 40 years in the desert. Jesus fasted for 40 days. Lent has 40 days.
“Fifty” is connected to celebration. Pentecost occurred 50 days after Christ’s resurrection.
“Seventy” is the number associated with human committees and judgment. Moses appointed 70 elders. The Sanhedrin was made up of 70 men. One of the most familiar texts, even to non-Christians – is when Jesus told Peter to forgive 70 times 7. Remember that the number 7 equals divine perfection. 70 equals human judgment. So forgiveness 7 x 70 represents a person’s judgment yielding itself to divine perfection.
Well, I could go on. But I think you get the point. Numbers are important in the Bible. So much so, that almost anywhere you look in the Bible – there is a number. Goodness! There’s even a book of the Bible called “Numbers”, which is about a census of the Hebrew people. I’ll admit being kind of a nerd and thinking that this symbology of numbers is fascinating in and of itself.
But… what does all of this matter 2,000 years later? And how can we apply it to our contemporary lives? Let’s count backwards.
#70 stands for human committees and judgment. We can thank God that we don’t have anywhere near that many committees or deacons!
#50 represents celebration! We’ve been topping that number when we have a picnic or a fellowship dinner or an ice cream social! We do a good job of celebrating.
#40 is the number for trial and testing. You did that about 2 years ago. And I’ll bet it felt like more than 40 days to many of you. The significance of trial and testing, however, is not how long it lasts – but what it is able to create. The Israelites spent 40 years in the desert … but they reached the Promised Land! Noah and the animals were on the boat for 40 days … but when they opened the hatch, the world was new again!
#7 is a sign of divine perfection. I’ve been thinking about this and I want to note that if you add our musicians, Bob & Helen; our office staff, Luanne & Cyndi; our program staff, Paul & I; and our Sexton, Emily, together… you get 7! Enough said.
#2 represents support. So often when we are hurting, we isolate ourselves. We stop going to events. We don’t call our friends. We pull back. But that is not what our faith teaches us. We are made for the plural. Community is important. Reach out and add another to your life so that you have support when you need it most.
And finally, #1 is the number necessary to make all the other numbers worth it – 1 life touched or changed by our church. If the hygiene pantry only served 1 person, it would be worth it. Instead, they often have 300 or more families. Each 1 is a blessing. We may have attendance at our worship service of 150. If 1 life is touched or changed, it is worth everything we said, sang, and prayed.

Psalm 90 reminds us that we need to “number our days” and live wisely and well. It’s a fitting text for us as we consider the numbers in our lives and in the lives of our church. It has been said that stewardship is organizing your life so God can give you away. Let us organize our lives so that we may be given away each day!

Resources Used:
Kalinowski, Edward. “Homiletic & Pastoral Review”, January 2000.
www.cezwright.com/books/numbers

Bible References

  • Psalm 90 - 90
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