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The Meaning of Numbers

by Tim O'Hearn

What do numbers mean in the Bible? What does the number 11 mean, since I keep seeing it in variations every day? What is the biblical meaning of 777? These are common questions people ask about numbers in the Bible. Maybe it is because of the prominence in modern theory and entertainment of the one number that has true prophetic meaning in the Bible, 666. Maybe it is because people have always been fascinated by numerology.

There is one branch of numerology that just deals with names. If you assign the letters of the English alphabet the numbers 1-9, beginning again after the first nine, until all letters are assigned a digit, then take your name, you can calculate, supposedly, what your personality type is, or your compatibility with another person, or even your future. Once you add up the digits, then you add the digits in that sum, and keep doing that until you get a single digit. (For instance, if the digits from your name add up to 49, add the 4 and 9 to get 13, then add the 1 and 3 to get 4.) Each digit is supposed to have certain traits associated with it, so a 4 may be compatible with certain numbers or incompatible with others. If you want to change your personality or compatibility or future, just change your name. That person who was a 4 might, with a judicious change to a full name or only using initials, become a 9 or a 1. See the problem? It is still the same person, but playing with the numbers leads to that person’s choice of who he is.

People have done this same thing with the number six hundred sixty six of Revelation 13. Some say it is the number of Nero. Others have assigned it to Hitler (whether using just his last name or first and last is unclear), Napoleon, Saddam Hussein (using his name in Arabic or English?), and many others. Each generation, it seems, has someone whose name reduces to that number and who opposes God or the established religion. Maybe those are right who point out that the verse says it is the number of “man,” meaning mankind in general, rather than of “a man,” meaning a specific person.

There is a basic rule of thumb when interpreting numbers in the Bible. It goes: the vast majority of times numbers appear in the Bible, they are just numbers. The number 777, for instance, has no special significance. It is the count of the number of years Lamech lived. (Gen 5:31) Most of the time, twelve is a count of items (sons, tribes, apostles). The only thing that might give a number any other significance is its use in prophecy. Even then a number may not have any other significance. In particular, a number ending in a five or zero is usually not a precise number. A thousand, in prophecy, simply means a large number. Two may just be a count of items, with no special significance, even in prophecy.

Then what of the famous three, four, and seven? While these do seem to have some prophetic significance (seven bowls, seven trumpets, seven seals, half of seven—3 ½—years), the exact interpretation is sometimes a matter of conjecture. For instance, three is supposed to be the “number of God.” Yet, in prophecy, the number is more often associated with evil than with good. Perhaps our interpretation of three as a perfect number is related to the Catholic doctrine of the trinity more than an actual meaning in prophecy. Four is a more complete number, in many systems. The flag of the State of New Mexico has a sun symbol with four sets of four rays. Each symbolizes four different things (directions, winds, seasons, sacred obligations of the Zia theology). So four has symbolic significance even outside the Bible. Seven is interpreted as a combination of the other two “perfect” numbers. Its real significance may be related, however, to the days of the week rather than any other interpretation. So even these special numbers may not, or may, have the significance we assign to them.

Basically, though, a number in the Bible means a count of something unless there is compelling reason in a prophetic book to take it otherwise. Most of the time there is no compelling reason. So if someone asks you, what do numbers mean in the Bible, the proper answer, generally, is that numbers mean numbers.