Why 40?

“Why do we have 40 days of Lent?  Why isn’t it 36 days or some other number?  What is the significance of 40? 

I was asked this question the other day.  It took me a few minutes to think through what I believed was a reasonable response, and since then I’ve thought about it quite a lot.

First, let me say that I haven’t pinned down a specific biblical reference that explains why GOD seems to like that number more than 36 or 52 or 13.  It is clear, however, that He seems to prefer it; there clearly is a pattern of the use of 40 in both the Hebrew Bible (OT) and the New Testament.  The flood in the time of Noah, we are told, was 40 days and 40 nights.  The life of Moses can be measured in 40 year segments: (1) his birth to the time of him becoming aware of his true heritage; (2) his sojourn on the backside of the desert learning to shepherd; and (3) his time shepherding the Israelites, leading them to Canaan-land (which coincided with the Israelites’ 40 years of wandering in the desert and subsisting on manna because of their persistent lack of faith and disobedience); the temptation of Jesus as the Holy Spirit led Him into the wilderness for 40 days; and the 40 days He spent with His disciples after His resurrection and before His ascension.  These are among the most prominent examples, but a word search of “forty” will reveal many more occasions where it is referenced in the Bible.

I’ve seen some things that suggest the use of 40 is rooted in ancient middle Eastern cultures and may have been used by GOD because He knew it would already have significance to the people, particularly His chosen.  This wouldn’t be the first time GOD adapted an established practice or belief to His own purpose.  The offices of priests, prophets, and kings, alters for sacrifices to gods, the use of incense smoke in prayer rituals, and later, crosses of crucifixion were all taken by GOD and used.

In the examples above where 40 is prominent in the story, the purpose, whether 40 days or 40 years, appears to be for both trial and transformation.  This is evident in each of these examples.  One commentator, speaking on the wilderness journey of Jesus, called it an “excruciating personal experience” in which He suffered strong temptation in a time and place of “hard and harsh warfare.” *

GOD-sent and GOD-allowed trials always have some type of transformation as their end, and I believe that they are always a personal experience, even when others go through the same or similar experiences, whether by imposition or voluntarily.  The mutual support of a shared experience does not replace the need for each of us to confront the trials in our path and overcome them.  Victory for the entire body must first be the victory for the individual.

Those who have decided to enter into some form of extra sacrificial practice, such as fasting or added times of prayer or some other practice beyond your normal devotional life during the 40 days of Lent should recognized that your choice is an invitation to be tried.  It is also an invitation to be transformed as you offer yourself and your practice to GOD for His glory and your growth in grace.  Outside of this, we wind-up engaging in empty ritual.

Whether in the season of Lent or in other seasons of life, may we, like Job, be able to say, “Yet He knows the way I have taken; when He has tested me, I will come forth as gold” (23:10).

* Ralph Earle, Beacon Bible Commentary. Beacon Hill Press, 1964, pp. 54-55.        

© Byron L. Hannon, 2020.  All rights reserved to original text content.



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