7.5.1. The Abuse of Numbers

Concerning the abuse of biblical numerology,1 Trench has well observed:

In all speculations upon numbers we may very profitably lay to heart the wise caution of Fuller, [A Pisgah Sight of Palestine, b. iii. c. 6.] . . . “For matter of numbers fancy is never at a loss. . . . But such as in expounding of Scripture reap more than God did sow there, never eat what they reap thence, because such grainless husks, when seriously threshed out, vanish all into chaff.”2

This caution applies not only to numbers, but to the interpretation of symbols and typology. In the case of numerology, symbols, and typology, God undeniably conveys more than the surface text itself suggests, the problem is in determining how valid are the additional insights one may gain. As soon as the meaning attributed to a number, symbol, or type is carried beyond what God intended to convey, then we are eating Fuller’s “grainless husks.” So due caution must be exercised, especially by teachers.3

Beale provides us with illustrations of the most common abuse of numbers: a denial of any literal value and substituting a figurative meaning in its place:

The seven kings [of Rev. Rev. 17:10+] are not to be identified with any specific historical rulers but represent rather the oppressive power of world government throughout the ages, which arrogates to itself divine prerogatives and persecutes God’s people.4

The name “Christ” appears seven times and the name “Jesus” fourteen times. “The Lamb” is used of Christ twenty-eight times, seven bringing the Lamb and God together. The 7 x 4 appearances of this title underscore the universal scope of the Lamb’s complete victory. . . . Twelve is the number of God’s people, which is squared to indicate completeness and multiplied by one thousand to connote vastness. [Rev. Rev. 7:4+; Rev. 14:1+]5

Notice how Beale puts his interpreter’s “spin” on the numbers in order to deny their literalness with phrases like to indicate and to connote.

Some interpreters seem to despair of dealing with the numbers in the book of Revelation in any sort of literal way. This can be carried to such an extreme as to totally deny any literal meaning while failing to provide a figurative understanding in its place:6 Here we meet with both confusion (we can’t know what the numbers mean) and anti-supernaturalism (we can’t know the writer’s intention—never mind that he was told simply to record what he was shown).

When it comes to numbers and their meaning in the book of Revelation, it is not uncommon for interpreters to ask the reader to exchange his gold (the number’s literal meaning) for fool’s gold (a fanciful, vague interpretation, or perhaps no interpretation at all). It may be valid in some cases to understand an additional well-recognized figurative meaning connoted by a number, but this should not be done in lieu of its literal value. There were, after all, twelve actual sons of Israel (Gen. Gen. 35:22-26) and Jesus ministered to twelve actual disciples (Mtt. Mat. 10:2-5).


Notes

1 The study of how numbers are used within the Bible.

2 Richard Chenevix Trench, Commentary on the Epistles to the Seven Churches in Asia (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1861), 61-62.

3 No more so than in the case of typology wherein truths concerning God can be ascertained, but never in a way suitable for teaching as doctrine.

4 Gregory K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1999), 23.

5 Ibid., 61.

6 “It is not to be supposed that a specific meaning attaches invariably to a given numerical symbol, so that we could substitute this as a paraphrase in all cases; in view of the vagueness characterizing the style of visions we may presume that the writer himself did not always have a precise intention in mind.”—Isbon T. Beckwith, The Apocalypse of John (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2001), 251.