The Bible has many numbers, some symbolic and others actual, and some both. The “seven spirits of God” in Revelation (1:4; 3:1; 5:6) refers to the Holy Spirit in His perfection, while the 153 fish caught by the disciples is an actual figure (Jn 21:11). The 40 days Jesus fasted (Mt 4:2) is an actual number and a symbolic representation of how God’s people are tested.
We probe to discern whether there is a secret meaning behind numbers in the Bible. However, we often miss out what numbers say about the character of God, especially when God is depicted as counting.
One such instance is when God told Jonah that He had a right to be concerned about the people of Nineveh. God had sent the reluctant Jonah to warn them of impending divine judgment because of their wickedness. Remarkably, the whole city repented. But strangely, the successful prophet sulked, trapped in his self-centredness and narrow views about God’s grace.
The Lord gave Jonah a number – 120,000, the population of the city. We could register it superficially as an interesting statistic, like the way we count our church membership or attendance or the number of people converted at a gospel rally; “the more the merrier”, we think.
In this case, the number tells us something about God’s character. Besides appreciating that God counts people, we can discover something more astounding.
The Old Testament required a shepherd to tithe from his flocks. The sheep were made to “pass under the shepherd’s rod” as he counted them. Every tenth animal was set aside as a tithe to the Lord (Lev 27:32). This idea is used in Ezekiel where God says, “I will take note of you as you pass under my rod, and I will bring you into the bond of the covenant” (Ezek 20:37).
These are wonderful words; God our Shepherd counts us not as tithe offerings but as people to be saved. Just as a shepherd watches his passing sheep while counting, God watches each person who passes.
This personal attention given by God is made clearer in Jeremiah 33:13 where it is prophesied that “flocks will again pass under the hand of the one who counts them”. The picture is of the Shepherd personally counting His sheep, not with a rod but with His hand. He touches each sheep with personal love and care.
Thus when God told Jonah of the 120,000 Ninevites, it was not an impersonal statistical figure, but spoke of how He knew each one of them. As they repented, He counted each one to save them. No one was lost in the counting, no one ignored or forgotten.
The ways of God are sometimes forgotten by His people. We brandish numbers as statistics, boosting our egos and acting as tools for self-congratulation. But numbers that have to do with people are, in God’s eyes, far more personal and profound. It does not matter whether it is a crowd in a “megachurch” or a small gathering of 40 worshippers. God is always interested in individuals, not the crowd. We forget this to our own detriment.
We allow anonymity in church, where people slip in and out of worship services. There are also many nominal Christians who have been following the crowd rather than Christ. They are submerged in the crowded flock and are lost in the counting. But God wants to personally touch everyone who passes Him. Salvation is, after all, a one-by-one experience as we are reminded by another prophet: “In that day…you…will be gathered up one by one” (Isa 27:12).
It is relatively easy to believe that Jesus died for all, but more difficult to appreciate that He died for you. But this realisation is needed for true conversion.
Charles Wesley was converted on 21 May 1738 when he read Galatians 2:20 and was struck by the phrase: Jesus “loved me and gave himself for me”. The truth became personal when the saving blood was applied to his heart and the Saviour’s loving wounded hand rested on Charles’ head. Three days later, the older John Wesley had the same experience. One by one, they were counted in by the Shepherd.
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Bishop Emeritus Dr Robert Solomon –was Bishop of The Methodist Church in Singapore from 2000 to 2012. Currently retired, he now keeps busy with an active itinerant ministry speaking and teaching in Singapore and overseas.