In the Bible, 40 plays a prominent and recurring role. It crops up everywhere. Many of the best-known stories have the number 40 associated with them:
- It rained 40 days on Noah.
- Moses spent 40 years in Egypt, 40 years in Midian, and 40 years post-exodus. When he went up on Mt. Sinai, he stayed there 40 days.
- Joshua did 40 days of recon on Canaan.
- Israel wandered the wilderness for 40 years.
- A criminal got 40 lashes max.
- For 40 days Goliath taunted Israel.
- The kings of the united monarchy—Saul, David and Solomon—all reigned 40 years.
- For 40 days Satan tempted Jesus.
- For 40 days Jesus appeared after his resurrection.
- Women are pregnant for 40 weeks.
- The army demands you do 40 push-ups.
Ok, those last two aren’t specifically biblical, but you get the idea. There’s a whole world of 40s out there. What’s with that? Is it sheer coincidence or some sort of Bible code?
Well, it’s not so much a code as a condition. It seems God deems “40” the appropriate period for testing, judging or proving something.
Just about anybody can drop and give you 20. But make it to 40 and we learn something about you.
That seems to be God’s intention for the number. When it comes to testing, “Let there be 40.”
Forty days of rain proves how dirty life on earth is. Forty years in the wilderness certifies the failure of an older generation, while creating faith in a newer one. Goliath’s forty-day taunt confirms the cowardice of one king, while Satan’s forty-day gauntlet proves the character of another. And if you can’t get with the fact that the latter king ascended into heaven after 40 days, well, his kingdom marches on without you.
Forty. It’s God’s favorite challenge.
The Dangers of Our 40s
“Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita,mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,ché la diritta via era smarrita.” Dante Alighieri
Dante was about 43 years old when he began writing the Divine Comedy, nearing the nadir of midlife. The year was 1308, centuries before we invented psychology. No matter. His description is perfectly apt for today:
“Midway this way of life we’re bound upon, I woke to find myself in a dark wood, where the right road was wholly lost and gone.”
I think the disorientation of midlife is hardwired into the human experience every bit as much as puberty. The times may change, but this time doesn’t. Everybody goes through midlife.
And in the dark wood, dangers abound.
We can fall off a cliff through our own blind wandering. Like the strong man Samson who, somewhere in the middle of his life, started taking liberties with his holiness vow. As one called to be a nazir, meaning separated or consecrated, this ancient knight was not permitted to consume alcohol, touch a dead body, or cut his hair. But he brazenly did the first two, then foolishly permitted the third. Both the Lord and his strength left him (Judges 16:20), and Samson didn’t even notice until it was too late.
We can fall prey to ravenous predators. As 1 Peter 5:8 warns, “Your enemy, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour.” And Peter knew what he was talking about. In the darkest moment of his spiritual journey, Satan nearly drained the faith right out of him, as three times he denied Christ.
We can fall into the hands of the living God. For reasons only he knows, God sometimes allows us to enter into a rigorous “40 test” when we least expect it. Deuteronomy 8:2 reminds us that Israel’s forty years in the wilderness were designed to humble and test them, in order to reveal what was in their hearts. Similarly, somewhere in the middle of King Hezekiah’s reign, circa 700 BC, God “left” him temporarily to know everything that was in his heart (2 Chron 32:31). And don’t forget Job. His was the crisis to end all crises, losing health, wealth and family in a moment. When Job awoke, the wood was darker than any of us could fathom. But if he could hold onto faith and sanity, perhaps we can too.
Midlife is a time unlike any other. It’s a moment when we are able to look back at the first 40 years of our lives and gain a new perspective for the next 40. It’s what we’re calling 40/40 vision.
Excerpt from 40/40 Vision by Peter Greer and Greg Lafferty
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 “Dante and the Divine Comedy: Did You Know?” Christianity Today, April 1, 2001, www.christianitytoday.com/ch/2001/issue70/14.2.html.