Forty Days of Faithful Waiting (An Ash Wednesday Reflection)

At the 2012 ETS Annual Meeting in Milwaukee, Stephen Dempster of Crandall University presented a paper entitled “Resurrection on the Third Day in Accordance with the Scriptures.” As suggested by the title, Dempster set out to explain what Paul may have been thinking when he said that Christ’s resurrection on the third day was “in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Cor 15:3). 

Dempster ultimately concluded that Paul is not pointing to one particular prophetic text that Christ fulfills, but rather that the third day is consistently portrayed in the Old Testament as “a day of critical deliverance in a time of dire need.” He provides more than a dozen examples of this conclusion, but only a few representative examples follow:  the restoration of the cupbearer on the third day (Gen 40:20), the spies hiding outside of Jericho for three days (Josh 2:22), the three days of pestilence for David’s sin (2 Sam 24:13), the three days in the fish and three-day journey into Nineveh for Jonah (Jonah 1:17; 3:3), and Esther’s three-day fast (Esther 4:16). 

Not only does Dempster provide sufficient evidence for this three day theme, he also demonstrates that the theme of death and resurrection is woven throughout the Old Testament. Again, a few examples are Hannah’s song (1 Sam 2:6), David’s song (2 Sam 22:6-7), the suffering servant (Isa 53:10), and the valley of dry bones (Ezek 37). In light of these two points, he argues that Jesus’ resurrection on the third day does not seem to be an aberration or surprise. 

Dempster’s conclusions got me thinking about other similar numeric recurrences, most notably forty days. I began to explore the use of forty days in Scripture to discern if there is a similar pattern as the third day that Dempster elucidates. Unfortunately, some of my other responsibilities put it on the backburner for nearly eight years. I always thought I would do some diligent academic work on it, and maybe some day I will, but the theme impressed itself on me in a new way as I contemplated it recently, and today (as you will see) seemed an appropriate day to finally put down some thoughts.

In order to keep this reflection short, I won’t consider each of these in significant detail, but merely mention them, point out some aspects of the text, and draw some conclusions. 

  1. Flood (Gen 7)
  2. Moses on Sinai (Exod 24:18)
  3. Moses on Sinai (Exod 34:28)
  4. Forty days spying (Num 13:25)
  5. Philistines and Goliath (1 Sam 17:16)
  6. Elijah fleeing Jezebel (1 Kings 19:8)
  7. Ezekiel lays on side (Ezek 4:6)
  8. Jonah’s message to Nineveh (Jon 3:4)
  9. Jesus in wilderness (Matt 4:2//Mark 1:13//Luke 4:2)
  10. Jesus appears for 40 days (Acts 1:3)

These ten examples are not an exhaustive list, but rather a representative list from the Law, Prophets, and New Testament, that should therefore serve as a faithful portrait of Scripture’s use of the forty day theme. 

The flood account speaks of forty days and nights of rain, though of course the water covers the land for much longer. Nevertheless, the specific mention of the forty day theme helps establish a pattern that many other texts will follow. For example, this passage links the forty day theme with both judgment and deliverance. The forty days are a time of judgment in that the rain that comes during those days wipes out life from the land. Yet with Noah and his family on the boat, there are echoes of salvation and deliverance even in the midst of the judgment. An additional theme that arises, moreover, is faithful waiting. Noah, although delivered, is still in the midst of the storm. He can have confidence in God’s deliverance, but it doesn’t change the fact that he is locked up in the boat with no immediate peace. 

Moses’ two forty-day trips to the top of Mount Sinai (Exod 24:18 and 34:28) are likewise a time of faithful waiting. Moses receives the covenant from YHWH on the mountaintop, but at the same time the people are sinning in the camp. Moses, like Noah, is separated from sinful humanity by YHWH’s own hand, but he is nevertheless not freed from the trials. Moses grieves over the sin of the Israelites and longs for God’s promises to be fulfilled. 

Soon after, Moses and the Israelites near the Promised Land and send spies into the land. For forty days the people must faithfully wait for a report. The report, however, is marked by both good and bad news. The good news: the land is just as God has promised, a good land flowing with milk and honey. Deliverance from slavery and now a beautiful land of promise! But the bad news soon follows: the people of the land are large and fierce. The people now have a decision to make—continue to faithfully trust YHWH to deliver them, or fear the future and turn back. The overwhelming response is fear and disobedience, and when the dust settles after forty years (still the forty theme), only Joshua and Caleb from that generation will enter the land. 

Another example comes in the famous David and Goliath story. For forty days Goliath offers his challenge, but the Israelites fail to trust YHWH for deliverance. Instead, they fail the trial; but David does not. He trusts in YHWH and becomes YHWH’s faithful servant in this fight. Again, the theme of faithful waiting during trial (even if in this case everyone but David fails) is set forth in the forty day theme. 

In 1 Kings 19, Elijah flees Jezebel in fear of his life. But an angel speaks to Elijah and gives him food, food that sustains him for forty days on his journey to, we should have guessed, Horeb (aka. Sinai). Like Moses, Elijah will meet with YHWH at Sinai/Horeb in conjunction with the forty day theme. 

In Ezekiel 4, Ezekiel lays on his left side for 390 days, then on his right side for forty days. The 390 days mark the years of Israel’s punishment, while the forty days mark the years of Judah’s punishment. Once again, judgment, deliverance, and faithful waiting are conjoined with the forty day theme. 

Even the unfaithful Jonah joins the forty day theme. After refusing to go to Nineveh, YHWH redirects his path and Jonah eventually preaches the message. In the shortest sermon one can imagine, Jonah calls out “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown” (ESV). These forty days mark an opportunity, a time of testing, quite similar to the forty day spying out of the land. If they will respond appropriately, repent, and trust YHWH at the end of these forty days, then they will live. But if they reject this message and rebel, they will receive judgment. Nineveh, unlike the Israelites, repents in a shocking yet anticipatory picture of the gospel’s success among the Gentiles. 

Finally, Jesus’ own ministry in the New Testament echoes the forty day theme. Jesus, representative of the New Moses and Faithful Israel, relives Israel’s story (crossing Sea//baptism; wilderness wanderings 40 years//40 days; proclaiming the covenant from the mountain in Exod 19-20//Matt 5-7; etc.). Jesus’ forty days of fasting in the wilderness echoes Israel’s forty years of wandering, Moses’ forty days on the mountain, and Elijah’s forty days on his way to Sinai. Numerous parallels show that Jesus’s forty days in the wilderness embodies for us what faithful waiting should look like. Man does not live by bread alone, he says quoting Deuteronomy 8, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. Waiting upon YHWH, “feeding” upon His Word, prayerfully trusting Him to provide and bring deliverance—all of these remain for us today a proper response to trials and seasons of waiting.

Finally, Jesus spends forty days with His disciples after His resurrection. This time is one of joy and celebration, but nevertheless is punctuated by a type of sadness at Jesus’ departure in His ascension. In many ways, I suspect that the difference in these forty days from previous iterations of the forty day theme marks just how different the world is post-resurrection. Nevertheless, we, too, live in a world still corrupted by sin and awaiting the return of our savior. Will we trust in His deliverance by faithful waiting, or will we abandon Him in the trials and receive judgment? The answer for many is not yet decided. 

And here we finally arrive at why, after eight years, I’ve finally decided to write something about this theme. For nearly two thousand years, the Church has recognized something significant in the forty day theme. They have understood it to be a biblically significant time of expectant waiting, a time of repentance, a leaning into our trials and sufferings, all while we await the hope of the resurrection. Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, a season defined by such expectant, faithful, penitent and repentant waiting. As we inhabit the season of Lent this year, which I hope you will do, let us do so as those who continue to live out the drama of God, a drama we see unfold in Scripture and one in which we have become the actors as well. 

Faithfully wait and trust in His deliverance. It (and He) will come soon. 

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