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The world has been thrown into chaos with COVID-19. And there has been a major hit to jobs, industries, and the economy general. The world has never before seen a situation quite like this. Many wonder how we’ll make our way through this crisis. Many wonder what are the next steps. Many despair at the chaos and insecurity. For many, they feel that they are wandering in a fog of uncertainty.
I believe that the scriptures provide perspective.
And the number 40 is the symbol that is relevant for our day and time.
In scripture, the number 40 symbolizes a time of trial, testing, uncertainty, difficulty, effort, wandering, and wondering. The number 40 represents times when people’s faith are put to the test for an indeterminate amount of time. That is the paradox of the number 40 in scripture. Though to us that is a number that we can grasp, make sense of, count. But in reality, ancient scripture writers would use the number 40 to identify an indeterminate amount of time of wandering suffering, learning, testing and difficulty.
Israelites Wandered for 40 Years
The earliest example of this is the 40 years of testing and wandering experienced by the Israelites in the Sinai wilderness. (In fact, the Biblical book called Numbers is actually called “In the Wilderness” in the original Hebrew.) God saved the House of Israel from the oppressive bondage of Egyptian servitude. He saved them by mighty acts of marvel and wonder. He brought them to Mount Sinai in order to reveal His covenantal expectations of them (the 10 Commandments and the Law of Moses). But even after being invited into His presence, the Israelites wavered and then were condemned to wander in the wilderness. Only have a period of 40 years of testing and trial in the wilderness were they allowed to enter the Promised Land.
Elijah Fasted for 40 Days
We have another story where the prophet of Elijah fasted for 40 days as he wandered his way back to Mount Sinai (1 Kings 19). Discouraged at the wickedness he saw in his society, discouraged that he had been so thoroughly rejected, discouraged that many sought to take his life, he sought solace at the founding epicenter of Israelite faith, Mount Sinai. The journey took him 40 days, symbolizing the wandering and testing he experienced as he sought the presence of God. Furthermore, his 40 day return journey to Sinai symbolized in reverse the 40 years of wandering that the Israelites had endured as they learned to finally and fully trust God.
Jesus Fasted for 40 Days
Then there is the well-known story of Jesus fasting for 40 days after his baptism (Matthew 4). During this time of physical privation, Jesus was also tested and tried spiritually and mentally by the adversary. This was a time of trial, a time of learning, a time of probation and proving. Jesus successfully passed the tests and demonstrated his mastery of his soul.
Ammon and His Men Wandered 40 Days
Now we come to the Mosiah 7-10. Nephites in Zarahemla wondered what happened to their brethren who had returned up to the Land of Nephi several generations before under the leadership of Zeniff. Ammon led a group from Zarahemla up to Nephi. But their course was not a direct and easy route. We know that they suffered and struggled because the scriptures tell us explicitly that they did while also using the symbolic number 40 to alert us to the wandering testing they endured.
“And now, they knew not the course they should travel in the wilderness to go up to the land of Lehi-Nephi; therefore they wandered many days in the wilderness, even forty days did they wander.” (Mosiah 7:4)
We Are All Symbolically Wandering for 40 Days or 40 Years
Why do these stories matter? We can look back to our spiritual forebearers and take heart. We are like them, wandering in the wilderness of affliction. We are being tested. We are experiencing trials. We don’t always know how long the journey will take. We may worry about whether we’ll achieve positive outcomes. We do not always know the course that we should travel.
But have faith. Hold to the iron rod. Live the truths that you know. Treat others with kindness and love. This too shall pass. We will endure. We will come out of this in the end, no longer how dark or long the road. Like all those in scripture who grew stronger because of their experience with 40, so too, we can make this a time of strengthen and improvement.