“three days and three nights” is familiar to
Bible students respecting the burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale's belly; so shall
the Son of
man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matthew
When speaking about his pending burial and resurrection, Jesus referred
another instance of this phrase with which Bible students are likely
(at least because it appears in Matthew 12:40). “Now the LORD had
great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish
days and three nights” (Jonah 1:17). However, did you know that the
“three days and three nights” appears in 1 Samuel 30:12 pertaining to
Egyptian slave (not Joseph)? Further, a similar statement appears in
4:16: “three days, night or day.” What does the expression “three days
three nights” mean?
phrase “forty days and forty nights” is
familiar to Bible students respecting the duration of rain in the flood
Noah’s day (Genesis 7:4, 12). The Bible student might also recall that
fasted for “forty days and forty nights” on two occasions atop Mt.
time he received the 10 Commandments on tables of stone (Exodus 24:18;
Deuteronomy 9:9, 11, 18, 25; 10:10). In addition, the Bible student may
remember that the duration of the Special Temptation of our Lord at the
commencement of his ministry was for “forty days and forty nights”
Besides these two references to “forty days and forty nights,” a
reference occurs in 1 Kings 19:8 respecting the fasting of the prophet
What does the expression “forty days and forty nights” mean? Proper
understanding of the phrases “three days and three nights” and “forty
forty nights” is one of several important principles of biblical
Let’s look at
the phrase “three days and three nights”
more closely. In each of the three instances where the phrase “three
three nights” appears in Scripture, are 72 hours (no more and no less)
Regarding the badly dehydrated and hungry Egyptian slave in 1 Samuel
the Jamieson, Fausset and Brown Commentary observes: “According
Oriental mode of reckoning, three consecutive parts of days were
days (Jonah 1:17; Matt 12:40; 27:63; Mark 8:31).” We call this type of
expression or figure of speech an “idiom.” One dictionary definition
“idiom” is “having a meaning that cannot be derived from the conjoined
of its elements (as Monday week for “the Monday a week after
Monday”) (Merriam Webster’s). It is not necessary doctrinally
unlikely that the unfortunate Egyptian of 1 Samuel 30:12 was without
water exactly 72 hours, neither a moment less nor a moment more.
overboard adventure is the next occasion of the
expression “three days and three nights” (Jonah 1:17). The occasions of
ordeal and the ordeal of our Lord in his Special Temptation can hardly
since Jesus joined them together (Matthew 12:40).
This need not
mean seventy-two hours, since any part of a day or
night can be considered a whole according to OT reckoning. A total of
forty-nine hours would be adequate to meet a literal interpretation of
expression. …If Christ was buried before sundown on Friday (as is
held) and arose before sunup Sunday morning, then a literal rendering
“three days and three nights” (i.e., seventy-two hours) was not
The Jamieson, Fausset and Brown
notes the figure of language of the “three days and three nights” for
Jonah and Jesus Christ: “Probably, like the antitype Christ, Jonah was
forth on the land on the third day (Matt 12:40); the Hebrew counting
and third parts of days as whole 24 hour days.”
occurrence of the phrase “three days and
three nights” comes from the lips of our Lord (Matthew 12:40). Most
commentators agree that Jesus Christ was not in the tomb literally for
hours: “It will be seen in the account of the resurrection of Christ
was in the grave but two nights and a part of three days” (Barnes).
early on the first day of the week; he was buried
shortly before sunset on Friday, and at sunset the Sabbath began. His
in the tomb a small part of Friday, all day Saturday, and about ten or
hours on Sunday. This corresponds with the seven times’ repeated
he would or did rise “on the third day,” which could not possibly mean
seventy-two hours. The phrase, “after three days,” naturally denoted
Greeks, and Romans a whole day and any part of a first and third, thus
with the phrase, “on the third day.” The “three days and three nights”
12:40) need not, according to Jewish usage, mean more than what is here
designated. All these expressions can be reconciled with the phrase “on
third day,” and with all the facts as recorded, but the phrase “on the
day” cannot mean after seventy-two hours. (Boles)
commentators argue for a strictly literal
interpretation of our Lord’s reference to and enactment of his burial
hours. “Those holding to the traditional Friday crucifixion explain the
here as idiomatic for parts of three days (Friday, Saturday, Sunday).
holding to Wednesday crucifixion explain the reference literally as
seventy-two hours, from sundown Wednesday to sundown Saturday (e.g., W.
Scroggie, Guide to the Gospels, pp. 569-577)” (Wycliffe). James
Coffman quotes from scholarly Bible students who attempt to make
from Scripture as to whether Jesus were crucified on Friday (making the
days and three nights an idiom) or whether Jesus Christ were crucified
Wednesday/Thursday (making the three days and three nights in the tomb
of a similar expression occurs in Esther
4:16: “three days, night or day.” Two verses after Esther 4:16 in
it is apparent that Esther concluded her fast on the third day, which
part of the “three days, night or day” of 4:16. Regarding the statement
Jesus in Matthew 12:40 about “three days and three nights,” the Jamieson,
Fausset and Brown Commentary connects all of the expressions we
entertained thus far. “The period during which He was to lie in the
here expressed in round numbers, according to the Jewish way of
was to regard any part of a day, however small, included within a
days, as a full day. (See 1 Sam 30:12-13; Est 4:16; 5:1; Matt 27:63-64;
then, is that the phrase “three days
and three nights” is a figure of speech, an idiom. The reference
specified period of time. However, a literal 72 hours is neither
meant. To be dogmatic about 72 hours respecting the “three days and
nights” is a symptom of deficient biblical interpretation. On the other
parts of three days are definitely conveyed by the expression.
Let’s look at
the phrase “forty days and forty nights”
more closely. In each of the instances where the phrase “forty days and
nights” appears in Scripture, are 960 hours (no more and no less)
are five occasions in several passages where the phrase “forty days and
nights” appears. Did the rain fall for exactly 960 hours in the flood
day (neither a moment more or less) (Genesis 7:4, 12)? Each of the two
occasions on which Moses ascended Mt. Sinai to receive the 10
Moses fast exactly 960 hours (neither a moment more or less) (Exodus
34:28; Deuteronomy 9:9, 11, 18, 25; 10:10)? Did Elijah fast exactly 960
(neither a moment more or less) (1 Kings 19:8)? Was our Lord subject to
Special Temptation (versus ongoing temptation, Luke 4:13) exactly 960
(neither a moment more or less) (Matthew 12:40)?
interesting comparisons between Moses,
Elijah and Jesus Christ respecting the “forty days and forty nights” of
fasting. “It is remarkable that Moses, the great lawgiver of the Jews,
to his receiving the law from God, fasted forty days in the mount; that
the chief of the prophets, fasted also forty days; and that Christ, the
of the New Covenant, should act in the same way” (Clarke).
“‘A forty days’ fast was accomplished by Moses (Ex 34:28; Deut 9:18),
Elijah (I Kings 19:8), and it is a significant fact in this connection
these two men appeared with Christ at his transfiguration (Matt 17:3)”
(McGarvey and Pendleton).
There is no
reason to dogmatically suppose that the
“forty days and forty nights” was any more literal that the “three days
three nights.” The reference depicts a specified period of time.
literal 960 hours is neither required nor meant. The conclusion, then,
the phrase “forty days and forty nights” is a figure of speech, an
proper understanding of the phrases
“three days and three nights” and “forty days and forty nights” is one
several important principles of biblical interpretation. It is
biblical interpretation not to either make too much of or too little of
biblical language. We must endeavor to understand precisely the message
the Bible conveys. Part of understanding the Bible correctly is
handling figures of speech like idioms.
Of course, it
is important to understand the Bible
properly, since the Bible is God’s communication to mankind, a part of
message is the divine plan of salvation. Jesus’ words about salvation
recorded in Mark 16:16. When Christians sin (and they do), they also
forgiveness of their sins, and the apostles Peter and John addressed
problem, too (Acts 8:22; 1 John 1:9).
Barnes, Albert. Barnes’ Notes. CD-ROM.
Boles, H. Leo. A Commentary on the Gospel
According to Luke.
Nashville: Gospel Advocate, 1991. CD-ROM. Austin: Wordsearch, 2005.
Clarke, Adam. Adam Clarke’s Commentary.
Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown Commentary.
McGarvey, J.W. and Philip Y. Pendleton. The
Cincinnati: Standard Publishing, 1914. CD-ROM. Austin: Wordsearch, 2004.
Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary.
Springfield: Merriam-Webster, 1993.
Wycliffe Bible Commentary. CD-ROM. Chicago:
Moody P., 1962.