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Christopher Wordsworth on the 1260 days

June 29, 2011

The following is a discussion of the numbers in the Apocalypse by Christopher Wordsworth (1807-1885), the Bishop of Lincoln, from his Lectures on the Apocalypse. [1]

In the Apocalyptic History of Scripture and the Church, as now revealed, we meet with repeated mention of twelve hundred and sixty days.

What is meant by this period?

It is with much diffidence that I speak concerning this difficult question, which involves another, —

1. What is the true interpretation of the Numbers used in the Apocalypse?

Many recent learned expositors, you are aware, regard each of these Days as a Year; and, having fixed an anterior limit, they proceed to date this period, so formed, from that limit; and thus they suppose that they are able to determine the times and seasons, even to the end.

This theory seems to rest on an insecure basis. It appears to contravene the express declarations of Christ, It is not for you to know the times and seasons. Of that Day and that hour knoweth no man.

Besides, it is founded on an erroneous estimate of the style of Prophecy, and of the use of the Numbers employed in this book.

If we may so speak, the numbers of the Apocalypse, and especially those which refer to future times, which are not for men to know, represent certain ideas (resting on an historical or natural basis), and not precise quantities.

2. Thus, for example, instead of saying a large part, the Apocalypse commonly speaks of a third part. For instance, the third part of the trees was burnt up: the third part of the sea became blood: the third part of the creatures died: the third part of men were slain; and in many other places.

None can imagine that this is to be understood literally. No; this is the language of Poetry, especially of Hebrew Poetry, which avoids what is vague, and loves what is distinct.

3. Thus, again, the number four is an exponent of all space. Hence we read of the four corners of the earth; and the four winds. The heavenly City, that is, the Universal Church, glorified, is four square. And to signify the universal destruction of God’s foes in the mystical Armageddon, it is said that the blood from the winepress of His fury flowed to four times four hundred furlongs. This, I conceive, cannot be understood literally.

4. So, again, the number twelve in the Apocalypse, being the number of Christ’s Apostles, represents the Apostolicity of the Church. Thus, the Woman, or Church militant, is displayed as crowned with twelve stars; so, the Holy City or heavenly Church, has twelve foundations, and twelve gates; the tree of life bears twelve fruits; and the Elect of God consist of twelve thousand, sealed out of each of Twelve Tribes.

Assuredly it would be a very great error to imagine that the Elect of God are limited to this number. Indeed the Apocalypse itself forbids us to do so; it declares them to be innumerable; therefore the number twelve times twelve thousand is not to be taken literally. It does not express a quantity, but a quality. It teaches us the important truth, that this great, this innumerable, company, are all united in one Faith, and by the same Sacraments, that is, the Faith taught, and the Sacraments administered, by the Twelve Apostles of Christ.

The same truth is expressed in the twelve stars, twelve foundations, twelve gates, and twelve fruits.

That these expressions represent a principle may be inferred from Our Lord’s own words to His Apostles: Ye shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And yet He says, Have not I chosen you twelve, and one of you is a Devil? One of the twelve was a traitor; and so the quantity was marred; but the idea remained: they were still “the Twelve,” and so they are called in Holy Scripture — “the Twelve.” The Apostolicity of the Church is unimpaired. It is still built upon twelve foundations; for we read, the wall of the City has Twelve foundations, and in them the names of the Twelve Apostles of the Lamb.

5. The same mode of exposition must be applied to the Thousand years, during which Satan is bound. They who thence infer a literal Millennium seem to misconceive the spirit, and overlook the manner, of St. John. They forget that the Apocalypse is not a prose History, but an inspired Poem, and a divine Prophecy.

The ancient Expositors pursued a safer course when they recognized a dogmatic truth, and not a precise quantity, in this perfect number often centenaries; by which, as we have already seen, they understood the entire time between the first Advent of Christ and the full revelation of Antichrist, whatever that time may be, which is known to God alone.

6. So again, with respect to the number seven in the Apocalypse. It indicates an idea, — that of completion.

There were many more than Seven Churches in Asia when St. John wrote; but he addresses Seven Churches, because he writes in them to all the Churches of all places and all times. Similarly we read of Seven Angels, as representing all ministers of the Gospel: seven spirits express the full effusion of the Holy Ghost: seven seals exhibit all the sufferings of the Church: seven trumpets proclaim all God’s judgments on her enemies: seven vials pour out all God’s wrath on the mystical Babylon: and many other septenary combinations there are, all expressive of completion; all ending in some great consummation, just as the Hexaemeron of Creation terminated in the Sabbath of God.

Similarly, in order that we may understand that the triumph of the Two Witnesses will be complete, we have a combination of the two numbers, seven and a thousand. There were slain of men, we read, seven thousand; and the remnant were affrighted, and gave glory to the God of heaven.

7. Let us now apply these observations to the period of twelve hundred and sixty days.

These 1260 Days are equal to forty-two months, or to three Years and a half; and they are mentioned under all these terms in the Apocalypse.

The Holy City is trodden by the Gentiles forty-two Months. It is given to the Beast, to exercise his power forty-two Months. The Two Witnesses preach in sackcloth 1260 Days. The Woman is in the Wilderness 1260 Days: and she is also said to be in the Wilderness a time, times, and half a time; that is, three years and a half.

Now, if we examine the records of Scripture, we find that the period of three years and a half represents an idea; one of spiritual toil, pilgrimage, and persecution.

First, it may be observed, that three and a half, being the half of seven, which is the number of completeness, represents a semi-perfect state; one of transition and probation.

In illustration of this, it may be remarked here, that the body of the Two Witnesses is said to remain unburied three days and a half.

The same kind of opposition to the Apostolic number Twelve exists in the half of that number, Six. It shows itself in the Sixth period, which is the time of trial, — as Christ was crucified on the Sixth day of the Week — and exhibits itself in the remarkable combination of Six Hundreds, Six Tens, and Six Units, which constitute the Number of the name of the Beast; and which indicate a profession of, but a declension from, Catholic Unity and Perfection represented by the number Seven.

Let us pass to facts connected with the period three years and a half.

Three years and a half, or forty-two months, or 1260 days, are, as we have seen, the time of the pilgrimage of the Woman in the Wilderness, that is, of the Church in her trials. This number forty-two connects her with the History of the Israelitish Church in the Wilderness. Its haltings are enumerated in the Book of Numbers, and they are Forty-two. And all these things (says St. Paul) happened to them as types of us. They foreshadow the history of the Christian Church in her pilgrimage through the Wilderness of this World to the promised land of Heaven.

Again: I tell you of a truth, says Our Blessed Lord, many widows were in Israel in the days of Elias, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, when great famine was throughout all the land. And St. James says, Elias prayed it might not rain; and it rained not on the Earth by the space of three years and six months.

It also pleased God to strengthen the type, if we may so speak, by assigning the same duration of three years and a half to the persecution of the Church of Israel by Antiochus Epiphanes.

St. John’s precursor, Daniel, had named that period as the duration of that persecution. He had also identified it with the future time of the trials of the Christian Church, which are more fully described by St. John.

Thus the very mention of three years and a half had an ominous sound to the ear of an Israelite. It was his chronological symbol of suffering.

And to us Christians there is another reason why it should be identified with a time of trial, since, as some ancient Writers assure us, and there is good reason to believe, this period of three years and a half was the duration of the earthly Ministry of Him, — the great Prophet, the Divine Witness — Who was a Man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and Who, as Daniel prophesied, caused the sacrifice of the Temple to cease in the midst of a Week — that is, at the end of three years and a half — by His own oblation on the cross.

Hence this period of three years and a half, forty-two months, or 1260 days (resting on a solid historical basis), is employed in the Apocalypse as a typical exponent of an idea; just as the numbers four, seven, twelve, and twelve times twelve, do not represent a precise sum, but a well-defined principle.

I do not venture to affirm, that the Church may not be called hereafter to endure severe suffering, condensed, as it were, in the period of three years and a half, and so a second, literal, fulfilment may be given to this prophecy; but, on the whole, we arrive at this conclusion, that we cannot safely deduce any precise arithmetical results, with regard to the future, from this number of three and a half years, forty-two months, or 1260 days.

Let us not, however, imagine that these numbers are superfluous. Nothing in Scripture is so. God has ordered all things in measure and number and weight. We cannot now understand all the harmonies of the divine Arithmetic, yet some we can. These numbers in the Apocalypse are of great use. They do not indeed gratify the illicit cravings of human curiosity. They do not enable us to construct a prophetical Ephemeris, or an Apocalyptic Almanack. But they present to us certain parallelisms. They show that the sufferings of Scripture coincide with those of the Church. They remind us of our own ignorance, and of God’s knowledge. They teach us patience. They tell us that the days of man are few, and that a Millennium is a moment to the Eternal. They warn us that we are not to expect sabbatical perfection in this World. They have also an analogical value. They remind us that here we are to look for trials — trials such as were endured by the Ancient Church of Israel in her forty-two sojournings in the Wilderness; — trials such as were endured by Elias under Ahab, by the Maccabees under Antiochus, and by Christ from His own countrymen. And they encourage us with the joyful assurance, that if we are true to Christ, and maintain His cause with zeal, courage, and charity, then, though we suffer, we shall conquer also; that our sufferings will soon be over; that they will appear like a few days; then even for us there will be a chariot of fire, and a heavenly Feast of Dedication, and a cloud of heavenly glory, and an eternity of joy.


1. Christopher Wordsworth. Lectures on the Apocalypse: critical, expository, and practical, delivered before the University of Cambridge. London: Francis & John Rivington. 1852. pp. 193-204.

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