The number thousand (or thousands) in the Bible is sometimes a literal number, but in many cases it is used to create a large round number. Hebrew and the other Semitic languages used approximations to express large numbers because they were rarely needed for small populations and tiny kingdom. Examples of this can be found in Exodus 20:6; Deuteronomy 5:10 and 7:9; 1 Samuel 18:7; and Psalms 50:10, 90:4 and 105:8. Ten
thousand (Hebrew ribbo’th, rebhabhah; Greek myrias, myrioi) is also used as a round number in places like Leviticus 26:8, Deuteronomy 32:30, Song of Solomon 5:10, and Micah 6:7. The higher the figures in thousands of thousands, the more likely the numbers are distinctly hyperbolic, intended to convey large counts.
EXTRAVAGANCE OR MULTIPLICATION
In the Old Testament, the use of the term thousand frequently has to do with an extravagant multiplication, such as when Moses prays over the people of Israel: “May the LORD God of your ancestors make you a thousand times more numerous, and may he bless you as he has promised” (Deu 1:11). As an example of the generous and faithful character of God, Moses also says, “Keep in mind that the LORD your God is the only God. He is a faithful God, Moses also says, “Keep in mind that the LORD your God is the only God. He is a faithful God, who keeps his promise and is merciful to thousands of generations of those who love him and obey his commands” (Deu 7:9). By way of comparison, a note of seriousness is included in the Ten Commandments related to the importance of worshiping God alone and the real dangers of idolatry: “Never worship them or serve them, because I, the LORD your God, am a God who does not tolerate rivals. I punish children for their parents’ sins to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me. But I show mercy to thousands of generations of those who love me and obey my commandments” (Exod 20:5-6).
God’s legitimate relationship with his creation is also expressed in Psalm 50:10: “Every creature in the forest, even the cattle on a thousand hills, is mine.” And our response to him must recognize that we were ultimately designed for intimacy with God: “One day in your courtyards is better than a thousand anywhere else” (Ps 84:10). Days can be easily measured in thousand with God because time is relatively meaningless to him: “Indeed, in your sight a thousand years are like a single day, like yesterday-already past-like an hour in the night” (Ps 90:4). Peter will later use this idea to address the apparent delay in Christ’s return and the importance of God’s willingness to bride his time (2 Pet 3:8-9).
The New Testament accounts of Jesus’ ministry usually describe the crowds that followed him as merely large, but in a couple of instances involving the miraculous feeding of significant gatherings, the numbers five thousand and four thousand are used to indicate the count of men in the crowd (Matt 14:21; 15:38). Later, when the young church was launched following the resurrection of Jesus, the responses to the gospel were reported in thousands (Acts 2:41; 4:4). These numbers are all given not as exact counts, but as estimates of very large groups.
The most recognized use of the word thousand in the Bible is found in Revelation 20 and is referred to as the millennium (Latin for “one thousands years”). In that chapter, John records two simultaneous significant event in end times chronology: the binding of Satan in the “bottomless pit,” and the reign of Christ on earth for a thousand years. The metaphorical use thousand is familiar to the Old Testament, and this may be the way John uses it in Revelation.
In the Old Testament, visions of an eventual golden age for Israel when the Messiah will rule are not generally measured in thousands of years but simply described as a future amazing time when the unusual will be the new normal. Isaiah 11:6-9 describes such a time:
Wolves will live with lambs. Leopards will lie down with goats. Calves, young lions, and year-old lambs will be together, and little children will lead them. Cows and bears will eat together. Their young will lie down together. Lions will eat straw like oxen. Infants will play near cobras’ holes. Toddlers will put their hands into vipers’ nests. They will not hurt or destroy anyone anywhere on my holy mountain. The world will be filled with the knowledge of the LORD like water covering the sea.
Although biblical scholars disagree on what the millennium is, how long it is, and whether it is a current of future event, we can all agree that it is another use of thousand that is in some sense representative of a large number.