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"Forty years" or "Four years" in 2 Samuel 15:7?

"And it came to pass after forty years, that Absalom said unto the king, I pray thee, let me go and pay my vow, which I have vowed unto the LORD, in Hebron." (2 Samuel 15:7, KJV)

The KJV follows the Masoretic text in 2 Samuel 15:7 which says "forty years".  Many critics quickly dismiss this figure not knowing how to make it fit in the narrative.  These critics miss the significance of two key biblical concepts:
  • Forty years
  • Anointing

The significance of "forty years"


In the Bible, "forty" is the number of thoroughness or completeness with respect to trials or missions.

  • God let it rain for 40 days and 40 nights to cleanse the world of wickedness (Gen 7:12).
  • Noah waited 40 days before opening the window in the Ark (Gen 8:6).
  • Moses was with God in the mountain 40 days (Exo 24:18, 34:28-19, Deu 10:10).
  • The spies returned from searching the land after 40 days (Num 13:25).
  • The Israelites wandered 40 years in the wilderness (Exo 16:35, Num 14:33-34)
  • David reigned 40 years (2 Sam 5:4).
  • Solomon reigned 40 years (1 Kings 11:42).
  • Jehoash of Judah reigned 40 years (2 Kings 12:1).
  • Elijah went to Mount Horeb in the strength of angelic meat 40 days and 40 nights (1 Ki 19:8)
  • God gave the people of Ninevah 40 days to repent (Jonah 3:4-10)
  • Jesus fasted for 40 days and 40 nights in the wilderness (Mat 4:1-2)
  • Jesus appeared to people for 40 days after his crucifixion (Acts 1:3)
  • 40 years were allotted between Jesus establishing his temple (his body) and the destruction of the physical temple in Jerusalem.
When 2 Samuel 15:7 says, "after forty years," this may not be a mere description of the passing of an x number of years.  Rather, this description of the passing of "forty years" may indicate the completion of a biblically significant period of trial or mission.  More on this shall be discussed below.

The significance of anointing with respect to kingly authority

Today's readers might miss the significance of anointing, perhaps seeing that anointing was just a ceremony.  However, to the Hebrews the act of anointing was intrinsically linked to the conferring of divine authority. When young David resisted wresting the kingship from Saul, he said:

"The LORD forbid that I should do this thing unto my master, the LORD's anointed, to stretch forth mine hand against him, seeing he is the anointed of the LORD." (1 Samuel 24:6)

Our Lord's title, "Christ" means "anointed."  Whereas lesser kings were anointed by oil, our Lord was anointed by the Holy Spirit (Matthew 3:16).  This resting of the Holy Spirit on our Lord demonstrated the Son's divinely ordained authority.  Whether king David or king Jesus, it was their anointing which demonstrated their authority to the people.

Forty years of anointing

Having these things in mind, that 40 is a significant number of completeness and that anointing is linked to authority, "after forty years" in 2 Samuel 15:7 appears to mean after forty years had passed since David was anointed to receive kingly authority. 
At least forty years prior, God chose David to be king (1 Samuel 16:1) and caused him to be anointed to be king (1 Samuel 16:13).

This interpretation is well supported by the context and theme of the passage.  The theme of this passage is kingly authority, and the greater moral of the story is that man shall not interfere with God's anointed. 
Absalom says in 2 Samuel 15:4:

"Oh that I were made judge in the land, that every man which hath any suit or cause might come unto me, and I would do him justice."

2 Samuel 15:7 is the pivotal point when Absalom attempts to usurp power from God's anointed.  Moreover, this was not just any anointed, but an anointed whose authority had been tried and tested by the biblically significant period of 40 years.  Thus it is fitting for the narrator to inform the reader that this event occurred after forty years.  At this point, David has had this authority for at least forty years.  "After forty years" does not mean exactly forty years had passed, but that forty years had passed.  Namely, David was a tried and tested divinely anointed king, evidenced by 40 years of anointing.  This fact made Absalom's rebellion that much more heinous.

Critics might say there is nothing in the text that explicitly sets the reference point of this "forty years" to the time of David's anointing.  These critics might then propose that "four years" is the correct reading.  The problem with this reasoning is that changing "forty years" to "four years" does not solve the problem of searching for a reference point that is not stated explicitly.  Even if "four years" is preferred, what should be the reference point of these four years?
  • Since the time of Absalom's flight to Geshur?
  • Since the time of Absalom's vow in Geshur?
  • Since the time of Absalom's return to Jerusalem?
  • Since the time of Absalom's acquisition of chariots and horses?
  • Since the time of Absalom's intervention in the people's matters?
Whether forty years or four years, the reader is still left to search for a meaningful reference point.  The reading of "four years" is not helpful in solving the biggest difficulty with the text, which is the question of what the reference point is.  On the other hand, the reading of "forty years" allows the reader to attach the reference point to the contextually relevant event of David's acquisition of kingly authority, which was his anointing.  There is no need to depart from the Masoretic text because the alternative does little to solve the actual difficulty of the text.

Moreover, whereas it may be more difficult for modern readers to infer that "forty years" means the time since David's anointing, this may not have been the case for ancient readers of 2 Samuel who were more aware of cultural and historical contexts.  In today's American presidential campaigns, candidates often say something along the lines of, "After 4 (or 8) years, the people deserve better!"  To contemporary Americans it is obvious that 4 or 8 years refers to the time since the election of the incumbent President.  There is no need to say specifically, "4 (or 8) years since the election of the incumbent President" because the listener is aware that the date of the previous election is the significant reference point for these numbers of years in political rhetoric.  Just as Americans understand that "election years" are significant reference years in politics, Hebrews during the monarchy most likely understood that "anointing years" were the significant reference years in their political rhetoric.