Every advance in the technical sciences seems to bring with it the requirement to grapple with ever-larger numbers. Computers can handle trillions of calculations every second, and the exploration of space invites us to consider vast distances in units of time - billions of light years. Experts in the study of large numbers point out that there is a big difference between understanding how to use and calculate such numbers, and the human ability to comprehend them. Amazingly, they suggest that the highest number the average person can immediately recognise and comprehend is five! Thereafter, our minds start to group things into multiples of small figures. In a simpler, less technical world, there were no names for such large numbers: indeed, the word ‘million’ only came into the English language in the 17th century. Even today, there are remote tribes in western Africa, and in the Amazon delta, who have no words in their languages for any number above 20.
When the New Testament was written, the highest specific number in the Greek language was chilioi, a thousand. Its use on six occasions in Revelation 20.2-7 emphasises, beyond any ambiguity, the literal meaning of the future millennial (1,000-year) reign on earth of the Lord Jesus. But, on other occasions, the Holy Spirit calls our attention to large, non-specific numbers, not because they are beyond calculation, but they are beyond normal human comprehension. In such instances, the Greek word used is murias, from which the English word ‘myriad’ is derived. For example, murias is translated as “fifty thousand” (Acts 19.19), “an innumerable multitude” (Lk 12.1), and “two hundred thousand thousand” (Rev 9.16).
However, perhaps the most graphic Biblical description of a number beyond comprehension is “as the sand of the sea”. That particular expression is recorded in the Authorised Version (AV) in seven places, but very similar wording brings the total number of references to 18. The celestial equivalent, “as the stars of heaven”, occurs nine times in the AV. In the middle-eastern setting of the Bible there was no shortage of sand, and the heavens (devoid of today’s ‘light pollution’) were gloriously available for all but the blind to see. What better way could there be to imagine the unimaginable? Let a handful of sand run through your fingers, and try to estimate the number of grains. Then think of all the beaches in all the world, and you are not so much thinking of a specific number, but of the sheer magnitude of scale. The Bible uses “as the sand of the sea” to describe the descendants of Jacob (Gen 32.12); the corn gathered by Joseph in Egypt (41.49); the quails to feed the Israelites (Ps 78.27); and the rebels who will be gathered to battle at the end of the Millennium (Rev 20.8).
There have been various attempts to estimate the number of grains of sand on the seashores of the world, and also to calculate how many stars there are in the known universe. Which is the higher number? An average of the estimates suggests a figure of 1 x 1021 grains of sand (1 followed by 21 zeros), but a figure five to ten times greater than that for the number of stars so far discovered. With our puny minds overwhelmed, we bow to worship the Creator: “Lift up your eyes on high, and behold who hath created these things … he calleth them all by names by the greatness of his might” (Isa 40.26).
There is another fascinating link between sand, stars and large numbers. Our God is the Creator of the micro as well as the macro, and the number of atoms in a single grain of sand exceeds the number of stars in the known universe! In speaking to men of “the sand of the sea” and “the stars of heaven”, God has encompassed the whole range of incomprehensible numbers, whether they describe the largest, or the smallest, things that He has made and upholds.