And when he had destroyed seven nations in the land of Canaan, he gave them their land for an inheritance, for about four hundred and fifty years: and after these things he gave them judges until Samuel the prophet (Acts 13:19-20).
As Paul begins his exhortation to the Jews and allies in the synagogue of Antioch of Pisidia, he relates some of Israel’s history, emphasizing God’s direction of the people through His leadership and the agents whom He chose, culminating with David and the promise of the Messiah through his lineage (cf. Acts 13:17-23). Having discussed the exodus from Egypt, the wanderings in the wilderness, and the conquest of Canaan, and just before he begins discussing the judges to Samuel, Paul mentions how these events lasted “around four hundred and fifty years” (Acts 13:19 or Acts 13:20, depending on the translation). For that matter, he speaks of the time in the wilderness as forty years (Acts 13:18) and speaks of Saul’s reign for forty years (Acts 13:21). Why does Paul provide these details?
In the Bible, forty years has powerful symbolism: it signifies completeness and fullness. The four hundred and fifty year period is a bit more controversial. Some manuscripts seem to suggest the four hundred and fifty years describes the period between the conquest and Samuel, as the KJV rendering of Acts 13:20 would suggest: “And after that he gave unto them judges about the space of four hundred and fifty years, until Samuel the prophet.” Yet this causes great difficulty, since 1 Kings 6:1 suggests there are 480 years between the Exodus and Solomon’s fourth regnal year; this, and the historical record, do not easily allow for a four hundred and fifty year period for the Judges. There is better evidence for the reading found in the ASV and also in the ESV for Acts 13:20: “All this took about 450 years. And after that he gave them judges until Samuel the prophet”. Four hundred and fifty years for the Exodus through the conquest makes a bit more sense: around four hundred years for the sojourn in Egypt (cf. Genesis 15:13, upward to 430 in Exodus 12:40-41), forty years in the wilderness (Numbers 32:13, Acts 13:18), and thus no more than ten or so years for the conquest described in Joshua 1:1-12:24. Thus it took between 441 and 490 years; “around four hundred and fifty” makes the point well.
But this still does not get to the heart of the matter: why all the numbers? What is Paul trying to communicate?
It is not as if these numbers are new to the Jewish people who have gathered at the synagogue; in fact, if they were new, they would have been detrimental to Paul’s purposes. If the numbers were not familiar to them, they would likely begin mentally questioning the legitimacy of those numbers and therefore get distracted from Paul’s message and what he is really trying to communicate. The Israelites know their story and they know how long it took for the events described to take place. And that is precisely Paul’s point.
When Paul begins his message by speaking about “our fathers” (Acts 13:17), he is not just talking about the Israelites in Egypt, but the Patriarchs who came beforehand. The one to whom all Israelites looked was Abraham and the promises God made to him: he would become the father of many nations, whose offspring would be numerous and inherit the land of Canaan (Genesis 17:4-8). God reiterated these promises to Isaac (Genesis 26:3-5) and Jacob (Genesis 35:10-13) in turn. It would take about four hundred and fifty years, but God would fulfill these promises. Abraham had become the father of the Edomites, Israelites, and many of the tribes of the Arabs; Israel had grown numerous; God was the God of Israel, and had given the land of Canaan to them as an inheritance. It had just been done in God’s good time.
Paul reminds his audience of God’s faithfulness to His promises over time in order for them to accept how God has again proven faithful to His promises over time: of David’s offspring God has brought to Israel a Savior, Jesus, as He had promised (Acts 13:23)! It had taken about a thousand years from the original promise to David (a time-frame which Paul leaves unstated), and actually around four hundred and fifty years from the end of the prophetic period (Malachi 4:5-6). God fulfilled His promise: the throne of David was given to his Offspring forever; the rule of the Messiah had begun; Israel’s hope was satisfied in Jesus. It had just been done in God’s good time.
Forty years; four hundred and fifty years; a thousand years: these are large chunks of time in the eyes of mankind. These days we barely have the patience to wait a few seconds for our technological devices to work! We expect things to be done already; the prospect of having to wait for anything is unpleasant and even provides reason for doubt. We expect God and everyone else to do things according to our time-frame and time scale.
But God has never acted on man’s time scale; time is immaterial to Him (cf. 2 Peter 3:8). He acts in His good time. Things take place within or according to His will, even if we do not understand why or how (cf. Isaiah 55:8-9).
It is good and right for us to seek to align our will to God’s; we do well when we seek to discover what God is doing around us and begin participating in that work (Romans 8:29, Ephesians 3:20-21). But we need to be careful about our interpretation of our actions and our perception of God’s providence and will. We are liable to make snap and hasty judgments; when things do not pan out as we imagine they should, we too easily want to give up or declare that it is all to no avail.
Such is only true according to our time scale. How many times have we been humbled and astounded to see God’s powerful action accomplished in His good time? Sometimes it takes years for fruit to start appearing. Sometimes it takes decades for people to come to an understanding of the truth. Often times we find ourselves under God’s discipline when we thought we were entering His joy, or perhaps vice versa. The list goes on and on.
In all of these things, short-sighted reflection proves less faithful and rather faithless compared to the long-term impact. Such is why we do well to always remember how God works in His good time, and that often takes far longer than we can ever imagine. God is faithful; He makes good on His promises, even if it takes longer than we would like. Let us entrust ourselves to God and seek to glorify Him in His good time!
Ethan R. Longhenry