Article by TurretinFan: Three Days and Three Nights – Hebrew Idiom for Three Consecutive Calendar Days (original source here)
Jonah’s use of “three days and three nights” repeated by Jesus in prophesying his own death, burial, and resurrection has led to some confusion. As you may recall, in Jonah, it is written:
So they took up Jonah, and cast him forth into the sea: and the sea ceased from her raging. Then the men feared the Lord exceedingly, and offered a sacrifice unto the Lord, and made vows. Now the Lord had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.
Similarly, Jesus states:
Then certain of the scribes and of the Pharisees answered, saying, Master, we would see a sign from thee. But he answered and said unto them, An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given to it, but the sign of the prophet Jonas: for as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh shall rise in judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it: because they repented at the preaching of Jonas; and, behold, a greater than Jonas is here.
Some people have taken this expression as expressing emphasis on both daylight and and dark periods, instead of understanding the expression as simply meaning three consecutive calendar days.
Interestingly enough, the same expression is found in one other place, where it is fairly clear that three calendar days is meant:
1 Samuel 30:1 & 11-14
And it came to pass, when David and his men were come to Ziklag on the third day, that the Amalekites had invaded the south, and Ziklag, and smitten Ziklag, and burned it with fire; … And they found an Egyptian in the field, and brought him to David, and gave him bread, and he did eat; and they made him drink water; and they gave him a piece of a cake of figs, and two clusters of raisins: and when he had eaten, his spirit came again to him: for he had eaten no bread, nor drunk any water, three days and three nights. And David said unto him, To whom belongest thou? and whence art thou? And he said, I am a young man of Egypt, servant to an Amalekite; and my master left me, because three days agone I fell sick. We made an invasion upon the south of the Cherethites, and upon the coast which belongeth to Judah, and upon the south of Caleb; and we burned Ziklag with fire.
The point of “three days and three nights” is just that the Egyptian had been continuously without food and water for three calendar days. The point is not the day and light portions, but the continuity. We see that from the fact that David returned “on the third day” (vs. 1) and from the fact that the Egyptian had only fallen sick “three days agone.”
The way that “on the third day” worked for the Hebrew way of counting days can be seen from Jesus’ own use:
Luke 13:32 And he said unto them, Go ye, and tell that fox, Behold, I cast out devils, and I do cures to day and to morrow, and the third day I shall be perfected.
Similarly, in Leviticus:
Leviticus 19:6 It shall be eaten the same day ye offer it, and on the morrow: and if ought remain until the third day, it shall be burnt in the fire.
Even in 1 Samuel, we see the same way of counting:
1 Samuel 20:5 And David said unto Jonathan, Behold, to morrow is the new moon, and I should not fail to sit with the king at meat: but let me go, that I may hide myself in the field unto the third day at even.
Regarding the use of days and nights, the point is not to emphasize the period of darkness, as though the Egyptian had been 72 hours without food, but simply to emphasize the continuity of his involuntary fast. We see the same principle employed in other situations where continuity is the point:
“forty days and forty nights” of the rain in the great flood (Genesis 7:4 and 12).
“forty days and forty nights” of Moses’ fasts on the mount (Exodus 24:18 and 34:28, Deuteronomy 9:9, 11, 18, and 24, Deuteronomy 10:10).
“forty days and forty nights” of Elijah’s fast on his journey to Horeb (1 Kings 19:8)
“seven days and seven nights” of Jobs’ friends’ silence (Job 2:13)
“forty days and forty nights” of Jesus’ fast in the wilderness (Matthew 4:2)
We also see the same thing in the use of the expression “day and night,” which is used to mean “continuously.” A few examples:
Leviticus 8:35 Therefore shall ye abide at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation day and night seven days, and keep the charge of the Lord, that ye die not: for so I am commanded.
Deuteronomy 28:66 And thy life shall hang in doubt before thee; and thou shalt fear day and night, and shalt have none assurance of thy life:
Joshua 1:8 This book of the law shall not depart out of thy mouth; but thou shalt meditate therein day and night, that thou mayest observe to do according to all that is written therein: for then thou shalt make thy way prosperous, and then thou shalt have good success.
1 Kings 8:59 And let these my words, wherewith I have made supplication before the Lord, be nigh unto the Lord our God day and night, that he maintain the cause of his servant, and the cause of his people Israel at all times, as the matter shall require:
1 Chronicles 9:33 And these are the singers, chief of the fathers of the Levites, who remaining in the chambers were free: for they were employed in that work day and night.
2 Chronicles 6:20 That thine eyes may be open upon this house day and night, upon the place whereof thou hast said that thou wouldest put thy name there; to hearken unto the prayer which thy servant prayeth toward this place.
Psalm 1:2 But his delight is in the law of the Lord; and in his law doth he meditate day and night.
Psalm 32:4 For day and night thy hand was heavy upon me: my moisture is turned into the drought of summer. Selah.
Psalm 42:3 My tears have been my meat day and night, while they continually say unto me, Where is thy God?
Luke 18:7 And shall not God avenge his own elect, which cry day and night unto him, though he bear long with them?
Acts 9:24 But their laying await was known of Saul. And they watched the gates day and night to kill him.
Acts 26:7 Unto which promise our twelve tribes, instantly serving God day and night, hope to come. For which hope’s sake, king Agrippa, I am accused of the Jews.
Revelation 4:8 And the four beasts had each of them six wings about him; and they were full of eyes within: and they rest not day and night, saying, Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, which was, and is, and is to come.
Finally, recall that Jesus prophesied explicitly that he would rise “the third day”:
Matthew 16:21 From that time forth began Jesus to shew unto his disciples, how that he must go unto Jerusalem, and suffer many things of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised again the third day.
Matthew 17:23 And they shall kill him, and the third day he shall be raised again. And they were exceeding sorry.
Matthew 20:19 And shall deliver him to the Gentiles to mock, and to scourge, and to crucify him: and the third day he shall rise again.
Matthew 27:64 Command therefore that the sepulchre be made sure until the third day, lest his disciples come by night, and steal him away, and say unto the people, He is risen from the dead: so the last error shall be worse than the first.
Mark 9:31 For he taught his disciples, and said unto them, The Son of man is delivered into the hands of men, and they shall kill him; and after that he is killed, he shall rise the third day.
Mark 10:34 And they shall mock him, and shall scourge him, and shall spit upon him, and shall kill him: and the third day he shall rise again.
Luke 9:22 Saying, The Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be slain, and be raised the third day.
Luke 18:33 And they shall scourge him, and put him to death: and the third day he shall rise again.
Luke 24:7 Saying, The Son of man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again.
Moreover, Jesus himself confirmed that this was true:
Luke 24:21 But we trusted that it had been he which should have redeemed Israel: and beside all this, to day is the third day since these things were done.
Luke 24:46 And said unto them, Thus it is written, and thus it behooved Christ to suffer, and to rise from the dead the third day:
Moreover, Paul tells us the same thing:
1 Corinthians 15:4 And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures:
So, it is clear that the reference to “Three days and three nights” refers simply to three successive or consecutive calendar days, as opposed to meaning three periods of light and darkness. Otherwise, Jesus would rise on the fourth day after having been buried for 72 hours.
Finally, of course, we know that Jesus was killed on Friday, which is also called “Preparation”:
Mark 15:42 And now when the even was come, because it was the preparation, that is, the day before the sabbath,
Luke 23:54 And that day was the preparation, and the sabbath drew on.
John 19:31 The Jews therefore, because it was the preparation, that the bodies should not remain upon the cross on the sabbath day, (for that sabbath day was an high day,) besought Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away.
Moreover, we know that Jesus rose in the morning on the first day of the week:
Matthew 28:1 In the end of the sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, came Mary Magdalene and the other Mary to see the sepulchre.
Mark 16:2 And very early in the morning the first day of the week, they came unto the sepulchre at the rising of the sun.
Mark 16:9 Now when Jesus was risen early the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom he had cast seven devils.
Luke 24:1 Now upon the first day of the week, very early in the morning, they came unto the sepulchre, bringing the spices which they had prepared, and certain others with them.
John 20:1 The first day of the week cometh Mary Magdalene early, when it was yet dark, unto the sepulchre, and seeth the stone taken away from the sepulchre.
John 20:19 Then the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled for fear of the Jews, came Jesus and stood in the midst, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you.
So, again, we can see that the three consecutive days were Friday, Saturday, Sunday.
In short, while the expression “three days and three nights” is a little unfamiliar as an idiom to our English-listening ears, with all the Biblical data, it becomes clear what was meant, and that what was meant was fully consistent with the rest of Scripture.