Fasting in the Bible

By Ron Jones, D.D. © The Titus Institute 2011


Summary of Article:

The Scriptures do not teach that fasting was a practice established by God. It was a religious practice adopted by the Jews to express their humility before God. This can be seen from the fact that fasting was not given by God as part of the Old Covenant or by Jesus as part of the New Covenant. There is little instruction regarding its use except in terms of the attitude one is to have when practicing it. Also, neither Jesus nor the apostles ever encouraged its use. When fasting was done with a humble heart it was accepted by God.

The Scriptures demonstrate that fasting (depriving oneself of food) as practiced by the Jews was an expression of their humble dependence upon God and was done for four purposes which are detailed in this article.

Fasting was similar to kneeling or lying prostrate before the Lord in that it was a physical expression of what was going on in the heart of the Jewish faithful.

It was normally done for a short period of time (sunrise to sunset) during the day for one day or more.

Fasting, therefore, is an option for the Christian believer if it is something that is meaningful for him or her and he or she desires to do it and if it is done with the right attitude and for the appropriate purpose.

Fasting does not move the hand of God. Faith in the Lord that is the basis of all prayer whether or not it is accompanied by fasting (rather than the practice of fasting itself) is what moves the hand of God in agreement with His will for the life of the believer.


Fasting in the Bible

The Scriptures reveal the following points about fasting in the life of the Jewish people:

1. The Origin of the Practice of Fasting

2. The Jews’ and Jesus’ Practice of fasting

3. The Option of Fasting

4. The Purpose of Fasting

5. The Right Attitude in Fasting

6. The Supernatural Fasting of Moses, Elijah, and Jesus

7. The Limits of the Practice of Fasting

8. Fasting Compared with other Physical Expressions


1. The Origin of the Practice of Fasting

Fasting is abstaining or denying oneself of food for a particular purpose. Fasting can be done to lose weight, cleanse your body, and the like. It can also be done for religious purposes.

Fasting for religious purposes was practiced in many cultures in the ancient Near East.

This is seen when King Darius the Mede who became king of the Babylonian empire fasted over the trouble that Daniel faced in the lion’s den. How did he know to fast? It was part of his Babylonian religious culture.

Dan 6:18

Then the king went to his palace and spent the night fasting nor was entertainment brought before him; and his sleep fled from him.

Also, the Ninevites fasted when they heard Jonah’s message of condemnation. Jonah did not tell them to fast as a result of his warning. They decided to do this on their own. Fasting was a practice they were familiar with in their pagan religion.

Jonah 3:5

Then the people of Nineveh believed in God and they called a fast and put on sackcloth from the greatest to the least of them.

This is just two examples that show fasting was part of the religious culture of many ancient societies as well as the Jews. Since, there is no Scriptural evidence that it was revealed by God or established by him, therefore, it must have been originated by man as a physical expression of humility before deity.

This is similar to kneeling before deity or prostrating oneself before deity which was also practiced by many ancient cultures. Physical expressions such as these that come from the heart of man have no positive or negative value before God. Their value comes from what kind of heart they express. If they express a humble believing heart before God, God is pleased by the humility they express and accepts them. God will also condemn them when they express pride. If they are done by pagans toward their false gods, they are condemned because they express an unbelieving rebellious heart.


2. The Jews’ and Jesus’ Practice of Fasting

2.1 The Jewish Practice of Fasting

The Old Testament and Jewish history demonstrate that the Jews observed three kinds of fasts.

They are the following:

1. Annual public major and minor fast days

2. Public fasting in times of crisis or mourning

3. Private fasting


2.1.1 Annual public fast days, both major and minor

The earliest “fast day” observed by the Jews was Yom Kippur. It is the only day which God himself established. Lev.16 reveals its establishment by God as part of the Mosaic Covenant.

Lev.16:29-31

29And this shall be a statute to you forever that in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall humble your souls and do no work at all, whether it is your countryman or the alien dwells among you.

30For on that day the priest will make an atonement for you, to cleanse you so that you may be clean from all your sins before the Lord.

31It shall be a sabbath of rest to you and you shall humble your souls. It is a statute forever.

This passage describes what the Jews were to do on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Some have interpreted this passage to be one where the Jews are commanded to fast. But when the Scripture passage is carefully examined, it does not use the word “fasting” at all. Rather it commands “humbling one’s soul.”

The Hebrew words translated “humble your souls” in v.29 and v.31 have been interpreted by some as meaning fasting. However, the Hebrew words do not mean fasting.

In describing the Day of Atonement and the use of the Hebrew words in Lev.16:29 Kent Berghuis writes,

“However, it is not specifically described as a “fast” in the Hebrew Bible, nor is fasting enjoined. That is, the words from the root צום are not employed, nor is there any explicit reference to abstaining from food.”1

Also, the Hebrew words for “humbling your souls” is used in Ps.35:13 with the Hebrew word for “fasting” which shows that they did not mean the same thing.

Further support for this can be seen in the Septuagint translation of this. In the Septuagint, this Hebrew verb “humble” is translated into the Greek verb for “humble” and thus translated the same way as the English. It is not translated by the Greek verb for fast. This shows that the Jews translating the Septuagint knew that it meant humble oneself not fast.

Lev.16:29-31 (Septuagint)

29 And this shall be a perpetual statute for you; in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, ye shall humble your souls, and shall do no work, the native and the stranger who abides among you.

30 For in this day he shall make an atonement for you, to cleanse you from all your sins before the Lord, and ye shall be purged.

31 This shall be to you a most holy sabbath, a rest, and ye shall humble your souls; it is a perpetual ordinance.

Another support is the fact that the Hebrew words for “humble oneself” are used in conjunction with fasting in Ps.35:13 and Isa. 58:3

Psalm 35:13

But as for me, when they were sick, my clothing was sackcloth, I humbled my soul with fasting and my prayer returned to my own bosom.

Isa.58:3

Why have we fasted, they say, and you do not see it? Why have we humbled our souls, and you do not notice? Behold, in the day of your fast you find pleasure, and drive all your laborers hard.

In Psalm 35:13 above, it can be seen that the Hebrew cannot mean fasting when it is used with another Hebrew word which means “fasting.” In Isa.58:3 the Hebrew refers to the heart attitude when fasting is practiced. This shows that the Hebrew “humble your souls” cannot mean “fasting.” Since humbling yourself is the heart attitude associated with fasting, it is not surprising that it occurs with fasting. However, to say that fasting is implied in Lev.16:29 cannot be substantiated.

God did not command fasting on the Day of Atonement, but the Jews practiced fasting on that day as the means of humbling themselves before the Lord and even called it “The Fast.” (Acts 27:9)

As we have seen, Jesus never commanded fasting, nor did he teach it was a part of the new covenant he was bringing.

In Zechariah 8, the Old Testament names four other annual minor fast days the Jews instituted after the destruction of Jerusalem when they were in exile in Babylon.

Zech.8:18-19

18 And the word of the Lord of hosts came to me, saying,

19 “Thus says the Lord of hosts, ‘The fast of the fourth month and the fast of the fifth and the fast of the seventh and the fast of the tenth will become to the house of Judah joy and gladness and cheerful feasts; therefore love the truth and peace.

These four fast days were considered by the Jews as minor fast days along with the fast of Esther, which was connected with the Feast of Purim.

The Jews also later established another major fast day along with Yom Kippur which was Tisha b’Av (a day of mourning to remember the many tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people.)

Of those fast days, the only day that was established by the Lord was Yom Kippur. Although, the Jews practiced fasting as a part of Yom Kippur, as we saw, the Lord did not make fasting a part of it.

An article on the website of the NSW Board of Jewish Education explains that all the Jewish fast days except for Yom Kippur were established by the Jews not by the Lord, “With the exception of Yom Kippur, which is commanded in the Torah, all fast days are rabbinic enactments - observances which are commanded by the rabbis. Over the course of a Jewish year, there are a number of fast days. Two of these fast days, Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) and Tisha b'Av (the 9th of Av) are classified as 'major' fasts and the rest are classified as 'minor' fasts.”2

This means that the obligation to fast on these Jewish fast days came from the Jewish teachers not the Lord.

2.1.2 Public fasting in times of crisis or mourning

Many times in the history of Israel, as we shall see, the Jewish leadership declared a fast to pray and ask for the Lord’s help or to express their grief and mourning for tragedy that had struck their nation.

2.1.3 Private fasting in times of crisis or mourning

Jewish people also fasted privately in times of personal crisis or mourning. This is seen in the Old Testament when David prayed and fasted to the Lord to spare his son which will be studied later in this article.


2.1.4 Private fasting as a weekly ritual

At the time of the New Testament, the Pharisees and other Jews were fasting twice a week. It is logical to assume that there was not a crisis each week in the lives of these people. It was private fasting probably for the troubles of Israel in the past, or in the present, or for sin in one’s life.

Luke 18:10-14

v.10 Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a publican.

v.11 The Pharisee stood and prayed this to himself, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men who are swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.

V.12 I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess.

This kind of private fasting which is not related to a crisis in the life of a Jew was not encouraged later by the rabbis although at the time of Christ, it seems to have been encouraged by the Pharisees.

An article on the website of the NSW Board of Jewish Education explains,

“Private fasts were frequent among the Jews from earliest times (Judith viii. 6; I Macc. iii. 47; II Macc. xiii. 12). One may take it upon himself to fast on certain days, either in memory of certain events in his own life, or in expiation of his sins, or in time of trouble to arouse God's mercy. The Rabbis, however, did not encourage such abstinence. Indeed, they positively forbade it in the case of a scholar, who through his fasting would be disturbed in his study; or of a teacher, who would thereby be prevented from doing his work faithfully; or of one pursued by robbers, who might become weak (Ta'an. 11a). Some pious Jews also fast every Monday and Thursday in commemoration of the destruction of the Temple, of the burning of the Torah, and of the desecration of God's name (comp. Luke xviii. 12).”3

This kind of private weekly fasting is not condemned by God or Jesus, but it is not encouraged by them either. Jesus exhorts them to do this kind of fasting with pure hearts, but as we shall see, Jesus did not practice this kind of fasting.

2.2 The Time Period of Jewish Fasting

Fasting for the major fast days of Yom Kippur and Tisha b’Av went from sunset the first day to sunset the next day (a 24 hour period). Fasting for minor fast days and fasting in the time of crisis went from sunrise to sunset of one day.

Again, the NSW Board of Jewish Education website states,

“Major fast days are observed from sunset to nightfall the next day, a period of about 25 hours…'Fasting' involves not eating or drinking for the entire period of the fast. It is customary to have a meal just before commencing a major fast (some people also arise early to have an early breakfast before commencing a minor fast). On 'minor' fast days, the fast lasts from sunrise to nightfall - how long this is will depend on the season of the year (summer days are longer than winter days).”4

Jewish Encyclopedia summarizes the length of Jewish fasting,

“All Jewish fasts begin at sunrise and end with the appearance of the first stars of the evening, except those of the Day of Atonement and the Ninth of Ab, which last "from even till even."5

2.3 Jesus and Fasting

Jesus’ ministry and teaching reflected the Jewish practice of fasting, but not the private weekly ritual fasting of the Pharisees.

2.3.1 Jesus nor his disciples practiced the regular weekly private fasting of the Pharisees as was common among the Jews at that time (4. above)

There is nothing in the Gospels that demonstrate that the Lord and his disciples did not practice the public fasting of the Jews that were being practiced at that time. When major and minor fasts came around each year Jesus and his disciples participated as all good Jews would.

What Jesus and his disciples did not participate in was the weekly private ritual fasting that the Pharisees did and led the people to do. Apparently John the Baptist did participate in that kind of fasting as seen in the passage below.

In Luke 5:33-39, Jesus explains why his disciples did not participate in the weekly private fasting, how after his death, his disciples would participate in the private fasting that comes in a crisis, and that fasting was not a part of what Jesus was establishing as the new covenant. The parallel passages are Matthew 9:14-17 and Mark 2:18-22.

Luke 5:33

v.33 And they said to him, “Why do the disciples of John fast and pray, and likewise the disciples of the Pharisees; but yours eat and drink?

In Luke 5:33-39, Jesus is asked why his disciples do not “fast and pray” like the disciples of John the Baptist’s and the Pharisees.

Notice first, that fasting is not mentioned by itself, but with prayer. This shows that with the Jews fasting accompanied prayer.

Second, this question concerns the fasting practise of the Pharisees which John the Baptist and many others were practicing. This was the weekly private ritual fasting which was done two days a week.

Third, Jesus and his disciples did not do this because Jesus obviously felt it was not necessary nor a regular part of the Christian life. He does not condemn it, but he does not encourage it or practice it either.

2.3.2 Jesus taught that after he was gone, desperate circumstances would come when his disciples would have a reason to fast and pray.

Jesus responds:

Luke 5:34-35

v.34 And he said to them, “Can you make the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them?

v.35But the days will come when the bridegroom shall be taken away from them and then shall they fast in those days.”

In his answer, Jesus says that in the future there would be a time when his disciples would “fast and pray.” This implies that the desire or need for fasting comes under certain circumstances, which presently did not exist, but would exist in the future.

Jesus moves from their concern for the weekly private ritual fasting to the real purpose of fasting both private and public which is fasting and praying in a crisis or when there is a serious need.

Jesus says that their present situation was similar to a wedding feast. While the bridegroom was there, it was a time of celebration where the guests rejoice and feast. It was not a time of crisis.

However, there was coming a time when that would change. Jesus would be gone from them by his death on the cross and then they would have a reason and circumstances to “fast and pray.”

Jesus’ death would unleash persecution and the attack of the world (Jn.15:18-25) and there would be the necessary humble dependence on God as they called to him in their sorrow and seriousness.

Jesus is implying that there is no reason for the private ritual fasting that they were practicing and there was no need for private fasting in a time of crisis. He and his disciples are not in a crisis. He is here doing his ministry and he is in control. It is a time of rejoicing in his physical presence. A crisis is coming for his disciples when he is gone, but is not here yet.

2.3.3 Jesus taught that the Jews’ central concern about fasting was part of their old ways of doing things, but not a part of the new covenant that he was bringing.

Then in 5:36-39 Jesus tells a parable teaching them that practices like fasting were a part of the old way of doing things and that Jesus was bringing a new way. The new way he was bringing could not be mixed with the old way. It was fresh and new. Their focus on fasting showed they were too focused on the old way of doing things.

Luke 5:36-39

v.36And also he spoke a parable to them, “No man puts a piece of a new garment upon an old one. Otherwise, the new will tear and the piece from the old will not match the new.

v.37And no man puts new wine into old wineskins because the new wine will burst the skins and be spilled and the wineskins will ruined.

v.38But new wine must be put into new wineskin.

v.39 Also, no man having drunk old wine desires new, for he says ‘The old is better.’”

Jesus is not condemning fasting, but was saying that it was not part of the new covenant. Remember, fasting was not part of the old covenant God gave either. It was added by the Jews to the old covenant and was part of their traditions.

Jesus says that they are focusing on the wrong issues. The new covenant is different. It is about spiritual realities, not physical ones. It will be defined by Paul as faith, hope, and love in 1 Corinthians 13.

Jesus here is not saying that believers cannot fast, but that fasting is not part of the covenant he is giving. It is not a “Biblical practice” of the new covenant as prayer is.


3. The Option of Fasting

We have seen that in the Scriptures fasting is not established by God nor did God make fasting a part of the Mosaic Covenant. It, therefore, must have originated with the Jews themselves and possibly from the cultures around them. However, when they did it to express their humble dependence upon God as they sought his help in prayer, the Lord accepted it.

Fasting was very meaningful to the Jews and when done with the right attitude the Lord accepted it.

This demonstrates that fasting is a choice OT or NT believers could make at the appropriate time for the appropriate purpose if it is meaningful to them.

If God does not command a practice, then it is an option, a free choice of the believer both in the OT and the NT.

If fasting is meaningful and important to a believer and he wants to practice it and he does it out of humble dependence on the Lord, then it will be accepted by the Lord. However, if it is not a meaningful practice for a believer, it should not be imposed upon him legalistically. He does not have to practice it at all.

Prayer is talked about often, yet fasting does not appear at all in the epistles.

Why?

I believe it is because fasting was emphasized by the Jews being part of their culture whereas it was not so much part of the culture of the Gentiles and thus was not emphasized by the apostles.

It obviously was not an important issue in the churches. It does not mean that it didn’t exist, but most likely was not a regular part of their spiritual experience that needed exhortation or encouragement. It definitely was not commanded as a normal part of the Christian experience.


4. The Four Purposes of Fasting

The Scriptures demonstrate four purposes for fasting as practiced by the Israelites and Jewish-Christians. These four purposes can be seen in both the public and private fasting of the Jews in the Old and New Testaments.

4.1 The first purpose of fasting was to give physical expression to the grief, mourning, and sorrow that had filled the hearts of the Israelites.

4.2 The second purpose of fasting was to give physical expression to the Israelites’ sorrow over their sins and their appeal to the Lord for his mercy.

4.3 The third purpose of fasting is to give physical expression to the believer’s humble dependence on God as he or she desperately sought his help through prayer in a time of crisis or earnestly sought his help in a time of serious need.

4.4 The fourth purpose of fasting was to give physical expression to the believer’s humble dependence on God as he or she earnestly sought his help in furthering the spread of his kingdom.

Fasting was never for the purpose of penance or simply denying oneself. God is not and has never been interested in self-denial for the purpose of self-denial. Denying self has always been encouraged in following the Lord in service and morality and turning away from selfishness and sin, never for its own sake.

4.1 The first purpose of fasting was to give physical expression to the grief, mourning, and sorrow that had filled the hearts of the Israelites.

Fasting was an expression of sorrow and grief for the Jews. It was a cultural practice to fast during this time.

4.1.1 The sons of Israel fasted as they mourned for those the Benjamites had killed in their civil war.

Judges 20:24-26

24And the sons of Israel came against the sons of Benjamin the second day.

25Benjamin went out against those from Gibeah the second day and destroyed eighteen thousand men of the sons of Israel. All these were armed with swords.

26Then all the sons of Israel and all the people went up and came to Bethel and wept and sat there before the Lord and fasted that day until evening and offered burnt offerings and peace offerings before the Lord.

4.1.2 When David and his men heard of the death of Saul and Jonathan, David’s friend in battle, they tore their clothes, lamented and fasted.

1 Sam. 31:13

13And they took their bones and buried them under a tree at Jabesh and fasted seven days.

2 Sam 1:12

12And they mourned and wept and fasted until evening for Saul and for Jonathan, his son, and for the people of the Lord and for the house of Israel because they were killed by the sword.

4.1.3 David fasted as he mourned the death of Abner, who had been the commander and chief of Saul’s army, but had turned to help David take back his throne over Israel.

2 Samuel 3:31-35

31And David said to Joab and to all the people that were with him, “Tear your clothes and put on sackcloth and mourn in front of Abner. King David himself followed the bier.

32And they buried Abner in Hebron and the king lifted up his voice and wept at the grave of Abner and all the people wept.

33And the king lamented over Abner, and said, “Should Abner die as a fool dies?

34 Your hands were not bound nor your feet put into chains. You fell as a man falls before wicked men. All the people wept again over him.

35 When all the people came to urge David to eat food while it was yet day, David swore saying, “May God do to me and more also, if I taste bread, or anything else before the sun sets.”

This purpose for fasting is not applicable to the believer after Jesus’ death on the cross. As Christians we have been encouraged by Paul in 1 Thessalonians 4:13 not to grieve over the death of fellow-believers as unbelievers do because we have hope that they will be with the Lord. We also know that if an unbeliever dies, he is in the hands of God and we must accept God’s will regarding his judgement. We will grieve which is normal and expresses our love, but the grieving that fasting entails is simply not necessary. We may not eat out of sorrow, but it is not fasting as practiced by the Jews.

4.2 The second purpose of fasting is to give physical expression to the Israelites’ sorrow over their sins and their humble appeal to the Lord for his mercy.

When the Israelites realized that they had sinned against the Lord and what that meant in their lives, they fasted and prayed to the Lord for mercy.

4.2.1 The Israelites fasted and mourned over their sin as Samuel prayed for them.

The Israelites had turned back to the Lord from worshipping idols and sinning against him. And Samuel called them to gather at Mizpah so he could interecede to the Lord for them.

1 Sam 7:3-6

3 Then Samuel spoke to all the house of Israel, saying ,”If you return to the Lord with all your hearts, then put away the foreign gods and Ashtaroth from among you, and prepare your hearts to the Lord and serve him only and he will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines.

4 Then the children of Israel put away Baals and Ashtaroth, and served the Lord only.

5 Then Samuel said, “Gather all Israel to Mizpah and I will pray for you to the Lord.

6 They gathered to Mizpah and drew water and poured it out before the Lord and fasted on that day, and said there, “We have sinned against the Lord.” And Samuel judged the children of Israel in Mizpah.

4.2.2 Ahab fasted and humbled himself before the Lord after he was rebuked by Elijah for his sin against the Lord.

1 Kings 21:20-22, 27

20And Ahab said to Elijah, “Have you found me, O my enemy?” And he answered,” I have found you because you have sold yourself to do evil in the sight of the Lord.

21Behold, I will bring disaster upon you and will take away your posterity and will cut off from Ahab every male bond or free from Israel.

22And will make your house like the house of Jeroboam the son of Nebat and like the house of Baasha the son of Ahijah because of the provocation with which you have provoked me to anger and made Israel sin.

27And it came to pass, when Ahab heard those words, that he rent his clothes, and put sackcloth upon his flesh, and fasted, and lay in sackcloth, and went around meekly.

Although, prayer is not mentioned fasting was often associated with crying out to the Lord. This is shown in what the Lord says in Jer.14:12

Jer.14:12

12When they fast, I am not going to listen to their cry;

4.2.3 Joel rebukes Israel to repent before the Lord, fasting and crying out to the Lord for mercy.

Joel 1:13-15

13Put on sackcloth and lament, you priests. Wail, you ministers of the altar. Come and lie all night in sackcloth, you ministers of my God for the grain offering and the drink offering are withheld from the house of your God.

14Consecrate a fast, call a solemn assembly, gather the elders and all the inhabitants of the land into the house of the Lord your God, and cry to the Lord.

15Alas for the day! for the day of the Lord is at hand, and as a destruction from the Almighty it shall come.

4.2.4 The Lord proclaims to Israel to repent from their sin and turn back to him, with fasting, weeping, and mourning

Joel 2:12-15

12 “Therefore also now,” says the Lord, “Turn to me with all your heart and with fasting, and with weeping, and with mourning.

13 And rend your heart and not your garments, and turn to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and relenting of evil.

14 Who knows if he will return and relent and leave a blessing behind him, even a grain offering and a drink offering to the Lord your God?

15Blow the trumpet in Zion, consecrate a fast, call a solemn assembly.

4.2.5 The Lord rebukes the Israelites and says that because of their sins, he will refuse to listen to their cry when they fast.

The Lord brought a drought on the land of Israel because of their sin. The Jews pleaded with the Lord to turn back to them and not forsake them. But it was too late, the Lord rejected their pleas.

Jer.14:10-12

10Thus says the Lord to this people, “Thus have they loved to wander. They have not refrained their feet, therefore the Lord does not accept them. He will now remember their iniquity, and visit their sins.

11Then said the Lord to me, “Do not pray for this people for their good.”

12When they fast, I will not hear their cry and when they offer burnt offering and a grain offering, I will not accept them, but I will consume them by the sword and by the famine and by the pestilence.

4.2.6 The Israelites declared a fast as they humbled themselves and listened to the Word of the Lord proclaimed.

Jer. 36:9-10

9Now in the fifth year of Jehoiakim the son of Josiah, king of Judah, in the ninth month, all the people in Jerusalem and all the people who came from the cities of Judah to Jerusalem proclaimed a fast before the Lord.

10Then Baruch read from the book the words of Jeremiah in the house of the Lord in the chamber of Gemariah the son of Shaphan the scribe, in the upper court, at the entry of the New Gate of the Lord's house, to all the people.

4.2.7 Daniel fasted and prayed in the name of Israel, confessing their sins before the Lord.

Dan.9:1-5

1 In the first year of Darius the son of Ahasuerus, of Median descent, who was made king over the realm of the Chaldeans,

2 In the first year of his reign I Daniel understood in the books the number of the years which was revealed as the word

of the LORD to Jeremiah the prophet that he would accomplish seventy years in the desolations of Jerusalem.

3 And I set my face to the Lord God to seek by prayer and supplications, with fasting, and sackcloth, and ashes

4 And I prayed to the Lord my God and made my confession, and said, “O Lord, the great and awesome God who keeps his covenant and mercy to those who love him and keep his commandments,

5 we have sinned and have committed iniquity and have done wickedly and have rebelled, even by departing from your precepts and from your judgments.

4.2.8 Nehemiah fasted and wept over the suffering of his people in Jerusalem because of their sins against the Lord.

In this passage, Nehemiah who is living in the Susa, the capital of the Persian empire, hears that the Jews living in Jerusalem were in gretb distress and suffering. He is deeply distraught over the bad news and humbles himself before the Lord and fasts and prays for their deliverance.

Neh 1:4-9

4And it came to pass, when I heard these words that I sat down and wept and mourned for days. I fasted and prayed before the God of heaven,

5And said, I beseech you, O Lord God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps covenant and mercy for those who love him and observe his commandments.

6Let your ear now be attentive and your eyes open, that you might hear the prayer of your servant which I am praying before you now, day and night, for the children of Israel your servants, confessing the sins of the sons of Israel which we have sinned against you. Both I and my father's house have sinned.

7We have acted very corruptly against you and have not kept the commandments, nor the statutes, nor the judgments, which you commanded your servant Moses.

8Remember, I beseech thee, the word that you commanded your servant Moses, saying, “If you transgress, I will scatter you abroad among the nations,

9But if you turn to me and keep my commandments and do them, though many of your people were cast out to the uttermost part of the heavens, yet I will gather them from

there and will bring them to the place that I have chosen to set my name there”

4.2.9 Israel repented, fasting and confessing their sins before the Lord.

Neh 9:1-3

1Now in the twenty-fourth day of this month the children of Israel were assembled with fasting and with sackcloth, and dirt upon them.

2The descendents of Israel separated themselves from all foreigners and stood and confessed their sins and the iniquities of their fathers.

3And they stood up in their place and read in the book of the law of the Lord their God for one quarter of the day and for another fourth they confessed and worshipped the Lord their God.

This purpose for fasting is not needed for the believer in Jesus Christ because Jesus bore our sins on the cross and showed us the ultimate mercy in him. We do not need to plead for the Lord’s mercy we have already received it in Jesus.

Peter says in 1 Peter 1:3,

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, which according to his abundant mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead

And again in 1 Peter 2:10,

Who in time past were not a people, but are now the people of God; who had not obtained mercy, but now have obtained mercy.

4.3 The third purpose of fasting is to give physical expression to the believer’s humble dependence on God as he or she desperately prays for his help in a time of crisis.

4.3.1 David fasted and prayed to God for help from his enemies.

Ps 109:1-5, 21-24

1 Do not be silent, O God of my praise,

2 For the mouth of the wicked and the mouth of the deceitful are opened against me. They have spoken against me with a lying tongue.

3 They also surrounded me with words of hatred and fought against me without a cause.

4 For my friendship they became my adversaries, but I give myself to prayer.

5 And they have rewarded me evil for good, and hatred for my friendship.

21 But you, O God the Lord, help me for your name's sake because your mercy is good, deliver me.

22 For I am poor and needy, and my heart is wounded within me.

23 I am passing like the shadow when it declines. I am tossed up and down as the locust.

24 My knees are weak through fasting; and my flesh fails of fatness.

4.3.2 David prayed and fasted to the Lord that he would not take the life of his son.

2 Sam 12:16-18

16 David therefore sought God for the child. David fasted and went in and lay all night upon the earth.

17 The elders of his household arose and went to him to raise him up from the earth, but he was unwilling and would not eat food with them.

18 It came to pass on the seventh day, that the child died.

After David’s child died, David began to eat again. This startled his servants and they questioned him. His answer brings out the reason and purpose for fasting which is to move the hand of God in desperate prayer.

2 Sam 12:21-23

21 Then his servants said to him, “What is this thing that you have done? You fasted and wept for the child while the child was alive, but when the child was dead, you rose and ate bread”.

22 And he said, “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept, for I said, ‘Who can tell whether God will be gracious to me so that the child may live?

23 But now he is dead, why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me.’”

4.3.3 Jehoshaphat proclaimed a fast as he sought the Lord in prayer for protection from an invading army.

2 Chron. 20:1-4

1 It came to pass after this also, that the sons of Moab and the sons of Ammon and with them the Meunites came against Jehoshaphat to battle.

2 Then some came and told Jehoshaphat, saying, “There comes a great multitude against you from Edom beyond the sea. Behold, they are in Hazazontamar, which is Engedi.”

3 And Jehoshaphat was afraid and set himself to seek the Lord and proclaimed a fast throughout all Judah.

4 And Judah gathered themselves together to ask the help of the Lord. Even out of all the cities of Judah they came to seek the Lord.

4.3.4 Ezra and the people of Israel prayed and fasted for the Lord’s help when they were filled with fear of their enemies.

Ezra 8:21-23

21 Then I proclaimed a fast there at the river of Ahava that we might humble ourselves before our God to seek from him a safe journey for us and for our little ones, and for all our possessions.

22 For I was ashamed to request of the king a band of soldiers and horsemen to help us against the enemy in the way because we had spoken to the king, saying, “The hand of our God is upon all them for good that seek him but his power and his wrath is against all them that forsake him.

23 So we fasted and sought our God for this and he listened to us.

4.4 The fourth purpose of fasting is to give physical expression to the believer’s humble dependence on God as he or she earnestly seeks his help in furthering the spread of his kingdom.

4.4.1 Anna the prophetess earnestly fasted for the Lord to bring his messiah and kingdom.

Luke 2:36-38

36 And there was one Anna, a prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Aser. She was very old and had lived with a husband seven years after her marriage

37 And she was a widow for about eighty-four years. She never departed from the temple and served God with fastings and prayers night and day.

38 And coming up at that moment she gave thanks to the Lord and spoke of him to all those who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

Anna was an OT believer who was obviously committed to the Lord. Luke tells us that she worshipped (literally “served” Greek – latreuw) in the temple night and day never leaving. She served in the temple and spent her days and nights fasting and praying before the Lord.

Anna’s fasting displayed her humble dependence on the Lord as she earnestly seeks his help in furthering the spread of his kingdom. This can be seen in the phrase “those who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.” Her deep concern was the redemption of Israel by the coming messiah. She went to those who were like her awaiting the messiah. They were committed to praying and seeking God to move his divine hand and bring the messiah to his people to redeem them from their distress and set up his kingdom.

4.4.2 Saul fasted when he was blinded by the Lord.

In Acts 9, the Lord Jesus appears to Paul on the Damascus Road and calls him into a ministry of preaching to the Gentiles. Paul is blinded by the experience. For three days following, Luke tells us that he didn’t eat or drink.

Acts 9:9

9 And he was three days without sight and he neither ate nor drink.

Paul must have been deeply troubled by the vision of the one whose followers he had been persecuting and the one he consider a blasphemer. Yet, this Jesus not only forgave him, but called him as his ambassador. But, Jesus did blind him possibly to express his displeasure over Paul’s persecution of believers and to humble him.

Paul’s fasting was obviously an expression of the deep sorrow he felt over his sin against Christ. Yet, Paul must have also grasped the serious nature of the mission Jesus had given him. He must have prayed to the Lord for help in this divine calling.

His fast stops when Ananias comes to him and he receives his sight back.

Acts 9:18-19

18 And immediately there fell from his eyes something like scales and he received sight and arose, and was baptized.

19 And when he had received food, he was strengthened.

4.4.3 The early church leaders in Antioch fasted and prayed as they sought the Lord’s wisdom in selecting godly men for ministry

Selecting leaders and accomplishing ministry was a serious responsibility of church leaders in furthering God’s kingdom. The leaders must humbly depend on the Lord for guidance. It is not surprising that their humble dependence and seriousness is expressed in prayer and fasting.

Acts 13:1-3

1 Now there were in the church that was at Antioch certain prophets and teachers, Barnabas, and Simeon that was called Niger, and Lucius of Cyrene, and Manaen, which had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch, and Saul.

2 As they ministered to the Lord, and fasted, the Holy Spirit said, “Separate for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.”

3 And when they had fasted and prayed and laid their hands on them, they sent them away.

4.4.4 Paul and Barnabas prayed and fasted in the selection of elders

Acts 14:23

23 And when they had appointed elders in every church and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they believed.


5. The Right Attitude when Fasting

Although God did not establish fasting, he accepted it as long as it was done with the attitude of humility and it came out of a life of obedience.

5.1 God condemns fasting that does not come out of a righteous life.

God condemned Israel through the prophet Isaiah for fasting and seeking him while living unrighteously before him.

Isa. 58:4

4 Behold, you fast for strife and contention and to hit with the wicked fist. You will not fast as you do this day, to make your voice heard on high.

God tells them that he desires a fast that is done in the midst of people dealing justly with each other.

Isa.58:6-7

6 Is not this the fast that I have chosen? To loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that you break every yoke?

7 Is it not to give your bread to the hungry, and that you bring the poor that are cast out to your house?When you see the naked, that you cover him and that you do not hide yourself from your own flesh?”

The Lord rebukes the Jews for fasting and mourning with the wrong attitude and unrighteous lives.

Zech. 7:4-6

4 Then the word of the Lord of hosts came to me, saying,

5 “Speak to all the people of the land, and to the priests, saying, ‘When you fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh month, even those seventy years, did you fast to me?

6 And when you ate and when you drank, did not eat for yourselves and drink for yourselves?

Zech.7: 8-10

8 And the word of the Lord came to Zechariah, saying,

9 “Thus says the Lord of hosts, ‘Administer true judgment and show mercy and compassion to each other.

10 And do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the stranger, or the poor and let none of you imagine evil against his brother in your heart.

5.2 Jesus taught that fasting should not be done out of pride, desiring the praise of others.

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus spoke to the Jews and rebuked them for their sinful attitude of heart as they practiced fasting, almsgiving, and prayer.

Matthew 6:16-18

16 Moreover when you fast, do not put on a sad countenance as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces so that they may appear to men to fast. Truly I say to you, they have their reward.

17 But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face

18 so that you do not appear to men to fast, but to your Father who is in secret and your Father, who sees in secret, shall reward you openly.

In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus taught that fasting done from a prideful heart was worthless.

Luke 18:9-14

9 And he spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others,

10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a tax collector.

11 The Pharisee stood and prayed thus within himself, ‘God, I thank you that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector.

12 I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess.’

13 And the tax collector standing far off, would not lift up so much as his eyes to heaven, but beat upon his breast, saying, ‘God be merciful to me a sinner.’

14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other, for every one that exalts himself shall be humbled and he who humbles himself shall be exalted.”

In this parable above, Jesus contrasts the heart of a prideful Pharisee and the heart of a humble tax collector. The Pharisee prided himself on fasting twice a week among other practices he did in following the Law. His heart was filled with pride and he looked down on others who didn’t follow these practices. He completely misunderstood the purpose of fasting, which was to express humble dependence on God when a believer needed the Lord’s help. He used it instead as a ritualistic practice to show his false righteousness before God.


6. The Limits of the Practice of Fasting

The Scriptures do not give any instruction on how long to fast, but it does give the practice of the Jews. This clearly shows the Jews had clear limits and standards in terms of time periods during which they fasted. We have seen this earlier.

6.1 The Jews fasted for a limited amount of hours.

When the Jews fasted on minor fast days and during times of crisis, they did it from sunrise to sunset. That was their standard fast time. Only on the major fast days a year did they fast for a longer time. If the Jews fasted for several days in a crisis, they would fast from sunrise to sunset each day.

Judges 20:24-26

24 And the sons of Israel came against the sons of Benjamin the second day.

25 Benjamin went out against those from Gibeah the second day and destroyed eighteen thousand men of the sons of Israel. All these were armed with swords.

26 Then all the sons of Israel and all the people went up and came to Bethel and wept and sat there before the Lord and fasted that day until evening and offered burnt offerings and peace offerings before the Lord.

2 Sam 1:12

12 And they mourned and wept and fasted until evening for Saul and for Jonathan, his son, and for the people of the Lord and for the house of Israel because they were killed by the sword.

Jewish Encyclopedia summarizes the length of Jewish fasting,

“All Jewish fasts begin at sunrise and end with the appearance of the first stars of the evening, except those of the Day of Atonement and the Ninth of Ab, which last "from even till even.6

This is important because it shows that there is no Biblical justification for long extended fasts that are often touted today as an example of a deeper walk with God. Fasting was always for short periods of time. This also fits with fasting as the expression of a believer’s humble dependence before God in seeking his help in a serious or desperate situation in his or her life.

But what about the long fasts of Moses, Elijah, and Jesus? This brings us to the example of supernatural fasts in the Bible.

Are they examples of what Christians should be doing? The answer is no. The supernatural nature of their fasts demonstrate that these fasts by Moses, Elijah, and Jesus were a sign that God was at work in these three who were central in his plan of redemption.


7. The Supernatural Fasting of Moses, Elijah, and Jesus

The Scriptures gives examples of three individuals who had supernatural assistance from God in fasting. These three do not provide a model for regular fasting by believers, but rather received God’s supernatural power displayed as a sign of their significance to the plan of God for redemption. They are

1) Moses on Mount Sinai

2) Elijah travelling to Mt. Horeb

3) Jesus in the wilderness

The supernaturally prolonged fast was a miraculous sign of God’s sustenance of his specially selected servants. They exemplified the truth “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.”(Deut.8:3) That is, life is sustained ultimately not by food, but by God’s power and sovereignty over human beings. It is also shows that trust and obeying God is more important than any physical activity including the very one that sustains life, eating. As all supernatural occurrences in the Scriptures, they are not to be taken as normative for the life of the believer.

Let’s look at each of them briefly.

7.1 Moses fasted for forty days and forty nights while he was with the Lord on Mount Sinai.

Moses’ prolonged fast on Mount Sinai was a miraculous sign of God’s sustenance of human life (as Jesus said, “Man shall not live by bread alone.”) and a sign that Moses was God’s servant and spokesman.

Moses was with the Lord for forty days and forty nights, worshipping, pleading with the Lord for his people, and writing out the Law. During that time Moses tells us that he did not eat or drink. It is possible that a human being can fast without food for forty days and forty nights, but not water. A human being can only last 3-5 days without water.

In Exodus 34 Moses claims this as he narrates what happened when he was with the Lord. It says in v.5, 9, and 28,

Exod 34:5, 9, 28

5 And the Lord descended in the cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed the name of the Lord.

9 And he [Moses]said, “If now I have found favor in your sight, O Lord, let my Lord, I pray, go among us, for we are a stiff-necked people. Pardon our iniquity and our sin and take us for your inheritance.”

28 And he was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights. He did not eat bread or drink water. And he wrote upon the tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments.

Later, Moses reminds the Israelites how the Lord had worked in his life the first time he was with him by keeping him alive and well as he went without food and water. Then he mentions the second time he was with the Lord after the tablets were destroyed when the Lord did the same miracle.

Deut.9:9, 17-19

9 When I was gone up to the mountain to receive the tables of stone, the tablets of the covenant which the Lord made with you, then I remained in the mountain forty days and forty nights, I did not eat bread or drink water.

17 And I took the two tablets and cast them out of my two hands and broke them before your eyes.

18 I fell down before the Lord as at the first forty days and forty nights. I did not eat bread nor drink water because of all your sins which you committed in doing evil in the sight of the Lord to provoke him to anger.

19 For I was afraid of the anger and hot displeasure with which the Lord was angry with you to destroy you. But the Lord listened to me at that time also.

This was a powerful sign that the Lord had indeed called Moses to lead the Israelites and was empowering him to accomplish his will.

Although in this supernatural fast, Moses does not model how long a believer should fast, he does model the heart of the praying and fasting believer. He was humbling himself before the Lord and asking him to be merciful to his sinful and rebellious people.

The supernatural element of Moses’ fast established two important truths. First, God’s power alone is necessary to sustain a man’s life. Second, Moses is God’s chosen servant who speaks for God. The Jews needed to know these two truths!

This was also the case with Elijah, the Prophet.

7.2 Elijah fasted for forty days as he travelled to Mount Horeb.

1 Kings 19:1-8

1 And Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done and how he had executed all the prophets with the sword.

2 Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life as the life of one of them by tomorrow about this time.”

3 And when he saw this he arose and ran for his life and went to Beersheba, which belongs to Judah, and left his servant there.

4 But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness and came and sat down under a Juniper tree. And he prayed that he might die, and said, “It is enough! Now, Lord, take my life, for I am no better than my fathers!”

5 Then as he lay and slept under a Juniper tree, suddenly an angel touched him, and said to him, “Arise and eat.”

6 Then he looked, and there by his head was a cake baked on hot stones and a jar of water. So he ate and drank and lay down again.

7 And the angel of the Lord came back the second time, and touched him, and said, “Arise and eat because the journey is too great for you.”

8 So he arose, and ate and drank and he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights as far as Horeb, the mountain of God.

In 1 Kings, Elijah has been demonstrating to Ahab and Jezebel, the king and queen of Israel, that God is supreme over all idols. Jezebel has sworn that she will destroy Elijah and Elijah flees. Tired and discouraged, Elijah sits down and falls asleep under a Juniper tree in the wilderness. An angel of the Lord appears to him to feed him and strengthen him in the Lord. Thus, Elijah is nourished by an angel from the Lord and is able to travel to Mount Horeb on the strength of that food for forty days and forty nights. To be able to fast for forty days and nights is not miraculous in itself, but to be able to travel while engaged in that fast is. Elijah would not have been strong enough to travel after several weeks without food. It takes supernatural power from the Lord.

Again, this is a sign to Elijah from the Lord himself that the Lord was with Elijah to sustain his life and give him the strength to have victory over Jezebel. Elijah was a prominent person in God’s plan of redemption. Later, Jesus said that John the Baptist came in the spirit and power of Elijah.

Is this the norm for believers in the OT? No. It was never imitated by any OT believers.

7.3 Jesus fasted for forty days in the wilderness.

The Lord Jesus initiates his ministry with a forty day fast in the wilderness before presenting himself to Israel as the messiah. Like, Elijah, fasting (abstaining from food) for forty days is not miraculous, but it is a sign of the significant ministry Jesus was to have and his obedience to God the Father. During those forty days and afterward, Jesus had to stand against Satan’s temptation to misuse His supernatural power. God the Father sustained him supernaturally so he could withstand the temptations in such a weakened physical state.

Luke 4:1-4

1 Then Jesus, being filled with the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness,

2 being tempted for forty days by the devil. And in those days He ate nothing, and afterward, when they had ended, He was hungry.

3 And the devil said to Him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.”

4 But Jesus answered him, saying,“It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God.”

Even though he was in that weakened condition, he was able to turn from his own desire for food and turn his heart to trust and obedience to God his Father.

Is Jesus’ forty day and night fast to be imitated? No. Like Elijah’s, Jesus’ fast was a supernatural sign to show the true identity of Jesus. This example from Jesus was not followed by any of his disciples as recorded in the Scriptures.


8. Fasting Compared with other Physical Expressions

8.1 Fasting and Feasting for Jewish Believers

To understand fasting in the Jewish mind you must understand feasting in the Jewish mind because fasting is the opposite of feasting.

Feasting is what one does to celebrate and display joy. Fasting is what one does to focus on prayer and display seriousness or sorrow. Feasting is a physical expression of joy. Fasting is a physical expression of sorrow or seriousness.

Feasting is not about gluttony and fasting is not about starvation. Feasting is not about what food does for the body and fasting is not about what a lack of food does for the body.

Feasting is not about indulgence of food and fasting is not about deprivation of food. Feasting is not about selfishness and self-indulgence and fasting is not about sacrifice and self-denial.

Fasting was never done to make a sacrifice to God of self-denial. It was never a penance. It was always a part of prayer and a serious or sorrowful heart.

Fasting is not commanded by God in the OT and fasting is never commanded in the NT. That means it is an option. The reason it is an option is because it is never done for the sake of itself. It is always done because the Christian wants to do it because of his seriousness or sorrow and it is meaningful to him or her.

8.2 Fasting and Kneeling

Fasting is like kneeling or any other physical expression of the inward heart.

You can’t command people to kneel or fast because kneeling or fasting is not something that one does ritualistically or legalistically. Kneeling and fasting before God are physical expressions of the seriousness and desperation we feel before God. They are natural expressions of humility, of serious petition before God, of sorrow before God. Anything short of that makes fasting or kneeling meaningless.


9. The End of Fasting when Christ’s Kingdom Comes

Fasting will turn to gladness in the kingdom.

Zech.8:18-19

18 And the word of the Lord of hosts came to me, saying,

19 “Thus says the Lord of hosts, ‘The fast of the fourth month and the fast of the fifth and the fast of the seventh and the fast of the tenth will become to the house of Judah joy and gladness and cheerful feasts; therefore love the truth and peace.

When Jesus comes and bring his kingdom to earth, there will be no need for fasting because there will be no sorrow or desperate situations as Jesus reigns.


 

ENDNOTES:

1. Kent D. Berghuis, “A Biblical Perspective on Fasting,” BSac 158 (2001): 97-101.

2. Academy BJE, NSW Board of Jewish Education, Major and Minor Jewish Fast Days, http://www.bje.org.au/learning/judaism/holydays/fasts/index.html

3. Academy BJE, NSW Board of Jewish Education, Major and Minor Jewish Fast Days, http://www.bje.org.au/learning/judaism/holydays/fasts/index.html

4. Academy BJE, NSW Board of Jewish Education, Major and Minor Jewish Fast Days, http://www.bje.org.au/learning/judaism/holydays/fasts/index.html

5. Jewish Encyclopedia, Fasting and Fast-days,

http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=59&letter=F&search=fast

6. Jewish Encyclopedia, Fasting and Fast-days,

http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=59&letter=F&search=fast