Although I grew up in the church, I was not introduced to the idea of fasting until I went to Bible college. It was there that I was first encouraged to practice this discipline and later in the local church with which I connected, I was introduced to the solemn assembly and congregational fasting. It was in this context that I began to ask myself whether fasting was a spiritual discipline commanded of the Christian. In these three articles, we will explore what the Scriptures teach us.
An Introduction to Fasting from the Old Testament
Although fasting was practiced throughout the ancient world in association with many religious groups, the initial mention of the practice in the Bible took place with Moses and his receiving of the Law of God. Exodus 34:28 says he was on the mountain forty days and nights, without eating or drinking (cf. 24:16–18).
The Hebrew word for fasting (tsum) was used for the first time in Judges 20:26–28. That occasion was one of the worst in Scripture. The nation sought an answer on the extent to which they should respond to the sinful degradation of a Levite’s concubine. They fasted, made sacrifices, and sought God’s will regarding the extent of the punishment that should be exacted. Scripture doesn’t record why they fasted, just that they did fast.
If you trace the twenty-one uses of this term in the Old Testament, you will note that tsum was used interchangeably with the Hebrew concept of “to humble the soul” or “to mortify oneself.” Indeed, the New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis, connects fasting to the following ideas: “weep, mourn, wear sackcloth and ashes, deny oneself, and to do no work.”
Hebrew is a very descriptive language that tends towards concrete expressions rather than abstract ones. For example, rather than say “stubborn,” Hebrew describes a person having a “stiff neck.” Though they describe the same concept, Hebrew is more expressive. Psalm 35:13 is an example of this expressiveness related to fasting: “But as for me, when they were sick, my clothing was sackcloth; I humbled my soul with fasting; And my prayer kept returning to my bosom” (cf. Ps 69:10; Ezra 8:21). So humbling your soul was accomplished through fasting. This seamlessly connects with the only place in Scripture where the people of God were commanded by God to ritually humble themselves, that is, fast.
In Leviticus 16, which describes the “Day of Atonement,” there is a call to humility in light of the sin of the people. Verses 1–28 describe the day, and the conclusion of the chapter identifies it as an annual celebration, a permanent statute. Though the actual title “Day of Atonement” does not appear in the chapter, it is described perfectly because it was a day upon which atonement would take place for all the sins of the entire nation (16:30).
The very first mention of the observance being a permanent statute in Leviticus 16:9 says, “And this shall be a permanent statute for you: in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall humble your souls, and not do any work, whether the native, or the alien who sojourns among you” (16:29). Here we have the phrase “to humble one’s soul,” which Hebrew uses in parallel to or synonymously with fasting. For this reason, it is commonly held that fasting was practiced in connection with the Day of Atonement to express humility before the Lord. This is the only place in the Bible where fasting was commanded by God.
God did not prohibit fasting on other occasions, but it was not prescribed by Mosaic code, nor was it ever identified as a necessary part of the people’s regular spiritual life. Yet fasting grew to become a regular Hebrew spiritual practice.
Growth of Fasting
Various national fasts were called for throughout the Monarchy period, such as in 2 Chronicles 20:3 where Jehoshaphat called a fast in fear of invasion. However, it was after Israel’s return from exile, almost a thousand years after Moses, that fasting became a prescribed part of Israelite life. Within Ezra, both corporate and individual fasting took place in preparation for the return to the Promised Land (Ezra 8:21) and then over the sinfulness of mixed marriages among God’s people (Ezra 9:5).
These fasts, and others like them, were tied to self-examination, as well as mourning over sin (cf. Joel 1:13, 14; Esth 4; 1 Kgs 21). However, it is noteworthy that God did not call for these fasts. Remorse for sin prompted others to call for repentance to be accompanied by fasting. This seems reasonable since the only God-ordained fast was connected to the Day of Atonement when sin was specifically addressed. When the latter fasts took place, it was normally not to prevent sin but as a response to sin. All of these occurrences of fasting were based on human decisions and not divine regulation, expectation, or determination.
As one might expect, given Israel’s history, fasting would eventually become a manifestation of Jewish legalism. Along with prayer and the giving of alms, fasting lost its biblical moorings and became a demonstration of piety and a means of gaining merit before God. Sadly, the children of Israel thought fasting would supercharge their prayers and be more certainly heard by God.
Isaiah 58 depicts the devolution of fasting. In this chapter, God condemned Israel for their fasts. It was not that the practice was sinful, but that it was untethered from the repentance and remorse of sin that it was to express. The people were sinning and fasting which was just evidence of hypocrisy.
Rather than the periodic abstinence from food resulting in their prayers being answered, their lack of repentance over sin, which fasting was to be tied to, left them in a state to be judged by God. God began insulting their hypocrisy in verses 1–2 by sarcastically mocking their claims of righteousness in verse 2 as actually manifestations of their transgression and sin (58:1). They claimed not to have “forsaken the ordinances of God,” when they in fact were living in their sin.
In verse 3 the people made the counterclaim that the Lord was indifferent—apathetic—to their spirituality, which, as far as they were concerned, was evidenced by their fasting, “Why have we fasted and Thou dost not see? Why have we humbled ourselves and Thou dost not notice?” (58:3a). Note the paralleling of the idea of self-humbling and fasting, as noted above. They believed their fasting should have drawn the attention and relief of God. They were upset that it did not.
God’s reply was that they were breaking God’s laws as they were fasting: “Behold, on the day of your fast you find your desire, and drive hard all your workers” (58:3b). The Hebrews were mistreating workers, more concerned with making a profit than humbling themselves. Yes, their fasts came with great demonstrations of humility: “bowing one’s head” and “spreading out sackcloth and ashes as a bed,” (58:5). However, they did this while full of “contention and strife” and striking “with a wicked fist.”
God, then, contrasted their fasting from food with the true type of fasting that He wanted and was concerned with in 58:6–7: “Is this not the fast which I choose, to loosen the bonds of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free, and break every yoke? Is it not to divide your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into the house; When you see the naked, to cover him; And not to hide yourself from your own flesh?”
God recommended, if they wanted to fast, they should fast from sinning, the fasting with which God was pleased. What would be the result of them restraining from sin? Answered prayer—the very thing they thought fasting would have accomplished for them. For God stated, “Then your light will break out like the dawn, And your recovery will speedily spring forth; And your righteousness will go before you; The glory of the Lord will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; You will cry, and He will say, ‘Here I am.’ If you remove the yoke from your midst, the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness” (58:8–9).
God would answer prayers, not because they fasted from food, but because they turned aside from sin. I love this point because it verifies that simple prayer has power. God hears our prayers and delights to answer them according to His will.
Isaiah’s critique helps us understand what the practice of fasting within the nation of Israel had become. It exposes the fact that Israel elevated fasting to being on par with prayer and then they entrenched it with practice. Interestingly, it also clarifies some of the conflict Jesus had with the Jewish leadership of His day. The nation had taken a religious practice only commanded for the annual fast on the Day of Atonement and required it more regularly as a meritorious act. We will look at this conflict in the next article.