Fasting in the Bible


“The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.” – Albert Einstein

“This world can no longer be left to mere diplomats, politicians and business leaders. They have done the best they could, no doubt. But this is an age for spiritual heroes – a time for men and women to be heroic in faith and in spiritual character and power.” Dallas Willard

Einstein spoke of thought, and diplomats, politicians and business leaders are generally intelligent people. But Willard wrote of thought and far more, because mere thought is not enough to rescue mankind from himself. In The Spirit of the Disciplines – Understanding How God Changes Lives, he was speaking of the sorry state in which we find the world today and how restoration can only be found in spiritual renewal. His book is a powerful survey of practices of world-changing Christians throughout history. Richard Foster writing in the Christian classic Celebration of Discipline – the Path to Spiritual Growth, also discussed these practices. The lists of spiritual disciplines are as follows:

Willard Foster
Disciplines of Abstinence Disciplines of Engagement The Inward Disciplines The Outward Disciplines The Corporate Disciplines
Solitude Study Meditation Simplicity Confession
Silence Worship Prayer Solitude Worship
Fasting Celebration Fasting Submission Guidance
Frugality Service Study Service Celebration
Chastity Prayer
Secrecy Fellowship
Sacrifice Confession
Submission

Many, and some would argue all, of these disciplines are not confined to Christians. Plato, Socrates and Aristotle fasted as did Zoroaster and Confucius. Muslims and Jews and many others pray. The difference between the Christian practice of these spiritual disciplines and the practices of the same actions by non-believers is the presence and activity of the Spirit of God within believers (John 16:5-15).

Due to the abuse of spiritual disciplines in the Middle Ages, often associated with groups such as the Flagellants, the use of such practices declined after the Reformation. There is no example in the Bible of self-torment as a route to personal holiness and service to the Lord. When Bible personalities denied themselves, for example, when Ezekiel was told to lie on his side for 390 days (Ezekiel 4:4-8), it was always to advance the work of God.
In Corinthians, Paul wrote “The kingdom of God does not consist in words, but in power.” Nonetheless, sometimes it seems like there is little power in the Church today. Believers who transform cultures like St. Paul, Saint Boniface, John Knox, and George Whitfield seem to be people of the past. Against the onslaught of postmodern thought and the march of secularism, the church, at least in the West, seems vulnerable.

Ultimately, Christians need have no fear of the future because Jesus Christ is the Lord of the future and His church will prevail (Matthew 16:13-20). However, the world desperately needs men and women with the power that only the Holy Spirit provides. The spiritual disciplines can help ordinary people gain such spiritual power and be used extraordinarily by the Lord. This paper describes the discipline of fasting.

Fasting, or really denying ourselves anything, is nearly unheard of in the modern world. Why would anyone deny themselves of anything if they don’t have to? If we are the center of the universe, why restrain anything? Among people who riot at the very mention of austerity, demand their “rights” even at the expense of the lives of others, and who spend themselves into debt oblivion, self denial is not only inexplicable but perhaps even evil.
Nonetheless, we are not the center of the universe, and we must remind ourselves of this fact while coming into better communion with the One who is. Fasting is a good place to start.

Fasting in the Old Testament

Fasting is one of these disciplines and was important part of service to God in the Old Testament. The following table summarizes information about fasting in the Old Testament.

Topic Citation Notes

The Command to Fast

The Day of Atonement (10th day of 7th month) Leviticus 16:29-31, 23:26-32, Numbers 29:7 The phrase translated “humble your souls” in the NASB and “afflict your souls” in the KJV uses the phrase ענה `anah נפש nephesh.  The idea is to bow yourself down and deny yourself of normal things, such as happens when you fast.
National repentance Jeremiah 36:4-8 Jeremiah commanded the people to hear the Law and fast for repentance of sin.

Length of Fasts

One day Judges 20:26, 1 Samuel 14:24, 2 Samuel 1:12, 3:35 Sunrise to sunset (like Muslims do at Ramadan)
One night Daniel 6:18 King Darius ate nothing while Daniel was in the lions’ den.
Three days Esther 4:16
Seven days 1 Samuel 31:13, 1 Chronicles 10:122 Samuel 12:16-18 The death of Saul and his sons, also David’s fasting for his sick newborn.
Forty days Exodus 34:28 Deuteronomy 9:9 Moses and Elijah

What is Fasting?

Partial Daniel 10:2-3 Daniel restricting certain types of food and drink to seek the Lord.
Normal Abstaining from all food but drinking water
Absolute Jonah 3:5-10Esther 4:6Deuteronomy 9:9

1 Kings 19:8

No food or water.  This is physiologically impossible for more than three days.  Such 40 day, absolute fasts as Moses and (and maybe Elijah) did must have been miracles.

Prayer and Fasting for Forgiveness

One man for himself 1 Kings 21:17-29 Even the weak King Ahab, incited by his evil wife Jezebel, humbled himself before God and received a blessing.
One man for the sins of others Deuteronomy 9:15-18 When Moses saw the Israelites worshipping the golden calf, he denied himself, humbled himself, as he interceded for them before God.
One man for the sins of others Daniel 9:3-5 Daniel humbled himself and confessed the sins of His people.
A city for itself Jonah 3:4-10 Ninevah prayed and fasted for forgiveness at the preaching of Jonah
People for themselves Nehemiah 9:1-3 After the wall of Jerusalem was rebuilt, the Feast of Tabernacles was reinstituted.  As part of the ceremony, the Law was read and the people repented of their sin.
To avert God’s judgment Joel 1:14, 2:12- 15 Humble yourselves to return to the Lord.

Fasting in the Old Testament (continued)

Topic Citation Notes

Prayer and Fasting for Victory in War

Civil War in Israel Judges 20:26 The tribe of Benjamin was defeating the other tribes in war.  The others humbled themselves in fasting and prayer and the Lord answered, destroying Benjamin for their sin regarding the Levite’s concubine (Judges 19).
Battle of Mizpah 1 Samuel 7:6 The Philistines were threatening Israel at Mizpah.  The people were terrified so they prayed and fasted, confessing their sins.  God gave them a great victory.
Judah against Moab/Ammon 1 Chronicles 20:1-25 Moab and Ammon invaded Judah and King Jehoshaphat proclaimed a nationwide fast to seek the Lord.

Prayer and Fasting to Mourn the Death of Others

The Death of Saul and Jonathan 1 Samuel 31:132 Samuel 1:12 1 Chronicles 10:12 David, his followers, and the people of Jabesh Gilead mourned the deaths.

Prayer and Fasting for the Healing of Others

The illness of David’s son 2 Samuel 12:16-23 The child of David’s adultery was perishing and David sought the Lord for his life.
Interceding for others’ health Psalm 35:11-13 David prayed and fasted for the healing of his enemies

Prayer and Fasting for Help

Journeys Ezra 8:21 Ezra proclaimed a fast for all of the people traveling with him back to Judah after the Exile in Babylon
Homeland Nehemiah 1:4 Nehemiah fasted and prayed several days to mourn his destroyed homeland and get guidance on what to do about it.
Deliverance Esther 4:3 The Persian king had decreed the extermination of the Jews.  They fasted to be saved.
Personal protection Esther 4:16 Esther, her maidens, and Mordecai and the Jews in Susa prayed that Esther would be favorably received by the king.
Personal protection Psalm 69:10Psalm 109:24 David humbled himself with fasting to be delivered from his adversaries.

Prayer and Fasting to Commemorate Important Events

Siege of Jerusalem 2 Kings 25:1 The 10th day of the 10th month – the beginning of the final siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonians.
Fall of Jerusalem 2 Kings 25:3-4 The 9th day of the 4th month – the fall of Jerusalem to the armies of Babylon.
Political assassination 2 Kings 25:23-25Jeremiah 41:1-3 The 2nd day of the 7th month – the assassination of Gedeliah
Jeremiah 52:12-13 The 10th day of the 5th month – the burning of the Temple.
Feast of Purim Esther 9:31 The 14th day of the 12th month – the deliverance from the destruction planned by Haman.

Limitations of Prayer and Fasting

Prayer Psalm 66:18 God will not hear a prayer from a heart that hides sin.
Fasting Isaiah 58:1-12 Fasting with injustice and an unrighteous heart has no good effect.
Ceremonial fasting Zechariah 7:1-14 The ceremonial fasts that the Hebrews instituted were not of God but of themselves.  The Lord wants righteousness, not empty ceremony (Psalm 51:16-17).

Fasting was not to be done simply for its own sake, but in accordance with prayer and the other spiritual disciplines to accomplish some important work in obedience to God. Prayer usually accompanied fasting as did the offering of sacrifices as taught in the Law of Moses.

Fasting in the New Testament

Fasting is less prominent in the New Testament but was still an important part of the spiritual practices of people such as Anna the Prophetess and the Apostle Paul. Even more, Jesus fasted.

Fasting was not to be done simply for its own sake, but in accordance with prayer and the other spiritual disciplines to accomplish some important work in obedience to God.  Prayer usually accompanied fasting as did the offering of sacrifices as taught in the Law of Moses.

Fasting in the New Testament

Fasting is less prominent in the New Testament but was still an important part of the spiritual practices of people such as Anna the Prophetess and the Apostle Paul.  Even more, Jesus fasted.

Topic Citation Notes
To become closer to the Father Matthew 4:1-9Luke 4:1-2 Jesus had no sin of which to repent and at this point no earthly enemies from which to be delivered.  This fasting was to prepare Him at the beginning of His earthly ministry.
To please the Father Matthew 6:16-18 Fasting humbly before the Lord and not to impress others pleases God and helps us to know Him better.
Done at the right time Luke 5:33-35 Jesus’ followers were to fast but only at the right time for the right reasons.
Fasting enhances the power of prayer Matthew 17:14-21Mark 9:14-29 Verse 21 in the Matthew passage is not found in some of the earliest and best manuscripts, but given all of the evidence, fasting probably enhances the effectiveness of prayer.
Seeking guidance on a call to missions Acts 13:1-3 The church at Antioch fasted and prayed to decide whom to send out as missionaries.
Seeking guidance on a call for elders Acts 14:21-23 The churches in the province of Galatia prayed and fasted for guidance from God on whom to appoint as elders for the churches.
Seeking to grow closer to God as a couple 1 Corinthians 7:5 Prayer and fasting are suggested while abstaining from marital relations.
Seeking a life close to the Lord Luke 2:36-38 Anna the prophetess made a life of seeking God in prayer and fasting

Having done a brief survey of fasting in the Bible, we realize that God’s people fasted to grow closer to Him through repentance of their sins. Once the relationship was restored, they fasted to gain some special blessing such as healing of the sick, protection from enemies or victory in war. They also fasted to remind themselves of past failures so that they would avoid such failures in the future.

Conclusion

God has called His people to put Him first in their lives, which is only logical since after all, He is God and therefore first in the universe. New thought is not enough to feed the hungry, heal the sick, and bring justice to the oppressed. New thought will not overcome selfish hearts and vengeful minds. As man accepts the reality that God is the center of existence, not him, he will begin to align himself with reality, rather than the fantasy that man is the measure of all things.

Christians do not engage in the spiritual disciplines to gain the power to change the world. Rather, they engage in the spiritual disciplines to know and love their Creator more. In so doing, however, they will gain knowledge of what is right and the power to do it. The world will be better. Einstein was right but incomplete. Willard is right and complete. Men and women filled with the Spirit and exhibiting the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23), gained by the work of the Spirit through the faithful practice of the spiritual disciplines, including fasting, will change the world.

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