The following study, which examines every fasting passage in the Bible, will surprise most readers. Church teachings about fasting (which, of course, differ from church to church) rarely align with God’s attitudes toward fasting as revealed throughout the Bible. Most churches build their fasting theology around just a few passages while ignoring what the entire Bible has to say about it.
What makes this study so important is that our understanding of God’s attitude toward fasting is key to our understanding of His attitude toward us. If we misunderstand what fasting is all about, we understand what Christianity is all about.
Exodus 34:28, “He [Moses] was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights; he neither ate bread nor drank water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments.”
Context: God had Moses write the law on tablets.
Deuteronomy 9:18, “Then I lay prostrate before the Lord as before, forty days and forty nights; I neither ate bread nor drank water, because of all the sin you had committed, provoking the Lord by doing what was evil in his sight.” (The NRSV does not capitalize personal pronouns referring to God or Jesus; therefore, I avoid capitalizing them when quoting the NRSV.)
Context: Moses speaks at length to the Israelites throughout early Deuteronomy. Here, he describes how he pleaded for God to not destroy the Israelites.
Analysis: This is unlike any fasting we do today. The only way to survive a fast of both food and water for 40 days is by being sustained by God. Therefore, it’s difficult to let these passages to influence our behavior.
Judges 20:26, “Then all the Israelites, the whole army, went back to Bethel and wept, sitting there before the Lord; they fasted that day until evening. Then they offered burnt offerings and sacrifices of well-being before the Lord.”
Context: The Israelites lose 18,000 men in a battle to the Benjaminites.
Analysis: At an unknown point in history, fasting worked its way into Israelite culture. Since God had never commanded it up to this point in time, the Israelites must have adopted it from neighboring civilizations. Some will say that God commanded fasting on the Day of Atonement, but the instructions for that occasion in Leviticus 16 mention no such thing. The Israelites may have chosen to incorporate it into the Day of Atonement, but God never required them to.
In this example, the Israelites fasted out of mourning after suffering heavy loss of life in a battle. Mourning for the dead often included fasting in the ancient Near East. We no longer practice this bereavement ritual today. So we must be careful not to equate this fasting with religious fasting.
1 Samuel 7:6, “So they gathered at Mizpah, and drew water and poured it out before the Lord. They fasted that day, and said, ‘We have sinned against the Lord.’ And Samuel judged the people of Israel at Mizpah.”
Context: Samuel had told the Israelites to destroy their idols from foreign religions and they obeyed. They followed the act with this fast.
Analysis: Here we see the first Old Testament example of fasting as a form of penance. It appears to have been done as a demonstration of remorse or as a means of staving off God’s judgment.
We must ask ourselves, however, whether we need to fast to repent since Jesus’ sacrifice stave’s of God’s judgment for us. We know that we no longer need to make sacrifices to receive God’s forgiveness, so makes no sense to fast to receive His forgiveness. Some might argue that we should fast as a sign that we’re sorry, but one would have to think that the New Testament would mention such a requirement since it contains lots of passages explaining repentance and forgiveness.
1 Samuel 31:13, “Then they took their bones and buried them under the tamarisk tree in Jabesh, and fasted seven days.”
Context: These bones were those of King Saul, who had just been killed by the Philistines.
Analysis: The Israelites fasted not only when mourning the death of loved ones, but also when mourning the death of kings. Again, this is not a religious fast.
2 Samuel 12:22-23, “He [King David] said, ‘While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept; for I said, “Who knows? The Lord may be gracious to me, and the child may live.” But now he is dead, why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will not return to me.’”
Context: Through the prophet Nathan, God informed King David that the child born of David’s adulterous affair with Bathsheba would die. This was God’s discipline, not only for David’s adultery, but also for his murder of Bathsheba’s husband. As the child was sick and dying, David fasted in an attempt to change God’s mind.
Analysis: David gives us the first biblical explanation for fasting: to persuade God. Did it work? No. God administered His discipline of David according to plan, despite David’s attempts to change His mind.
David’s fasting resulted from his own thinking, not from the command of God. Some Christians say that we must follow David’s example and fast, because he was a hero of the Old Testament. But no Bible verses tell us to do that. They only tell us to obey God’s commands.
Nonetheless, from this passage we learn yet another inappropriate reason for fasting—attempting to persuade God to change His mind.
Ezra 8:21, 23, “Then I proclaimed a fast there, at the river Ahava, that we might deny ourselves before our God, to seek from Him a safe journey for ourselves, our children, and all our possessions… So we fasted and petitioned our God for this, and he listened to our entreaty.”
Context: The prophet Ezra prepares to lead people from Babylon back to Judah, once the Babylonian exile had come to an end.
Analysis: Ezra combines fasting with prayer to ask God for guidance and protection on a journey. Apparently, the Israelites had developed a belief that fasting made prayer more effective. In this case, the prayer was effective, but we have no way of determining whether or not the fasting was a factor in God’s decision to protect them.
Ezra 10:6, “Then Ezra withdrew from before the house of God, and went to the chamber of Jehohanan son of Eliashib, where he spent the night. He did not eat bread or drink water, for he was mourning over the faithlessness of the exiles.”
Context: God had repeatedly instructed the Jews not to marry people from other nations and religions, but many of them had disobeyed. Ezra was greatly upset by this.
Analysis: This verse informs us that mourning was the reason for this fast. It was not done as a religious ritual. Notice also that this fast, along with some other biblical fasts, includes abstinence from water, something that few Christians incorporate into their fasts today.
Nehemiah 1:4, “When I heard these words I sat down and wept, and mourned for days, fasting and praying before the God of heaven.”
Context: Nehemiah heard of Jerusalem’s destruction in the preceding verses.
Analysis: Once again, fasting is added to prayer as a means of increasing its effectiveness. Mourning may be a reason for the fast as well, since Nehemiah is greatly distressed by the news of his homeland’s destruction.
Nehemiah 9:1, “Now on the twenty-fourth day of this month the people of Israel were assembled with fasting and in sackcloth and with earth on their heads.”
Context: The Israelites spent a day listening to the reading of the Book of the Law, worshipping and confessing their sins before God.
Analysis: Some Christians insist that we fast because the ancient Israelites practiced it. But unlike the fasting practiced by today’s Christians, Old Testament fasting included the wearing of sackcloth and ashes (or in this case, dirt). If we fast because we believe that we are to behave as the ancient Israelites did, then we also should wear sackcloth and ashes like they did.
The purpose of the Israelites wearing of sackcloth and dirt was to inflict humiliation upon themselves. It, along with fasting, was an act of self-imposed suffering intended to appease God. Such self-imposed suffering through fasting and other acts has been common in many other religions as well.
Isaiah 58:3, “‘Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?’ Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers.”
Context: Isaiah prophecies against Judah. The questions asked here represent the complaints of the people. The final sentence is God’s response.
Analysis: In Isaiah 58, God speaks on the issue of fasting for the first time. He does not command it, as many Christians might expect. Rather, He questions it and downplays its importance. He implies in verse 3 that the Jews’ priorities are out of line. Their fasting fails to gain His favor, because they continue in selfishness and oppression of the poor as they fast.
Isaiah 58:5, “Is this a fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?”
Analysis: A paraphrase of this verse: “Did I tell you to fast and look pathetic? Why should I be pleased by your self-imposed suffering?” Just as God grew weary of His people’s animal sacrifices (even though He had commanded them in the Mosaic Law) as they continued in sin, He was unimpressed with their man-made sacrifice of humiliation and self-imposed suffering through fasting.
Isaiah 58:6-7, “Is this not the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and to bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”
Analysis: God is far more impressed when we love others than when we deny ourselves food. In the study on Greed and Oppression of the Poor, I reveal how far we fall short of satisfying God’s commands to feed the hungry and stop oppressing the poor. Since we fail in this way, should we even bother to fast? If God desires us to fast at all, He desires it far less than He desires that we obey His commandments and help those in need. The fasting that we Christians do today is likely nullified by our selfishness and disregard for the poor.
Joel 1:14, “Sanctify a fast, call a solemn assembly. Gather the elders and all the inhabitants of the land to the house of the Lord your God, and cry out to the Lord.”
Context: Joel prophecies impending judgment upon God’s people.
Analysis: Like Ezra and Nehemiah, Joel orders a fast. Some might say that these fasts were from God since prophets ordered them. But we must remember that prophets spoke of their own accord, too. Not every word they said was from God. Had the order to fast been preceded by the common Old Testament phrase, “Thus says the Lord,” then we’d have to conclude that they were God’s orders.
Joel 2:12, 15, “Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning… Blow a trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people.”
Analysis: Here we have God’s only instruction to fast in the Bible. This particular fast (as well as the one in Joel 1:14) was part of a “solemn assembly” in which the Jews gathered to mourn and fast over the suffering that was prophesied to come upon them. Therefore, this fast was an act of mourning rather than an element of worship. The purpose of most fasting in Protestant churches today is not as an act of mourning, and is, therefore, inconsistent with the purposes of Old Testament fasting.
Notice also that this fast appears to be an isolated event rather than a regular practice. God never instructs anyone to fast as a part of their religious routine.