My study of fasting in Scripture taught me two things: 1) If you want to fast as a religious ritual, do it from a heart that is expressing a genuine faith and sincere desire to know and love God; and 2) Don’t use fasting as a test to either reject your fellow believers and/or impress other people.
Fasting commanded in the Old Testament
The Jews were commanded to fast once per year on the Day of Atonement. The Day of Atonement is the only fast commanded anywhere in the Law.
26And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 27“Now on the tenth day of this seventh month is the Day of Atonement. It shall be for you a time of holy convocation, and you shall afflict yourselves and present a food offering to the LORD. 28And you shall not do any work on that very day, for it is a Day of Atonement, to make atonement for you before the LORD your God. 29For whoever is not afflicted on that very day shall be cut off from his people. 30And whoever does any work on that very day, that person I will destroy from among his people. 31You shall not do any work. It is a statute forever throughout your generations in all your dwelling places. 32It shall be to you a Sabbath of solemn rest, and you shall afflict yourselves. On the ninth day of the month beginning at evening, from evening to evening shall you keep your Sabbath.” – Leviticus 23:26-32
While the word “fasting” is not used in Leviticus 23, the phrase in Leviticus 23:27 “afflict yourself” (Strongs H6031a) or “humble yourself” is traditionally interpreted as fasting.
Some scholars think this term “afflict yourself” is entirely subjective and does not refer to any outward action. Rather, they argue, on this solemn day you shall humble your soul with an inner humility before God. If they are right, then there are no commands in the Old Testament for a religious fast.
But I think the traditional understanding that to “afflict yourself” means denying yourself food makes more sense in the context. First, in this passage two practices land you in trouble: working and not afflicting yourself. Working is clearly an outward observable action that another might notice. The context suggests this other act is also an outward practice that others could also observe if you fail to perform it.
Second, when Isaiah rebukes the people for the hypocritical way they seek God, he uses “fast” and this phrase “deny yourself” in parallel (Isaiah 58:5). God speaks of a fast and then speaks of it as a day for a people to deny or humble themselves (our word).
Finally, the Jews historically understood this term to mean fasting. We see an example of this in the New Testament. Paul is about to sail for Rome very late in the season. Luke describes that lateness as after “the Fast,” meaning the Day of Atonement (Act 27:9). The day of Atonement was so associated with fasting that they could just refer to it as the Fast.
The Day of Atonement involved ceremonial dress, washings, sacrifices and fasting. Performing these rituals was an expression of submission to God’s priorities and served as physical reminders for the people of Israel. The rituals and fasting expressed humility to God, while the hunger pains were a physical reminder of our need for His mercy.
Fasting observed in the Old Testament
While we have only one command for a religious fast, many stories in the Old Testament include fasting. In these stories an individual or group decides to fast in response to a specific situation.
In the Old Testament we see fasting as part of:
- individual repentance (2Samuel 12:13-23);
- community repentance (1Samuel 7:3-6);
- grief and mourning (2Samuel 1:12);
- calling on God for deliverance (Esther 4:3; Esther 4:15-16); and
- seeking guidance from God (Nehemiah 1:1-4)
Fasting acquires significance and meaning when practiced by a believing heart in conjunction with humility and repentance before God. Without such a heart, the practice is empty (Isaiah 58:1-9).
From the Old Testament, only one ritual of fasting was commanded on the Day of Atonement. It was meant to create a physical reminder of their dependence on God and need for His mercy.
Fasting was also voluntarily practiced by individuals and communities in association with repentance, prayer, mourning and seeking God. It was sometimes accompanied by other physical symbols like wearing sackcloth and ashes. It was both a physical expression of humility before God, and a physical reminder of that humility.
But fasting has no power in and of itself. When unrepentant people fasted before God, God was not pleased with their ritual nor was He obligated to answer them.
Putting this together with Matthew 6:1-18 and Matthew 9:14-17, we learn 2 points about fasting as a religious practice:
- If you’re going to practice a religious fast, do it from a genuine faith and a sincere desire to know God.
- Don’t use fasting as a test to reject your fellow believers and/or impress other people with your spiritual superiority.
Please listen to the podcast for more detail and explanation.
Verses that refer to fasting
fasting: Ezr 9:5; Neh 1:4; Neh 9:1; Est 4:3; Psa 35:13; Psa 69:10; Psa 109:24; Isa 58:4; Jer 36:6; Dan 6:18; Dan 9:3; Joe 2:12; Mat 4:2; Mat 6:16; Mat 6:18; Mar 2:18; Luk 2:37; Act 13:2; Act 13:3; Act 14:23.
fasted: Jdg 20:26; 1Sa 7:6; 1Sa 31:13; 2Sa 1:12; 2Sa 12:16; 2Sa 12:21; 2Sa 12:22; 1Ki 21:27; 1Ch 10:12; Ezr 8:23; Isa 58:3; Zec 7:5.
fast: 2Sa 12:23; 1Ki 21:9; 1Ki 21:12; 2Ch 20:3; Ezr 8:21; Est 4:16; Isa 58:3; Isa 58:4; Isa 58:5; Isa 58:6; Jer 14:12; Jer 36:9; Joe 1:14; Joe 2:15; Jon 3:5; Zec 8:19; Mat 6:16; Mat 6:17; Mat 9:14; Mat 9:15; Mar 2:18; Mar 2:19; Mar 2:20; Mar 10:7; Luk 5:33; Luk 5:34; Luk 5:35; Luk 18:12; Act 27:9.
NOTE: Many of these resources assume that some form of fasting is commanded, required and/or recommended.
A Hunger for God – Desiring God Through Fasting and Prayer Dr John Piper’s entire book (PDF)
Fasting That Is Pleasing To The Lord: A NT Theology Of Fasting – Sigurd Grindheim