Day 19 – Fasting
Effective Prayer Podcast, by Colin Dye
Now, we’re going to look at the topic of fasting. Some people are very slow to fast, but it is a Bible principle and a very powerful means by which we can minister to the Lord and see answers to prayer. In one of the earlier sessions I mentioned to you that prayer in the Bible is never alone. In other words, it must be mixed with something. It’s always prayer and faith, prayer and praise, prayer and thanksgiving, prayer and giving, prayer and fasting.
Fasting is one of the wonderful ways that we can combine with our praying a powerful, powerful entrance into God’s presence and a powerful release of His answers. Now in the Hebrew in the Old Testament there are two words which are used of fasting. One is tsuwm or tsowm. This means going without food and drink.
And there is another Hebrew phrase, anah napso, which also refers to fasting, but it means to afflict the soul or to humble yourself, and I’ll give you some of those references because it’s a telling part of the Scripture which really does show you how important fasting is. and Leviticus 16:29 it says, “This shall be a statute forever for you: In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall afflict your souls, and do no work at all,” and then the verse goes on. That phrase, “you shall afflict your souls” is the phrase that describes fasting. It means “afflict your souls” or “humble yourself with fasting.”
And we see again in Leviticus 23:27, “Also the tenth day of this seventh month shall be the Day of Atonement. It shall be a holy convocation for you; you shall afflict your souls.” So here we have a very expressive description from the Old Testament Hebrew on fasting.
The New Testament word is nesteuo, which means, literally, “not to eat,” but is always translated as “fast” in the New Testament. And we have, time and time again, examples of fasting in the life of the Lord Jesus Christ, in the life of John’s disciples, in the life of the early church, so we see fasting really does have a place.
Now I want to do a quick survey of the Old Testament to show you fasting in the Old Testament, following my usual pattern of laying a foundation from the Old Testament so that you can build on that out of your own experience through the New Testament revelation.
Now it’s interesting to notice that under the New Testament law there was originally only one prescribed fast; only one fast in the year, one compulsory fast, and that is the Day of Atonement, and we read about this in Leviticus chapter 16. But we also see from Zechariah chapter 8:19 that after the Jews returned from exile there were four other fasts that were introduced to the life of Israel in a kind of compulsory way.
So Zechariah 8:19,
Thus says the LORD of hosts: The fast of the fourth month, the fast of the fifth, the fast of the seventh, and the fast of the tenth, shall be joy and gladness and cheerful feasts for the house of Judah. Therefore love truth and peace.”
So in other words, God is saying here that while the fasting is a very somber thing, nevertheless it leads to joy and the blessing of God is in it.
Now sometimes in the Scriptures fasts were individual fasts—just like the fast that David entered when he heard the news that his son born to Bathsheba was dying. We’ll come back to that a little later on. But other times they were corporate fasts. For example, in Judges 20:26 it says, “Then all the children of Israel, that is, all the people, went up and came to the house of God and wept. They sat there before the Lord and fasted that day until evening; and they offered burnt offerings and peace offerings before the Lord.”
And again 1 Samuel 7:6, “So they gathered together at Mizpah, drew water, and poured it out before the Lord. And they fasted that day, and said there, ‘We have sinned against the Lord.’ And Samuel judged the children of Israel at Mizpah.”
So we find that fasting can be both an individual and a corporate experience, and especially where the need is corporate, as in those references, we find the people of God came together to deal with some great issue that was confronting them as people.
Now in the Old Testament we find that when fasting and prayer are combined that they mean something very significant. Together, together fasting and prayer can be an expression of grief. For example, here we have in Nehemiah 1:4, “So it was, when I heard these words, that I sat down and wept, and mourned for many days; I was fasting and praying before the God of heaven.”
So we have here a situation where people are grieving because of some difficulty and Nehemiah is hearing the news of what’s happening in Jerusalem, how the walls are broken down and the gates are burnt with fire and he mourns. He is expressing his grief. And in doing that, he prays to the Lord and it’s a powerful experience.
First Samuel 31:13, here we have the…after the death of Saul and his sons we have the people there grieving, and it says, “Then they took their bones and buried them under the tamarisk tree at Jabesh, and fasted seven days.” So the men of Jabesh were grieving when they heard that the body of Saul and his sons had been taken away, and they managed to get those bodies and give them a decent burial, but as they did that, they prayed and fasted—they fasted out of grief. Fasting expresses grief.
Also in the Old Testament we see that when people fasted it was often an expression of their penitence. It came out of repentance. Notice I did not say “penance,” which is somehow paying the price of your sin and doing something so that God will turn His wrath away from you, as if what you did was an effective way of dealing with your sin and removing your sin. No, there is only one way to remove you sin; that’s the blood of Jesus. No, this is not penance, but penitence.
In other words, when you feel so deeply that you have offended God, it’s a bit similar to grieving. You go and mourn for your sin and you express penitence as a result. That passage in 1 Samuel 7:6 was a typical passage. I’ll read it again, “So they gathered together at Mizpah, drew water, and poured it out before the Lord. And they fasted that day, and said there, ‘We have sinned against the Lord.’ And Samuel judged the children of Israel at Mizpah.”
We also see, as I already mentioned, that fasting expresses humility. You will humble yourself by fasting. Ezra 8:21, “Then I proclaimed a fast there at the river of Ahava, that we might humble ourselves before our God, to seek from Him the right way for us and our little ones and all our possessions.” Do you see that? “That we might humble ourselves before our God.” Fasting is one of the ways in which you humble yourself.
You’ve got to understand this: God never says He will humble us; always He commands us to humble ourselves. So when God says “humble yourself,” one of the ways in which you do it is with fasting. Humble yourself by fasting. When you humble yourself you get down low before the Lord and a spirit of brokenness comes over you, arrogance goes out, pride goes out.
That wonderful passage which we’ll come to in the Book of James that says, “God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble,” and he speaks of humbling yourself and weeping and mourning, and there is not better way of expressing that as the Spirit leads you than through fasting.
We also see that…well, let me just have a look at another verse on this. I like this verse. Psalm 69:10, “When I wept and chastened my soul with fasting, that became my reproach.” When I wept and chastened my soul with fasting. So it’s a very powerful means by which we can approach God.
Then fasting we find also in the Old Testament was a way in which people pleaded for help and for guidance. Moses fasted for forty days when he was on the top of the mountain. He fasted again for another forty days after they broke, he broke the Ten Commandments, literally the tablets. When the people built an idol and worshiped an idol, Moses fasted again.
In 2 Samuel 2:16 and onwards we have that time when David’s son is sick and dying, the son born to him and Bathsheba, and he’s fasting, he’s trying to ask God to do something. Of course God doesn’t answer him in the way he intends, to show us that fasting is not merely some way of twisting God’s arm and persuading Him against His will. It doesn’t work that way.
Another reference, 2 Chronicles 20:3, “And Jehoshaphat feared, and set himself to seek the Lord, and proclaimed a fast throughout all Judah.” That’s what it means to seek the Lord. You are wanting help from Him, you are wanting guidance from Him, and so by fasting you are expressing your dependence upon the Lord in a very real way, and in such a way as to say to Him, “Lord, I need You.” We also know that fasting could be not just on your own behalf, but on behalf of others as well.
Now we need to look at some of the dangers of fasting, and the prophets acknowledge this quite readily, because they saw that the people of God began to use fasting as a kind of spiritual technique. In other words, we afflict ourselves for a day and that means the rest of the day we can just go out and do our own thing. that’s the danger of every religious exercise, whether it’s praying, reading the Bible, or worshiping God in company or whatever else it is, fasting included, giving offerings. These things are highly dangerous. Every outward act, as you worship God, is highly dangerous. People might be lifting their hands and looking good, but really they are not into it at all. It’s an outward act. They are just putting on a show.
Jesus, as we shall see, deals with this in a very, very real way. But the prophets pick it out very, very powerfully in two passages. Isaiah 58:5-12, a very powerful passage, “Is it a fast that I have chosen, a day for a man to afflict his soul? Is it to bow down his head like a bulrush, and to spread out sackcloth and ashes? Would you call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the Lord?”
In other words, He says, “You’re doing your own pleasure; you’re living as you want. Do you think that just by fasting one day you can impress Me?” Not at all.
Jeremiah 14:11-12, another similar passage, “Then the Lord said to me, ‘Do not pray for this people, for their good. When they fast, I will not hear their cry; and when they offer burnt offering and grain offering, I will not accept them. But I will consume them by the sword, by the famine, and by the pestilence.’” Why? They weren’t living right. Fasting is no substitute for a holy and a godly life. So many people will get engaged in religious exercises and fast religiously, ritualistically, but their hearts are far from God.
I put it this way: Fasting is not a kind of hunger strike in which you can get your own way and get what you want out of God. Fasting for the wrong reasons is an abomination to the Lord, but when you fast for the right reasons, in the Spirit, it’s powerful.
Back to 2 Chronicles 20:3, here we have in that same passage the marvelous response of fasting, and it says, “And Jehoshaphat feared, and set himself to seek the Lord, and proclaimed a fast throughout all Judah.” Can you see his motives were right? He feared because there was the danger. There was the danger from the Amalekites, and God wanted something to happen. Jehoshaphat was fearing God, fearing the situation; he was moved, and he set himself to seek the Lord, and so he proclaimed a fast.
But I want you also to notice that fasting, in this context, was not just some answer in the same way you would also talk about praise. You see, it says when they began to praise the Lord sent ambushes against the enemy, and so you just have to praise God and the enemy is destroyed. A whole lot went on before they praised God like that. First of all, they prayed and fasted. The voice of the prophet came forward to tell them what they should do, “You will not have to fight in this battle.” They received guidance from the Lord, a word from the Lord, they repented of their sins and they obeyed the word of the Lord and then they praised.
So you see it was a five-fold process. So part of that was fasting, but fasting in the right motive. There is no technique here, but there is a powerful way if you respond to the Holy Spirit in fasting; a powerful way of seeing something happen. And we know what happened. The Lord did send ambushes and there was a tremendous victory. They didn’t have to fight at all in the battle. They just praised God because of the victory.
Now we see in Jonah 3:5 when the Lord proclaimed through Jonah that there was to be a destruction in the city, that God was going to destroy the city in forty days. They proclaimed a fast. Jonah 3:5, “So the people of Nineveh believed God, proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest to the least of them.” Even the cattle fasted. They meant business with God. But you see they believed the word of the Lord, and their fasting came out of what God was doing in their lives. They responded to the word of the Lord, and in that, they realized they were under His judgment, so they humbled themselves before the Lord, they fasted and they repented, and God relented. So we know that fasting can be a very powerful means of being heard by God.
But lets go now to that passage I was talking about, 2 Samuel 12, where we see David fasting, but he doesn’t get the answer, not that he’s looking for. Second Samuel 12:15, you know God has pronounced judgment through Nathan over David, and the prophet departs to his house, it says verse 15,
And then Nathan departed to his house, and the Lord struck the child that Uriah’s wife bore to David and it became ill. David therefore pleaded with God for the child, and David fasted and went in and lay all night on the ground. So the elders of his house arose and went to him, to raise him up from the ground. But he would not, nor did he eat food with them. Then on the seventh day it came to pass that the child died. And the servants of David were afraid to tell him that the child was dead. For they said, “Indeed, while the child was alive, we spoke to him, and he would not heed our voice. How can we tell him that the child is dead? He may do some harm!”
And then of course David replies and he gets washed and gets dressed and he said, “well, I knew when the child was alive God might have listened to me, but now I know that I am not…the child will not come to me. I will go to be with the child. I will only meet this child in death.” So David acknowledged that he wasn’t able to twist God’s arm and to make God change His mind, because fasting is not a spiritual device, a leverage you have on God, “I’m going to go on a hunger strike, god, until you give me what I want.” That’s not what fasting is all about. that’s not what effective prayer is all about either.
Now we come on to fasting in the New Testament, and I must tell you and announce to you that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ has changed everything. We are no longer under the Old Testament law. The Day of Atonement has been fulfilled. We don’t have any legalistic or prescribed fasts that are binding upon the Christian conscience. We are free from all forms of legalistic and ritualistic fasting. Amen? We are those who rejoice in the presence of God.
Colossians chapter 2 makes it clear. We’ll come to that passage and I’ll come back to it a bit later on, but it makes it clear that any fasting today which is done for legalistic actions—in other words, that we are somehow being righteous by fasting or our righteousness increases by fasting, any fasting that is done for ritualistic reasons or ceremonial purposes are now unnecessary and in fact are a total offense to God.
Religious fasting is out. That was only prescribed in the Old Testament on a very few occasions. Of course, God called the people to fast on many occasions in a voluntary way, but the Law only prescribed fasting in a very minimal way. But when the people began to love fasting it was because they thought they could do as they liked, as long as they kept their religious duties like fasting here and now and there and again and in fact they loved it and they loved bringing their sacrifices. And Isaiah said, “What’s the purpose of bringing the multitude of your sacrifices? I’m full of them; fed up with the fat of fed beasts,” God said. “Don’t do that. It’s an offense to me.” Because they were fasting and feasting and offering sacrifices religiously.
Now this doesn’t mean that we don’t have to fast of that God doesn’t call us to fast. In fact, when we see Jesus teaching, we see that Jesus expected His followers to fast. In Matthew 6:16-18, Jesus says, “When you fast, do not be like the hypocrites with a sad countenance, for they disfigure their faces that they may appear to me to be fasting.” They put on a kind of holy pained look. I want to kind of give you an expression here so that you can see what I’m talking about here—a holy pained look, “Can you see how holy I am? I have been fasting. Excuse me, that’s my tummy rumbling. I am so holy that I am fasting today. Yes, I’m fasting for the state of your soul. Yes.” That’s hypocrisy. You are showing off. Jesus said, “Assuredly I say to you, they have their reward.”
But He did say, “When you fast.” Now we have to put this into context. Some people would say Jesus is teaching here in the Sermon on the Mount in the interim period between Jesus’ life on this earth and the resurrection and coming of the Holy Spirit. And at that time it was good, Jewish custom to fast twice a week, to fast on Tuesdays and Thursdays. But actually Jesus condemns that kind of fasting as arrogance, “I fast twice a week.”
And incidentally there is a Second-Century Christian document after the New Testament times call The Didache, which was a bringing together of Christian teaching, it’s quite interesting and helpful some of the things they say, but they actually say, “When Jesus says ‘Do not fast like the hypocrites fast,’ they thought, well who are the hypocrites? Well, those are the Scribes and the Pharisees. How do they fast? They fast twice a week. When do they fast? They fast Tuesdays and Thursdays. Well, we won’t be like them. We won’t fast Tuesdays and Thursdays; we’ll fast Wednesdays and Fridays.”
That’s how it was. And so we see legalism entered here. Now I understand that Jesus is speaking to an essentially Jewish context. The whole of the Sermon on the Mount is spoken in a Jewish context. It talks about the temple, it talks about offerings, it talks about sacrifices, it talks about tithing, it talks about fasting in that context. So Jesus is teaching them, at that time, how to honor God in their present situation. But I’ll come back to that point and we will see the early church way outside of that situation—the gentile church, everybody learned the discipline of fasting as the Holy Spirit led them. That’s what’s important.
So Jesus says, “When you fast.” In other words, He expected His followers to fast. And gain in Luke 5:35 we have the disciples of John the Baptist and people coming and saying, “Why don’t you teach Your disciples to fast like John taught his disciples to fast?” which suggests that Jesus did not emphasize and push fasting a great deal amongst His disciples. I am not suggesting that they never did fast, but somehow John, being far more rigorous in his approach, perhaps was very strong on this topic.
Here is Jesus’ reply; a very interesting reply. He said, “How can the people fast while the bridegroom is there. When the bridegroom is present, it’s a time for feasting. But in Luke 5:35 it says, “But the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them; then they will fast in those days.” Now that suggests to me that in the time immediately after the death and crucifixion of Jesus was a time of mourning, and that was a time to fast. But even beyond then, Jesus is absent now, and we will fast in those days. Why? Because Jesus has left us? Because we are miserable and we are without comfort and mourning? No, we have the Holy Spirit who is the Comforter. We fast when Jesus is gone because He sends His Spirit and tells us when to fast.
We must also remember that Jesus Himself fasted, and He began His ministry with a very powerful fast. And so we surely are called to fast, but not as a legalistic requirement; as the Holy Spirit leads us and as occasion demands it.