In all ages, and among all nations, fasting has been practiced in times of sorrow, and affliction, Jon 3:5. It may be regarded as a dictate of nature, which under these circumstances refuses nourishment, and suspends the cravings of hunger. In the Bible no example is mentioned of fasting, properly so-called, before Moses. His forty days' fast, like that of Elijah and of our Lord, was miraculous, De 9:9; 1Ki 19:8; Mt 4:2. The Jews often had recourse to this practice, when they had occasion to humble themselves before God, to confess their sins and deprecate his displeasure, Jg 20:26; 1Sa 7:6; 2Sa 12:16; Ne 9:1; 1Ki 19:8; Jer 36:9. Especially in times of public calamity, they appointed extraordinary fasts, and made even the children at the breast fast, Joe 2:16; Da 10:2-3. They began the observance of their fasts, at sunset, and remained without eating until the same hour the next day. The great day of expiation was probably the only annual and national fast day among them.
It does not appear by his own practice or by his commands, that our Lord instituted any particular fast. On one occasion, he intimated that his disciples would fast after his death, Lu 5:34-35. Accordingly, the life of the apostles and first believers was a life of self-denials, sufferings, and fasting, 2Co 5:7; 11:27. Our Savior recognized the custom, and the apostles practiced it as occasion required, Mt 6:16-18; Ac 13:3; 1Co 7:5.
The word (tsum) never occurs in the Pentateuch. The Mosaic law, though directing minutely the foods to be eaten and to be shunned, never enjoins fasting. The false asceticism so common in the East was carefully avoided. On the yearly day of atonement, the 10th day of the 7th month, Israelites were directed to "afflict the soul" (Le 16:29-31; 23:27; Nu 30:13). This significant term implies that the essence of scriptural "fasting" lies in self humiliation and penitence, and that the precise mode of subduing the flesh to the spirit, and of expressing sorrow for sin, is left to the conscientious discretion of each person. In Ac 27:9 the yearly day of atonement is popularly designated "the fast."
But God, while not discountenancing outward acts of sorrow expressive of inward penitence, declares, "is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke? Is it not to deal the bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? when thou seest thy naked that thou cover him, and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh?" (Isa 58:4-7.) Compare similar warnings against mistaking outward fasting as meritorious before God: Mal 3:14; Mt 6:16.
The only other periodical fasts in the Old Testament were those connected with the capture of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar: the fast of the 4th month commemorated its capture (Jer 39:2; 52:6-7); that of the 5th month the burning of the temple and the chief houses (Jer 52:12-14); that of the 7th the murder of Gedaliah (Jer 41:1-3); that of the 10th the beginning of the siege (Zec 7:3-5; 8:19). Jer 52:4, "did ye at all fast unto ME, even to ME?" Nay, it was to gratify yourselves in hypocritical will worship. If it had been to Me, ye would have separated yourselves not merely from food but from your sins.
Once that the principle is acted on, "he that eateth eateth to the Lord, and he that eateth not, to the Lord he eateth not" (Ro 14:6), and "meat commendeth us not to God, for neither if we eat are we the better, neither if we eat not are we the worse" (1Co 8:8), fasting and eating are put in their true place, as means not ends. There are now 28 yearly fasts in the Jewish calendar. Daniel's (Da 10:3) mode of fasting was, "I ate no pleasant bread," i.e. "I ate unleavened bread, even the bread of affliction" (De 16:3), "neither came flesh nor wine in my mouth." In Mt 9:14 "fast" is explained by "mourn" in Mt 9:15, so that fasting was but an outward expression of mourning (Ps 69:10), not meritorious, nor sanctifying in itself.
A mark of the apostasy is "commanding to abstain from meats which God hath created to be received with thanksgiving" (1Ti 4:3). The "neglecting (not sparing) of the body," while seeming to deny self, really tends "to the satisfying of (satiating to repletion) the flesh." Ordinances of "will worship" gratify the flesh (self) while seeming to mortify it; for "self crowned with thorns in the cloister is as selfish as self crowned with ivy in the revel" (Col 2:18-23). Instances of special fasts of individuals and of the people in the Old Testament, either in mourning and humiliation or in prayer, occur in Jg 20:26; 1Sa 1:7; 20:34; 31:13; 2Sa 1:12; 12:21; 3:35; 1Ki 21:9-12; Ezr 8:21-23; 10:6; Es 4:16; Ne 1:4.
National fasts are alluded to in 1Sa 7:6 (wherein the drawing of water and pouring it out before Jehovah expressed their confession of powerlessness and utter prostration: Ps 22:14; 58:7; 2Sa 14:14); 2Ch 20:3; Jer 36:6-10; Ne 9:1; Joe 1:14; 2:15. In New Testament times the strict Jews fasted twice a week (Lu 18:12), namely, on the second and fifth days. While Christ is with His people either in body or in spirit, fasting is unseasonable, for joy alone can be where He is; but when His presence is withdrawn, sorrow comes to the believer and fasting is one mode of expressing his sorrowing after the Lord. This is Christ's teaching, Mt 9:15. As to the texts quoted for fasting as a mean of spiritual power, the Sinaiticus and Vaticanus manuscripts omit Mt 17:21; they omit also "and fasting," Mr 9:29. They and Alexandrinus manuscript omit "fasting and," 1Co 7:5. Evidently the growing tendency to asceticism in post apostolic times accounts for these interpolations.
The apostles "prayed with fasting" in ordaining elders (Ac 13:3; 14:23). But this continuance of the existing Jewish usage never divinely ordered does not make it obligatory on us, except in so far as we severally, by experience, find it conducive to prayer. Moses', Elijah's, and Christ's (the great Antitype) 40 days' foodlessness was exceptional and miraculous. Forty is significant of punishment for sin, confession, or affliction. Christ, the true Israel, denied Himself for 40 days, as Israel indulged the flesh 40 years. They tempted God that time; He overcame the tempter all the 40 days (Ge 7:4,12; Nu 14:33; 32:13-14; Ps 95:10; De 25:3; 2Co 11:24; Eze 29:11; 4:6; Jon 3:4).
1. In the OT.
FASTING has been practised in all ages, and among all nations, in times of mourning, sorrow, and affliction. We see no example of fasting, properly so called, before Moses. Since the time of Moses, examples of fasting have been very common among the Jews. Joshua and the elders of Israel remained prostrate before the ark from morning till evening, without eating, after Israel was defeated at Ai, Jos 7:6. The eleven tribes which fought against that of Benjamin, fell down on their faces before the ark, and so continued till evening without eating, Jg 20:26. David fasted while the first child he had by Bathsheba was sick, 2Sa 12:16. The Heathens sometimes fasted: the king of Nineveh, terrified by Jonah's preaching, ordered that not only men, but also beasts, should continue without eating or drinking; should be covered with sackcloth, and each after their manner should cry to the Lord, Jon 3:5-6. The Jews, in times of public calamity, appointed extraordinary fasts, and made even the children at the breast fast, Joe 2:16. Moses fasted forty days upon Mount Horeb, Ex 24:18. Elijah passed as many days without eating, 1Ki 19:8. Our Saviour fasted forty days and forty nights in the wilderness, Mt 4:2. These fasts were miraculous, and out of the common rules of nature.
2. Beside the solemn fast of expiation instituted by divine authority, the Jews appointed certain days of humiliation, called the fasts of the congregation. The calamities for which these were enjoined, were a siege, pestilence, diseases, famine, &c. They were observed on the second and fifth days of the week: they began at sunset, and continued till midnight of the following day. On these days they wore sackcloth next the skin, and rent their clothes; they sprinkled ashes on their heads, and neither washed their hands, nor anointed their heads with oil. The synagogues were filled with suppliants, whose prayers were long and mournful, and their countenances dejected with all the marks of sorrow and repentance.
3. As to the fasts observed by Christians, it does not appear by his own practice, or by his commands to his disciples, that our Lord instituted any particular fast. But when the Pharisees reproached him, that his disciples did not fast so often as theirs, or as John the Baptist's, he replied, "Can ye make the children of the bride-chamber fast while the bridegroom is with them? But the days will come when the bride-groom shall be taken away from them, and then shall they fast in those days," Lu 5:34-35. Fasting is also recommended by our Saviour in his sermon on the mount; not as a stated, but as an occasional, duty of Christians, for the purpose of humbling their minds under the afflicting hand of God; and he requires that this duty be performed in sincerity, and not for the sake of ostentation, Mt 6:16.
4. Although Christians, says Dr. Neander, did not by any means retire from the business of life, yet they were accustomed to devote many separate days entirely to examining their own hearts, and pouring them out before God, while they dedicated their life anew to him with uninterrupted prayers, in order that they might again return to their ordinary occupations with a renovated spirit of zeal and seriousness, and with renewed powers of sanctification. These days of holy devotion, days of prayer and penitence, which individual Christians appointed for themselves, according to their individual necessities, were often a kind of fast-days. In order that their sensual feelings might less distract and impede the occupation of their heart with its holy contemplations, they were accustomed on these days to limit their corporeal wants more than usual, or to fast entirely. In the consideration of this, we must not overlook the peculiar nature of that hot climate in which Christianity was first promulgated. That which was spared by their abstinence on these days was applied to the support of the poorer brethren.