Observations On Fasting

By Calvin Culver


For this topical study I adhered to the following procedure: first, using the New American Standard Concordance, I collected all references in the New American Standard Version of the Bible for the
words Fast (when used as a noun), Fasted, Fasting and Fasts. I have listed these references in the document below. I then combed these passages looking for two things: 1. The motivations for fasting (WHY it was done) and 2. Those activities and items which seemed to be involved (WHAT was done).

The following observations are based on the above procedures. Please keep in mind that they are only preliminary observations, based entirely on a reading of the passages in question and what knowledge I
have of the backgrounds of the texts (which is undoubtedly often inadequate). No attempt was made to do any detailed study of the cultural, linguistic, or political milieus, and such studies, were they to be done, might easily alter or invalidate my observations. With these reservations in mind, then, I humbly offer these my preliminary observations. All scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, New International Version, copyright 1978 by the New York International Bible Society.

I was motivated originally to begin this study by the WHY category of questions on fasting. Why do we fast? Why did Biblical figures fast? What did they hope to achieve? And so on. Many of these questions were motivated by a desire on my part to find a scriptural basis for what I had been taught regarding the practice of fasting, and to see what role (if any) it played in the lives of those we see in the Bible,
especially those of the New Testament.


Old Testament References:

Jdg 20:262 Sa 12:21-23
2 Ch 20:3 Est 4:3
Psa 109:24 Dan 6:18
Jon 3:5 1 Sa 7:6
1 Ki 21:9 Ezr 8:21
Est 4:16 Isa 58:3-6
Dan 9:3 Zec 7:5
1 Sa 31:13 1 Ki 21:12
Ezr 8:23 Est 9:31
Jer 14:12 Joe 1:14
Zec 8:19 2 Sa 1:12
1 Ki 21:27 Neh 1:4
Psa 35:13 Jer 36:6
Joe 2:12 2 Sa 12:16
1 Ch 10:12 Neh 9:1
Psa 69:10 Jer 36:9
Joe 2:15

As for the motivations for fasting, I find almost nothing in the references in the New Testament. The practice is mentioned a number of times, but almost always only in reference, without any indications of
the reasons behind it. The Old Testament, on the other hand, gives indication of a variety of motivations for fasting, among them such things as distress, repentance, mourning, grief and as an act of humility. For example, looking at the first reference, Judges 20:26, we see Israel, reeling from repeated defeat at the hands of the tribe of Benjamin, ‘weeping before the Lord. They fasted that day until evening and presented burnt offerings and fellowship offerings to the Lord.’ In 2nd Samuel 1:12, the men of Jabesh Gilead recover the body of Saul and burn it, then ‘They mourned and wept and fasted till evening for Saul and his son Jonathan, and for the army of the Lord and the house of Israel, because they had fallen by the sword.’ When the Jews in exile learn of the king’s edict that they be destroyed, we read that ‘In every province to which the edict and order of the king came, there was great mourning among the Jews, with fasting, weeping and wailing. Many lay on sackcloth and ashes'(Esther 4:16). And, when the king had thrown Daniel to the lions, we read, in Daniel 6:18, that he ‘returned to his palace and spent the night without eating and without any entertainment being brought to him.’ In these passages, we
see examples of fasting as an expression of grief or distress.

Again, we can see elements of repentance in the practice of fasting. For example, we read in 1st Kings 21:27-29 of Ahab when he hears the rebuke of Elijah: ‘When Ahab heard these words, he tore his clothes,
put on sackcloth and fasted. He lay in sackcloth and went around meekly.’ And in Nehemiah 9:1-3 we read of the rediscovery of the Law after the return from exile, and that ‘On the twenty-fourth day of the
same month, the Israelites gathered together, fasting and wearing sackcloth and having dust on their heads…. They stood in their places and confessed their sins and the wickedness of their fathers.’

Coupled with repentance is the concept of confession. This can be seen in the account of Israel’s reaction to the capture of the Ark of the Lord, which recounts that all Israel, distressed at the Ark’s loss,
‘assembled at Mizpah, [and] they drew water and poured it out before the Lord. On that day they fasted and there they confessed, “We have sinned against the Lord”‘ (1st Samuel 7:6). And, again, in the passage in Nehemiah 9:1-3, we see large implications of repentance.

And, often, fasting was a means of humbling oneself before the Lord. In 1st Kings 21:27-29, the Lord responds to Ahab’s fast by saying to Elijah ‘Have you noticed how Ahab has humbled himself before me?
Because he has humbled himself, I will not bring this disaster in his day, but I will bring it on his house in the days of his son.’ In Ezra 8:21, Ezra, detailing the return of the remnant from Exile, says that
‘by the Ahava Canal I proclaimed a fast, so that we might humble ourselves before our God and ask him for a safe journey for us and our children, with all our possessions.’

Finally, often fasting is connected with the presentation of a petition or request before God. We see this clearly in the passage from Ezra quoted above, and again in Psalm 35:13, where the psalmist declares about his enemies that ‘when they were ill, I put on sackcloth and humbled myself with fasting. When my prayers returned to me unanswered, I went about mourning as though for my friend or brother. I bowed my head in grief as though weeping for my mother.’

Thus, in the early Old Testament period at least, fasting was largely associated with times of extreme distress or mourning, or of special confession and repentance, or as an act of humility before God. This
seems to have remained the case at least through the time of the Babylonian Captivity, and even somewhat beyond.

With the coming of the prophets, however, this seems to have begun to change. It is in the words of Isaiah that one begins to see attempts at a redefinition of the practice. In Isaiah 58:1-7 God describes
Israel to Isaiah:

“Shout it aloud, do not hold back. Raise your voice like a trumpet. Declare to my people their rebellion and to the house of Jacob their sins. For day after day they seek me out; they seem eager to know my
ways, as if they were a nation that does what is right and has not forsaken the commands of its God. They ask me for just decisions and seem eager for God to come near them. ‘Why have we fasted,’ they say, ‘and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?’ Yet on that day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers. Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists. You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high. Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for a man to humble himself?
Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying on sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter– when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?”

Thus, fasting begins to lose some of the cultic overtones it seems to have acquired (that is, as a means of obtaining something from God– his attention, or his blessing or favor, or what have you), and begins
to take on something of the quality of an act of worship to God. Fasting becomes a part of the larger expression of the kingdom of God as it works itself out in shalom–the community of peace and of
justice which God is establishing on earth.


New Testament References:

Mat 4:2 Luk 2:37 Act 27:9
Mat 6:16-18 Luk 5:33-35
Mat 9:14,15 Luk 18:12
Mat 17:21 Act 13:2,3
Mar 2:18-20 Act 14:23

In the New Testament, we find very little data for determining the purposes of fasting. In Matthew 4:1,2 we have the record of Jesus’ 40 day fast in the wilderness, but there is nothing explicitly giving the
reasons for his fast. We might say he went out to pray before the inauguration of his ministry, but the text itself does not say this. Or we might say that he fasted, seeking the strength and the wisdom to
resist and defeat the enemy in the battle of temptation he knew was coming. But again, the text does not state this explicitly.

Again, in Matthew 6:16-18 we have Jesus’ instructions on how to conduct one’s fast; in secret, where only the Father will know. But, still, there is no indication as to WHY one should fast, only some
ground rules for HOW he should do it.

One of the more interesting of the New Testament passages on fasting is that found in Matthew 9:14-17, and echoed in Mark 2:18-22 and Luke 5:33-35. Here, the disciples of John ask Jesus why Jesus’ disciples do not fast. Jesus responds by saying that when he (the bridegroom) has been taken from them, then they will fast, but while the bridegroom is present, it doesn’t make sense to do so. He then, in all three
accounts, follows this up with the parables of the patch and the wineskins. In the context, these parables were obviously intended as explanation to the disciples of John, and they seem to hold the most promise for answering the question as to why we should fast. Unfortunately, I am really not certain as to what Jesus meant to convey by them.

The remainder of the New Testament references simply mention the practice, as for instance in the description of Anna the prophetess, who ministered daily in the Temple (Luke 2:37), or the Pharisee in the story of the Publican and the Sinner (Luke 18:12), who claims to have fasted twice a week. Each of these stories indicates that fasting had, by Jesus’ day, taken on a more ritualistic form, and was regarded as a badge of spirituality of some sort; something which the truly serious religious practiced regularly. In Anna’s case, it seems to have been a true expression of her love for God (though, again, the text doesn’t
say so explicitly) while the Pharisee seems to use it in a prideful manner, to appear religious; he sort of wears it on his sleeve.

The last two references of interest in the New Testament are found in Acts, in the 13th and 14th chapters. In Acts 13:2,3 we read of the commissioning of Paul and Barnabas for the ministry to which God had
called them: ‘While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” So after they had fasted and prayed, they
placed their hands on them and sent them off.’ And in Acts 14:23 we read that as Paul and Barnabas revisited the churches they had planted they ‘appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord in whom they had put their trust.’ Both of these passages connect fasting not only with prayer, but with some sort of dedication or consecration ceremony for Christian leaders as well.


It is not the intent of this study to draw conclusions about the practice of fasting, but simply to offer some preliminary observations based on a cursory reading of the pertinent passages. It is hoped the
reader will be stimulated to pursue further study for himself. I myself am yet unclear as to what the proper motivations for fasting are, however a few tentative conclusions may be drawn about other
facets of the practice.

First, it seems apparent that, as originally conceived in the early Old Testament period, fasting was something that was done under exceptional conditions of distress, of mourning, or of conviction and
confession. It was often accompanied by ritual offerings–burnt offerings, fellowship offerings, and drink offerings are explicitly mentioned–and by laying in or wearing of sackcloth and ashes. It was often accompanied as well by prayer, by confession and occasionally by reading the Word of God. And Jesus commanded that it was to be done in secret.

In the grand tradition of the prophets, Isaiah attempted, in the post- Exilic period, to redefine the practice, to divorce it from the cults with which it had become identified.

Finally, by the time of Christ, it would seem that Isaiah’s reform had been–at least in part–adopted by the faithful. It had certainly become an act of worship or service to God, rather than a means by which one obtained something from him, though even this had its abuses. And we can see in Luke’s account of the Acts of the Apostles that it was also used as a part of the ritual of consecration, accompanied by prayers of dedication.

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