[Updated: August 7th, 2020]
The purpose of this article is to give a better understanding of the topic of fasting. It is beyond the scope of this article to present an exhaustive study of the topic, but rather it will give the reader a better feel for the subject of fasting and why fasting might be helpful to believers today. Modern medical studies show there are also many health benefits in fasting, but it is not the purpose of this article to discuss those. Scriptures referenced in this article are taken from the Revised English Version of the Bible (available at RevisedEnglishVersion.com).
The Hebrew word translated “fast (also “fasted” and “fasting”) is from the root tsoom, and means “to cover over (the mouth),” or “to fast,” while the Greek words are nēsteuō (verb) or nēsteia (noun), and mean “to abstain from food” or “abstinence from food” (Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible). In both the Old and New Testaments, fasting was done for religious and personal reasons, and there are many different reasons a person might want to fast today. The primary reasons people in the Bible had for fasting were to be in obedience to God and to humble oneself in order to get God’s attention and help.
Fast Days in the Bible
God commanded His people to fast one day a year, on the Day of Atonement. Leviticus 16:29 and 31 command the observance of the Day of Atonement, and God told Israel that “you are to afflict your souls,” which is an idiomatic phrase applied to fasting. In fact, the Day of Atonement became so well known for fasting that by the time of the New Testament it was called “the Fast” (Acts 27:9).
Although the Law of Moses only mandated one fast day per year, fasting, like prayer, can help people in many different ways. That is why God sometimes told people to fast when they were in trouble. For example, the prophet Joel lived at a time when Israel desperately needed repentance and God’s help, and he said to the people: “Proclaim a holy fast! Call a solemn assembly! Gather the elders and all the inhabitants of the land to the house of Yahweh your God, and cry out to Yahweh!…‘Yet even now,’ says Yahweh, ‘turn to me with all your heart, and with fasting, and with weeping, and with mourning. Tear your hearts, and not your garments.’ Turn to Yahweh, your God…Who knows? He may turn and relent” (Joel 1:14; 2:12-14).
The beneficial value of fasting combined with people’s often overly-religious scruples and their tendency to multiply rules and regulations led to more days of fasting being added to the Jewish calendar and observed by many Jews. For example, Zechariah 7:3-5 shows that the Jews added fast days to their calendar to commemorate times of national calamity. They added a fast day in the fifth month to commemorate the burning of Solomon’s temple by Nebuchadnezzar (Jer. 52:12), and also one in the seventh month to commemorate the murder of the governor Gedaliah (2 Kings 25:23-25). By the time of Jesus, some people fasted quite often. The Pharisee in Jesus’ parable fasted twice a week, which was no doubt what some Pharisees actually did (Luke 18:12).
Jesus, however, demonstrated the voluntary nature of fasting by not fasting. This confused the disciples of John the Baptist, who came to Jesus with the question, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?” (Matt. 9:14). Jesus did not fast because his being on earth with his disciples was a time of rejoicing; the time for fasting would come later for his disciples (Matt. 9:15). That Jesus did not fast beyond what the Law of Moses required reminds us that while fasting can be helpful, it is not required by God.
God had reasons for commanding that people fast at least one day a year, and a couple of them were to teach them that they needed more than physical food to really live a full and prosperous life and that they needed to rely on Him. Deuteronomy 8:3 tells how God led Israel in the wilderness: “He humbled you and allowed you to be hungry, and fed you with manna…that he might make you understand that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes out of the mouth of Yahweh.”
From God’s perspective, fasting in obedience to Him teaches people that they do not need three meals a day every day to live; to really live a full life, people need the “bread” that comes from the mouth of God. That truth was expanded in the New Testament where we learn that not only must we live from the words that come from God (Matt. 4:4), but the “true bread” that we need to live forever on is Jesus Christ. Jesus said, “my Father gives you the true bread out of heaven…I am the bread of life.” (John 6:32, 35). The Day of Atonement was a fast day that God commanded to be observed so people had time to focus on the things of God, to reevaluate their lives, and to learn that the words from God’s mouth are the real food they need to live a godly life now, and an everlasting life as well.
Repentance, Obedience, and Fasting
God had His reasons to command fasting, and godly people see the value of fasting to give them time and energy to focus on the things of God, but there are other reasons to fast as well. A primary reason in Scripture was to receive God’s attention and help. In Isaiah 58, however, the people complained that though they fasted, God did not pay attention. They complained to God, “Why have we fasted, and you do not see? Why have we afflicted our soul, and you take no knowledge?” (Isa. 58:3). The people were fasting to attain God’s help and were upset when He did not notice their situation and help them, but He rebuked them and answered that they fasted to get their own way, not to seek His, and they fasted without humility or repentance. He said to them, “Behold, you fast only to quarrel and fight, and to strike with the fist of wickedness. You cannot fast as you do this day and make your voice heard on high” (Isa. 58:4).
So we see that in Isaiah’s time the people were not fasting to learn and do the will of God or to repent and obey God, they were fasting as a means of forcing their will upon God. Of course that will never work, but it teaches us what is perhaps one of the greatest lessons we can learn about fasting: God said that His fasts—meaning genuine fasts—were accompanied by true humility, repentance, and godly behavior. God said, “Is not this the kind of fast that I choose: to release the bonds of wickedness…Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and that you bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked person, that you cover him, and that you do not hide yourself from your own flesh?…Then you will call, and Yahweh will answer (Isa. 58:6-7, 9).
Sadly, sometimes the record in Isaiah 58:6-7 is used to show that God does not want people to abstain from food but instead just to do good works. As we can see from God’s command in Leviticus and the many examples of godly men and women who fasted and went without food, fasting can move God and have other beneficial effects. What Isaiah 58 shows us is that going without food while still being proud, arrogant, and disobedient to God is ineffective and will not move Him to help us in any way. In that light, fasting is like prayer; the offerings and prayers of evil people are mostly ignored by God (cp. Job 35:12-13, Prov. 21:27; 28:9; Isa. 1:11-15; 59:1-2; Jer. 14:12; Ezek. 8:17-18; Amos 5:21-22; Micah 3:4; Zech. 7:12-13; Mal. 1:10; 2:13; James 4:3).
True godly fasting was always done with humility and the idea that the fast was supposed to help with a godly purpose in alignment with the will of God.
Reasons for Fasts and Fasting
The examples in the Bible of true godly fasting show us many of the good reasons for it. Some of the common reasons are to receive God’s sustaining help in life for one’s self and for others, to get God’s help in times of threat or trouble or with something of great importance, and to show God that repentance and sorrow for sin are genuine and thus to implore Him for continued support. Fasting was also done to get help in healing, to demonstrate love and loss in times of mourning, and to show one’s sincerity when being penitent for sin. In the Bible, fasting was usually accompanied by prayer, often by weeping, and occasionally by offerings to God.
Interestingly, the first two times in the Bible that a person fasted were when Moses went up onto Mount Sinai to meet with God. The Book of Exodus records that Moses went up the Mount seven times, and he went without food or water for forty days on his fifth time up when he received the first set of the Ten Commandments (which he broke), and on his seventh time up when he received the second set (the first fast is recorded in Deut. 9:9; the second in Exod. 34:28). These were miraculous fasts because no one has the natural ability to go forty days without food or water, especially on a mountain in the desert, so Moses’ fasts were not fasts to be duplicated, but they do show us that communing with God at a very deep level and being free of food concerns in order to focus on God and His ways is a primary benefit to fasting.
A good example of fasting to receive God’s help in times of danger is the record of Jehoshaphat King of Judah, who was a godly king. During his reign, he was threatened with attack by a huge army that far outnumbered his, and he proclaimed a fast to appeal for God’s help. “It came to pass after this that the children of Moab and the children of Ammon, and with them some of the Meunites, came against Jehoshaphat to battle. Then some men came and told Jehoshaphat, saying, ‘A great multitude is coming against you from beyond the Dead Sea, from Edom. Behold, they are in Hazazon-tamar,’ (that is, En-gedi). And Jehoshaphat was afraid, and he set his face to seek Yahweh. He proclaimed a fast throughout all Judah” (2 Chron. 20:1-3). Jehoshaphat knew it was not the will of God that Judah be conquered by enemies, and he proclaimed a national fast to seek His help. God did intervene, and the enemy army was miraculously destroyed.
Another example of fasting to get God to intervene in a time of danger is in the Book of Esther. The evil man Haman arranged for the Jews in the Persian Empire to be killed off. Esther had the opportunity to go to the King of Persia and reverse the situation, but she had to risk her life to do it. In this time of personal and national danger, Esther used fasting as a way to prove to God her sincerity and the sincerity of her nation, and to implore God for help. She said to Mordecai, who had raised her, “Go, gather together all the Jews who are present in Susa, and fast for me, and do not eat or drink three days, night or day. I and my young women will also fast the same way. Then I will go in to the king, even though it is against the law, and if I perish, I perish” (Esther 4:16). The Bible never says whether or not Esther’s fasting tipped the scales in favor of the Jews, but both she and her nation were saved from that threat.
Still another example of fasting to receive God’s help in averting trouble was when Ezra was bringing Jews from the Babylonian Captivity back to Judah. The trip was dangerous, and Ezra was embarrassed to ask for an army escort because he had told the king of Persia that the hand of God would be with them. Ezra proclaimed a fast, so the people fasted and prayed for the journey, which went very well (Ezra 8:21-23).
Fasting was not just done by the Jews, it was practiced in many cultures. When the King of Assyria heard about the prophecy of Jonah and that Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, would be overthrown, he proclaimed a strict fast, saying, “Let neither man nor animal, herd nor flock, taste anything; let them not feed, nor drink water, but they must be covered with sackcloth, both man and animal, and let them cry out mightily to God. Yes, everyone must turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. Who knows? The god may turn and relent, and turn away from his fierce anger so that we will not perish?” (Jonah 3:7-9). In that situation, God did see the humility and change in the people of Assyria and He did not destroy the nation.
Fasting to receive help with personal requests was also common, and a good example of this was when David’s son who was conceived in his adultery with Bathsheba fell ill. David fasted, wept, and laid on the ground, praying and asking God for the child’s life, but it was to no avail and the child died (2 Sam. 12:15-23). The lesson we can learn from David’s experience is that fasting does not guarantee the desired results any more than prayer does. Sometimes bad things happen despite our prayers and any fasting we might do.
Another example of fasting in a personal situation involved the wicked King Ahab, who was married to the even more wicked Queen Jezebel. Because of Ahab’s sin, Elijah the prophet prophesied that Ahab was going to die, saying, “This is what Yahweh says: In the place where dogs licked the blood of Naboth, dogs will lick your blood, even yours…Behold, I will bring evil on you” (1 Kings 21:19. 21). As wicked as he was, Ahab recognized the seriousness of what Elijah said and so it “came to pass when Ahab heard those words that he tore his clothes, and put sackcloth on his flesh, and fasted and lay in sackcloth and went softly” (1 Kings 21:27). God saw Ahab’s actions and said to Elijah, “See how Ahab humbles himself before me? Because he humbles himself before me, I will not bring the evil in his days” (1 Kings 21:29). Ahab understood that his destiny would not change unless he changed, and his actions indicated that he intended to change, and indeed, the disaster Elijah spoke of did not happen to Ahab. A lesson we learn from Ahab’s life is that even when it seems most unlikely, if a person repents and humbles himself before God, things can indeed change.
It was generally recognized by ancient people, even those who worshipped pagan gods, that fasting could play a part in bringing a desired result or changing the future. Thus, when Daniel was thrown into the lion’s den, the pagan Persian King Darius “passed the night fasting” so Daniel would not be eaten by the lions (Dan. 6:18). It is unlikely that God saved Daniel because of Darius’ fasting, but the fact that the King of Persia fasted showed that he believed, and rightly so, that fasting sometimes played a part in bringing desired results.
Another reason people fasted was as a part of their repentance for sins. Fasting was a way that people demonstrated to God their sincerity and commitment to change. When Samuel was judging Israel, the people became convicted of their sin because they had been worshipping pagan gods and getting involved with pagan practices. Samuel said to them, “‘Gather all Israel to Mizpah and I will pray for you to Yahweh.’ So they gathered together to Mizpah and drew water and poured it out before Yahweh, and they fasted on that day and said there, ‘We have sinned against Yahweh.’ And Samuel judged the children of Israel in Mizpah” (1 Sam. 7:5-6).
Nehemiah fasted when he confessed the sins of the people of Israel and asked for God’s help in his mission to help the country (Neh. 1:4-9). Also, the people of Israel assembled in Jerusalem and fasted and confessed both their sins and the sins of their ancestors and asked for God’s support because they were under Persian domination (Neh. 9:1-2). Daniel also fasted and prayed a prayer of repentance for the sins of his people and sought God’s blessing on Israel and the Temple there, which had been destroyed (Dan. 9:3).
Fasting was also a way to show one’s love and respect for a person who died. For example, even though King Saul did some significantly evil things toward the end of his life, he had done many great things in his life also, and people honored him by fasting when he died. The fasting not only demonstrated the respect you had for the deceased, it was also a time to focus on the good the person did and consider changes that you might want to make in your own life. David and the men of his army mourned, wept, and fasted the day they heard Saul and Jonathan had been killed (2 Sam. 1:12), and the people of Jabesh-gilead—a town Saul saved—fasted seven days after they buried him and his sons (1 Sam. 31:13).
Fasting in the Christian Church
Although the Christian Church is not under the Mosaic Law and therefore not under the command to fast on the Jewish Day of Atonement, and although there is no instruction to fast in the Church Epistles, the Book of Acts shows us people saw the value of fasting. Acts 13:1-3 says that at Antioch in Syria there were prophets and teachers who were serving the Lord and fasting, and during that time they got the revelation, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul [Paul] for the work I have called them to do.” Then the group fasted and prayed, and Paul and Barnabas were sent off on their very first missionary journey. Toward the close of that missionary journey, Paul and Barnabas appointed elders in the churches and prayed and fasted with them and committed them to the Lord (Acts 14:21-23).
Along with those New Testament Bible records are the testimonies of Christians through the centuries that tell of the benefits of fasting. Some of the benefits of godly fasting that people have recorded include deeper intimacy with God, answers to prayers, more humility before God, gaining wisdom and understanding, getting authority over demonic strongholds, attaining personal victories, receiving God’s protection, and acquiring a more heavenly perspective on life.
Although normally fasting is taken to mean going without food, there are other ways to fast as well. In fact, this is likely foreshadowed in Leviticus 16:29 and 31, which say the Day of Atonement was a day to “afflict your souls.” Although the Jewish people have always understood “afflict your souls” to refer to not eating, it is interesting that the Bible could have used the word “fast” or explicitly said to go without eating, but it does not. There are many ways to “afflict your soul” to become closer to God. For example, the Christian Standard Bible translates the phrase as “practice self-denial.”
Realizing that God’s command meant something such as “practice self-denial” opens the door to countless variations on fasting even if the primary meaning is going without food as the Jews have believed for centuries. While a person could follow strict tradition and go without food, they could “fast” from other things as well. For example, a person could fast from alcohol or chocolate, or from playing video games, or from doing anything else that could in some way bring one closer to God and/or get His help. The idea of the fast is to be able to focus on God, to have time to evaluate oneself and make changes in one’s life, to work on deepening one’s relationship with God, and to pray for God’s help and His will to be done.
A critically significant point about fasting is that it is never for show. When people fast, it is between themselves and God. To fast for show or to appear religious to other people is arrogant and the opposite of what true godly fasting is about. At the time of Jesus, the religious leaders fasted to show how religious they were, and Jesus spoke about it in his Sermon on the Mount, saying, “Moreover, when you fast, do not be gloomy, like the hypocrites, for they make their faces unattractive so that their fasting is obvious to people. Truly I say to you, they have received their reward. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face so that your fasting will not be obvious to people, but only to your Father who is in secret. And your Father, who sees in secret, will repay you” (Matt. 6:16-18).
Jesus’ words are important. If you fast to been seen by others and they see you, you have gotten what you wanted and there is no further reward or benefit from God. If, on the other hand, you fast for godly reasons and your fast is between you and God, there can be great benefits and rewards.
In closing, the scriptures paint a colorful picture of genuine reasons to fast and the wonderful outcomes fasting can produce. And we are cautioned by the words of Isaiah and of Jesus to fast with openness and humility, seeking God’s help with an honest and pure heart.