Fasting is something that most people are aware of. In fact, many will associate it with other religions, and perhaps not at all with the Christian Faith – the question of should we fast not being discussed in many Churches.
We break our fast each morning that we eat breakfast. However, when we consider fasting in the scriptures the period is not just overnight. It is also not for weight loss, which is the most common intention of fasting in modern society.
Let’s look at what scripture has to say on the topic of fasting.
What does Scripture say?
 When I went up the mountain to receive the tablets of stone, the tablets of the covenant that the LORD made with you, I remained on the mountain forty days and forty nights. I neither ate bread nor drank water.
(Deuteronomy 9:9 ESV)
Moses describes that he did not eat, or drink, when he waited on the mountain to receive the tablets of the covenant from God.
→ This passage is not an instruction to us, but does show that Moses fasted, alone, before he went to meet God.
 David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the LORD.” And Nathan said to David, “The LORD also has put away your sin; you shall not die.  Nevertheless, because by this deed you have utterly scorned the LORD, the child who is born to you shall die.”  Then Nathan went to his house.
David’s Child Dies
And the LORD afflicted the child that Uriah’s wife bore to David, and he became sick.  David therefore sought God on behalf of the child. And David fasted and went in and lay all night on the ground.  And the elders of his house stood beside him, to raise him from the ground, but he would not, nor did he eat food with them.  On the seventh day the child died. And the servants of David were afraid to tell him that the child was dead, for they said, “Behold, while the child was yet alive, we spoke to him, and he did not listen to us. How then can we say to him the child is dead? He may do himself some harm.”
(2 Samuel 12:13-18 ESV)
In this passage David fasts as an appeal to God. David has sinned, he has scorned the Lord, and the result of this is that his child shall die. David’s fast is in the hope that God will change his judgement.
→ Although David is not entirely alone when he fasted (his servants are nearby, as is his dying son), his actions are alone and are a sole appeal to the Lord. In effect, David’s fast is a sign of repentance for his prior actions, and acknowledgement of his wrongdoing.
Fasting and Prayer for Protection
 Then I proclaimed a fast there, at the river Ahava, that we might humble ourselves before our God, to seek from him a safe journey for ourselves, our children, and all our goods.  For I was ashamed to ask the king for a band of soldiers and horsemen to protect us against the enemy on our way, since we had told the king, “The hand of our God is for good on all who seek him, and the power of his wrath is against all who forsake him.”  So we fasted and implored our God for this, and he listened to our entreaty.
(Ezra 8:21-23 ESV)
Ezra calls for a fast in keeping with the spirit of penitence at that time.
→ This was clearly a group action, couple with a group prayer to entreaty God to their cause.
True and False Fasting
 “Cry aloud; do not hold back;
lift up your voice like a trumpet;
declare to my people their transgression,
to the house of Jacob their sins.
 Yet they seek me daily
and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that did righteousness
and did not forsake the judgment of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgments;
they delight to draw near to God.
 ‘Why have we fasted, and you see it not?
Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?’
Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure,
and oppress all your workers.
 Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to hit with a wicked fist.
Fasting like yours this day
will not make your voice to be heard on high.
 Is such the fast that I choose,
a day for a person to humble himself?
Is it to bow down his head like a reed,
and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him?
Will you call this a fast,
and a day acceptable to the LORD?
 “Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of wickedness,
to undo the straps of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover him,
and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
 Then shall your light break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up speedily;
your righteousness shall go before you;
the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.
 Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer;
you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’
If you take away the yoke from your midst,
the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness,
 if you pour yourself out for the hungry
and satisfy the desire of the afflicted,
then shall your light rise in the darkness
and your gloom be as the noonday.
 And the LORD will guide you continually
and satisfy your desire in scorched places
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters do not fail.
 And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to dwell in.
 “If you turn back your foot from the Sabbath,
from doing your pleasure on my holy day,
and call the Sabbath a delight
and the holy day of the LORD honorable;
if you honor it, not going your own ways,
or seeking your own pleasure, or talking idly;
 then you shall take delight in the LORD,
and I will make you ride on the heights of the earth;
I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father,
for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”
(Isaiah 58 ESV)
In this passage we learn of true and false fasting. This is describing ritual vs. responsibility. In the early part of this passage we see that the people fast and claim that God sees it not. They fast, proclaim righteousness, yet do not see their own transgressions against their people.
In verses 8 and 9 God promises to meet true fasting with true blessing.
→ The passage does not provide instructions on how to fast or who with, but on how we are to approach fasting – what our attitude towards it should be.
 Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s journey. And he called out, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”
 And the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them.
The People of Nineveh Repent
 The word reached the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes.  And he issued a proclamation and published through Nineveh, “By the decree of the king and his nobles: Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything. Let them not feed or drink water,  but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and let them call out mightily to God. Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands.  Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.”
 When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it.
(Jonah 3:4-10 ESV)
In this passage we see that the entire people of Nineveh repented and fasted as an appeal to God. Not only did they repent and fast, they wore sackcloth, which was a traditional sign of mourning.
→ This is again a group repentance and fasting, to address a specific situation which the people faced in Nineveh. There is no indication that they met as a group to fast, but it is clear that all the people performed the action.
Daniel’s Terrifying Vision of a Man
 In the third year of Cyrus king of Persia a word was revealed to Daniel, who was named Belteshazzar. And the word was true, and it was a great conflict. And he understood the word and had understanding of the vision.
 In those days I, Daniel, was mourning for three weeks.  I ate no delicacies, no meat or wine entered my mouth, nor did I anoint myself at all, for the full three weeks.  On the twenty-fourth day of the first month, as I was standing on the bank of the great river (that is, the Tigris)  I lifted up my eyes and looked, and behold, a man clothed in linen, with a belt of fine gold from Uphaz around his waist.  His body was like beryl, his face like the appearance of lightning, his eyes like flaming torches, his arms and legs like the gleam of burnished bronze, and the sound of his words like the sound of a multitude.  And I, Daniel, alone saw the vision, for the men who were with me did not see the vision, but a great trembling fell upon them, and they fled to hide themselves.  So I was left alone and saw this great vision, and no strength was left in me. My radiant appearance was fearfully changed, and I retained no strength.  Then I heard the sound of his words, and as I heard the sound of his words, I fell on my face in deep sleep with my face to the ground.
 And behold, a hand touched me and set me trembling on my hands and knees.  And he said to me, “O Daniel, man greatly loved, understand the words that I speak to you, and stand upright, for now I have been sent to you.” And when he had spoken this word to me, I stood up trembling.  Then he said to me, “Fear not, Daniel, for from the first day that you set your heart to understand and humbled yourself before your God, your words have been heard, and I have come because of your words.  The prince of the kingdom of Persia withstood me twenty-one days, but Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me, for I was left there with the kings of Persia,  and came to make you understand what is to happen to your people in the latter days. For the vision is for days yet to come.”
 When he had spoken to me according to these words, I turned my face toward the ground and was mute.  And behold, one in the likeness of the children of man touched my lips. Then I opened my mouth and spoke. I said to him who stood before me, “O my lord, by reason of the vision pains have come upon me, and I retain no strength.  How can my lord’s servant talk with my lord? For now no strength remains in me, and no breath is left in me.”
 Again one having the appearance of a man touched me and strengthened me.  And he said, “O man greatly loved, fear not, peace be with you; be strong and of good courage.” And as he spoke to me, I was strengthened and said, “Let my lord speak, for you have strengthened me.”  Then he said, “Do you know why I have come to you? But now I will return to fight against the prince of Persia; and when I go out, behold, the prince of Greece will come.  But I will tell you what is inscribed in the book of truth: there is none who contends by my side against these except Michael, your prince.
(Daniel 10:1-21 ESV)
People refer to the “Daniel fast” because of the description of what Daniel did and the results of his fast. His fast was primarily a fast of mourning, and one of communication with God.
→ Although specific instructions on how to fast are not given, we can see that Daniel ate simple foods for 3 weeks, after which time an Angel appeared before him. The fast was a lone fast, and not a complete abstinence from food.
 “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.  But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face,  that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
(Matthew 6:16-18 ESV)
This passage provides Jesus’ clear and direct instructions. In OT times people did not wash their face and sprinkled it wish ashes, to publicise their act of atonement (this is the “disfigure their faces” referred to).
In addition to abstaining from food, people were to humble themselves by praying, mourning, and wearing sackcloth. As with giving (Matt. 6:2–4) and praying (vv. 5–15), fasting is to be a matter of the heart between the Christian and God.
From the phrase “when you fast” Jesus assumes that his disciples will fast.
The phrase “their reward” refers to the sad irony that they receive their reward of public and professional acclaim, but that was all the reward they would ever receive. This fleeting human adulation precludes satisfaction of the deep longing of people’s hearts to stand approved by their Father who sees in secret.
→ Jesus instruction is to fast alone and in secret. He refers to the hypocrites who aim to be seen – “they have received their reward” is not an indication that they will be blessed! Fasting is a matter between you and your Lord, and a matter of right attitude and of the heart. This passage tells us it would be better not to fast than to go into it with the wrong attitude.
A Question About Fasting
 Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?”  And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.  No one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch tears away from the garment, and a worse tear is made.  Neither is new wine put into old wineskins. If it is, the skins burst and the wine is spilled and the skins are destroyed. But new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.”
 Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting. And people came and said to him, “Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” 19 And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. 20 The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day. 21 No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. If he does, the patch tears away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made. 22 And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the wine will burst the skins—and the wine is destroyed, and so are the skins. But new wine is for fresh wineskins.”
(Matthew 9:14-22 ESV)
Matt. 9:15 The bridegroom in the OT was “Yahweh” (cf. Isa. 62:5; Hos. 2:19–20). The arrival of the kingdom of heaven, through Christ, is cause for a time of rejoicing – and as the comparison is drawn in the passage, similar to the rejoicing experienced during marriage ceremonies (cf. Matt. 25:10).
Matt. 9:16–17 “unshrunk cloth on an old garment”. Rather than patching up the traditional practices of righteousness within religious Judaism, Jesus has come to offer real growth in kingdom righteousness, which is like when new wine is put into fresh wineskins.
→ Jesus instruction here indicates that fasting is a part of the New Covenant with his people – Christians. While Jesus is present with his disciples, they are to rejoice; when he is taken away from them … then they will fast. They will return to the practice of fasting to seek the presence of God / the Holy Spirit, but they need not do that when Jesus, the Son of God (see Mark 1:1; 15:39), is with them. “Taken away” (in verse 20) is an indirect prediction of Jesus’ death (see Isa. 53:8).
 And there was a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years, having lived with her husband seven years from when she was a virgin,  and then as a widow until she was eighty-four. She did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day.  And coming up at that very hour she began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem.
(Luke 2:36-38 ESV)
In this account, we see that a prophetess, Anna, worshipped and gave thanks in the temple – day and night. She did this after the death of her husband.
→ This was, again, a personal fast that she performed in the temple. Although not entirely in private it was her personal vigil and not a public proclamation.
The Pharisee and the Tax Collector
 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt:  “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.  The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’  But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’  I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
(Luke 18:9-14 ESV)
In this parable, we again see the theme of self-righteousness and boasting acting as a barrier to salvation.
→ If our actions are for our exaltation, or to boast and impress others, then we will not be justified before God. Only those who humble themselves before God will be justified.
Barnabas and Saul Sent Off
 Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a lifelong friend of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul.  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.”  Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.
(Acts 13:1-3 ESV)
In this passage, they were worshipping the Lord and fasting. Although, there is no direct evidence of a “corporate fast” they were clearly fasting at the same time. We again see that fasting is related to the receipt of instructions from the Holy Spirit.
→ Fasting will support the practice of worship and prayer, and for the receipt of the Holy Spirit.
Paul Stoned at Lystra
 But Jews came from Antioch and Iconium, and having persuaded the crowds, they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing that he was dead.  But when the disciples gathered about him, he rose up and entered the city, and on the next day he went on with Barnabas to Derbe.  When they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch,  strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.  And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed.
(Acts 14:19-23 ESV)
When appointing elders the churches committed them to the Lord through prayer and fasting. This again indicates that fasting was an important part of becoming closer to God.
→ Fasting and prayer were performed when important actions and decisions were to be made by the church.
There are a number of themes that run through these passages.
Preparation for meeting with God. Moses performed a solitary fast before he met with God (Deuteronomy 9:9).
In 2 Samuel 12:13-18, we see David fasting as an appeal to God as repentance for his sins, and in the hope that God will not cause his son to die for David scorning God. This is a lone act although not performed in isolation.
Ezra calls for a fast of penitence. This was a group action of prayer and entreaty for God’s support of their cause.
The passage in Isaiah has a different focus and “texture”. This provides clarity on true and false fasting – the focus of fasting is not to be on ritual but on our hearts being true, to be on right attitude and to avoid hypocrisy.
In Jonah 3, the people of Nineveh perform fasting of repentance as an appeal to God for leniency. Although we don’t know if they met as a group to fast, we do know that the whole city was called to fasting for the same period.
Daniel, in Daniel 10, performed a solitary fast of mourning and of communication with God. After 3 weeks, an Angel appeared before him.
Fasting is also referred to in the New Testament (although there are fewer passages which refer to it).
Jesus provides clear instructions for fasting in Matthew 6; we should not fast for public honour, but fast in secret, so that our Father (God) who sees in secret will reward us (our reward not being accolades from others).
In Matthew 9, Jesus provides further guidance on fasting. His instruction here indicates that fasting is a part of the New Covenant with Christians. After his departure, Christians would return to the practice of fasting to seek the presence of God / the Holy Spirit, but they need not do that when Jesus, the Son of God (see Mark 1:1; 15:39).
In Luke 2, we see that Anna performed a personal fast of thanks and mourning (although she performed this in the temple, which meant that others knew of her actions).
Luke 18, sees a return to the theme of our hearts and our attitude. We are not to perform fasting to show that we are better than others, self-righteousness and boasting act as a barrier to salvation; only if we humble ourselves before God will we be justified by him – and this is the case with fasting.
Luke again returns to the theme of fasting in Acts 13. We know that a group of people were fasting and worshipping – fasting will support the practice of worship and prayer, and for the receipt of the Holy Spirit.
The final passage is again from Luke, and in Acts 14. Although the passage is concerned with Paul’s stoning at Lystra, we see that fasting and prayer were used to support the process of choosing elders and commending them to God for their duties.