Q: #591. Why did people "fast" in the Bible? Should Christians "fast" today?
Two Hebrew words (“tsum / tsom“), and two Greek words (“nesteia / nesteuo“) are used for “fasting” in the Bible. They literally mean “to cover the mouth.” All through the Bible, we see that this “covering of the mouth” is tied to not eating food, and sometimes to not drinking as well.
Before I begin, let me quickly share what fasting is “not.”
A fairly recent trend today is to say that “fasting” can be giving up things that we enjoy for a period of time such as television, video games, our phones, social media, sex, a favorite activity, etc…. However, according to the literal, Biblical definition of fasting (“to cover the mouth”), these things do not fall into the category of “fasting.” (Giving up something so you can devote that time to God is not a bad thing, it just shouldn’t be defined as “fasting.”)
***Note: Regarding “sex,” some people use (1 Cor 7:5) to say that giving up “sex” for a period of time can be fasting. Two things should be noted about this verse: (#1.) There is strong evidence that the word “fasting” in this verse is not found in the oldest, and best manuscripts. (Today, only the KJV and NKJV add the word “fasting.”) Commentaries such as Ellicott’s and JFB say it was added by “ascetics.”
(#2.) Even if one says that “fasting” should be included in (1 Cor 7:5), if you read the verse closely, it does “not” say that giving up sex is “fasting.” It says that sex can be given up (briefly), so that one can totally “give (or devote) themselves to fasting and prayer.” In other words, having sex can cause a fasting person to lose their focus on God.
Only one time in the Bible were God’s people required by God to fast, and that was on the Day of Atonement (Lev 16:29-31)(Lev 23:26-32)(Num 29:7)(Acts 27:9 – called “the Fast”). On this day, there was to be no eating of food, or drinking anything from “evening to evening.” Aside from this day, nearly every other fast in the Bible was voluntary (a possible exception may be found in Zech 8:19).
How do we define what “fasting” is? Here is my short definition: “Fasting is the voluntary decision to “humble” yourself before God (Ps 35:13)(1 Kin 21:27-29)(Dan 10:2-3,12) by setting aside food (and sometimes drink) for a period of time. It should be coupled with fervent prayer (Mt 17:21)(Mk 9:29)(1 Cor 7:5), seeking to hear from God, receive favor from Him, and draw closer to Him. It is also a time for sincere and heartfelt repentance, and contrition for sin (1 Sam 7:5-6)(Neh 9:1-2)(Dan 9:3-4,20-21). Fasting shows our weakness and total dependence on God, and it helps to teach us self-discipline.”
There are 3 kinds of fasts are mentioned in the Bible:
A total denial of food: (2 Sam 12:15-22)(1 Sam 1:7)(1 Kin 19:8)(Lk 4:1-4)(Mt 4:2-4 – Jesus did this for 40 days!)
A total denial of food and water: (Acts 9:9)(Jonah 3:7)(Ezra 10:6)(Es 4:16)(Ex 34:28 – Moses did this for 40 days! Obviously a supernatural occurrence)
A partial fast, denying oneself pleasurable food and drink: (Dan 10:3). (Daniel did this for 3 weeks [likely eating only vegetables, and drinking water: Dan 1:8-15], and at the end of this fast, he received a vision from God).
***My note: I believe this kind of fast is meant to be more than simply giving up something like sweets, pizza, soft drinks, coffee, or alcohol (as I once heard someone say), but more like what Daniel did.
The Bible is filled with places where God responded mightily to people who humbled themselves before Him by fasting. Here are some of those:
Jonah preached to the people of Nineveh that the city was going to be overthrown by God in 40 days. “The people of Nineveh (including the king) believed God, proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth…” (Jonah 3:5-6). Then, the king says in (Jonah 3:7-9)(NKJV), “Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything; do not let them eat, or drink water (8) But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and cry mightily to God; yes, let every one turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. (9) Who can tell if God will turn and relent, and turn away from His fierce anger, so that we may not perish?”
THEN, (Jonah 3:10)(NKJV) says, “God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way, and God relented from the disaster that He had said he would bring upon them, and He did not do it.”
In (1 Kin 21:17-29), because of King Ahab’s wickedness, Elijah prophesied God’s judgment upon Ahab, and his lineage. After hearing this prophecy, Ahab “tore his clothes, put sackcloth on his body, and fasted…” God speaks to Elijah in (1 Kin 21:29)(NKJV), saying, “See how Ahab has humbled himself before Me? Because he has humbled himself before Me, I will not bring the calamity in his days. In the days of his son I will bring the calamity to his house.”
Ezra says in (Ezra 8:21-23)(NKJV), “Then I proclaimed a fast… that we might humble ourselves before God, to seek from Him the right way for us and our little ones and all our possessions. (22) For I was ashamed to request of the king an escort of soldiers and horsemen to help us against the enemy on the road…. (23) So we fasted and entreated our God for this, and He answered our prayer.”
When Haman sought to destroy all of the Jews, Queen Esther, and the Jews fasted for 3 days (both food and water – Est 4:16). Afterwards, Esther approached the king to seek a favor, which he granted. This favor later resulted in the death of Haman, and others who wanted to kill the Jews (Est Ch. 4-9).
Cornelius was fasting and praying when an angel appeared to him in a vision with an answer (Acts 10:1-8,30). Soon afterwards, he became the first Gentile brought to salvation under God’s New Covenant in the New Testament.
The Israelites were up against the Benjaminites in battle, and were defeated twice. However, before attacking a third time they “fasted.” God then gave them the victory (Judg Ch. 20).
Here are a few other good places that speak of “fasting” in the Bible:
Anna, a mighty prophetess of God, “departed not (never left) from the temple, but served God with fastings and prayers night and day” (Lk 2:37).
The church at Antioch prayed and fasted before sending out Saul (Paul) and Barnabas for their successful first missionary trip (Acts 13:1-3).
The Israelites separated themselves, fasted, prayed, confessed their sins, read from the book of the law of the Lord, and worshipped God (Neh 9).
There are times when people “fasted” with wrong motives, and God did not honor it (Isa 58:1-14)(Jer 14:11-16)(Zech Ch. 7).
Let’s close with these words from Jesus on fasting, found in (Mt 6:16-18):
(Mt 6:16-18)(NASB) “Now whenever you fast, do not make a gloomy face as the hypocrites do, for they distort their faces so that they will be noticed by people when they are fasting. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. (17) But as for you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, (18) so that your fasting will not be noticed by people but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.” (***Note: The “Father” will “reward” your fasting!)
So, to answer the question, “Should Christians ‘fast” today?” my reply is “Yes!” While we are not “commanded” to fast, voluntarily humbling ourselves, and seeking the Lord for answers, power, or forgiveness, is something I highly recommend. I have done this in my own life, and I have seen God work! It is truly quite awesome!
(Joel 2:12-13) Therefore also now, saith the Lord, Turn ye even to me with all your heart, And with fasting, and with weeping, and with mourning: (13) And rent your heart, and not your garments, And turn unto the Lord your God: For he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repenteth him of the evil.