What was the purpose behind Biblical fasting? Was it just an old-fashioned law that people had to follow, or was there more to it than that?
A few years back, I developed a curiosity about fasting, so I spent a few weeks studying what the Bible had to say.
I learned there are several reasons for fasting, many of which go hand in hand.
Why people in the Bible fasted:
1) To better hear God’s voice.
When they wanted an answer, they would inquire of God and seek His instruction. It was a way to help them limit distractions and focus on His voice.
Scripture References: When the tribe of Benjamin sinned and rebelled, the other tribes sought God for direction on how to respond (Judges 20). Daniel fasted often to seek God’s direction, and at one point an angel came to deliver a message (Daniel 10). After Jesus died, the Disciples sought God for direction on how to spread the gospel (Acts 13).
2) To mourn and lament mistakes.
When they sinned, fasting was a way to repent of habitual sin and seek the restoration of God’s favor in their lives.
Scripture References: Many times in Scripture, the Israelites turned away from God. To show repentance, they fasted and cried out to the Lord (1 Samuel 7, Joel 2). When Jonah finally submitted to God and preached in Ninevah, the people proclaimed a fast of repentance (Jonah 3).
3) To show sorrow or grief.
There is more to fasting than seeking answers from the Lord. When a tragedy occurred, fasting was a way of grieving a loss.
Scripture References: When Saul died, the people fasted to show their sorrow for what could have been, had Saul chosen to follow God’s instructions. The battle was lost because of Saul’s hard heart. (1 Samuel 31, 2 Samuel 1, and 1 Chronicles 10). Hannah grieved the inability to birth a child and sought God for comfort and deliverance (1 Samuel 1).
4) To ask God for grace and mercy.
Sometimes when bad things happened, as a result of personal sin or evil intent, the people in the Bible sought God’s compassion.
Scripture References: When David was confronted about his sin with Bathsheba and informed the baby would die, he begged God to spare the child’s life (2 Samuel 12). When Ahab was confronted by Elijah for killing Naboth and stealing his land, he begged God for mercy, and God postponed a season of evil (1 Kings 21).
5) To seek a change in a troubling situation.
Sometimes when life was hard, such as times of oppression, they sought God through fasting in search of freedom and restoration.
Scripture References: When Nehemiah heard that his people were being persecuted back in Jerusalem, he refrained from eating out of sorrow. He understood that it was a punishment for their disobedience, and he begged God to gather the outcasts back to Him. It was simply a plea for God to intervene on behalf of those Nehemiah loved (Nehemiah 1). Ezra proclaimed a fast as he helped the Israelites regroup after exile and resist opposition. They asked for wisdom, guidance, and protection. (Ezra 8).
6) To plead for safely and provision.
Many times in Scripture the people of God feared for their very lives. They often sought God’s protection from persecution and attack when the odds were greatly stacked against them.
Scripture References: Esther’s story is one we often hear about, how she called a fast so her people would not be annihilated (Esther 4). King Jehosephat also has an incredible story about how he called a fast when they were under attack from a formidable enemy (2 Chronicles 20).
7) To honor God and remember what He’s done.
They intentionally set aside time to focus on the Lord, such as the Sabbath, or annual feasts. They also declared specific fasts and gathered together to bless the Lord.
Scripture References: The people of Israel were so happy to see their city being restored and hear the words from the book of the law, that they proclaimed a fast to search their hearts and worship God by discussing all the good things He had done for them (Nehemiah 9). Daniel chose to abstain from certain foods so as not to defile himself and honor God’s instructions (Daniel 1). At one point, God directed the people to be cheerful and joyful during certain planned fasts (Zechariah 8).
Whew! I know that’s a lot of information, and it will take some time to ponder these seven reasons. As you consider joining in our group fast in January 2017, search the scriptures listed here for a better understanding! I’ll explain more details about our group fast in upcoming posts.
Be sure to check back here next week – I’ll share some benefits that come from fasting!
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