27 August 2010 (Sheshi/Kippur)|
Day #165, 5934 AM
Teshuvah #19 Fasting
Understanding Its Biblical Purpose
By 'chance' I opened up my Bible at Isaiah 58 this morning and started reading about fasting. When I read the footnotes in the Bible version I happened to pick up, it said that fasting was only to bless fellow Israelites - we fast to save money and then use that money to bless other believers. I knew that this was an over-simplification and that there was a lot more to fasting, and since many people fast when they are making teshuvah, and since I have commented very little on this topic in the past, I felt it was time to make a thorough a study. So today we ask ourselves the question: what is fasting for?
There are actually many different legitimate reasons for fasting, and not just helping out those less fortunate in the messianic community. Let us review the 'official fasts' first:
The Scriptures also speak of occasional fasts which were either individual (e.g. 2 Sam.12:22) and sometimes corporate (e.g. Judg.20:26; Joel 1:14). Fasting anciently was a way that people expressed grief (1 Sam.31:13; 2 Sam.1:12; 3:35; Neh.1:4; Est.4:3; Ps.35:13-14) - whether this was something cultural or whether it was because people didn't feel like eating while they were grieving is unclear. One thing that is clear is that fasting was regarded as a way of humbling the soul (by making the body weak) (Ezr.8:21; Ps.69:10) and also for penitence or making teshuvah (1 Sam.7:6; 1 Ki.21:27; Neh.9:1-2; Dan.9:3-4; Jon.3:5-8). I can find no evidence that fasting was ever regarded as self-inflicted punishment even though Yom Kippur is regarded by many as being precisely for that.
- 1. Perhaps the most famous fast - because it's mandatory for all true believers - is the annual fast at Yom Kippur or the Day of Atonement. This is the only one Yahweh commands in Torah - a 24 hour period of 'self-affliction' (Lev.16:29,31; 23:27-32; Num.29:7), traditonally understood to mean fasting;
- 2. After the Babylonian Exile, four other annual fasts were observed (Zec.8:19) to mark various disasters in Judahite history. These four fasts are only binding on the House of Judah and not the northern Ten Tribes since they were not commanded to Israel as a whole. See Minor Judahite Fasts for more on these. Accordingly this ministry does not officially observe these fasts but leaves this as a private option for Judahite members and their families if they want to;
- 3. Many Messianic Jews and Israelites observe a fast at Purim. However, this fast was not commanded by Yahweh but by Queen Esther (Est.9:31) and then only for the House of Judah at that time. For reasons discussed in Purim 2007: False Paradigms and Looking Ahead, this ministry does not observe Purim or its fast;
Perhaps the kind of fasting we are most familiar with in the Christian tradition is fasting with a view to securing Yahweh's help and guidance. There are many examples of this in Scripture. Moses received the Decalogue as a result of a long fast:
David believed fasting would persuade Yahweh to hear his prayer to preserve his sickly son of adultery:
"So he (Moses) was there with Yahweh forty days and forty nights; he neither ate bread nor drank water. And He wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments" (Ex.34:28, NKJV; see also Dt.9:9).
The fasting did not prevail, not because fasting to change Yahweh's heart is a wrong idea, but because Yahweh had already passed final judgment for David's adultery and murder. When the child died, David accepted the inevitable verdict.
"David therefore pleaded with Elohim (God) for the child, and David fasted and went in and lay all night on the ground. So the elders of his house arose and went to him, to raise him up from the ground. But he would not, nor did he eat food with them. Then on the seventh day it came to pass that the child died. And the servants of David were afraid to tell him that the child was dead. For they said, 'Indeed, while the child was alive, we spoke to him, and he would not heed our voice. How can we tell him that the child is dead? He may do some harm!' When David saw that his servants were whispering, David perceived that the child was dead. Therefore David said to his servants, 'Is the child dead?' And they said, 'He is dead'. So David arose from the ground, washed and anointed himself, and changed his clothes; and he went into the house of Yahweh and worshiped. Then he went to his own house; and when he requested, they set food before him, and he ate. Then his servants said to him, 'What is this that you have done? You fasted and wept for the child while he was alive, but when the child died, you arose and ate food.' And he said, 'While the child was alive, I fasted and wept; for I said, 'Who can tell whether Yahweh will be gracious to me, that the child may live? But now he is dead; why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me''" (2 Sam 12:16-23, NKJV).
In times of trouble where Yahweh's help is urgently needed, fasting is indeed beneficial if entered into with a right heart:
Jehoshaphat's prayer with fasting prevailed and the desires outcome attained. An example in Ezra confirms this principle as being genuine:
"And Jehoshaphat feared, and set himself to seek Yahweh, and proclaimed a fast throughout all Judah. So Judah gathered together to ask help from Yahweh; and from all the cities of Judah they came to seek Yahweh" (2 Chron.20:3-4, NKJV).
On occasion, fasting could be vicarious (i.e. on behalf of someone else):
"Then I proclaimed a fast there at the river of Ahava, that we might humble ourselves before our Elohim (God), to seek from Him the right way for us and our little ones and all our possessions. For I was ashamed to request of the king an escort of soldiers and horsemen to help us against the enemy on the road, because we had spoken to the king, saying, 'The hand of our Elohim is upon all those for good who seek Him, but His power and His wrath are against all those who forsake Him.' So we fasted and entreated our Elohim for this, and He answered our prayer" (Ezra 8:21-23, NKJV).
Fasting was not efficacious with wrong motives. Some Israelites had come to the false conclusion that fasting would automatically give them a hearing with Yahweh no matter what their spiritual state, but the prophet Isaiah contradicts this illusion emphatically:
"Then Ezra rose up from before the house of Elohim, and went into the chamber of Jehohanan the son of Eliashib; and when he came there, he ate no bread and drank no water, for he mourned because of the guilt of those from the captivity" (Ezra 10:6, NKJV; cp. Est.4:15-17).
Without right conduct, that is, obedience to the commandments - implying also a right heart - fasting is in vain. You can't earn Yahweh's favour by simply performing outer, physical acts:
"'Why have we fasted,' they say, 'and You have not seen? Why have we afflicted our souls, and You take no notice?'" (Isa.58:3, NKJV - this passage, incidentally, demonstrates that 'soul-affliction' and fasting are synonymous).
Clearly, then, fasting as an aid to prayer is blessed of Yahweh when there is a right heart, proper trust, and obedience to the commandments! See the whole of Zechariah 7.
"Is it a fast that I have chosen, a day for a man to afflict his soul? Is it to bow down his head like a bulrush, and to spread out sackcloth and ashes? Would you call this a fast, and an acceptable day to Yahweh? Is this not the fast that I have chosen: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, to let the oppressed go free, and that you break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and that you bring to your house the poor who are cast out;When you see the naked, that you cover him,And not hide yourself from your own flesh? 8 Then your light shall break forth like the morning, your healing shall spring forth speedily, and your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of Yahweh shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and Yahweh 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 extend your soul to the hungry and satisfy the afflicted soul, then your light shall dawn in the darkness, and your darkness shall be as the noonday. Yahweh will guide you continually, and satisfy your soul in drought, and strengthen your bones; you shall be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail. Those from among you shall build the old waste places; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; and you shall be called the Repairer of the Breach, The Restorer of Streets to Dwell In" (Isa.58:5-12, NKJV).
"Then Yahweh said to me, 'Do not pray for this people, for their good. When they fast, I will not hear their cry; and when they offer burnt offering and grain offering, I will not accept them. But I will consume them by the sword, by the famine, and by the pestilence'" (Jer.14:11-12, NKJV).
When we come to New Testament times, we find much the same story, including the vain fasting of the Pharisees who arbitrarily decided not to eat any food on Mondays and Thursdays and so thereby enhance their prestige as pious men and convince them that they must therefore have had Yahweh's ear (Lk.18:12). Their attitude is not dissimilar to various religious practices today that have no scriptural foundation such as the Catholic practice of not eating fish on Fridays and some Anabaptist practices of not eating every other day. Though devout believers like Anna fasted often to commune with Yahweh (Lk.2:37), this was not for the same reason as the Pharisees who made something voluntary into an habitual rule for themselves to puff up their own importance.
The only Scriptural record of Yah'shua (Jesus) fasting was during the time of His 40 day temptation which directly parallels Moses' fast for the same period of time when he received the Ten Commandments (Ex.34:28) and Elijah's sojourn in the wilderness (1 Ki.19:8). This fast was specifically entered into as preparation for His ministry for we read that after it, and the three temptations of the devil, He emerged filled with the Ruach haQodesh (Holy Spirit).
Yah'shua taught His talmidim (disciples) to make sure that when they fasted it was always with a right heart toward Yahweh (Mt.6:16-18). When asked why His talmidim did not fast when those of John the Baptist and the Pharisees did, He was not repudiating fasting as some claim, but declared it inappropriate for His disciples at that time "as long as the Bridegroom is with them" (Mt.9:14-17; Mk.2:18-22; Lk.5:33-39). And as we shall see in a moment, husbands and wives are never to fast when together but only when they are separating to devote time to private prayer. Only when Yah'shua had departed the earth did the disciples (Bride) fast like everyone else.
This tells us very clearly that fasting is designed to aid communion with Messiah. How does it do that? By stilling the flesh so that the Ruach can be heard. Since Yah'shua was with them physically, to be questioned whenever they wanted, there was obviously no need for them to fast.
The New Testament teaches that fasting is important when it comes to making decisions that require Yahweh's approbation or authorisation. Thus the leaders of the messianic community fasted when choosing missionaries (Ac.13:2-3) and zaqenim (elders) (Ac.14:23). Revelation frequently comes during fasting as in the case of Cornelius who saw an angel:
This experience convinced Peter that the Gentiles were co-hears of salvation with the Judahites, for Cornelius was a Roman Centurion. When Peter eventually visited Cornelius, the Ruach haQodesh was poured on non-Judahites making it impossible for Judahite believers to any longer deny that they were excluded from Israel.
"So Cornelius said, 'Four days ago I was fasting until this hour; and at the ninth hour I prayed in my house, and behold, a man stood before me in bright clothing, and said, 'Cornelius, your prayer has been heard, and your alms are remembered in the sight of Elohim. Send therefore to Joppa and call Simon here, whose surname is Peter. He is lodging in the house of Simon, a tanner, by the sea. When he comes, he will speak to you'" (Acts 10:30-33, NKJV).
We know that the apostle Paul fasted but are not told under what circumstances or for what purpose he was fasting so we cannot tell whether they were voluntary fasts or for some other purpose such as Yom Kippur or one of the Minor Judahite fasts I mentioned earlier (2 Cor.6:5; 11:27).
Fasting is enjoined in Scripture for the casting out of strongly entrenched demons (Mt.17:21; Mk.9:29) and is also recommended occasionally, as I mentioned earlier, when husbands and wives separate from conjugal union in order to devote themselves to private prayer:
Needless to say this is not remotely an endorsement of monastic orders - just occasional celibacy.
"Do not deprive one another except with consent for a time, that you may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again so that Satan does not tempt you because of your lack of self-control" (1 Cor 7:5, NKJV).
This is the sum total teaching on fasting in the Bible. Particularly for us at this season of teshuvah, it has spiritual application. And whilst intelligent fasting has been shown to have medical benefits scientifically-speaking (such as for slimming), this is not the reason we fast spiritually even if it may become a bonus side effect.
Fasting is not a common habit in the modern world which is probably why moderns have problems fasting. Not only this, but poor diet, unhealthy living, and a lack of exercise also contribute to problems in fasting, which is why this practice is neglected in prayer life. If fasting is to be restored to its proper place in Messianic Israel in such a way that maximum benefit can be gained from it, then there has to be a change in the dietary and lifestyle habits of modern believers. Until this has been effected, fasting should be done with great care so as not to cause medical harm to the body. I suspect we will see fasting becoming more popular generally amongst believers when the hard times strike the West and with them is usshered a change in lifestyle. Until then, treat fasting with caution unless you are already fit, eating healthily and are regularly exercising. Fasting for fasting's sake is not the point: fasting should rather be used with wisdom, without endangering one's health. Fasting must not be imposed - ever - and even at Yom Kippur, special care must be given to old people, small children and to those with medical problems.
If you are well and able, then I recommend fasting as part of your communion with Yahweh, to be done as the Ruach leads, for His glory only.