Abstinence from food and/or drink as an element of private or public religious devotion. Fasting is nowhere commanded in the Torah and, in fact, is never attested earlier than the time of the judges of Israel (cf. Judges 20:26 ). The fact that Jesus and the disciples sanctioned it by their own example ( Matt 4:2 ; Acts 13:2-3 ), however, is sufficient justification for its practice in biblical times and, in fact, in modern times as well.
The Hebrew verb sum [Wx] is the only one used to describe fasting as a religious exercise. It (and its cognate noun som [/x]) conveys the explicit meaning "to abstain from food" and thus occurs regularly as a technical religious term. The Greek verb nesteuo [nhsteuvw] and its companion noun nesteia [nhsteiva] occur consistently in the Septuagint as translations of Hebrew sum [Wx] and som [/x] and as the usual terms for fasting in the New Testament.
By the ninth century b.c. fasting had become institutionalized or formalized to the extent that days or other periods of fasting were called as occasions for public worship. The usual way of describing such convocation is "to call for" or "proclaim" a fast. Thus, Jezebel, to provide an occasion whereby Naboth would be unjustly accused and condemned, proclaimed a fast ( 1 Kings 21:9 1 Kings 21:12 ). Jehoshaphat later, and with much nobler motives, called for such an assembly in order to implore God's intercession on Judah's behalf ( 2 Chron 20:3 ). The same formula appears in ezr 8:21 and jon 3:5, in the last instance initiated by the people of Nineveh as an expression of their repentance at Jonah's preaching.
An informative description of the proclamation of a fast is in Jeremiah 36:9. There the people of Judah convened, apparently for the purpose of national repentance. This at least is what Jeremiah instructed Baruch to encourage them to do (vv. 7-8). Moreover, Jeremiah refers to the anticipated event as a "day of fasting" (v. 6), suggesting a common practice known to him and the people generally. In fact, Isaiah had spoken of such convocations a century earlier ( 58:3-6 ), gatherings on special days for special purposes. Regardless of Isaiah's feelings about the abuse of fasting, it is obvious that he recognized it as a legitimate form of worship and that he found no fault with it being carried out on specially called occasions.
Joel speaks twice of setting apart a fast and calling a sacred assembly ( 1:14 ; 2:15 ). The parallelism makes clear that the fast in view is a formal, community event, one involving all the people in an act of worship on a stated day and in a designated place.
As a whole, however, fasting appears to be a private matter in the Bible, an expression of personal devotion linked to three major kinds of crisis in life: lamentation/penitence, mourning, and petition. Without exception it has to do with a sense of need and dependence, of abject helplessness in the face of actual or anticipated calamity. It is in examining these situations that the theological meaning and value of fasting are to be discovered.
As an expression of lamentation and/or penitence, fasting nearly always is associated with weeping ( Judges 20:26 ; Esther 4:3 ; Psalm 69:10 ; Joel 2:12 ), confession ( 1 Sam 7:6 ; Dan 9:3 ), and the wearing of sackcloth ( 1 Kings 21:27 ; Neh 9:1 ; Esther 4:3 ; Psalm 69:10 ; Dan 9:3 ). In the New Testament Jesus chides the hypocritical Pharisees for disfiguring their faces when they fast ( Matt 6:16-18 ), a reference no doubt to the custom of smearing themselves with ashes. These objects and actions had no intrinsic penitential value but in a culture in which inner feelings were commonly displayed or even dramatized, when done sincerely they effectively communicated contrition. It became easy, however, for the outward exhibition of repentance to take the place of a genuine, inner attitude and thus become an act of hypocrisy.
Fasting also appears as a sign of mourning. Following Saul's death, the people of Jabesh- Gilead lamented his passing by fasting ( 1 Sam 31:13 ) as did David and his companions when they heard the news ( 2 Sam 1:12 ). David goes so far as to say that he commiserated with his enemies when they were sick, fasting and dressing himself in sackcloth ( Psalm 35:13 ). Such behavior was a sign of his mourning over them (v. 14). Zechariah describes the commemoration of Israel's tragic days of past defeat and judgment as times of mourning attended by fasting ( 7:5 ). But these days of fasting in the fourth, fifth, seventh, and tenth months will one day be turned to times of joy ( 8:19 ). Jesus speaks of the time of his departure from his disciples as a time of mourning when it will be entirely appropriate to fast ( Matt 9:14-15 ; Mark 2:18-20 ; Luke 5:33-35 ).
Finally, fasting was frequently associated with supplicatory prayer. David prayed and fasted over his sick child ( 2 Sam 12:16 ), weeping before the Lord in earnest intercession (vv. 21-22). Nehemiah, having heard of Jerusalem's desolation, wept, fasted, and prayed that God would give him favor with King Artaxerxes of Persia so that he might return to his homeland and repair its ruins ( Neh 1:4-11 ). Esther, under similar circumstances, urged Mordecai and the Jews to fast for her as she planned to appear before her husband the king ( Esther 4:16 ). Clearly, fasting and petition are here one and the same (cf. Jer 14:12 ).
Jesus equates supplication and fasting when he teaches that the removal of mountains comes about only by prayer and fasting ( Matt 17:21 ). The godly prophetess Anna looked for the redemption of Israel with supplicatory prayer and fasting ( Luke 2:37 ). Before Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for the various churches, they committed them to the Lord with prayer and fasting ( Acts 14:23 ). In all these instances there is the clear implication that fasting is an effective adjunct to petition.
The purpose of fasting is never explicitly stated in Scripture but its connection to penitence, mourning, and supplication suggests a self-denial that opens one to God and to the immaterial aspects of life. Inasmuch as food and drink typify life in the flesh and all its demands and satisfactions, their absence or rejection speaks to the reality of a higher dimension, one in which the things of the spirit predominate. The theology of fasting, then, is a theology of priorities in which believers are given the opportunity to express themselves in an undivided and intensive devotion to the Lord and to the concerns of the spiritual life.
Eugene H. Merrill
Bibliography. John E. Baird, What the Bible Says About Fasting; R. D. Chatham, Fasting: A Biblical-Historical Study; Joseph F. Wimmer, Fasting in the New Testament: A Study in Biblical Theology.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Fast, Fasting'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".