Within the realm of Christianity, it is a rarity when one spiritual discipline will stand alone. So often, when one discipline is being exercised, alongside it comes another. For instance, when someone sits down to read his Bible, he will often find that as he reads, he is prompted to pray about what he is reading.
The words of Scripture fuel his prayers, and he finds himself praying the Lord’s will. On the other hand when someone stands before his congregation and preaches the Word, or when someone goes out to evangelize, he will also find that prayer is something that he engages in. If someone believes that he should serve someone in some type of way, oftentimes his serving is accompanied by sharing the Word.
While fasting is a spiritual discipline, it is also something that is accompanied by other spiritual disciplines. It would be important for the Christian to take note of the biblical model that has been placed before him.
Fasting accompanied by prayer
The book of Ezra is an amazing story of God’s people returning to their homeland, rebuilding their temple, and celebrating the Passover. It is also a wonderful display of the people of God triumphing over adversity. After 70 years of captivity in Babylon, many of the people that had lived in Jerusalem prior to the exile had died without getting to see the events that took place in the book of Ezra.
Despite the fact that the Israelites were advancing in their efforts, it was clear to them that there were people who were opposed to their plans. The Israelites knew that the opposition from their adversaries was more than mere scare tactics. Ezra realized that there would be war over the land to which God had called them, as well as people who would seek to thwart the rise of Israel.
Scripture says, “Then I proclaimed a fast there… For I was ashamed to require of the king a band of soldiers and horsemen to help us against the enemy in the way: because we had spoken unto the king, saying, The hand of our God is upon all them for good that seek him; but his power and his wrath is against all them that forsake him. So we fasted and besought our God for this: and he was entreated for us” (KJV, Ezra 8:21-23). Wow! What a firm conviction! What an unwavering fear of the Lord and desire to uphold His name!
Ezra had already told the king that God would protect them. He had already told the king that those who opposed Israel would incur the wrath of God. To go back now would have been nothing short of blasphemy. This was it. Would God protect them, or wouldn’t He? Ezra was determined to seek the Lord and either gain a victory by the mighty hand of God or go down with the ship.
The story is somewhat reminiscent of the three young boys that got thrown into the fiery furnace. Before they were thrown into the blazing fire, they made it clear that God could save them if God so chose. However, if God chose not to save them, they would rather die than worship the idols of Babylon.
But what does Ezra say in verse 23? The people fasted before the Lord, and sure enough, God heard their entreaty. We can see here that fasting did not stand alone in the people’s attempts to seek the Lord. Fasting was closely thatched with prayer, and with every fiber of their beings, the people sought the Lord for help.
Fasting accompanied by mourning
In the book of Joel, a time of national repentance is being proclaimed by God’s prophet. Disaster has come upon the nation, and the only hope of restoration for God’s people was God Himself. The “Day of the Lord” is proclaimed within this book, and the ramifications of this judgment to both the Gentile nations and Israel are forewarned.
With the previous paragraph as our setting for the book of Joel, we read, “Therefore also now, saith the Lord, turn ye even to me with all your heart, and with fasting, and with weeping and with mourning” (2:12). Fasting, weeping, and mourning are all placed here side-by-side. It is interesting to note that these are God’s words to God’s people.
Pay close attention to what God says at the beginning of the verse: “Therefore also now, saith the Lord, turn ye even to me with all your heart…” God desired for the people to turn to Him; He desired for them to repent. But not only that, God desired for them to do so with their whole heart. This turning to God with all of the heart was said to be a turning accompanied by fasting, which was also said to have been accompanied by weeping and mourning.
Repentance was at the top of the list in God’s eyes. The people’s repentance was to have an outward manifestation of fasting before the Lord, which also would have been accompanied with a time of mourning over their sins and the consequences that their sin had brought.
Fasting accompanied by the confession of sin
The book of Nehemiah is closely connected to the book of Ezra, so much so that we actually find the man Ezra within the book of Nehemiah. The events of Nehemiah happen relatively shortly after the events of Ezra. The setting is also fairly similar. The city is still in ruins, it has only been minimally rebuilt by the people that have gone before Nehemiah, and God’s people are still witnessing the consequences for their sin.
Nehemiah was a courageous leader. He believed that the walls around Jerusalem needed to be rebuilt for the city to stand. In Nehemiah’s attempts to rebuild the walls, he also endured much opposition. However, he never wavered in his devotion to the Lord. He had a firm conviction that the walls around the city must be rebuilt and that God’s glory must be upheld.
Nehemiah knew that the people needed God on their side if the work would be successful. He would have known the Proverb of the wise king that went before him: “A man’s heart deviseth his way: but the Lord directeth his steps” (Prov. 16:9). Surely, the only way that the people would succeed in their plans is if God was for them.
As a result, Nehemiah was also aware of the fact that the people needed to confess their sin and plead for the mercy of God. Scripture says, “Now in the twenty fourth day of this month the children of Israel were assembled with fasting, and with sackclothes, and earth upon them. And the seed of Israel separated themselves from all strangers, and stood and confessed their sins, and the iniquities of their fathers” (Neh. 9:1-2) . The people set out to fast together before the Lord and to enter into a time of confession.
This confession was not just for themselves; they also pleaded with the Lord for forgiveness concerning the sins of their fathers. Much of the “fathers” in reference are represented in the books of 1 and 2 Kings, as well as 1 and 2 Chronicles. God was patient with His covenant people, desiring that they would turn to the Lord. He sent them prophets to warn them of the destruction that would come, but in general, the people would not listen. Now we see Nehemiah, and his followers pleading with God for the forgiveness of sin and the grace of God’s presence to be restored to them. The glory of God had departed from the temple, and they needed God’s presence back. God’s people believed that the moment called for fasting and the confession of sin.
Father, I thank You for the forgiveness of my sin. I also pray that You would show me if there are reasons for me to fast. I recognize that some of the situations in Your Word that led the people to fast before You were unique. Give me wisdom on this matter, and help me to seek Your face in a way that pleases You. Teach me how to honor You and live for You, Lord. In Jesus’ name, Amen.