To fast [Hebrew: (ta‘anith)], is a derivative of the words to oppress, humiliate, torment, as well as to be distressed. Others translate this Hebrew word as “to fast”: “And at the evening sacrifice I arose up from my heaviness” (Ezra 9:5); “Is it such a fast that I have chosen? a day for a man to afflict his soul?” (Isa 58:5). Also the word (tsoom) means “to fast” (Isa 58:5). In Greek we have the word (nesteia), which means not to eat. It is the latter which we wish to express by the verb “to fast.”
Fasting is a special religious exercise in which a believer deprives himself for a day from all that invigorates the body, humbling himself in body and soul before God as a means to obtain what he desires.
Fasting is a religious exercise—an exercise in which one seeks after God. Fasting due to poverty, avarice, illness, for health reasons, or a being prevented from eating food due to business activities is not applicable here. Rather we speak here of fasting as a religious exercise; it is God-focused and its intent is to seek God thereby. Since all practice of religion is neither to be self-willed nor practiced according to human institutions, but only according to God‟s command and precept, this is also applicable for fasting. It does not consist of idleness, but is an activity which is a day-long engagement consisting of secret dealings with God.
It is a special exercise. It is not a daily activity such as prayer, reading, thanksgiving, and singing. Rather, it is practiced at special seasons of need, such as being threatened or oppressed by the danger of a plague, having to engage in a very weighty task, perplexity, or having to make a choice concerning a weighty matter. It can even relate to everyday matters such as seeking communion with God, the need for strength to oppose specific sins, and growth in grace.
Fasting: To be Deprived of All That Invigorates the Body
Fasting primarily consists in a depriving one’s self of all that invigorates the body, being desirous to bring the body for that given day into a condition of withdrawal, distress, pliableness, and weakness.
It consists, first of all, in a depriving ourselves of all food (being expressed by the word fasting), for he who partakes of any food has broken the fast. Observe this in Esther 4:16: “… fast ye for me, and neither eat nor drink.” We do not fast by merely depriving ourselves of meat. In the Old Testament there was a distinction between foods and between clean and unclean; however, this is not related to fasting. Paul states, “It is good neither to eat flesh, nor to drink wine” (Rom 14:21). It is also not related to days of fasting; rather, this pertains to giving offense to a weaker brother. The latter occurred during that period when there were some who still made a distinction between foods as dictated by the law of the Old Testament. It is in reference to this that the apostle states: “Wherefore, if meat make my brother to offend, I will eat no flesh while the world standeth, lest I make my brother to offend” (1 Cor 8:13). That is, “I would rather deprive myself of this than that I should offend anyone.” Some had freedom to eat animals which had been sacrificed to idols. The apostle declared that there was such freedom, since the idol was in reality nonexistent. Others, however, did not believe they had such freedom and were offended when they observed that others did so. Therefore, not only did the apostle refuse to eat the meat of sacrificed animals, but he wanted to eat no meat at all, if someone would be offended by it. Except for such occasions, however, he would eat meat. Thus, these texts cannot be used in support of papal fasting, at which time they deprive themselves of meat. Else, they should also deprive themselves of wine and ought not ever eat meat.
Secondly, on a day of fasting we are to deprive ourselves of all external ornamentation. In Old Testament times the people covered their bodies with a type of material which was of the most inferior kind. They would then draw this as tightly around the body as if they were putting goods into a bag in preparation for transport, for they normally wore wide garments (Isa 3:24). Furthermore, they made this sack, which they wrapped around themselves, dirty by sprinkling dirt and ashes upon it, so that they would display themselves before God and men in the most wretched and humblest circumstances, thereby declaring that they were unworthy of everything. “A day for a man … to spread sackcloth and ashes under him?” (Isa 58:5); “My clothing was sackcloth” (Ps 35:13); “Gird thee with sackcloth, and wallow thyself in ashes” (Jer 6:26); “No man did put on him his ornaments” (Exod 33:4).
Thirdly, on a day of fasting we must deprive ourselves of all entertainment such as recreational games; taking a walk for the purpose of seeing gardens, ornamental works of art, or plantations; or going out by boat or horse and carriage merely for pleasure. “Behold, in the day of your fast ye find pleasure” (Isa 58:3). One must even refrain from marital union (1 Cor 7:5).
Fourthly, we must also refrain from performing the labors of our calling. “And whatsoever soul it be that doeth any work in that same day, the same soul will I destroy from among his people. It shall be unto you a sabbath of rest” Lev 23:30,32.
Fifthly, there must also be a refraining from sleep. On such a day we must arise early and retire no earlier than normal. On such a day we may also not slumber, for that would be entirely contrary to the objective of the day. Such slumber results in a loss of time, and it is as if we would bring a dead body before the Lord—as if it were the body that was fasting. It is in conflict with a humbling of ourselves. Sleep invigorates a person, and the purpose of this day is the humbling of the soul as facilitated by the faintness and weakness of the body—and thus to humble one‟s self deeply.
Sixthly, above all things we must carefully guard against the commission of sins. It would be the abomination of all abominations if upon a day that we wish to humble ourselves over our sins and desire to pray for forgiveness—as well as to be spared from those plagues which we have made ourselves worthy of by way of sin—that at the same time we were to tempt the Lord by the commission of sin. “Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness” (Isa 58:6).
Fasting: A Humbling of Ourselves
The second aspect of fasting is a humbling of ourselves according to body and soul. Soul and body are so intimately united that the ill disposition of the one begets the ill disposition of the other. When the body, due to the withdrawal of all refreshment, is rendered feeble, pliable, and is subdued, the soul will also be in such a disposition; and thus the natural disposition takes on a spiritual dimension. Fasting, in and of itself, is not a religious practice. It is only so when it is a seeking after God by way of fasting. He who has merely deprived himself of all refreshment has not partially observed a day of fasting, for fasting and a humbling of ourselves are not two separate duties. Fasting must be characterized by a humbling of ourselves, and the humbling of ourselves must be done by way of fasting. Fasting serves but one purpose: to facilitate the humbling of the soul; it has no significance beyond that. Since fasting facilitates this, however, the act as such is nevertheless required. It is an essential aspect of a day of fasting—however, only in union with, and thus inseparable from, the humbling of ourselves. They do not function in a dual sense, but in unison.
When, on a given day of fasting, we humble ourselves by way of fasting, then, at the very outset of the day, there will be a greater appetite for food than normal—already prior to the normal mealtime. This is not always due to the corruption of our nature—a nature which always hankers for that which is forbidden. Rather, it issues forth from the relationship between fasting and the humbling of ourselves. Sorrow over the deficiency of the soul engenders sorrow about that which the body is lacking, and a deficiency in the body engenders sorrow over the deficiency of the soul. They are thus both subservient to the humbling of ourselves (Deut 10:12). “… and ye shall afflict your souls” (Lev 23:27).
A humbling of one‟s self consists in:
(1) The confession of sin, accompanied with grief and shame: “Now in the twenty and fourth day of this month the children of Israel were assembled with fasting … and confessed their sins” (Neh 9:1-2); “O my God, I am ashamed and blush to lift up my face to Thee, my God: for our iniquities are increased over our head, and our trespass is grown up unto the heavens” (Ezra 9:6).
(2) Declaring ourselves to be worthy of judgment and a subscribing to justice if the Lord were to execute those merited judgments upon us. “Howbeit Thou art just in all that is brought upon us; for Thou hast done right, but we have done wickedly” (Neh 9:33).
(3) A supplicating for grace, frequently accompanied with weeping. Concerning the day of a solemn assembly we read in Joel 2:17: “Let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep between the porch and the altar, and let them say, Spare Thy people, O Lord.” This is also to be observed on the day of fasting recorded in Neh 9. Consider also the following passages: “I humbled my soul with fasting; and my prayer returned into mine own bosom” (Ps 35:13); “And when they had fasted and prayed …” (Acts 13:3); “Howbeit this kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting” (Matt 17:21);
(4) A renewal of the covenant with the wholehearted intent to forsake former sins and to live a godly life: “And because of all this we make a sure covenant” (Neh 9:38); “Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness” (Isa 58:6);
(5) The giving of alms: “Is not this the fast that I have chosen? Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? when thou seest the naked, that thou cover him; and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh?” (Isa 58:6-7).
The Duration of Fasting
The duration of fasting is limited to a twenty-four hour period—from evening to evening.
(1) Moses Deut 9:9, Elijah 1 Kings 19:8, and the Lord Jesus Christ Matt 4:2 fasted for forty consecutive days, during which time the Lord preserved their lives in a miraculous manner. We are not commanded to imitate this; to do so is only superstition. Furthermore, no one can be without food for such a long period of time. We do not follow the Lord Jesus if we deprive ourselves of meat for such a period of time while yet eating something during the day. He did not eat at all during that period, nor did He designate His fasting to be an example to be followed by us. Many things He either did by virtue of His divinity or in regard to His mediatorial office, we are neither able nor permitted to imitate.
(2) We also read about seven days of fasting 1 Chron 10:12 and of three days (Esther 4:16). This is to be understood as a period during which something was eaten each evening. Or else, due to there being a warmer climate in those countries, they were able to be without food for a longer time, without doing harm to their health. However, the normal time period for fasting is one day—from evening to evening Lev 23; (Isa 58:5).
Question: Are all men obligated to fast for an entire day? Would one then, upon becoming somewhat faint and thus unfit for prayer and other duties of that day, be able to eat something, such as a piece of bread or something similar?
Answer: In respect to certain persons the rule applies, “I desired mercy, and not sacrifice” (Hos 6:6). This applies to women who have given birth, the sick, nursing mothers, those who are exceptionally weak (even though not sick), nursing babies, as well as children who must be dealt with according to their age. Some are not to be deprived of anything, others are to be given as little as possible, and again others need to learn how to fast. However, the healthy must deprive themselves of everything for the entire time. To become somewhat faint is the objective of fasting, and one must not shrink back from that objective. The pretense of being unfit for prayer issues forth from the opinion that fasting is no more than an exercise to become more fit for prayer and similar exercises. Such believe that this faintness is not a part of fasting, thinking that it is only spiritual in nature. One will also experience that, rather than becoming unfit, this faintness will render one more fit to pray with increased humility, as well as cause one to call upon God with the disposition of one who is entirely destitute. Even if the manifestation of all this is not as vehement as is otherwise the case, toward the evening, prayer will become more earnest, and then at times a special blessing will follow.
The Distinction Between Public and Private Fasting
As far as the persons who fast are concerned, a distinction can be made between public and private fasting.
First, public fasting occurs when:
(1) It is proclaimed by the government due to a general national need—be it war, pestilence, famine, an insect plague, extraordinary drought, persistent rain, or similar occurrences. In such events, governments have the right to proclaim fast and prayer days. This does not mean that such a day of fasting is a commandment of men; no, the observance of days of fasting is commanded by God. Instead, governments do but designate the time as determined by God by way of extraordinary circumstances.
(2) A synod, classis, or elders of a particular congregation designate a day of fasting for the church under their supervision, doing so due to an extraordinary need in the church—be it persecution of that church or churches in other lands, the manifestation of false doctrine, the need for reform due to decline, the calling of ministers or the election of consistories, or other specific circumstances. This is also not a human institution, but the observance of a divine command.
Secondly, private fasting occurs when:
(1) some individual bosom friends agree to set apart a day—be it due to their own needs or the needs of others, or an exceptional desire to seek the Lord earnestly for a desired matter—either for body or soul;
(2) a father institutes a day of fasting for his family;
(3) an individual sets apart a day for himself. Everyone has personal freedom in doing this, be it that he sets apart a day for special occasions; that he schedules days of fasting which, in his judgment, are most suitable for him—this having been the custom of eminently godly persons—lest that by having to select a day anew each time the matter be neglected; or that he selects such a day each time anew. In so doing we will acquaint ourselves with the Lord; we will become more modest and holy, and the Lord generally grants more spiritual grace to such. In setting such a day apart, every one is free as to the extent to which he wishes to do so. It can be that he will desist from his labors if he is self-employed and if it is not to the disadvantage of his family; he can do this without anyone else noticing this. Or it can be that he sets this day apart while nevertheless intending to do his work—this being required by his circumstances—and to eat a limited amount of food, so as to conceal from others the fact that he is fasting that day. The latter must very much be his objective according to the instruction of Christ in Matt 6:16-18: “Moreover when ye fast (this applies to private rather than public fasting), be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance. … But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head (dress yourself in an honorable manner, as you are accustomed to do), and wash thy face; that thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret: and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly.” If, however, you cannot conceal this from your family, then you must not allow this to detract you. But, if this would cause you to be ridiculed, you must fully conceal this and eat a little.
Exhortation to Fasting
It is sad—a sign of great decay in the church—that so little work is made of fasting, both in public as well as secretly. Therefore all who wish to lead a life of tender godliness and desire to see the good of Zion ought to stir themselves up to exercise this duty, for:
(1) Has not God has commanded this? (Lev 23:27; Joel 2:12);
(2) Have not the church and the saints of all ages practiced this and left us an example to be followed? Observe this in (Judg 20:26); 2 Chron 20:3 and Neh 9:1. References to solitary fasting are to be found in Neh 1:4 and Ps 35:13. This was not only a duty and practice in the Old Testament, but also in the New Testament (cf. Matt 6:16-18; Matt 9:15; Mark 9:29; Luke 2:37; Acts 13:3; Acts 14:23; 1 Cor 7:5). Therefore, as obedient children of God and followers of the saints, fast frequently. This was the practice of the original Christian church and of believers at the outset of the Reformation—and even long thereafter. Do not allow this practice to die out.
If a public fast has been proclaimed, conduct yourself well in doing so. There are but few who fast well. If, therefore, there is perplexity in the land where the church resides, God‟s eye will be upon you in a special manner. It will be pleasing to Him when He observes your standing in the breach to turn away His anger from the land. Perhaps He would deliver the land upon your prayer; and even if the land were to be destroyed, the eye of the Lord and His mercy will be upon you and your loved ones. You will then have peace in your conscience wherever you go, knowing that you have endeavored to uphold the pillars of both church and country.
If some of the godly have agreed to set apart a day, endeavor to join them, and stir up some other godly person to do likewise. The Lord will most certainly be among you; He will come to you and bless you. It will engender a sweet bond of mutual love, a holy mutual fellowship, and quicken both love and the performance of good works. When you make work of having solitary days of fasting, you will experience that the promise is true and will be fulfilled for you: “Thy Father … shall reward thee” (Matt 6:18). The Lord will manifest that this is pleasing to Him. He will increase your light, and strengthen your heart in faith; you will be nearer to God in your walk, and lead a life which is more sober and thoughtful; and your conscience will be more tender. You will have more strength against sin, and receive more comfort from the Lord. He who has exercised himself in this has never regretted that he has done so, and we wish to recommend it as an exceptional means unto spiritual growth.
When you thus have determined to observe either a public or secret day of prayer, you must prepare yourself for this ahead of time by removing all obstacles, by being moderate in your intake of food and drink in the evening, and by getting a moderate amount of sleep at night. Confess your aversion for such a day of prayer as a sin before the Lord, and ask that you may be fit to conduct yourself well on this day of prayer. If you intend to observe this with others, pray that the others may be fit for this as well.
If the day of prayer is spent as described above, let your conduct also be appropriate subsequent to this. Rejoice in the evening that you have food to eat, since you are not worthy of one bite of bread. Thank the Lord that He gives it to you in His favor—as having been purchased with the blood of Christ. Be moderate in your use of food as well as in sleeping. Preserve the impression of all that has transpired that day; that is, of all your initiatives toward God and of God‟s manifestations toward you. Give close attention as to how God responds to your day of prayer, for God will respond to it. In this way you will accustom yourself to this duty, and discover so much sweetness in it, that you will long to have such a day of prayer by renewal.
Wilhelmus à Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service, Vol. 4, pp. 3-10