Fasting: A View from the Old Testament

In thinking about the topic of fasting, I tried to cull through the Bible to find different references to fasting. Here is a mostly unedited list of references to fasting from the Old Testament with brief comments about what we can learn about fasting from these words. You can also read the companion post on the New Testament here.

  • Leviticus 23:27 – “The tenth day of this seventh month is the Day of Atonement. Hold a sacred assembly and deny yourselves [or fast], and present a food offering to the Lord.” – This is an example of regularly scheduled (annual) days of fasting for God’s people corporately.
  • Ezra 8:21-23 – “There, by the Ahava Canal, I proclaimed a fast, so that we might humble ourselves before our God and ask Him for a safe journey for us and our children, with all our possessions…we fasted and petitioned our God about this [need for protection on the journey] and He answered our prayer.” – Corporate fast called by Ezra, leader of the Israelite envoy back to the homeland, for help from God in the face of desperate need.
  • Judges 20:26 – “Then all the Israelites, the whole army, went up to Bethel, and there they sat weeping before the Lord. They fasted that day until evening and presented burnt offerings and fellowship offerings of the Lord. And the Israelites inquired of the Lord.” – In response to terrible wrongs down by the tribe of Benjamin, the remainder of the tribes gathered in grief to fast and pray and seek God’s guidance as to how they should respond.
  • 1 Samuel 31:13 – “Then they took their bones [Saul and his sons] and buried them under a tamarisk tree at Jabesh, and they fasted seven days.” – King Saul and his sons had been brutally killed. They people of a nearby town, Jabesh Gilead, grieved in response with fasting.
  • Esther 4:16 – “Go, gather together all the Jews who are in Susa, and fast for m e. Do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my attendants will fast as you do. When this is done, I will go to the king, even though it is against the law.” – This is an example of an absolute fast because of dire circumstances. The Jews were threatened with total extermination at the hands of Haman. This also shows the community-orientation of fasting.
  • Nehemiah 1:4 – “When I heard these things [that Jerusalem’s walls and gates were in ruins], I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven.” – A personal response to a dire situation. Fasting here is prompted by grief over God’s sacred place being in ruins. The outcome for Nehemiah is a humble willingness to be part of the solution.
  • Daniel 9:3 – “So I turned to the Lord god and pleaded with him in prayer and petition, in fasting, and in sackcloth and ashes.” – In response to understanding the time of God’s exile-judgment upon Israel for their sin, Daniel seeks God in national confession and repentant prayer.
  • Daniel 10:2-3 – “At that time I, Daniel, mourned for three weeks. I ate no choice food; no meat or wine touched my lips; and I used no lotions at all until the three weeks were over.” – This is an example of a partial, personal fast; here the reasons for the partial fast are unknown.
  • Psalm 35:13 – “Yet when they [David’s enemies] were ill, I put on sackcloth and humbled myself in fasting.” – David even goes so far as to fast and pray for his enemies.
  • Psalm 69:10 – “When I weep and fast…” – David made it part of his practice to fast in response to grief over accusations of others.
  • Psalm 109:24 – “My knees give way from fasting; my body is thin and gaunt.” – David seeking God’s help and justification from those who accuse him. Affirming fasting as a consistent aspect of the spirituality of Israel.
  • 2 Samuel 12:16-17 – “David pleaded with God for the child. He fasted and spent the nights lying on sackcloth on the ground. The elders of his household stood beside him to get him up from the ground, but he refused, and he would not eat any food with them.” – David is fasting both as a sign of repentance for his sins of adultery and murder, but also for God to intercede for the life of his new child from Bathsheba, who had been struck with illness by God.
  • Joel 1:14 & 2:15 – “Declare a holy fast; call a sacred assembly” – Here, fasting is a corporate gathering encouraged by the prophet Joel and issued by the elders of Israel in response to the impending judgment of God on the nation. Fasting here is connected with repentance.
  • 2 Chronicles 20:3-4 – “Alarmed [by the vast army coming from Edom], Jehoshaphat resolved to inquire of the Lord, and he proclaimed a fast for all Judah. The people of Judah came together to seek help from the Lord; indeed, they came from every town in Judah to seek Him.” – Again, we have an example of fasting corporately in response to a national emergency. Fasting here is connected with seeking God’s help.
  • Jonah 3:5 – “The Ninevites believed God. They declared a fast, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.” – Fasting as corporate response to the prophetic message of God. This is a unique example because it is a non-Israelite national response in repentance before God.
  • Deuteronomy 9:9 – “When I went up on the mountain to receive the tablets of stone, the tablets of the covenant that the Lord had made with you, I stayed on the mountain forty days and forty nights; I ate no bread and drank no water.” – This is Moses’ miraculous absolute fast of 40 days when receiving the law from God. This is mirrored by Elijah’s miraculous forty day absolute fast when fleeing from Jezebel and Ahab after the prophetic showdown on Mt. Horeb in  1 Kings 19:8.
  • Zechariah 8:19 – “This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘The fasts of the fourth, fifth, seventh and tenth months will become joyful and glad occasions and happy festivals for Judah.’” – Evidence here that regular fasts had become a part of the life of the nation of Israel.
  • Jeremiah 14:11-12 – “Then the Lord said to me, ‘Do not pray for the well-being of this people. Although they fast, I will not listen to their cry…” – Fasting here is empty because the people are disobedient and their hearts are not directed to God.
  • Isaiah 58:3-11 – “Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves?…Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and … to set the oppressed free?” – Isaiah rebukes the nation for empty fasting that is merely a formality while the essence of faith in God – justice and righteousness – is neglected. Such fasting is worse than useless.

8 thoughts on “Fasting: A View from the Old Testament

  1. Re. Daniel 10:2-3; you’ve mentioned that the reasons for the fast are unknown.

    While you are correct in the sense that the reasons for the personal, partial fast are not stipulated explicitly, the reasons may be explained in Daniel 10:12 – “… Since the first day that you set your mind to gain understanding and to humble yourself before your God, …”

    The following verse, Daniel 10:13, refers to a period of 21 days, which is the timeframe that Daniel fasted (3 weeks, as per Daniel 10:2), which adds support to the reason given above.

    This could all be circumstantial; alternatively, it could be that Daniel was seeking greater understanding – and humbled himself by fasting, to show his great desire to receive that understanding.

    Peace be with you.

    • Thanks for the feedback from Daniel 10 on fasting. Clearly, Daniel was searching for guidance from God about this, so you are right in pointing out these things. Thanks for the visit to my blog.

  2. Fasting,i see that it is speration from everything to seek God.His presence His guidence and His help,fasting is an act of truly”seeking God”

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