Home > Theology > The Meaning of Fasting – some thoughts

The Meaning of Fasting – some thoughts

One of the longest passages dealing with fasting is found in Isaiah. I think, we can gain considerable understanding from this passage about what fasting is.

Here is the passage in question:

Isa. 58
1 "Cry aloud, spare not, lift up your voice like a trumpet; declare to my people their transgression, to the house of Jacob their sins. 2 Yet they seek me daily, and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that did righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God. 3 `Why have we fasted, and you see it not? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?' Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure, and oppress all your workers. 4 Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to hit with wicked fist. Fasting like yours this day will not make your voice to be heard on high. 5 Is such the fast that I choose, a day for a man to humble himself? Is it to bow down his head like a rush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Will you call this a fast, and a day acceptable to the LORD? 6 "Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? 7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? 8 Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you, the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard. 9 Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry, and he will say, Here I am. "If you take away from the midst of you the yoke, the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness, 10 if you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday. 11 And the LORD will guide you continually, and satisfy your desire with good things, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters fail not. 12 And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to dwell in. 13 "If you turn back your foot from the sabbath, from doing your pleasure on my holy day, and call the sabbath a delight and the holy day of the LORD honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, or seeking your own pleasure, or talking idly; 14 then you shall take delight in the LORD, and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth; I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken."
The passage is written to "the house of Jacob", that is, the Jewish people. They turned away from God, yet, they performed the ordinances of the religion, and didn't understand why God didn't hear them.

So the passage said, they fasted and humbled themselves (at least they thought they did), but at the same time they were blind to their sins, and they

  • sought their own pleasure;
  • oppress all their workers;
  • quarrelled, fought and were beating up each other.

But fasting was more than what they thought. One had to self-examine himself in humility before God, repent from his sins and do charitable work. Here is a quickly assembled list of deeds from the passage one should do and not do while fasting.


  • to loose the bonds of wickedness;
  • to undo the thongs of the yoke;
  • to let the oppressed go free;
  • to break every yoke;
  • to share one's bread with the hungry (the food one doesn't eat while fasting, or its equivalent value);
  • to bring the homeless poor into one's house;
  • to cover the naked;
  • to stop pointing the finger;
  • to stop speaking wickedness;
  • to pour oneself out for the hungry;
  • to satisfy the desire of the afflicted.


  • not to do one's pleasure on God's holy day, and the same time calling the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of the LORD honorable;
  • not to go one's own ways;
  • not to seek one's own pleasure;
  • not to talk idly.

Fasting was about real humility before God, self examination and repentance from sins, and doing charity that is commanded in the law. Simply abstaining from food for the sake of achieving a sense of higher spirituality is not fasting in the biblical sense. One may save lots of money fasting for two weeks or forty days, but if the money doesn't go to the homeless, if the result is not repentance and good deeds, doing such a thing is pointless.

Let us see another example, Niniveh. It was such a sinful city, that Jonah continually tried to get away from the mission God gave him. In the end he gave in and went into the city proclaiming the judgment of God against them.

Then we read the following,

Jonah 3:
5 And the people of Nin'eveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them.
6 Then tidings reached the king of Nin'eveh, and he arose from his throne, removed his robe, and covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. 7 And he made proclamation and published through Nin'eveh, "By the decree of the king and his nobles: Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything; let them not feed, or drink water, 8 but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and let them cry mightily to God; yea, let every one turn from his evil way and from the violence which is in his hands. 9 Who knows, God may yet repent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we perish not?"

Fasting was connected with repentance and seeking the mercy of God.

I hope, these examples give us an insight about what fasting is.

Categories: Theology
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