Should We Fast?
In 518 BC, the Israelite city of Bethel sent a delegation of two men to Jerusalem with a question. These two men, Sharezer and Regemmelech, asked the prophets Zechariah and Haggai, as well as the priests, "Shall I weep in the fifth month and abstain, as I have done these many years?" (Zechariah 7:3)
This question was especially relevant because it had been 20 years since King Cyrus the Great, having established the Persian Empire, sent Jews back to Jerusalem and financed the rebuilding of God's temple. Prior to that, Jews everywhere had been mourning the destruction of the temple in 586 BC with a fast, known as Tisha B’Av.
During Haggai and Zechariah's ministry, God was leading the people of Jerusalem to rebuild the temple. Consequently, these men wanted to know if it is still appropriate to fast in remembrance of the former temple's destruction?
The same concern is one that Christians have today. Are there appropriate times to fast? If so, how do we know when? Should we follow a religious calendar which tells us to fast at certain times of year?
God gave an answer to these two men through Zechariah the prophet; but it was not a brief "yes" or "no". It stretches from chapter 7:4 to 8:23 because God used the opportunity to lay out a doctrine of fasting and feasting.
Zechariah 7:4-7 criticizes the Jews' practice of fasting. "When you fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh months these seventy years, was it actually for me you fasted?" (7:5). God's question points out the self-centered nature of their fast. Significantly, God did not institute this fast nor the other three which mourned Babylon's attack. The people instituted these fasts to mourn their own loss in Babylon's destruction rather than mourning how they had displeased God. They were grieved by sins' consequences, rather than sin itself.
Zechariah 7:8-14 reminds the Jews of why God destroyed the temple. He had told them to live with love and justice, but, "they refused to give heed and turned a stubborn shoulder and dulled their ears from hearing...so that they could not hear the law and the words which Yahweh of hosts had sent by His Spirit...therefore great wrath came from Yahweh of hosts." (7:11-12) The nation's hatefulness and unwillingness to listen to God brought about their punishment.
Zechariah 8:1-8 shows that God still has wonderful plans for Jerusalem. "I will return to Zion and will dwell in the midst of Jerusalem...Old men and old women will again sit in the streets of Jerusalem...the streets of the city will be filled with boys and girls playing in the streets...Behold, I am going to save My people...and they shall be My people, and I will be their God in truth and righteousness" (8:3-8). This looks forward to the second-coming of Christ when God will save Israel spiritually and protect them physically in order to make them the nation he promised to Abraham in Genesis.
Zechariah 8:9-17 instructs the Jews of Zechariah's day to prioritize the rebuilding of the temple (9-13) and to live with each other in a truthful and loving way (14-17) based on faith in God's promise to protect them, "I have again purposed in these days to do good to Jerusalem and to the house of Judah. Do not fear!" (8:15) Rather than lying and doing evil to preserve themselves, God wanted these returned Jewish exiles to trust in Him to provide and model His righteousness to the nations.
In Zechariah 8:18-19, God answers the delegates' original question "The fast of the fourth, the fast of the fifth, the fast of the seventh, and the fast of the tenth months will become joy, gladness, and merry appointed feasts for the house of Judah; so love truth and peace." Each of these fasts mourned different stages in Jerusalem's destruction: the "fast of the tenth" mourned the beginning of Babylon's siege of Jerusalem (Jeremiah 39:1); the "fast of the fourth" mourned when Babylon broke through Jerusalem's gate (Jeremiah 52:6-7); the "fast of the fifth" mourned the burning of the temple (Jeremiah 52:12-13); and the "fast of the seventh" mourned the assassination of Judah's governor, Gedaliah (Jeremiah 41:1-2).
God told them to turn all these fast days into feast days. He wanted them to stop mourning what He did in the past and start to celebrate what He would do in the present and the future.
Zechariah 8:20-23 is the final part of God's reply. It goes beyond the rebuilding of the temple to show how Jerusalem will be the most honored city one day when Yahweh personally dwells in it, "So many peoples and mighty nations will come to seek Yahweh of hosts in Jerusalem and to entreat the favor of Yahweh...In those days ten men from every tongue of the nations will take hold of the garment of a Jew, saying "Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you." (8:22-23) God, after he redeems Israel, will use them to testify to all the world about Himself. This is the final fulfillment of his covenant to Abraham, "And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed." (Genesis 12:3) Gentiles who have saving faith in Jesus Christ will be joined with Israel in God's blessing and honor at this time (Romans 11:17-24).
To answer the question in this article's title, yes, sometimes it is appropriate for Christians to fast. Jesus taught Christians about fasting in Matthew 6:16-18, and he did not say "Now, if you fast", but "Now, whenever you fast" because fasting is a natural part of a believer's relationship with God.
Jesus' teaching indicates that fasting is the right response when you might feel "gloomy" (6:16). But He warns them to wash and look normal so that "your fasting will not be noticed by men, but by your Father" (6:18). Acts records that the church fasted as they sought God's guidance for how to evangelize (13:2-3). Importantly, no place in the New Testament sets a calendar date for when and how long to fast. God wants the motive for fasting to be an expression of our heart to Him.
Likewise, it's important for Christians to celebrate. Philippians 4:4 says "Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!" As we reflect on what God is doing to save us and how He will use us in His kingdom, we can take time throughout the year to rejoice in thanksgiving for all His grace to us.
The message of these two chapters is one which should be refreshing for us who love God. He doesn't want us to live by the traditions of a religious order; He wants us to live by His word, to love our neighbors, and, whether by feasting or fasting, He wants our hearts tuned in to what He is doing. What are the blessings God has brought on your life? Where are the areas of pain or discipline that He has allowed? He is pleased when we respond to Him throughout the day, the week, and the year with a sincere song, regardless of whether our tune is in a minor or major key.