Summary: True fasting will lead the liberated soul to seek relief and liberty for others
THE NATURE OF TRUE FASTING
Surprisingly, the only place where the law of Moses commands fasting is in the “affliction of soul” associated with the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:29-31; Leviticus 23:27-32; Numbers 29:7). This is apt, as it immediately associates fasting with repentance and forgiveness. The danger is that even a public solemn fast can be entered into glibly, as a matter of form and ritual, and without sincerity.
There are of course plenty of examples of individuals fasting. Moses famously fasted forty days and forty nights when he received the ten commandments (Exodus 34:28). Elijah similarly went in the strength of the food which he had eaten forty days and forty nights when he visited Horeb, the mountain of God (1 Kings 19:8). Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness where he also fasted forty days and forty nights, and was tempted by the devil (Luke 4:1-2).
David fasted when his child was struck with sickness (2 Samuel 12:16). Ezra the priest fasted on behalf of the people (Ezra 10:6). Daniel fasted on one occasion for “three whole weeks” (Daniel 10:3). Saul of Tarsus fasted three days as he awaited his instructions from the Lord after his conversion (Acts 9:9). Cornelius was fasting just before the commencement of the mission to the Gentiles (Acts 10:30).
It is also significant that the leadership of the church was in the habit of fasting. Paul and Barnabas were sent on their mission from Antioch with prayer and fasting (Acts 13:2-3). Likewise Paul and Barnabas themselves used prayer with fasting when appointing elders in the churches (Acts 14:23).
On occasion the whole company of God's people would fast. There were times of national repentance (1 Samuel 7:6); national mourning (2 Samuel 1:12); and national emergency (Judges 20:26). It would be good if the leaders of nations would take notice of this today!
Religious fasting is clearly commanded by the LORD in the book of Joel (Joel 1:14; Joel 2:12). After the destruction of Jerusalem the dispersed Jews set aside certain fast days for the duration of the exile (Zechariah 7:1-7). Jesus appears to take it for granted that His followers will also fast, but warns against hypocrisy (Matthew 6:16-18).
Uniformity of worship can sometimes obscure the righteous from the unrighteous, the sincere from the insincere worshippers of God. There is no doubt as to the presence of outward conformity in the opening two verses of our chapter, but there is an underlying irony in the phraseology.
God's people are seen and heard to be “crying aloud,” but have yet to discover their transgression. They behave as if their righteousness was not in dispute, and yet they have forsaken the ordinance of their God (Isaiah 58:1-2).
There is a difference between praying and “saying prayers.” It is the difference between engaging with God, and acting out a sham. This is the root of the word “hypocrisy,” and even as Christians we must be wary of it.
“When you fast,” says Jesus, “be not as the hypocrites” (Matthew 6:16). They make every appearance of fasting, but their hearts are not right. They only want the praise of men, and “verily” they have the reward they desire!
When we are only going through the motions of true worship it is easy to blame God when things go wrong. “We did our part,” we say, and we presume that therefore God should do His part. We want to find fault with our covenant God, yet it is He who finds fault with us (Isaiah 58:3).
The fast day, He accuses, is no different from any other day. We treat it as we do the Sabbath, working (Isaiah 58:3), doing our own thing, finding our own pleasure and speaking our own words (Isaiah 58:13). There is ongoing strife and debate, exploitation and argument, just like any other day (Isaiah 58:4).
God knows the difference between true fasting and false. True repentance is a gift from God, and a profane person may well fall short of finding it even though they seek it, like Esau, with tears (Hebrews 12:17). No amount of grovelling and genuflection will hide the inward nature of a hypocrite (Isaiah 58:5).
True fasting will lead the liberated soul to seek relief and liberty for others (Isaiah 58:6). After all, the gift of forgiveness is a gift to be shared (1 John 2:1-2). This is basic to the gospel, where deliverance is proclaimed to the captives (Luke 4:18).
When the Babylonians were outside the walls of Jerusalem, the King of Judah made a covenant with his people that they should set free their Hebrew slaves. The princes and the people obeyed, probably because it meant they had less mouths to feed during the crisis, but when the enemy withdrew the slaves were brought back into subjection (Jeremiah 34:8-22). The whole transaction was thus shown to be hypocritical.