Fasting To Be Heard On High
By Arthur Wallis
"So we fasted and besought our God for this; and He listened to our entreaty" (Ezra 8:23).
Isaiah lived in a day when formalism and hypocrisy had rendered the religious exercise of fasting obnoxious to God. But we need to remember that this was also true of their offerings, their prayers and their worship (Isa. 1:10-15). In that remarkable chapter on fasting, the 58th of Isaiah, God not only uncovered the self-seeking and self-pleasing which lay behind this show of piety, but He went on to unfold the character of the fast that He had chosen, and the blessing that it could bring to others as well as themselves.
Fasting is here connected with seeking God, drawing near to God, prevailing with God. These ends, however, were not being realized because their motive in fasting was not a right one. God had to say: "Fasting like yours this day will not make your voice to be heard on high" (Isa. 58:4). But that is clearly one thing that fasting is intended to do, for describing the fast that He has chosen, God goes on to say, "Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer" (Isa. 58:9).
Fasting is designed to make prayer mount up as on eagles' wings. It is intended to usher the suppliant into the audience chamber of the King and to extend to him the golden sceptre. It may be expected to drive back the oppressing powers of darkness and loosen their hold on the prayer objective. It is calculated to give an edge to a man's intercessions and power to his petitions. Heaven is ready to bend its ear to listen when someone prays with fasting.
How often we have made earnest prayer to God for some specific need, with the assurance that this was in the will of God, and yet there has been no answer from heaven. Why? It could well be, and often is, that God is saying to us, "When you seek Me with all your heart, I will be found by you" (Jer. 29:13-14). When a man is willing to set aside the legitimate appetites of the body to concentrate on the work of praying, he is demonstrating that he means business, that he is seeking with all his heart, and will not let God go unless He answers.
This thought of fasting being an expression of wholeheartedness is clear from Joel's call to the nation: "Yet even now, says the Lord, return to Me with all your heart, with fasting..." (Joel 2:12).
Says Andrew Murray: "Fasting helps to express, to deepen, and to confirm the resolution that we are ready to sacrifice anything, to sacrifice ourselves to attain what we seek for the kingdom of God."
Closely related to this is the idea of fasting as giving power to a demand, of bringing pressure to bear in support of one's request. There was an ancient Irish custom of "fasting against or upon a person," which meant, "to sit without food or drink at the door of a debtor, or any person who refused to satisfy a lawful demand." Outside the spiritual realm this is seen in fasts that have been undertaken by politicians, prisoners, or others, to bring pressure to bear on authorities, and to obtain desired ends.
Without doubt this is an important aspect of the fasting prayer. Of course, we must not think of fasting as a hunger strike designed to force God's hand and get our own way! Prayer, however, is much more complex than simply asking a loving father to supply his child's need. Prayer is warfare! Prayer is wrestling! There are opposing forces. There are spiritual crosscurrents. When we plead our case in the court of heaven, when we cry to the Judge of all the earth, "Vindicate me against my adversary" (Luke 18:3), that adversary is also represented in court (Job 1:6; 2:1; Zech. 3:1). It is not enough that the Judge is willing: there is the opposition that must first be overcome.
This is a realm of deep mystery. Scripture states the facts but does not explain them. Importunity is needful in the spiritual realm. Often pressure has to be maintained before the breakthrough comes in the heavenly warfare. There are situations that call for "men of violence" who take the kingdom by force (Matt. 11:12). And all this is no reflection on the willingness of the Most High to fulfill the desires of those who fear Him. Fasting is calculated to bring a note of urgency and importunity into our praying, and to give force to our pleading in the court of heaven.
The man who prays with fasting is giving heaven notice that he is truly in earnest; that he will not give up nor let God go without the blessing; that he does not intend to take "no" for an answer. Not only so, but he is expressing his earnestness in a divinely-appointed way. He is using a means that God has chosen to make his voice to be heard on high.
Fasting to Turn the Tide
Fasting was sometimes the climax of earnest and prolonged supplication. When the heavens remained as brass despite earnest and persistent prayer, men were sometimes driven in their desperation to fasting as the only solution. The Benjamites committed a terrible crime and God told the other tribes to go up against them. They did, and were twice heavily defeated, though they prayed and wept before the Lord. The third time they fasted as well as wept, and God gave them overwhelming victory (Judg. 20). What power with God to turn the tide has prayer accompanied by fasting!
Again and again the Israelites fasted in times of national emergency, and what appeared to be certain disaster was averted. And are there no occasions today when death or danger threaten us, that we so seldom employ this means of grace? When Ezra was carrying a large consignment of gold and silver to the temple in Jerusalem along a route infested with bandits, he records, "I proclaimed a fast...that we might humble ourselves before our God, to seek from Him a straight way for ourselves, our children, and all our goods" (Ezra 8:21-31). How wonderfully God answered! Do we never face crucial situations calling for divine guidance or protection, that require us to do as Ezra did?
Daniel sought God with fasting, for the fulfillment of the promise of the restoration of Jerusalem (Jer. 29:10-13), and received through the angel Gabriel a wonderful unfolding of God's plan for Israel (Dan. 9). If we have sought God in vain for the fulfillment of some promise, it could be that He is waiting for us to humble ourselves and seek Him as Daniel did.
Saul of Tarsus, following his conversion on the road to Damascus, and still blinded by the glory of that light, had been fasting for three days without food or water. His heart was being prepared for further blessing God had for him. Then a disciple called Ananias was sent to lay hands on him that his sight might be restored, and that he might be filled with the Holy Spirit (Acts 9:10-18).
Is it some healing touch that we have looked for in vain, despite the assurance of His promise? Or are we still seeking the filling with the Spirit and wondering why our prayers are not heard? We think we are waiting for heaven, but heaven is waiting for us. When heaven can point out the fasting suppliant, and declare, "Behold, he is praying," the answer will surely be at the doors.
In giving us the privilege of fasting as well as praying, God has added a powerful weapon to our spiritual armory. In her folly and ignorance the church has largely looked upon it as obsolete. She has thrown it down in some dark corner to rust and there it has lain forgotten for centuries. An hour of impending crisis for the church and the world demands its recovery!
Fasting to Change God's Mind
"The people of Nineveh believed God, and proclaimed a fast...And God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God repented of the evil, that He had said that He would do unto them; and He did it not" (Jon. 3:5, 10).
The power to prevail with God was never more clearly demonstrated in Bible times than when a pronouncement of divine judgment was averted or deferred through prayer and fasting. "Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!" cried the Hebrew prophet. The king of Nineveh proclaimed an absolute fast for man and beast, while the people cried mightily to God, and turned from their evil way. "Who knows," ran the royal proclamation, "God may yet repent and turn from His fierce anger, so that we perish not." Nor were they disappointed in this hope, for "God repented of the evil which He had said He would do to them; and He did not do it."
The Ninevites' repentance, expressed in prayer and fasting, moved God to change the decree of judgment He had pronounced against them. This action on the part of God presents us with a theological poser. God is revealed as omniscient, as One who sees the end from the beginning. His foreknowledge is complete and infallible. His character and counsels are immutable. "I am the Lord, I change not" (Mal. 3:6). All Scripture affirms that these are the attributes of the Almighty, and our common sense tells us that without them God would not be God.
Why, then, do so many Old Testament Scriptures affirm that "the Lord repented," or changed His mind? God certainly foreknew, when He sent Jonah, that Nineveh would repent, and that its destruction would be averted. This was God's purpose in sending him, that He might extend mercy towards this people. Jonah's message of impending judgment was therefore conditional, though this was not clearly revealed to Jonah, or declared to the Ninevites.
God has inflexible laws in dealing with men. Sin is visited with judgment, but repentance with mercy. God has declared Himself on this point in the plainest of terms:
"At what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, and to pull down, and to destroy it; if that nation, against whom I have pronounced, turn from their evil, I will repent of the evil that I thought to do unto them " (Jer. 18:7-8).
This repentance of God, therefore, does not imply any caprice on His part, but is wholly in keeping with His intentions declared beforehand. Because man repents in respect to sin, God repents in respect to judgment. Strictly speaking, then, it is not God that really changes, but man. Man's change of heart makes it morally possible for God to behave differently towards him, yet acting consistently with His holy character and principles.
Why, then, does Scripture say that God repented, or changed His mind? This is an example of a common figure of speech in the Hebrew Scriptures by which God's person or action is viewed from the human standpoint. We may think of this as the Holy Spirit's use of language which is an accommodation to our finite understanding. So far as His declared intentions are concerned we may say that God repented, for these were conditional; but as far as His character and principles are concerned, "God is not man...that He should repent" (Num. 23:19).
After the murder of Naboth and Ahab's compulsory acquisition of his vineyard, God sent Elijah to pronounce divine judgment upon him. "When Ahab heard those words...he rent his clothes, and put sackcloth upon his flesh, and fasted." God then declared, "Because he humbled himself before Me, I will not bring the evil in his days; but in his son's days" (1 Kgs. 21:27-29). Judgment was deferred because even such a man as Ahab was prepared to humble his soul with fasting. How great is God's mercy! How great the power of fasting to call it forth!
David had evidently grasped this fact concerning prayer and fasting. Because of his grievous sin in the matter of Uriah, God had said that his baby son, born of Bathsheba, would die. When the child sickened David knew that if there was anything that could alter the decree of judgment, it was prayer and fasting. "David therefore besought God for the child; and David fasted, and went in and lay all night upon the ground." After the death of the baby, David explained: "While the child was yet alive, I fasted and wept: for I said, Who can tell whether God will be gracious to me, that the child may live?" (2 Sam. 12:16, 22).
Among the nations of the West we are witnessing a rising tide of godlessness and lawlessness, similar to that which culminated in the wiping out of civilization by the flood. The sins which brought fire and brimstone from heaven upon Sodom and Gomorrah are fast becoming socially acceptable. Those who should be preachers of righteousness and upholders of the law of God speak out in defense of "the new morality." Surely the writing is upon the wall. The overtones of coming judgment are clear enough to those who have ears to hear.
Even if heaven has issued the decree and the wheels are already in motion, there is still a mighty weapon to which we can have recourse.
"Therefore also now, saith the Lord, turn ye even to Me with all your heart, and with fasting, and with weeping, and with mourning: and rend your heart, and not your garments" (Joel 2:12-13).
And then the prophet adds, as though by way of explanation: "Who knoweth if He will return and repent, and leave a blessing behind Him?" (Joel 2:14). It seems clear from the prophetic Scriptures that ultimately judgment must fall upon the Christ-rejecting nations. Even Nineveh was ultimately overthrown. But if God can find those who will stand in the gap, even in this eleventh hour, and humble themselves with prayer and fasting, there may yet be a lengthening of our tranquility. God may yet turn and repent and leave a blessing behind Him, giving us mercy instead of wrath, and revival instead of judgment. Such a deferring of the evil day could mean the salvation of multitudes, but there is no time to be lost!
– Taken from God's Chosen Fast by Arthur Wallis, published by Christian Literature Crusade. Copyright © 1968. Used by permission.