Quotations from faithful Reformers and Reformed Confessions and Creeds as well as from the Word of God.
A religious fast day involves a total abstinence from meat and drink, as well as worldly business
From the New Testament:
The word “fast” in the New Testament (by good and necessary consequences) means absence from food:
- “And when he had fasted forty days and forty nights, he was afterward an hungred.” (Matt 4:2)
- “And if I send them away fasting to their own houses, they will faint by the way: for divers of them came from far.” (Mark 8:3; Matthew 15:32 similar)
- “And while the day was coming on, Paul besought them all to take meat, saying, This day is the fourteenth day that ye have tarried and continued fasting, having taken nothing.” (Acts 27:33)
Abstinence is included in the nature of the thing; abstinence from meat and drink, and all bodily pleasures whatsoever, as well as ceasing from worldly business. The Jews are taxed for finding pleasure and exacting their labour in the day of their fast (Isa 58:3). A time of religious fasting is a time for one’s “afflicting his soul” (Isa 58:5), by denying himself even those lawful comforts and delights which he may freely use at other times.
“The people mourned, and no man did put on him his ornaments.” (Exo 33:4)
“I set my face unto the Lord God, to seek by prayer, and supplications, with fasting, and sackcloth and ashes.” (Dan 9:3)
“Defraud ye not one the other, except it be with consent for a time, that ye may give yourselves to fasting and prayer.” (1 Cor 7:8)
Jacobus a Brakel:
Fasting is a special religious exercise in which a believer deprives himself for a day from all that invigorates the body, humbling himself in body and soul before God as a means to obtain what he desires…
- It consists, first of all, in a depriving ourselves of all food (being expressed by the word fasting), for he who partakes of any food has broken the fast. Observe this in Esther 4:16: “… fast ye for me, and neither eat nor drink.”
- Secondly, on a day of fasting we are to deprive ourselves of all external ornamentation…
- Thirdly, on a day of fasting we must deprive ourselves of all entertainment such as recreational games; taking a walk for the purpose of seeing gardens, ornamental works of art, or plantations; or going out by boat or horse and carriage merely for pleasure. “Behold, in the day of your fast ye find pleasure.” (Isa 58:3) One must even refrain from marital union (1 Cor 7:5)…
- Fourthly, we must also refrain from performing the labors of our calling. “And whatsoever soul it be that doeth any work in that same day, the same soul will I destroy from among his people. It shall be unto you a sabbath of rest.” (Lev 23:30,32)
In speaking of the sins of fastings and prayer, we are guilty [when we]:
- Will not leave our pleasures or work for it.
- By eating unnecessarily, though it be little…
A religious fast is sanctifying a day to the Lord by a willing abstinence from meat [food] and drink and from delights and worldly labours, that the whole man may be more thoroughly humbled before God and more fervent in prayer. This fast has two parts: the one, outward, chastening the body; the other, inward, the afflicting of the soul; under which are contained all those religious acts which concern the setting of the heart right towards God, and the seeking help of God for those things for which the fast is intended.
Westminster Directory of Publick Worship:
A religious fast requires total abstinence, not only from all food, (unless bodily weakness do manifestly disable from holding out till the fast be ended, in which case somewhat may be taken, yet very sparingly, to support nature, when ready to faint,) but also from all worldly labour, discourses, and thoughts, and from all bodily delights, and such like, (although at other times lawful,) rich apparel, ornaments, and such like, during the fast; …
Those of weak constitution are exempted from total abstinence of food & drink
The rule for abstinence from meat and drink cannot be the same as to all; for fasting, not being a part of worship, but a means to dispose and fit us for extraordinary worshipping, is to be used only as helping thereto; but it is certain, that what measure of it would be helpful to some for that end would be a great hindrance to others. Wherefore weakly persons, whom total abstinence would disfit [i.e., fit badly] and indispose for duty, are not called to fast at that rate. In their case, that saying takes place: “I desired mercy and not sacrifice.” (Hos 6:6) Yet they ought not, in that case, to indulge themselves the use of meat and drink with the same freedom as at other times, but to use a partial abstinence, altering the quantity and/or quality of them, so as they may thereby be afflicted, as the Scripture expresses it (Lev 23:29). So Daniel in his mourning, “Eat no pleasant bread, neither came flesh nor wine into his month.” (Dan 10:3)
Jacobus a Brakel:
Question: Are all men obligated to fast for an entire day? Would one then, upon becoming somewhat faint and thus unfit for prayer and other duties of that day, be able to eat something, such as a piece of bread or something similar?
Answer: In respect to certain persons the rule applies, “I desired mercy, and not sacrifice.” (Hos 6:6) This applies to women who have given birth, the sick, nursing mothers, those who are exceptionally weak (even though not sick), nursing babies, as well as children who must be dealt with according to their age. Some are not to be deprived of anything, others are to be given as little as possible, and again others need to learn how to fast. However, the healthy must deprive themselves of everything for the entire time. To become somewhat faint is the objective of fasting, and one must not shrink back from that objective. The pretense of being unfit for prayer issues forth from the opinion that fasting is no more than an exercise to become more fit for prayer and similar exercises. Such believe that this faintness is not a part of fasting, thinking that it is only spiritual in nature. One will also experience that, rather than becoming unfit, this faintness will render one more fit to pray with increased humility, as well as cause one to call upon God with the disposition of one who is entirely destitute. Even if the manifestation of all this is not as vehement as is otherwise the case, toward the evening, prayer will become more earnest, and then at times a special blessing will follow.
We may sin by not eating, when not eating disables us in duties. (Yet the body ought to be in such a measure affected, as may not hinder us in prayer, but many scarce suffer it to be touched, or in the least measure affected or afflicted with abstinence.)
As well as abstinence from food, drink & work, a religious fast day involves religious exercises
Meanwhile, all these things are but the outward shell of these duties; the internal and substantial part of them lies in the following spiritual exercises:
- Serious meditation and consideration of our ways…
- Deep humiliation of the soul before the Lord…
- Free and open confession of sin before God…
- The exercise of repentance in turning from sin unto God…
- Solemn covenanting with God…
- Extraordinary prayer…
Jacobus a Brakel:
The second aspect of fasting is a humbling of ourselves according to body and soul. Soul and body are so intimately united that the ill disposition of the one begets the ill disposition of the other. When the body, due to the withdrawal of all refreshment, is rendered feeble, pliable, and is subdued, the soul will also be in such a disposition; and thus, the natural disposition takes on a spiritual dimension.
Fasting, in and of itself, is not a religious practice. It is only so when it is a seeking after God by way of fasting. He who has merely deprived himself of all refreshment has not partially observed a day of fasting, for fasting and a humbling of ourselves are not two separate duties. Fasting must be characterised by a humbling of ourselves, and the humbling of ourselves must be done by way of fasting.
Fasting serves but one purpose: to facilitate the humbling of the soul; it has no significance beyond that. Since fasting facilitates this, however, the act as such is nevertheless required. It is an essential aspect of a day of fasting—however, only in union with, and thus inseparable from, the humbling of ourselves. They do not function in a dual sense, but in unison.
A humbling of one’s self consists in:
- The confession of sin…
- Declaring ourselves to be worthy of judgment…
- A supplicating for grace, frequently accompanied with weeping…
- A renewal of the covenant with the wholehearted intent to forsake former sins and to live a godly life…
In our going about it [i.e., fasting], we sin:
- When the right end of a fast is mistaken, and it is not considered as a means to help us to a more spiritual frame.
- When we neglect Christ and turn legal in it.
If you fast strictly for bodily abstinence, then it is an indifferent thing and is no part of God’s worship. But if it is joined with the inward part, and is referred to a religious end, being a profession of an extraordinary humiliation, then it is a great assistance to a man’s spiritual and reasonable service of God. It gives a stronger and speedier wing to prayer, which must always go with it (Ezra 8:23; Ps 35:13) so it is more than an ordinary worship. Fasting has the name from the outward part (Mark 9:29; 1st Cor 7:5; & Acts 13:3), it being most sensible [noticeable]; but its excellency and efficacy is from the inward, being that [purpose] for which the outward is observed.
A Fast Day ordinarily involves a 24 hour fast
We find the saints in scripture ordinarily kept their fasts by day. But we have an instance of a personal fast kept by night, 2 Sam 12:16, “David fasted, and went in, and lay all night upon the earth.” (I simply note this to obviate the excuse of those who quite neglect this duty under the pretence of their not being masters of their own time. If the heart can be brought to it, one will readily find some time or other for it, either by day or else by night.) It is recorded to the honour of one of the weaker sex, viz., Anna, that she “served God with fastings and prayers night and day.” (Luke 2:36, 37)
Jacobus a Brakel:
The duration of fasting is limited to a twenty-four hour period—from evening to evening.
The Scripture has not determined how long a continued fast should be kept. We have examples that some have fasted a longer time, as three days (Esth 4:16); some a shorter, but none less than one day. (Judg 20:26)