Usually, fasting is the abstaining from food for a certain period of time. There are different types of fasting in the Bible, however, and not all of them involve food. Many people in the Bible fasted, including Moses, David, and Daniel in the Old Testament and Anna, Paul, and Jesus Christ in the New Testament. Many important figures in Christian history attested to fasting’s value, as do many Christians today.
Biblical fasting is often closely linked to repentance, as in the examples of David, the nation of Israel, and the city of Nineveh. Fasting is also related to passionate prayer, as in the examples of King Jehoshaphat and Queen Esther. Biblical fasting comes from a humble heart seeking God (Isaiah 58:3–7). John MacArthur comments on Isaiah 58: “The people complained when God did not recognize their religious actions, but God responded that their fastings had been only half-hearted. Hypocritical fasting resulted in contention, quarreling, and pretense, excluding the possibility of genuine prayer to God. Fasting consisted of more than just an outward ritual and a mock repentance, it involved penitence over sin and consequent humility, disconnecting from sin and oppression of others, feeding the hungry, and acting humanely toward those in need.”
The regular fast is done by abstaining from all food, both solid and liquid, except for water. This is the type of fasting Judah’s King Jehoshaphat called for when his country was confronted with invasion (2 Chronicles 20:3). The Lord defeated their enemies, and the men of Judah blessed the Lord (2 Chronicles 20:24–27). After the Babylonian Captivity, the people returning to Jerusalem prayed and fasted, asking God for His protection on their journey (Ezra 8:21). The Lord Jesus fasted during His forty days in the wilderness being tempted by Satan (Luke 4:2). When Jesus was hungry, Satan tempted Him to turn the stones into bread, to which Jesus replied, “Man shall not live by bread alone” (Luke 4:4).
Another type of biblical fasting is the partial fast. The prophet Daniel spent three weeks fasting from certain foods. In Daniel 10, the prophet says, “I, Daniel, mourned for three weeks. I ate no choice food; no meat or wine touched my lips; and I used no lotions at all until the three weeks were over” (Daniel 10:2–3). Note that Daniel’s fast to express his grief on this occasion only omitted “choice” food, and it also involved relinquishing the use of oils and “lotions” for refreshment. Today, many Christians follow this example and abstain from certain foods or activities for a short time, looking to the Lord for their comfort and strength.
Also mentioned in the Bible is the absolute fast, or the full fast, where no food or water is consumed. When Esther discovered the plan for all the Jews to be killed in Persia, she and her fellow Jews fasted from food and water for three days before she entered the king’s courts to ask for his mercy (Esther 4:16). Another example of an absolute fast is found in the story of Saul’s conversion. The murderous Saul encountered Jesus in His glory on the road to Damascus. “For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything” (Acts 9:9). Immediately following that time of blindness and fasting, Saul dedicated his life to preaching Jesus Christ.
In the cases of Esther and Saul, the absolute fast only lasted three days. However, Moses and Elijah took part in miraculous, forty-day absolute fasts. When Moses met God on the mountaintop to receive the tablets of stone, he ate no bread and drank no water (Deuteronomy 9:9). And, after Elijah defeated the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel, infuriating Queen Jezebel, Elijah fled for his life and spent forty days of fasting in the wilderness (1 Kings 19).
The Bible also mentions a sexual fast, although not by that name. In Exodus 19:15, the people of Israel were to prepare for their encounter with the Lord at Mt. Sinai, and part of their preparation was to abstain from sexual relations for three days. And in 1 Corinthians 7:5 Paul says that a married couple can mutually agree to abstain from sex for a short period of time in order to devote themselves to prayer. But then they are to “come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.”
The purpose of fasting is not to get God to respond as a genie in a bottle to grant our every wish. Fasting, whether it is regular, partial, absolute, or sexual, is a seeking after God’s heart, all other blessings and benefits being secondary to God Himself. This is what sets apart biblical fasting from other religious and cultural practices around the world.