Scripture often links the spiritual discipline of prayer to fasting (Dan. 9:3; Luke 2:37). Since we just finished a brief look at old covenant prayer and its new covenant fulfillment, it is now proper to look at the spiritual discipline of fasting.
Our passage today records a fast Ezra the scribe once mandated. The setting is the Persian Empire, which in Ezra’s day had recently overthrown Babylon, the kingdom that destroyed Jerusalem in 586 BC and took captive the people of God (2 Kings 25). As it did with other people groups, Persia allowed the Israelites to go back to their homeland, and Ezra went back to enact various religious reforms (Ezra 7:1–8:20). Traveling on the roads was not very safe back then. Thieves and bandits often waited to ambush caravans, and in the particular case of the Jews, there were neighbors who would have been all too happy to assault Ezra and his band of returning exiles (see Neh. 4:7–8). This put Ezra and his caravan in a precarious position, especially since no royal guard accompanied them back. So Ezra proclaimed a fast, and the Lord answered, giving the people a safe journey to Jerusalem (Ezra 8:21–23).
Why the fast? In the first place, it was due to the desperate situation in which the people found themselves and their need to show their dependence on God’s kindness. Going without food put the people in a state of helplessness that helped them understand how they had to rely on His grace in every situation. This fast further aided them to implore the Lord for help with all their hearts. This is not to say that their fasting guaranteed God would respond favorably, for fasting is not done in hopes of binding the Lord to a certain course of action. John Piper explains: “[Fasting] is not first offered to God that we might be paid back because of it. It is first given by God that we might benefit from it and that he might be glorified through it” (A Hunger for God, p. 177). Fasting reminds us of our creatureliness and moves us to learn better what it means to depend on our Creator, thereby glorifying His name.
The Lord may not give us precisely what we request each time we fast, as we may not ask according to God’s will. Nevertheless, Piper says, “God is committed to rewarding those acts of the human heart that signify human helplessness and hope in God” (p. 178). If we humbly seek Him as we fast, the Lord will certainly bless us.
Fasting places no obligation upon the sovereign God to respond in a way we have asked. Yet He does take special delight in us when we show our helplessness in fasting, and He will respond by giving us a greater knowledge of Himself, a deep sense of our dependence on His grace, and maybe even the specific request we bring to Him. Perhaps we would see the Lord move more mightily in the church if we fasted more often.