Ezra 8:21 There, by the Ahava Canal, I proclaimed a fast, so that we might humble ourselves before our God and ask him for a safe journey for us and our children, with all our possessions.
We don’t often think today about how dangerous travel was back then. Historically speaking, we live today in remarkable luxury on more levels than we imagine. Not only were these people going to have to walk hundreds of kilometers, they had no protection from the weather other than what they physically carried with them. Hotels hadn’t even been thought of! On top of that, they were carrying a LOT of silver and gold, as specified in verses 26-27. We complain about police today, but the gangs of Chicago are nothing compared to the bandits back then. Under those circumstances, such a shipment of material treasure as this would normally have had a secure military escort, but as Ezra explains in the next verse, he had bragged on God’s protection for those who serve Him, and so was embarrassed to ask for an escort. With all of that put together, fasting and praying for God’s protection was by far the most logical course of action. It’s not that fasting forces God to do anything He wouldn’t do otherwise, but it focuses our attention on God, as our flesh complains about being deprived. There are many kinds of fasting, from one meal a day, or even specific foods such as sweets or meat, to total abstention from any oral intake. (Going without water can be very dangerous, and should never be entered into lightly.) We don’t know how long this particular fast was, but it was most probably abstaining from solid food. The people needed to be united in their sense of purpose and in their commitment to the Lord, and this joint exercise was very helpful for that as well. It is well recognized that shared suffering is an excellent tool for generating unity. All in all, Ezra was acting in wisdom from God, and God responded fully.
I’ve had various experiences of fasting, but the only times I’ve gone without water have been for medical reasons pre-surgery. I have fasted as long as a week, but most often it’s been just a day or two. I have found that my physical response to the fast can be a good indicator of whether I’m fasting in obedience to God or just doing something on my own, perhaps trying to manipulate God. That never goes well! When I am fasting in obedience, I don’t find it terribly difficult. I drink water frequently, and usually don’t feel all that hungry, especially when I am properly focused on prayer. Fasting without prayer is a major waste of effort! There are “health gurus” who recommend various kinds of fasting for health reasons. That may well be effective, but I don’t see any spiritual benefit unless there is the conscious choice to dedicate the time normally spent eating (at least) to prayer. I haven’t fasted for a while, and writing about it inclines me to do so, but I am not to do it on my own, but only in obedience to God.
Father, thank You for this reminder. I don’t think about fasting all that often. Help me be properly focused on You to hear and obey whatever You are saying, whether my flesh is happy about it or not! Thank You. Praise God!