From Fasting to Feasting
Wednesday, August 28, 2019
Devotional for Day 17
“‘Should I weep and abstain in the fifth month, as I have done so for so many years?’ Then the word of the Lord came to me…‘When you fasted and mourned, for these seventy years, was it for me that you fasted? And when you eat and when you drink, do you not eat for yourselves and drink for yourselves?’…Thus says the LORD of hosts: ‘The fast of the fourth month and the fast of the fifth and the fast of the seventh and the fast of the tenth shall be to the house of Judah seasons of joy and gladness and cheerful feasts. Therefore love truth and peace.” (Zechariah 7:3-6, 8:19)
“[Fasting] is the most misunderstood of the Christian spiritual disciplines. Fasting is the natural, inevitable response of a person to a grievous sacred moment in life…People fasted in the Bible in response to some grievous event in life—like death or the realization of sin or when the nation was threatened.” (Scot McKnight, Fasting)
Zechariah 7-8 may contain the most obscure reference to fasting in the Bible. Yet these chapters hold forth a wealth of insight on what this strange and neglected spiritual discipline is about—and, just as importantly, what it is not about. Here we learn that God’s people are to be a community of both self-denial and celebration, of both weeping and rejoicing. And neither of these postures hold value or find their meaning in themselves. Rather, they are responses to what God is or is not doing in the world, calibrated to the situations and seasons of life going on around us. Should I fast today? Should I celebrate in this moment? It depends.
A quick historical tour proves beneficial here. Zechariah prophesied in Israel somewhere around 520-518 BC. Assyria and Babylon, the cruel conquerors of Israel (722 BC) and Judah (587 BC), had finally come and gone after two hundred years of brokenness and misery. Cyrus, the leader of the Persian empire, had allowed the people to return home. Other places in the Old Testament (Haggai, Nehemiah, Ezra) give witness to the fact that God desired His people to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem so that He would once again dwell in their midst, a crucial stage along the way to the fulfillment of His kingdom promises for Israel and the nations.
By Zechariah’s time, this temple rebuilding project had already commenced, though it is clear that the hearts of God’s people lagged behind, out of step with the new chapter of the story God had ushered in. This leads Zechariah to emphasize two vital concerns. First, if you’re still fasting even when the time of sorrow has been relegated to the past—well, then is it really for God that you have been fasting all these years? That’s like a lover continuing to mope around all day long even after the long-absent beloved has returned. Such a response is deeply, profoundly inappropriate, and perhaps revealing that the ultimate sources of joy and sadness lay elsewhere. Second, God reminds the people through Zechariah that a time of feasting is coming that will replace the former season of extended, regular fasts. Once again Jerusalem will be rebuilt and inhabited! Once again God’s glory will dwell in our midst! Once again blessing and grace will be our regular experience of the world! Soon enough the nations of the earth will notice the light shining forth from us and stream to Zion to acknowledge and rejoice in the one true God! The crucial thing is to walk in obedience and faithfulness (Zechariah 7:8-14, 8:14-17) every step of the way, whether in the mournful seasons of fasting or in the joyful times of celebrating God’s manifestations of His goodness.
As Paul writes in Romans 14:5-9—perhaps echoing Zechariah 7:5-6—what really matters is whether we are doing it for the Lord and with covenant faithfulness in our relationship to Him. It is the universal experience of human beings in all times and places to lose their appetite when tragedy and sorrow arise. Let us abstain from food and drink when God’s purposes are frustrated and His people turn away from Him or suffer even though they are faithful. And it is the universal custom of human beings across all cultural and ethnic divisions to celebrate and rejoice by feasting and drinking when life turns out well and desired blessings find their fulfillment in our experience. So let us feast when the Lord shows Himself good and faithful in satisfying our longings and when we see foretastes of His kingdom arriving even here, now. But whether we eat or drink—or whether we fast and mourn—let us do everything to the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31).
Teaching Fellow, Christian Union at Columbia University