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Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary
has been practised in all ages, and among all nations, in times of mourning, sorrow, and affliction. We see no example of fasting, properly so called, before Moses. Since the time of Moses, examples of fasting have been very common among the Jews. Joshua and the elders of Israel remained prostrate before the ark from morning till evening, without eating, after Israel was defeated at Ai, Joshua 7:6 . The eleven tribes which fought against that of Benjamin, fell down on their faces before the ark, and so continued till evening without eating, Judges 20:26 . David fasted while the first child he had by Bathsheba was sick, 2 Samuel 12:16 . The Heathens sometimes fasted: the king of Nineveh, terrified by Jonah's preaching, ordered that not only men, but also beasts, should continue without eating or drinking; should be covered with sackcloth, and each after their manner should cry to the Lord, Jonah 3:5-6 . The Jews, in times of public calamity, appointed extraordinary fasts, and made even the children at the breast fast, Joel 2:16 . Moses fasted forty days upon Mount Horeb, Exodus 24:18 . Elijah passed as many days without eating, 1 Kings 19:8 . Our Saviour fasted forty days and forty nights in the wilderness, Matthew 4:2 . These fasts were miraculous, and out of the common rules of nature.
2. Beside the solemn fast of expiation instituted by divine authority, the Jews appointed certain days of humiliation, called the fasts of the congregation. The calamities for which these were enjoined, were a siege, pestilence, diseases, famine, &c. They were observed on the second and fifth days of the week: they began at sunset, and continued till midnight of the following day. On these days they wore sackcloth next the skin, and rent their clothes; they sprinkled ashes on their heads, and neither washed their hands, nor anointed their heads with oil. The synagogues were filled with suppliants, whose prayers were long and mournful, and their countenances dejected with all the marks of sorrow and repentance.
3. As to the fasts observed by Christians, it does not appear by his own practice, or by his commands to his disciples, that our Lord instituted any particular fast. But when the Pharisees reproached him, that his disciples did not fast so often as theirs, or as John the Baptist's, he replied, "Can ye make the children of the bride-chamber fast while the bridegroom is with them? But the days will come when the bride-groom shall be taken away from them, and then shall they fast in those days," Luke 5:34-35 . Fasting is also recommended by our Saviour in his sermon on the mount; not as a stated, but as an occasional, duty of Christians, for the purpose of humbling their minds under the afflicting hand of God; and he requires that this duty be performed in sincerity, and not for the sake of ostentation, Matthew 6:16 .
4. Although Christians, says Dr. Neander, did not by any means retire from the business of life, yet they were accustomed to devote many separate days entirely to examining their own hearts, and pouring them out before God, while they dedicated their life anew to him with uninterrupted prayers, in order that they might again return to their ordinary occupations with a renovated spirit of zeal and seriousness, and with renewed powers of sanctification. These days of holy devotion, days of prayer and penitence, which individual Christians appointed for themselves, according to their individual necessities, were often a kind of fast-days. In order that their sensual feelings might less distract and impede the occupation of their heart with its holy contemplations, they were accustomed on these days to limit their corporeal wants more than usual, or to fast entirely. In the consideration of this, we must not overlook the peculiar nature of that hot climate in which Christianity was first promulgated. That which was spared by their abstinence on these days was applied to the support of the poorer brethren.
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Watson, Richard. Entry for 'Fasting'. Richard Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/wtd/f/fasting.html. 1831-2.