One of the subplots in the book of Esther was a conspiracy to kill all the Jews, put together by the king’s second in command, Haman. The motive for Haman’s anger against the Jews was Mordecai’s refusal to bow down before him and recognize his authority. It seems like a bit of overkill to punish an entire race of people for one man’s perceived disrespect, but that was Haman’s way of getting back at Mordecai. When the news of Haman’s plot reached Mordecai’s ears, he was devastated, and “put on sackcloth and ashes, and went into the city wailing loudly and bitterly (4:1).” The practice of putting on sackcloth and ashes could be compared to wearing black at a funeral as a symbol of grief. Although the practice of employing professional mourners was common then, Mordecai’s grief was real since I’m sure he blamed himself for putting all the Jews in the kingdom under the sentence of death. Mordecai decided then to ask Esther for help, knowing that she had a heart for the people of God and would be willing to risk her life in an effort to save them.
It would be risky for her because it was against the law to go before the king unless you had been summoned and if you were so bold or foolish to do so, the punishment was death. Although there was no official exception made for the queen, she was the one person that may be able to get away with it and gain the king’s favor. But even if she survived the occasion, she would be compelled to reveal her Jewish identity and if unsuccessful in her plea for mercy, she would suffer the same fate as her people. Well, Mordecai made his request to the queen and they came up with a strategy, but before implementing it Esther gave Mordecai some specific instructions. He should get together with every Jew he could enlist and “fast” for three days and nights. She told him that she and her maids would then do the same and, “when this is done, I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish (4:15-16).” So what was the purpose of their fasting and how would it prepare Esther for what she was about to do and how would Mordecai’s be of any value?
The practice of fasting was not common in the Old Testament but by the time Jesus came on the scene it was a widely accepted practice, but not by commandment. The two most notable and Spirit empowered instances of fasting in the bible is Moses on Mt. Horeb where he received the Ten Commandments on the stone tablets (Deuteronomy 9:9-18), and of course when Jesus fasted for 40 days and nights before He was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by Satan (Matthew 4:2). But knowing that it was practiced doesn’t answer the question, why fast and toward what end?
The clearest answer to this question is found in Isaiah, chapter fifty-eight, where we discover not only its purpose but how fasting is only a preparatory step for something far more important. God, through His prophet Isaiah responded to the people’s question that, although they had fasted, God had not heard or responded to them, so what’s the point in fasting? “Why have we fasted…why have we humbled ourselves and you have not noticed (v.3)?” God’s answer was clear and unambiguous. Although they had fasted, they continued to do as they pleased, exploiting those they held position over, quarreling, and striking each other with “wicked fists” (vs.3-4). The Lord, through Isaiah, asks rhetorically, “Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord (v. 5).” Isaiah continues telling them that if their definition of humility before God is simply bowing their “head like a reed and lying in sackcloth and ashes” then they are sorely mistaken. Instead, he tells them that they should, “loose the chains of injustice to set the oppressed free and break every yoke (vs.5-6).” Fasting must be made real by “sharing your food with the hungry… providing the poor wanderer with shelter and when you see the naked, clothing them (vs. 7-8).” What’s even more unacceptable, is when you “turn away from you own flesh and blood.” God, through Isaiah leaves them with a promise that if they fast as God expects and demands, “Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and He will say: Here I am (vs. 8-9).” This is the point that Jesus was making when He told His disciples that if they didn’t do the same for those they found in need, the answer they should expect from the Father at the judgment will be, “I tell you the truth, what ever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me (Matthew 25:45).”
Esther and Mordecai were preparing themselves by fasting for whatever God’s decision might be; they were demonstrating their trust in God’s goodness and that they believed in His promises. When Esther said “and if I perish, I perish,” it wasn’t like the old song lyrics, “que sera, sera, what ever will be will be” but instead it was a statement of faith and confidence in God and that He listens to and then rewards those who desire and follow His ways; if they give of themselves without counting the cost. This was exactly what Jesus was doing when he, as God in the flesh, fasted for forty days and nights. It was in preparation for meeting Satan face to face, but more importantly in anticipation of the greatest sacrifice of all; when he would give up everything on the cross for you, me and all those who trust in Him.
Tool #351 If you choose to fast, what are you preparing to give to your people, to those in your household, to your husband or wife? What are you willing to sacrifice, not counting the cost?