Ezra 8:21-23 Then I proclaimed a fast there at the river of Ahava, that we might humble ourselves before our God, to seek from Him the right way for us and our little ones and all our possessions. For I was ashamed to request of the king an escort of soldiers and horsemen to help us against the enemy on the road, because we had spoken to the king, saying, The hand of our God is upon all those for good who seek Him, but His power and His wrath are against all those who forsake Him. So we fasted and entreated our God for this, and He answered our prayer.
Ezra was leading a group of exiles back from the captivity to the area of Judah, and they fasted in anticipation of the danger ahead. It had not yet reached them, but as their leader Ezra said, this was what they should do.
There is a very important time to seek God, and that is before, not after, an impending crisis. King Asa of Judah came back from his victory battle and was met by the prophet and told, in 2 Chronicles 15, the Lord is with you while you be with Him, and you seek the Lord while He may be found.
It is important to look ahead and ask for God's guidance and direction for yourself and your people, and this Ezra did. Why do we need God's intervention in the way I am describing? We used to be a community pulling together for one cause, all headed in the same direction. At that time love and goodwill prevailed within our midst. Is that so now?
We are living in the last time. What are our churches doing, where are they, where are the people of God today? What ability do we have to bring God's people together? Why is there this weakness, helplessness? What capability do we have of even solving our own problems? Do attitudes and spirits prevail that need to be overcome and changed in order to bring about better results? Will we not ourselves disintegrate if we continue as we are? We hope for more, but find less. We have an organisation, a church that meets every week, a structure where we have protected the teachings of the church, so some say what is the problem. The problem is the nature of people, simply not recognizing the difficulties until something goes wrong.
In a TV interview Condoleesa Rice of President Bush's security council, says it is the nature of democracies, where people need to work together, for them not to do anything until a crisis occurs. To imagine something might happen is one thing, people talk about it, but no one takes the leadership or does anything about it because it is an unknown. When something bad actually happens then everybody pulls together. A church is a spiritual body begun by Jesus Christ. He came and preached the good news about the kingdom of God, and began to call people, otherwise there would have been no church. Only God calls people. We cannot go out and urge them to become members, God Himself does the calling.
We also understand from the Bible that we cannot change ourselves, it is the power of God that changes us. For us to become like Jesus Christ His spirit has to work within us producing fruits, if we are to grow it is God who must provide the growth. We read the scripture—unless the Lord builds the house the weary builders toil in vain. Change can only take place through the mind of God. We can put in place all kinds of systems, all sorts of techniques, introduce programmes by the dozen, but if God is not in them we are simply another organisation. Achieving some growth through our own efforts is deceptive because it gives the impression that we are successful, although the opposite is true.
Unless we have a church where the living God dwells, where He makes Himself known to us and to others who come in contact with us, and unless He makes it very clear that His power is bringing about changes in the lives of the people in that congregation, we need to ask some very hard questions.
The prophet Haggai asked these questions. He was with the people who came back from captivity, and he prophesied to the people who had returned.
Haggai 1:2-7 Thus speaks the Lord of hosts, saying: This people says, The time has not come, the time that the Lord's house should be built. Then the word of the Lord came by Haggai the prophet, saying, Is it time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses, and this temple to lie in ruins? Now therefore, thus says the Lord of hosts: Consider your ways! You have sown much, and bring in little; you eat, but do not have enough; you drink, but you are not filled with drink; you clothe yourselves, but no one is warm; and he who earns wages, earns wages to put into a bag with holes. Thus says the Lord of hosts: Consider your ways!
They had begun to build the Lords house, and had probably made reasonable progress, but then the work lapsed. One of the main things in their minds was that they would restore the temple of God, the Lord's house, but they used verse 2 to excuse their lack of activity or progress, justifying the idea that it was not time for this happen.
God is saying consider the possibility that it is your ways, not the circumstances that are at fault here. Look at the results, at what is really happening. You are putting a lot into this and not getting a good return, so what is the problem?
Haggai 1:8-11 Go up to the mountains and bring wood and build the temple, that I may take pleasure in it and be glorified, says the Lord. You looked for much, but indeed it came to little; and when you brought it home, I blew it away. Why? says the Lord of hosts. Because of My house that is in ruins, while every one of you runs to his own house. Therefore the heavens above you withhold the dew, and the earth withholds its fruit. For I called for a drought on the land and the mountains, on the grain and the new wine and the oil, on whatever the ground brings forth, on men and livestock, and on all the labor of your hands.
Haggai comes up with some interesting conclusions, and does not let them explain it away by saying the economy is bad, or some other reason. He says I want you to consider your ways because we have something taking place here that you haven't thought about, in fact you have done everything to avoid facing this particular point.
God says I want you to do something that is going to glorify me, to show you are interested in me. You are putting a lot of effort into your own businesses, your own affairs, if only you would put that mental and emotional effort, that earnestness and zeal, into doing what you should be doing you'd see results. Why are you not prospering the way you should? Why are you not growing, why are things not right? They probably had all sorts of reasons and explanations, but Haggai tells them that God says I am not blessing you.
These were God's people, they had sinned, endured captivity for 70 years and paid their dues, returned with great expectations of growth and prosperity, of being free to serve God in their own land, of re-establishing the temple, but it just did not transpire.
God was refusing to bless them, to give them prosperity, because of their ways, and He wanted them to acknowledge this. Haggai is asking the questions, drawing the conclusions they did not want to face. He says they had a good work ethic, they were smart, they had many good ideas, but their problem was that they were not personally interested in God, and as a result He prevented them from prospering.
Haggai 1:12-14 Then Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, and Joshua the son of Jehozadak, the high priest, with all the remnant of the people, obeyed the voice of the Lord their God, and the words of Haggai the prophet, as the Lord their God had sent him; and the people feared the presence of the Lord. Then Haggai, the Lord's messenger, spoke the Lord's message to the people, saying, I am with you, says the Lord. So the Lord stirred up the spirit of Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and the spirit of Joshua the son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and the spirit of all the remnant of the people; and they came and worked on the house of the Lord of hosts, their God,
Zerubbabel had to repent, to change, Joshua and all the people had to repent, but it took leadership and the word of the Lord through the prophet for all of this to happen. God had to bring them up short by sending the prophet to tell them where the problem was, to show where they needed to change. God's spirit stirred up Zerubbabel first.
Isaiah 58:1-5 (NKJV) Cry aloud, spare not; lift up your voice like a trumpet; tell My people their transgression, and the house of Jacob their sins. Yet they seek Me daily, and delight to know My ways, as a nation that did righteousness, and did not forsake the ordinance of their God. They ask of Me the ordinances of justice; they take delight in approaching God. Why have we fasted, they say, and You have not seen? Why have we afflicted our souls, and You take no notice? In fact, in the day of your fast you find pleasure, and exploit all your laborers. Indeed you fast for strife and debate, and to strike with the fist of wickedness. You will not fast as you do this day, to make your voice heard on high. Is it a fast that I have chosen, a day for a man to afflict his soul? Is it to bow down his head like a bulrush, and to spread out sackcloth and ashes? Would you call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the Lord?
Isaiah is writing prior to the captivity, dealing here with the illusion that every Israelite, by birth alone, can expect the salvation of which Isaiah is here speaking.
Isaiah says on the contrary, the judgements of the Lord will fall on unbelieving Israel just as on the unbelieving Gentile world, the prophecies are not just for the world, but for you, the ones I called and chose, my special people. I intended to show the rest of the world, through you, what God's ways were like, how they could be put into practice, and what kind of a nation would result from obedience to God's laws. But if you disobey me the judgement will come on you just as it's going to come on the world. Shout it out loud and clear, do not hold back.
It is important for us to understand that the message of the prophets, first given to the nation of Israel, is today to the church.
Ephesians 2:20 (NKJV) having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone,
These prophets are those of the Old Testament, whose writings were used to form a considerable part of the New Testament, and gospel teaching and functioning.
Jesus, who Himself was a prophet, is also giving messages to the churches.
The first three chapters of the book of Revelation are exclusively to the church, from the very throne of God, through Jesus Christ. Chapters four and five give another picture of the throne of God.
The book of Ezekiel gives a picture of God and where He sits, and the word comes from Him to Ezekiel. In Jeremiah the word comes from God to Jeremiah, in Isaiah it comes from the very throne of God (chapter 6). The message in Isaiah is to the church, that is the way we should read and understand it, this is one of the prophets that the church was built upon. Isaiah must hold up to the people their sins, for without the knowledge of sin there can be no return, and without return there is no salvation.
The church can only take the message to the world if it understands and heeds the message of the prophets.
God has told them not to restrain His voice, not to spare the hearers. This is a call that penetrates to the bone and marrow, a cry that cuts to the quick, so he is told to lift up his voice like a shofar, a ram's horn. It is not a pleasant sound, and the message he gives is not a pleasant message. Neither are the messages to the 7 churches in the book of Revelation, when you understand what He is telling them. As God had certain expectations for His people He also has a certain expectation for His church. The messages have to be taken very seriously.
The Bible is consistent all the way through in the messages that it gives, there is no way we can escape it, or should try to. Take a good look at what is he talking about, what He means, what the heart is. We find in the writings of the Old Testament prophets the spirit and intent of the new covenant, everything that God is going to accomplish. He is consistent all the way through
Isa 58:2 Yet they seek Me daily, and delight to know My ways, as a nation that did righteousness, and did not forsake the ordinance of their God. They ask of Me the ordinances of justice; they take delight in approaching God.
Here is a description of what they are, and what they think they are in their own minds. They do not know their sins, and believe themselves quite sinless. God says I want you to cry aloud, they don't really get the picture. Make it piercing, go deep inside the person to help them to understand what their problems are,
Isaiah 58:3-5 (NKJV) Why have we fasted, they say, and You have not seen? Why have we afflicted our souls, and You take no notice? In fact, in the day of your fast you find pleasure, and exploit all your laborers. Indeed you fast for strife and debate, and to strike with the fist of wickedness. You will not fast as you do this day, to make your voice heard on high. Is it a fast that I have chosen, a day for a man to afflict his soul? Is it to bow down his head like a bulrush, and to spread out sackcloth and ashes? Would you call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the Lord?
They feel some injustice is being done, the language used is that of people requesting a formal inquiry. They are convinced that God is not dealing with them in the right way. They believe they deserve reward and praise, this is their expectation, they don't grasp why things do not happen the way they want them to. If they do fast, why is the fasting not acknowledged?
Something very important needs to be understood about fasting, and a clue is given in the middle of verse 3. They are still into exploitation, they fast because they want to get their own way. This was about them, going through the motions, having an appearance of humility and wanting God to be impressed, but He says you are not doing this for me.
Zechariah 7:1-3 (NKJV) Now in the fourth year of King Darius it came to pass that the word of the Lord came to Zechariah, on the fourth day of the ninth month, Chislev, when the people sent Sherezer, with Regem-Melech and his men, to the house of God, to pray before the Lord, and to ask the priests who were in the house of the Lord of hosts, and the prophets, saying, Should I weep in the fifth month and fast as I have done for so many years?
This type of fasting had evolved as a religious rite during the captivity.
Zechariah 7:4-13 (NKJV) Then the word of the Lord of hosts came to me, saying, Say to all the people of the land, and to the priests: â€˜When you fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh months during those seventy years, did you really fast for Me—for Me? When you eat and when you drink, do you not eat and drink for yourselves? Should you not have obeyed the words which the Lord proclaimed through the former prophets when Jerusalem and the cities around it were inhabited and prosperous, and the South and the Lowland were inhabited?' Then the word of the Lord came to Zechariah, saying, Thus says the Lord of hosts: Execute true justice, show mercy and compassion everyone to his brother. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the alien or the poor. Let none of you plan evil in his heart against his brother.' But they refused to heed, shrugged their shoulders, and stopped their ears so that they could not hear. Yes, they made their hearts like flint, refusing to hear the law and the words which the Lord of hosts had sent by His Spirit through the former prophets. Thus great wrath came from the Lord of hosts. Therefore it happened, that just as He proclaimed and they would not hear, so they called out and I would not listen, says the Lord of hosts.
Some authorities say there were 4 fasts, whereas God commanded only one fast in the year, on the Day of Atonement. They wanted to know if the fast in the fifth month needed to be retained after they came out of captivity. God says they were fasting, not for Him, but for themselves. Shouldn't they have fasted then, when the former prophets said they were to do so? What former prophets? We read about them in Isaiah. This is what Isaiah said before the captivity, and now Zechariah is repeating the same ideas. They are bragging about their fasting which had simply become a religious rite or observance, not a matter of the heart. They were not interested in changing their ways, or in listening to what God said. Just as He proclaimed, because they would not listen to Him, He would not listen to them, and scattered them.
Read closely Rev 2 and 3. Hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He says you are not listening to what I am telling you. You wouldn't listen then and you went into captivity, you came out of captivity and you are still not listening. The problem is not that you want to do away with the fast, but that you are not fasting in the right way to start with. In all your fasting you did not seek My honour, My interest, I was not in your heart, you were not interested in changing.
Isaiah 58:6 (NKJV) Is this not the fast that I have chosen: To loose the bonds of wickedness, To undo the heavy burdens, To let the oppressed go free, And that you break every yoke?
Fasting is to God, and the purpose is to repent and turn to God. If you don't know why you are fasting you may as well not do it.
What are the bonds of wickedness? In the book of Psalms David tells about people who are bound in wickedness, in sin, that they cannot break or change, simply because of the hold that it has on them. That is the nature of sin, it gets into a person's life and they can't escape it. He says one of the reasons for fasting is to undo the heavy burdens we are laden with, that we carry around and can't get away from.
Joel 2:12-17 (NKJV) Now, therefore, says the Lord, Turn to Me with all your heart, With fasting, with weeping, and with mourning. So rend your heart, and not your garments; return to the Lord your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness; and He relents from doing harm. Who knows if He will turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind Him—a grain offering and a drink offering for the Lord your God? Blow the trumpet in Zion, consecrate a fast, call a sacred assembly; gather the people, sanctify the congregation, assemble the elders, gather the children and nursing babes; let the bridegroom go out from his chamber, and the bride from her dressing room. Let the priests, who minister to the Lord, weep between the porch and the altar; let them say, Spare Your people, O Lord, and do not give Your heritage to reproach, that the nations should rule over them. Why should they say among the peoples, Where is their God?
The way to go before God is with humility and repentance, only then can we go with boldness and confidence. We can't front up before God with our righteousness, our goodness, saying He must take us as we are. Fasting is a matter of the heart, because it has to do with changing the heart, it's not just outward behaviour, to look good in the sight of others, but a matter of changing your heart. Rend your heart, not your garments.
He is saying to the people before the crisis comes look at the situation and proclaim a fast in anticipation, don't wait for it to come before you turn to God. Seek the Lord while He may be found, because there will be a time when you can't find him, especially if you have had every opportunity to do so beforehand. The prophets are writing to the church. We need to loose the bands of wickedness.
Isaiah 58:6 (NKJV) Is this not the fast that I have chosen: To loose the bonds of wickedness, To undo the heavy burdens, To let the oppressed go free, And that you break every yoke?
If we are held in the bonds of sin we can only be released by Him, and some sins are extremely tenacious.
Matthew 17:17-21 (NKJV) Then Jesus answered and said, O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I bear with you? Bring him here to Me. And Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him; and the child was cured from that very hour. Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, Why could we not cast it out? So Jesus said to them, Because of your unbelief; for assuredly, I say to you, if you have faith as a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, Move from here to there' and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you. However, this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting.
Everybody has their own 'demons' so to speak that follow them around, something that hangs on, that we can't seem to get rid of. Prayer alone cannot deal with this kind of obstinate immovable difficulty, only prayer with fasting. This gets results and this is the point Jesus is making. That's what you fast for.
Isaiah 58:7-10 (NKJV) Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and that you bring to your house the poor who are cast out; when you see the naked, that you cover him, and not hide yourself from your own flesh? Then your light shall break forth like the morning, your healing shall spring forth speedily, and your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry, and He will say, Here I am. If you take away the yoke from your midst, the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness, if you extend your soul to the hungry and satisfy the afflicted soul, then your light shall dawn in the darkness, and your darkness shall be as the noonday.
We are talking here about the spiritually hungry. If a spiritually hungry person comes into our congregation will he be fed? If a person is poor and needy and he comes into the house of God, will he find what he needs there? If we can't cover ourselves with righteousness, how can we clothe anybody else? These are some of ideas you find written to the Laodicean church.
If you fast for this, with Me, My will and purpose, change and repentance in mind, if this is what you fast for (v 8) then shall your light break forth like the morning and your healing shall spring forth speedily. When the sun comes up in the morning it bathes the entire creation, nothing is hidden, we can see clearly where we are and where we are going, we are not groping in the dark.
We are looking for healing in a number of ways. Righteousness shall go before you—not something you have to promote, its simply there. The glory of the Lord protects you front and back, and it is done as a result of seeking God through repentance. Then you call and the Lord will answer, you cry, and He will say here I am. You don't have to battle it out alone. I'm not saying God always answers this way but He says the Lord will now hear you. Remember what we just read in Zech 7; they would not hear God, so God will not hear them. Do you want God to hear you? First we must say Lord I will hear what you say. I'm not going to nullify, minimize or discount it, to justify, blame, or accuse, I will simply accept whatever you have to say.
This is the way we can start to get answers, the only way we can be accepted before the throne of the Almighty God is through repentance. Stop holding other people in contempt (the meaning of pointing the finger), extend your soul to the hungry and satisfy the afflicted then the Lord will guide you continually, satisfy your soul and strengthen your bones, and you shall be like a watered garden. God wants fruit from a garden that is continually watered by a spring whose waters do not fail.
John 7:37-38 (NKJV) On the last day, that great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried out, saying, If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.
Until you understand how needful you are of the very spirit of God you do not make progress. That must be brought home first of all to us, then to others. Only when we start seeking God in the right way are we able to enlighten others, to show them how thirsty they are whether they know it or not. It has to start with us, not a matter of a doctrinal argument, but of simply saying I thirst, I don't have it. The spring of water he is talking about must be generated from within, deep within a person, where it produces change within, then from him will flow out the ability to affect others.
When you fast it is because you know that you have to turn from sin. You may not know everything about that sin, but it means you are concerned with your own sin, not somebody else's. When you fast it is not simply a ritual, an observance, it's because you see the need for it in order that God's interests might prosper, that God might be honoured; it's not a request for something good to happen to you. Then there will be results.
Isaiah 58:12 (NKJV) Those from among you shall build the old waste places; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; and you shall be called the Repairer of the Breach, The Restorer of Streets to Dwell In.
We are called to restore, to bring back what should be. If you seek God through repentance with a determination to turn from sin, to change and repent, then you begin to get answers, there are results, and the kind of blessings He talks about here.
He goes on in verses 13 & 14 to talk about honouring Him. The whole thing is about honouring Him, it's not about us. What does He want, what is His purpose, is it being fulfilled in our lives? The only way we can make the changes, the only way for this to happen is for Christ Himself to do it. Fasting tells God nothing is exempt from the piercing gaze of the righteous One who knows the mind and heart of all of us.
Romans 12:1 (NKJV) I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service.
He doesn't want us just to experience pain, hunger, whatever, He wants all of us, every part of us, a total sacrifice that belongs to God. Paul said I am crucified with Christ.
Gal 5:24 And those who are Christ's have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.
Fasting, with repentance, denies the flesh what it wants. Then we become a living sacrifice that God can use, that He is prepared to bless, and whom He will then begin to use for His own purpose and His work.