Praying Through the Bible project

Prayer and Fasting Go Together
(Ezra 8.21)

Then I proclaimed a fast there, at the river Ahava, that we might deny ourselves before our God, to seek from him a safe journey for ourselves, our children, and all our possessions.

So we fasted and petitioned our God for this, and he listened to our entreaty.

Do you fast as a spiritual exercise? For ancient Jews and Christians, fasting was almost exclusively used in conjunction with prayer—petition, to be precise. This story of Ezra, fasting, and prayer demonstrate why fasting and prayer go together.

Background

The author of Ezra then lists all the people returned to Judah from Babylon with Ezra (8.1-14). The total number was probably more than 5,000 men, women, and children. They gathered and camped for three days by a canal that ran into Babylon. Ezra took stock of the people and realized that there were no Levites among them. He sent messengers back to Babylon and found some Levite families willing to join the group.

Ezra then ordered everyone to partake in fasting and praying to God, to ask for a safe journey and protection along the way back to Jerusalem. Only then did they set out. Once there, they offered sacrifices to God for keeping them safe.

Meaning

There are three themes emphasized in this passage. While all three suggest that Era was fulfilling King Artaxerxes edict, they also demonstrate that he was only able to do so with God’s help.

The first one is when Ezra discovers that they have no Levites among their group. They are the ones who were supposed to carry the religious vessels under the law of Moses. When Ezra sent the word out, the quick and numerous response was God’s doing, even though it also fulfilled the edict by taking care of their religious duties.

The second theme comes from Ezra’s refusal to ask the king for an armed escort—he believed God would protect them if they relied on Him (which He did). Related to this is the third theme, that the caravan was carrying so much wealth that it would be especially attractive to attack.

It might seem that Ezra and the people were relying on “spiritual” protection and ignored—even refusing—to take any physical precautions. But this is incorrect. Having the Levites with, who knew how to care for and protect the vessels, was at Ezra’s command. In fact, many precautions were taken to guard them (see vv25-30 and 33-34).

We might say, “yes, but Ezra refused a Persian guard, relying only on God.” Yet that is not what happened. Ezra had repeatedly told the king how powerful God was, and that He protected his people and was quick to defend them with his wrath. Ezra was embarrassed to ask the king for a guard (v22), because it might seem that he didn’t trust God after all. Any separation of the “spiritual” and the “physical” comes from Greek philosophy, not the Bible. God is part of both, and they are intimately intertwined. To separate them is to separate what God has created to be one.

Fasting is an excellent way to remind us of this as we pray. Trying fasting for a meal, and instead of eating, pray and read scripture. You might try two meals or even 24 hours. As the hunger pangs set in, you can recall how God has created us to need sustenance, and then how he has provided food through plants and animals. As you get thirsty, remember that he made us the way, and then provided sources of water and other liquids. He sustains us daily, and we are entirely dependent on him.

That physical dependence on Him reminds us that we are also dependent on him in many others ways: for a purpose in life, for the blessings we have, and for our salvation.

Fasting reminds us of our dependence on his incredible grace, and on his protection, as we come before him, which humility, to offer our petitions.


  1. See Ezra 10:6; Neh 9:1; Esth 4:3, 16; Isa 58:3; Joel 1–2.


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