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they clothed themselves in sackcloth made of hair, and much torn. They refused to repose on their accustomed couch, but sat on the ground in the dust, and scattered ashes upon their heads. On these occasions they went barefoot, and neither washed their face with water, or anointed their head with oil. It was a maxim with one of their learned men,* which they adopted with as much exactness as if it had been of inspired authority, "that whoever keeps a fast, either on account of his own private misfortunes, or of some dreadful dream, or of public calamities, ought not to give himself any manner of pleasure, or to walk with his head lifted up, or suffer any joy to appear in his countenance." In fine, they abstained from food till the evening; and their great and most solemn fasts began an hour before sunset, and continued as long as midnight the day following, which they reckoned "three days;" and hence the observation amongst them, "that they who fasted did eat neither day nor night." From the mention of this excessive austerity by the Pharisee in the temple, it appears, that they regarded it as a proof of extraordinary sanctity, which men admired and God approved.
Secondly. Observe its futility: Verily I say unto you, they have their reward." As this expression has been considered before, with respect to preceding duties, it is not necessary to detain you in reference to it now. In general, it signifies that these hypocrites who thus desired the worthless applause of their fellow-creatures, succeeded in obtaining it; but this was all they were ever to receive. They were thought to be very religious, and were, therefore, held in high esteem. The Jews have a proverb to this effect: Whoever makes his face black on account of the law in this world, God will make his brightness to
shine in the world to come.* But the text declares the contrary, and delivers to us a solemn admonition against following their example. Let us, therefore, proceed to consider,
III. THE DIRECTIONS GIVEN US FOR ITS OBSERVANCE.
These we have in the two last verses under consideration: "But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thy head, and wash thy face; that thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which seeth in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly." The exposition of these precepts may be given in few words :inasmuch as it was the custom of the Jews, on ordinary occasions, to anoint their hair with a fragrant oil; and because they were also exceedingly ceremonious as to their washings, the Saviour bids them, whenever they fasted, to do as at other times. They were commanded to make no boast of their religious abstinence, and claim no notice from men at these times of personal humiliation. He does not require any to affect a cheerfulness which they do not feel; but it is a direction to follow our ordinary measure of attention to our persons, that when we go forth from our retirement, either into the world or the family, we are to show nothing peculiar in our looks or apparel, which would distinguish us from our usual habits, and proclaim to the world the important work in which we are engaged. And if these, our secret devotions, are known only to God, "who sees all things, and is unseen himself," He will not fail to make them the means of spiritual benefit to the soul; and in the day when He shall judge the hearts of all men by Jesus Christ, He will publicly testify his approbation of them. Having thus briefly explained the
*Burder's Oriental Customs.
passage before us, let us proceed to offer a few remarks on the propriety of private fasting, and the manner in which it should be observed.
First. We will examine its propriety. As our Lord is speaking of that species of religious fasting which is personal, and which the individual performs in his private capacity, we shall confine our attention to the same kind, with the exception of an observation or two. It must be conceded by all persons, that the divinely appointed fast, which was holden annually by the Jews, was a part of their peculiar ceremonial, and when the system of "washings, sprinklings, and offerings" of that economy was set aside, this was also abolished, at least as far as regarded its national use and character. The dissolution of their local and ecclesiastical polity, as a whole dissolved the obligation to the observance of its parts. I am, therefore, to speak of those voluntary fasts to which the directions before us refer, and which we find repeatedly mentioned in the New Testament. I am also to speak of the propriety, not the necessity, of following the example of the primitive disciples in this respect. I make this distinction, because I do not find the act of fasting distinctly enjoined any where, either by our Lord or the sacred writers, and therefore cannot regard it as an essential duty. When superstition sprung up and corrupted the church after the decease of the apostles, days of fasting were gradually introduced,— first by private individuals, and afterwards by the positive appointment of men, who usurped the place of the Lord Jesus Christ, and incurred the dreadful doom of " adding to the things which are written in this book." From all that history has recorded on the subject, it is impossible to determine either the century when this first took place, or the specific days of the week, when the fast was holden. Looking alone to the page of Revelation, and refusing most conscientiously to submit to any religious rite which
it does not command, I must remark, that all the fasts and festivals of the Romish church, and of any other, which may follow her example in this matter, are perfectly gratuitous. Days of fasting for the out-pouring of the spirit -the removal of national judgments, and for the prosperity of the cause of truth, righteousness, and serious godliness, may be recommended by any one class or denomination of Christians, as highly proper and seemly; but the imposition of such fasts, much more of the protracted duty, either totally or in part, for weeks together every year, has no countenance in the directions of our Lord, or the practice of the primitive churches. And they who allege the fasting of our Saviour " forty days in the wilderness," as their example and authority, to be consistent with themselves, and carry their imitation throughout, ought to follow him in walking on the water, and in feeding "five thousand with five barley loaves and a few small fishes." The former case was as much an act of his deity as the latter. The whole, therefore, appears to be, that He neither instituted any particular fasts, or enjoined fasting in general, as in itself at any time an integral part of religious worship.
But these remarks respect national and periodical fasting the case is somewhat otherwise, with regard to private and voluntary humiliations before God, for advancement in truth and righteousness. Even here we cannot speak positively as to the absolute duty of the disciples of Christ to observe it, but there are many powerful considerations to be urged in its favour. I shall mention three of them.
First. The directions of the Saviour in the passage He finds it in existence; and so far from condemning it, He gives his followers explicit instructions as to the way in which it should be done. Nay, more; we find that He has annexed a reward to its right and ac
ceptable performance, which had it been otherwise than a commendable and becoming duty in itself, He would not have done. On another occasion, when the disciples of John enquired the reason whence it was that they and the Pharisees did fast often, but his disciples did not fast at all, He gave them this remarkable reply, "Can the children of the bride-chamber mourn, as long as the bridegroom is with them? but the days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken from them, and then shall they fast." And in another place He assures his brethren, that prayer and fasting were necessary to cherish their faith, and confirm their power to work miracles: all which plainly implies, that this practice of self-denial,—this keeping of the body under, and bringing it into subjection," when performed for the health of the soul, and the interests of religion in general, is well-pleasing in his sight.
Secondly. The practice of primitive saints. It is undeniable, that fasting had often a prominent place in the devotional engagements of the disciples and the apostles. Thus we read that, "as they ministered to the Lord and fasted, the Holy Ghost said, separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them: And when they had fasted and prayed, and laid their hands upon them, they sent them away.' So also in another place, that when they " ordained elders in every church, they prayed with fasting." St. Paul likewise speaks of his being in "fastings often," and evidently considers it one of the private duties of religion, which, if seriously and scripturally discharged, would be a powerful means to advance the spirit of personal and practical Christianity within our hearts, and through the world. ‡
Thirdly. The eminent advantage it has been. Peter
Acts xiii. 2, 3.
Ibid. xiv. 23.
1 Cor. vii. 5.