[This is the part where you read Ezra 8. Go ahead, I’ll wait. …Okay, did you read it? No?? Come on, you’ll just be wasting your time here if you don’t. I’ll give you another chance. …Ready now? Great. Let’s talk.]
A little while ago we spent some time together in Deuteronomy 34, when Moses had just delivered God’s people from slavery in Egypt to the doorstep of the land of promise. We now pick up with Ezra, who is seeking to return God’s people from exile in Babylon to the land of promise. (Apparently the people were just as bad at staying there as they had been at getting there.) Though Ezra may not be quite the one-man-show / prophetic dynamo that Moses was, the parallels in their situations should not be overlooked. Particularly, the people’s absence from the promised land is a problem of covenantal proportions. Moses worked for the fulfillment of a promise made by a smoking firepot and later catalyzed by a burning bush; Ezra works for the fulfillment of a promise made by God’s prophets and finally actuated by an imperial decree, when “the LORD moved the heart of Cyrus king of Persia [which must have been considerably softer than Pharoah’s] to make a proclamation…” (Ezra 1:1). In both cases, the promise is essentially the same—namely, to restore the people to their land—and in both cases, the resolve of the people’s God to fulfill his promise is readily apparent to their respective leaders. It is almost surprising, then, that with all the pieces set and all the preparations complete, Ezra proclaims a fast to seek the Lord’s blessing over their attempt to do exactly what he has led them to do.
The precise nature and circumstances of the fast deserve further attention, as its purpose does not neatly match up with the purposes for which we (or at least I) most frequently employ fasting today. First, it is worthwhile to note that Ezra consistently refers every good turn of events throughout his book to the direct providential work of God, from the king’s initial proclamation to the successes of his various preparations. With this unbroken record of success, it is clear that Ezra is already confident that his plans in chapter eight accord with the Lord’s will. This fact seems to fly in the face of contemporary Protestant practices of fasting, wherein our goal consists mainly in discerning the will of God. Whether we are looking to determine the right course of action from among a number of possibilities or asking for a particular outcome to a situation, our fasting and supplication are often laden with a marked uncertainty concerning what God desires. Now, granted, we are not involved in the propulsion of God’s redemptive plan in history in the same way as Ezra, so his will may never appear in such an obvious prophecy-fulfilling fashion in our circumstances. All the same, does it ever occur to us to fast over an action that we have already discerned to be God’s will? Can our modern conception explain why Ezra would bother to starve himself over a guaranteed slam-dunk success?
Another interesting facet of Ezra’s fasting is his request that God validate the claims Ezra has made about him to the king. Such instances of Old Testament figures asking God to demonstrate his power and providence to the watching world (and in so doing to make said figures not look stupid for making grandiose claims about their God) is not uncommon; indeed, here we find yet another parallel between Ezra and Moses. Again we are drawn to the issue of Ezra’s confidence: He unreservedly claims God’s protection over their endeavor before he asks God for protection. From a human perspective, this may seem an awful lot like manipulation—like putting God on the spot. “If I tell everyone God’s going to do something awesome, then he has to do it, or else he will look stupid / uncaring / insufficiently powerful, which I bet he would rather not do.” However, two facts should be clear—first, that Ezra is not trying to “pull a fast one” on God by “talking him into a corner”; and second, that such attempts at clever maneuvering are actually grounded in a lack of confidence in the rightness of a given course and usually result in tail-tucking embarrassment. At this point, though, our question remains unanswered: Why does Ezra instruct the people to fast for the purpose of requesting a protection they are already certain to receive? What is Ezra really after?
“I proclaimed a fast, so that we might humble ourselves before our God and ask him for a safe journey…” (Ezra 8:21). Here, I believe, lies the center of Ezra’s reasoning: ‘God is going to grant us safety and success. We know this. However, we must not let our assurance foster in us a lack of due gratitude to the source of our deliverance, and we must never let ourselves believe that we have achieved any of these things by our own strength.’ Ezra recognizes an inward danger that often accompanies external security, and he instructs the people to humble themselves in acknowledgement of God’s hand in providing every blessing they receive. Ezra knows that being safely delivered to Jerusalem will ultimately be fruitless unless the people maintain a constant focus on their God who graciously delivers them. Indeed, the very act of asking implies both that God is the source of the blessing and that he does not need to bless them so; it will come to pass only by his freely choosing.
Many contemporary Protestant reflections on fasting dwell greatly on the subject of attitude or motivation. “Were it not wrong of me to fast without a proper motivation?” we ask. In contrast, we see Ezra commanding a fast intended to produce a proper attitude and motivation for the work God has prepared for them. One can see in 8:31 that this attitude adjustment was effective for Nehemiah and the returning exiles; might God wish us to try fasting to this end? Are we seriously considering the importance of our hearts in our acts of obedience, and how fleshly deprivation can turn us aright?
[For those who are wondering about what happened to our discussion of Lamentations, well… life happened. Immediately upon finishing my study of the book, the Lord decided to test my understanding of it by sending some new hardships my way, which consequently interrupted my blogging schedule for a time. I may return to Lamentations soon, or I may not. But if prematurely concluding our discussion would cause you to lament, then that would certainly be reason enough for me to pick it up again. Simply let me know in the comments.]