Hungry for Help
By David Feddes
We fasted and petitioned our God about this, and he answered our prayer. (Ezra 8:23)
Family trips can be exciting and fun, but they can also be difficult, even dangerous. If you travel together for too long, you can get on each other’s nerves. Younger children start to get bored after awhile, even if you have games, stories, music, or even videos to keep them entertained. Bad food or a nasty bug can make people sick and make the journey harder for everybody. Little ones get grumpy if their sleep patterns are interrupted, and teenagers and grownups may not be much happier. As the trip goes on, the driver can get distracted or drowsy, and the danger of an accident increases. Still, despite difficulties and dangers, family trips are usually worth it and leave us with many good memories. One thing is for sure: family trips are a lot easier than they used to be. We have better transportation, we have more gadgets to entertain kids along the way, and we don’t face as many dangers as travelers in earlier times. We may get tired of hearing, “Are we almost there?” but that’s better than wondering whether you’ll survive long enough to get there.
The Oregon Trail has been a hit computer game with millions of people. The Oregon Trail re-creates some of the dangers that pioneers faced when they were traveling across plains and mountains in the mid-1800s. As you play the game, you quickly find many things that can go wrong for a pioneer and many ways to die. You can run out of money or food or water. You can get sick with fever or dysentery. You can be attacked by thieves or hostile natives. You can break a leg, get bit by poisonous snakes, suffer a wagon accident, or drown while trying to cross a river. The good news is that even if you die, it’s just a computer game. Still, it shows you some of the hazards of going on such a journey.
Now, if a family trip can get on your nerves and if you think pioneers on the Oregon Trail had a tough challenge, try to picture an even harder trip. You and your people have been living for years as exiles in a foreign land, and you want to return to your homeland. You don’t have planes or trains, trucks or cars. Most of you will have to travel on foot. You will be traveling through some very bad neighborhoods, where crime is high and armed gangs commonly plunder people. The group that’s making the journey with you will include pregnant women, nursing mothers, little children, elderly folks, and all sorts of people who can’t travel fast or fight well, people who are vulnerable to sickness and injury. On top of all that, you’ve already refused any protection or help from the ruler who controls the wider empire. You will be traveling through territories where your people are hated, and you won’t have any police or military forces for protection. That was the challenge facing a community of Israelite people who planned to return from Babylon to Jerusalem under Ezra their leader.
“We Fasted And Petitioned”
Ezra was not a politician or a military man. He was a Bible scholar and teacher. He knew that the Israelites had been exiled for offending God, and he knew that their return would depend entirely on God. No matter how hard the trip, no matter how great the danger, they could still make the trip back to Jerusalem. They could make it without the protection of government, but they could not make it without the help of God.
Ezra gathered in one place all who would be making the trip. He helped them to organize and prepare for the journey, and he told them to seek God’s help. In the Bible book of Ezra, chapter 8, Ezra writes,
I proclaimed a fast, so that we might humble ourselves before our God and ask him for a safe journey for us and our children, with all our possessions. I was ashamed to ask the king for soldiers and horsemen to protect us from enemies on the road, because we had told the king, “The gracious hand of our God is on everyone who looks to him, but his great anger is against all who forsake him.” So we fasted and petitioned our God about this, and he answered our prayer (Ezra 8:21-23).
Nowadays some of us look mainly to government for protection and help, but Ezra was embarrassed to beg for government protection after he had preached God’s power to help believers. Instead of turning to government, Ezra and those with him did something that few of us would even think of doing: they fasted. They were hungry for help from God. They set apart a time to go without food and to pray urgently. After that time of fasting, they set out for Jerusalem. Men and women, old people and children, spent about four months traveling on foot and covered about 900 miles. It was hard and dangerous, but they made it. Ezra wrote, “The hand of our God was on us, and he protected us from enemies and bandits along the way. So we arrived in Jerusalem” (Ezra 8:31). They did not fall victim to attack, starvation, illness, accident. God gave them the help they had hungered for.
You and I face many situations where we need help, where we face challenges too big for us to deal with, dangers too great for us to handle, problems too hard for us to solve. Indeed, life itself is a long and challenging road, a dangerous journey, and if our goal is to make it safely to the city of God at the end of life’s journey, we need the Lord’s protection all along the road. When you and I need help in times of crisis, how can we get it? By asking for it. That involves praying, and in our times of greatest need, it involves not just praying but fasting as well. Ezra hungered for God’s help and got it, and so can we.
Christian fasting differs from the fasting practiced in some other religions. The new covenant in Christ does not set any particular day for fasting, and Jesus doesn’t order us to fast during any particular season of the year, the way some religions do. Jesus assumes that his followers will fast sometimes, but he doesn’t set a schedule or list a bunch of requirements. Fasting is not just a scheduled performance but something we do when the occasion calls for it. In this program we’re looking especially at those occasions when we urgently need special help from God.
The Bible often connects fasting with prayers for help at major turning points or times of extreme crisis, and the Bible shows that when people are hungry for help, God sends it. God is personal, not mechanical, so we shouldn’t use prayer and fasting as a way to push God’s buttons. God isn’t a vending machine, so fasting and prayer won’t automatically make God do what we want. But because God is personal, the more urgently we ask, the more intently he listens. The more hungrily we pray for his help, the more he pays attention to our requests. Prayerful fasting is not a technique to manipulate God. It’s a response to God’s own invitation. Prayerful fasting is a powerful, God-approved way to appeal to the Lord for help. The Bible tells true stories of people who desperately needed help in times of crisis, and who obtained God’s help through fasting and prayer. The Bible’s account of Ezra’s long, dangerous journey is one such story.
“Our Eyes Are Upon You”
Another story comes from the time of Jehoshaphat, who reigned as king of Judah a few centuries before Ezra’s time. King Jehoshaphat trusted God and ruled his people with justice and wisdom. But some hostile rulers from neighboring countries banded together and combined their armies for an attack against Jehoshaphat and his people.
Some men came and told Jehoshaphat, “A vast army is coming against you. Alarmed, Jehoshaphat resolved to inquire of the LORD, and he proclaimed a fast for all Judah. The people of Judah came together to seek help from the LORD. (2 Chronicles 20:3-4).
As they were fasting and hungering for help, the king prayed,
“O Lord, God of our fathers, are you not the God who is in heaven? You rule over all the kingdoms of the nations. Power and might are in your hand, and no one can withstand you… We have no power to face this vast army that is attacking us. We do no know what to do, but our eyes are upon you.”
All the men of Judah, with their wives and children and little ones, stood there before the Lord. (2 Chronicles 20:6,12-13)
God saw all those families who were counting on him for help, he saw the huge number of invaders and their terrible weapons, and God decided to step in. The Spirit of God spoke through a prophet and said,
“Do not be afraid or discouraged because of this vast army. For the battle is not yours but God’s. Tomorrow march down against them… You will not have to fight this battle; stand firm and see the deliverance the Lord will give you, O Judah and Jerusalem. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged. Go out to face them tomorrow, and the Lord will be with you” (20:15-17).
When King Jehoshaphat and his people heard that, they worshiped God. The next day they went out to face the enemy, singing as they went: “Give thanks to the Lord, for his love endures forever” (20:22). Then something amazing happened. The invaders suddenly turned on each other. Instead of attacking God’s people, these armies slaughtered each other. By the time Jehoshaphat and the people of Judah got to them, there was nothing left of the enemy but dead bodies—and piles of equipment, clothing, and valuables, so much it took three days to gather. What had begun as a terrible threat to the people of Judah ended up making them richer. After God gave them that victory, it was a long time before anybody dared to attack them again. They had hungered for help, and God blessed them. Fasting and prayer produced peace and prosperity.
History records other times when fasting rescued a nation from invasion. In 1756 Great Britain faced an impending invasion, and the king of Britain called for a solemn day of prayer and fasting. The great preacher John Wesley wrote in his journal, “The fast day was a glorious day… Every church in the city was more than full, and a solemn seriousness sat on every face. Surely God heareth prayer, and there will yet be a lengthening of our tranquility.” The invasion didn’t happen. We’ve become so modern and sophisticated that few of us would even think of fasting and asking God to turn back aggression and prevent conflict. Some leaders in the past may have been too quick to equate God’s cause with their own, but some were also quicker simply to acknowledge that they didn’t know how to prevent bloodshed and calamity, and they were quicker to call on their people for prayer and fasting. For example, during the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln called for fasting and prayer four different times. He did not claim God was on his side or that he understood all God’s purposes. He simply wanted people to express their desperation at a terrible war that was destroying thousands on both sides. These days, when government faces a problem, does it declare a fast? Does a leader ever echo King Jehoshaphat and say to God, “We do not know what to do, but our eyes are upon you.”
When threatened by terrorism or military aggression, the government might announce increased military spending and tighter security measures but not call for fasting. In the face of AIDS and other epidemics, the government might pass out condoms but not proclaim a fast. It would not be politically correct.
I wonder how often we as nations, as churches, as individuals, face problems that God could turn to blessings if only we would ask. I wonder how many bad things God would turn to our good if only we would fast and pray. If we’re not hungry for help, God isn’t likely to send it. As the Bible puts it, “You do not have because you do not ask God” (James 4:2).
“For Such a Time as This”
During the time of the Persian Empire, the Jewish people were threatened with extinction. An influential official named Haman, second only to the king of Persia, hated the Jews and wanted to wipe them all out. Haman succeeded in getting the king to authorize a decree that declared the Jews to be enemies of the empire and that set a date for destroying them all. When the news of this spread throughout the empire, “there was great mourning among the Jews, with fasting, weeping, and wailing” (Esther 4:3).
Meanwhile, the queen herself was actually a Jew, but neither the king nor Haman knew it. Queen Esther’s cousin Mordecai urged her “to go into the king’s presence to beg for mercy and to plead with him for her people” (Esther 4:8). The queen replied that this would be too dangerous. For one thing, if she revealed her Jewishness, she herself would be a target of the decree. Worse yet, there was a strict law that if anyone came to see the king in his inner court without being invited, that person must die. A queen could be killed as easily as anyone else, and the king hadn’t called for her in over a month. The only exception to the death penalty for coming uninvited was if the king would extend his golden scepter to show favor. Esther feared that if she went to the king on behalf of her people, she would accomplish nothing except get herself killed. But her cousin said that if Esther did nothing, she would die anyway. This was an opportunity she must act upon. Mordecai added, “And who knows but that you have come to the royal position for such a time as this?” (4:14)
Esther was persuaded to go to the king, but she didn’t want to go alone. She wanted God to go with her. She didn’t want to depend only on her charm, and she didn’t want just the slim hope that the king would be in a good mood. She wanted God to help her, and she wanted God to move the king to spare her life and the lives of her people. So Esther asked her cousin to tell all the Jews in the capital city to fast for her, not eating or even drinking anything for three days. She and her maids would also fast. “When this is done,” she said, “I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish.” Three days without food or water is an extreme fast, but it was an extreme danger. If the queen failed, it meant death for her and for all her people.
The people hungered for help, and they got it. God worked things out for their good. The king extended his gold scepter to Esther and even promised to give her anything she asked for. By the end of the story, it was not the Jews who perished but Haman and others who tried to wipe out God’s people.
“The Encouragement of the Scriptures”
The pattern is plain. Desperate people fast and hunger for God’s help, and the Lord meets their need. When the preacher Ezra faces a long, dangerous journey with vulnerable families through dangerous territory, they fast—and God brings them safely to their destination. When King Jehoshaphat and his country face an invading army, they fast—and God defeats the enemy and gives his people peace. When Queen Esther and her people face extermination, they fast—and God rescues them.
In light of this, what should we do when we need help? Do we dare neglect fasting? Do we dare ignore the very thing that has moved God again and again to help his people? If you don’t call on God when you’re in trouble, if you don’t fast when you need help, then don’t be surprised if trouble continues and help doesn’t come. God says, “Call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you will honor me” (Psalm 50:15).
Bible stories about fasting and receiving God’s help are not just for our information but for our imitation, not just for our entertainment but for our encouragement. “For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Romans 15:4). God gives us the stories of Scripture so that when huge problems come our way, we won’t be discouraged and hopeless, but will instead be encouraged and full of hope that God will help us and give us a bright future.
This particular kind of fasting aims to solve a power shortage by begging for God’s power. It seeks a much-needed breakthrough not by ordinary resources but by extraordinary empowerment from God. Such fasting may be appropriate during a serious personal crisis, such as marriage conflict, strains between parents and children, a financial crisis where you’re in danger of not having food to eat or a place to stay, or threats from crime or other threats to your safety. Call on God in the day of trouble, fast and hunger for his help, and you will be blessed in ways you might have missed otherwise.
It’s good to fast for help with personal matters, but don’t limit it to that. When Ezra fasted, it wasn’t just for his own safety but so that all his people would have a safe journey, and they joined in his fasting. When King Jehoshaphat fasted, it wasn’t just so that he would survive the invasion himself but so that the nation would be spared, and his people joined him in fasting. When Queen Esther fasted, it wasn’t just so that she would not be killed but so that her people wouldn’t be killed, and they joined in her fasting. In short, fasting for help is not just for individuals but for God’s people as a community.
Today God’s community is not any particular country or racial group. God’s community is the church of Jesus Christ, all followers of Jesus around the world. When the church seems to have a power shortage in the face of challenges, it is a time for Christians to fast and hunger for help.
Christians in Korea are a shining example of what happens when God’s people pray and fast. While Christians in some parts of the world have been weak in prayer and have neglected fasting, Korean Christians have frequently fasted and prayed for greater power from God’s Holy Spirit. The results have been astonishing. Only a few decades ago, the church in Korea was small and struggling, but the power of the Holy Spirit made the church strong. God has added millions and millions of new believers in Korea. There has been astounding church growth and a major impact on the culture and nation of South Korea. Not that long ago, the Chritian presence there was small and weak, but now Korean Christians have won much of their country and are even spreading the gospel to other nations. That’s what God’s power does in response to prayer and fasting.
Those of us who are leaders in the church should be quicker than anyone else to depend on God’s power. When Jesus was starting his public ministry, the first thing he did was to fast. He was getting ready for a showdown with Satan, and he was seeking power from his Father to speak mighty words, to drive out demons, do amazing miracles, and to bring God’s reign near to people. If you’re a church leader, when is the last time you fasted and pleaded for God to give his church greater power to show God’s glory and win people to him? When is the last time your congregation asked why it is not winning more converts or seeing people becoming more Christ-like, and when have you fasted and prayed for renewal and revival? We might have conferences and strategic plans, we might produce versions of the Bible to suit every interest and age group, we might offer worship services to suit every taste, but how many of us are fasting and hungering for power from on high? If the church has a power shortage, maybe it’s time we stop trying to do everything by our own efforts and simply say to God what King Jehoshaphat said as he was fasting: “We do not know what to do, but our eyes are upon you.”
Fasting is appropriate for a congregation and for the wider church not just when there is some scandal or error to repent of but also when the church just seems ineffective and powerless to overcome obstacles and transform lives. Whatever shortage the church faces—a shortage of skilled teachers, a shortage of money, a shortage of healing, a shortage of transforming power—God has the resources to meet every shortage. Fasting is a way to hunger for help and to receive his blessing.
By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.