Whenever an all-church fast is called, pastors commonly give people a range of fasting options to engender wider participation. On the one extreme, total abstention from food and drink (except water) is called for. On the other extreme is what is often called “the Daniel Fast.” This is usually defined as eating only vegetables and drinking liquids.
Two passages of Scripture are called upon to support the Daniel Fast: Daniel 1:8-16 and 10:2-3. We’ll look at both in turn to see whether either of them teach a fast involving the eating of only vegetables.
But Daniel resolved that he would not defile himself with the king’s food, or with the wine that he drank. Therefore he asked the chief of the eunuchs to allow him not to defile himself. 9 And God gave Daniel favor and compassion in the sight of the chief of the eunuchs, 10 and the chief of the eunuchs said to Daniel, “I fear my lord the king, who assigned your food and your drink; for why should he see that you were in worse condition than the youths who are of your own age? So you would endanger my head with the king.” 11 Then Daniel said to the steward whom the chief of the eunuchs had assigned over Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, 12 “Test your servants for ten days; let us be given vegetables to eat and water to drink. 13 Then let our appearance and the appearance of the youths who eat the king’s food be observed by you, and deal with your servants according to what you see.” 14 So he listened to them in this matter, and tested them for ten days. 15 At the end of ten days it was seen that they were better in appearance and fatter in flesh than all the youths who ate the king’s food. 16 So the steward took away their food and the wine they were to drink, and gave them vegetables. (ESV)
While it is clear that Daniel restricted what he ate and drank to just vegetables and water (vss. 12,16), a closer reading of the text makes it clear that Daniel was not fasting, and did not consider this a fast.
Daniel was among the captives taken from Jerusalem to Babylon. The king of Babylon, Belteshazzar, put Daniel into a three year training program so that he might serve in the king’s court. As part of the program, the king provided the initiates with his edible delicacies, as well as his wine. Daniel objected to eating and drinking these things because these foods were ritually unclean according to Jewish dietary laws (vs. 8). Instead of eating and drinking the king’s ritually unclean delicacies, Daniel chose to limit his diet to vegetables and water.
Daniel’s overseer was hesitant to comply with Daniel’s request for fear that Daniel’s choice of food and drink would make him appear malnutritioned in comparison to the other initiates, and displease the king. Daniel, however, was able to persuade the overseer to provide him his special diet for ten days to determine whether it would, in fact, affect Daniel’s appearance. After the ten days had expired, Daniel’s appearance was healthier than the initiates who ate the king’s delicacies! As a result, the overseer allowed Daniel to continue with his diet of vegetables and water.
Three things stand out about this text:
- It does not describe Daniel’s actions as a fast.
- Daniel’s abstention from the king’s meat and drink wasmorally motivated, not spiritually He was not abstaining for reasons of spiritual growth, but because participation would have been immoral according to the Law of Moses.
- Daniel had no intention of abstaining for a mere ten days, but indefinitely. In fact, the text suggests that had the overseer not granted Daniel’s request, Daniel was willing to suffer the consequences for continuing to deny the king’s delicacies (vs. 13). The ten days served only as a trial period to prove to the overseer that Daniel could maintain a healthy appearance on a continuous diet of vegetables and water. It would be improper, then, to construe this as a fast. Fasts are not indefinite. What Daniel did was no different from those in our day who choose a life of vegetarianism for various reasons.
In those days I, Daniel, was mourning for three weeks. 3 I ate no delicacies, no meat or wine entered my mouth, nor did I anoint myself at all, for the full three weeks. (ESV)
The first thing to note about this text is that once again, there is no mention of fasting. Instead, we are told that Daniel’s dietary restrictions were due to his “mourning.” While some would fast while they were mourning, mourning is not identical to fasting. One could fast without mourning, or mourn without fasting. Mourning was a time of self-abasement and neglect of one’s own body. That is why Daniel not only avoided meat and delicacies (which would be similar to modern “desserts”), but also avoided anointing himself with oil. Oil was used both for personal grooming (they didn’t take too many baths in those days) as well as protection from the elements. If we are going to use this as the basis for the Daniel Fast, then not only must we avoid meat and delicacies, but we must avoid bathing as well!
Neither passage called into service to support the notion of a Daniel Fast actually support the notion. And outside of these passages, fasting is never described as the abstention from certain foods. It is always described as the abstention from all food. Does that mean God will not honor the sacrifice of someone who only gives up certain foods for a period of time? Not at all. God will honor any sacrifices we make for him. What it does mean is that there is no warrant for calling such a sacrifice a “fast.” What should you do if your church calls an all-church Daniel Fast? By all means participate. Just because this is not a fast described in the Bible does not mean it is a bad thing. Surely there is not anything wrong with giving up certain foods for a period of time for God. Indeed, there are many benefits including unity of purpose and mind in the body of Christ, cleansing of the body, and practicing self-denial.
That said, apart from those who cannot abstain from all food for health-related issues, surely we can do better than a Daniel Fast. The purpose of a fast is to dedicate the time one would normally use for preparing and eating food to the Lord. We use the extra hours we gain in prayer and Bible reading, and doing good to others. If we are still spending time preparing and eating Daniel Fast acceptable foods, we are not gaining much extra time to dedicate to spiritual matters. So if you want to fast, and your health permits, fast the Biblical way: total abstention from food. It’s not easy, but we can do it!