Zechariah xii. 12, " And the land shall mourn, every family apart—their wives apart."
OF PERSONAL AND FAMILY FASTING AND HUMILIATION IN THE GENERAL.
Religious fasts, kept in secret, by a particular person apart by himself, and by a particular family apart by themselves, concerning which this Memorial is presented both to saints and sinners, are not indeed the stated and ordinary duties of all times, to be performed daily, or at set times recurring; such as prayer, praise, and reading of the Word are : but they are extraordinary duties of some times, and to be performed occasionally, as depending entirely, in respect of the exercise of them, on the call of providence, which is variable.
They are authorised, and enjoined us, in the Word of God; and therefore, when we shall have performed them, we must say, "we are unprofitable servants, we have done that which was our duly to do;" and must abhor the least thought of meriting thereby.
The particular seasons of them are determined by providence. Wherefore they who would be practisers of them must be religions observers of providence; otherwise God may be calling aloud for weeping and mourning, and girding with sackcloth, while they, not heeding it, are indulging themselves in joy and gladness, Isa. xxii. 12,13; a dangerous adventure! Ver. 14, " Surely this iniquity shall not be purged from yon, till ye die, saith the Lord."
Hence the most serious and tender among knowing Christians, will readily be found the most frequent in these exercises. It is on the pouring out of the Spirit, that the land is to mourn, every family apart and their wives apart, Zech. xii. 10, 12. Paul was a scene wherein corrupt nature shewed her cursed vigour, he being, when he was bad, very bad; and grace, in its turn, its sacred power, he being, when he was good, very good, and then in fastings often, 2 Cor. xi. 27.
These duties consist of an external and circumstantial part, and an internal and substantial part.
To the external and circumstantial part of them belong time, place, and abstinence.
I. First of all, a proper time must be set apart for these duties. And this is to be regulated by Christian prudence, as best suits the circumstance of the person or family.
We find the saints in scripture ordinarily kept their fasts by Day. But we have an instance of a personal fast kept by Night, 2 Sam. xii. 16, " David fasted, and went in, and lay all Night upon the earth." This I do the rather notice, to obviate the excuse of those who quite neglect this duty, under the pretence of their not being masters of their own time. If the heart can be brought to it, one will readily find some time or other for it, either by day or else by night. It is recorded to the honour of one of the weaker sex, viz., Anna, that she "served God with fastings and prayers night and day." Luke ii. 36, 37.
As to the Quantity of time to be spent in personal or family fasting and humiliation, the duty, I judge, is to regulate it, and not it to regulate the duty. The family fast of Esther with her maidens, observed also by all the Jews in Shushan, lasted three days, Esth. iv. 16. We read of the fasting-day, Jer. xxxvi. 6. Sometimes, it would seem, it was but a part of a day, that was spent in such exercise ; as in Cornelius, his personal fast, which seems to have been over before the ninth hour, that is, before three o'clock in the afternoon; Acts x. 30, ''Four days ago I was fasting until this hour, and at the ninth hour I prayed in my house," before which time of the fourth day, Peter, to whom Cornelius saith this, might be come; there being but thirty-six miles from Joppa to Cesarea, whither he came on the second day after he set out from Joppa, vers. 23, 24; compare vers. 8, 9, 17. Much about that time of the day, Daniel got the answer of his prayers, made in his personal fast, namely, about the time of the evening oblation, or the ninth hour, Dan. ix. 21. And the people being "assembled with fasting, (Neh. ix. 1,) they read in the book of the law of the Lord their God, one-fourth part of the day, and another fourth part they confessed and worshipped the Lord their God," ver. 3. So they continued in the work six hours, from nine o'clock in the morning, as it would seem, till three afternoon; that is, from the time of the morning sacrifice, to the evening sacrifice, with which the work seems to have been closed, as, it may be presumed, they spent the morning in private preparation for the public duty.
Wherefore I judge, that none are to be solicitous as to what quantity of time, more or less, they spend in these exercises, so that the work of the time be done. Nay, I very much doubt, men lay a snare for themselves in tying themselves to a certain quantity of time in such cases. It is sufficient to resolve, that, according to our ability, we will take as much time as the work shall be found to require. .
II. A proper place is also to be chosen, where the person or family may perform the duty without disturbance from others. Time and place are natural circumstances of the action; and all places are alike now, tinder the gospel; none more holy than another. Men may pray everywhere, whether in the house or in the field, "lifting up holy hands," 1 Tim. ii. 8. Only forasmuch as family fasting is a private duty, it requires a private place; and personal fasting a secret duty, it requires a secret place; according to the caution given us by our Saviour; Matth. vi. 18, "That thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret."
III. Abstinence is included in the nature of the thing; abstinence from meat and drink, and all bodily pleasures whatsoever, as well as ceasing from worldly business. The Jews are taxed for finding pleasure, and exacting their labours in the day of their fast, Isa. Iviii. 3. A time of religious fasting, is a time for one's "afflicting his soul," ver. 5, by denying himself even those lawful comforts and delights which he may freely use at other times. Exod. xxxiii. 4, "The people mourned, and no man did put on him his ornaments." Dan. ix. 3, "I set my face unto the Lord God, to seek by prayer, and supplications, with fasting, and sackcloth and ashes." 1 Cor. vii. 5, "Defraud ye not one the other, except it be with consent for a time, that ye may give yourselves to fasting and prayer."
The rule for abstinence from meat and drink, cannot be the same as to all; for fasting, not being a part of worship, but a means to dispose and fit us for extraordinary worshipping, is to be used only as helping thereto; but it is certain, that what measure of it would be helpful to some for that end, would be a great hindrance to others. Wherefore weakly persons, whom total abstinence would disfit and indispose for duty, are not called to fast at that rate; in their case, that saying takes place; Hos. vi. 6, ''I desired mercy and not sacrifice." Yet ought they not in that case to indulge them, selves the use of meat and drink, with the same freedom as at other times; but to use a partial abstinence, altering the quantity or quality of them, or both, so as they may thereby be afflicted, as the Scripture expresseth it. Lev. xxiii. 29. So Daniel in his mourning, Dan. x. 5, ''Eat no pleasant bread, neither came flesh nor wine into his mouth."
Meanwhile, all these things are but the outward shell of these duties; the internal and substantial part of them lies in the following spiritual exercises.
1. Serious meditation, and consideration of our ways, Hag. i. 5. Such times are to be set apart from conversing with the world, that we may the more solemnly commune with our own hearts, 93 to the state of matters between God and us. In them we are diligently to review our past life. "Search and try our ways."—Lam. iii. 40. And we are to search out our sins, by a sorrowful calling lo remembrance the sins of our heart and life, and that as particularly as we can; and to search into them, by a deep consideration of the evil of them, and of their aggravations, the light, love, mercies, and warnings, we have sinned against; tracing them up to the sin of our nature, the impoisoned fountain from whence they have all proceeded. And the more fully and freely we converse with ourselves upon them, we will be the more fit to speak unto God anent them, in confession and pleading for pardon.
2. Deep humiliation of soul before the Lord; the which was signified by the sackcloth and ashes used, under the law, on such occasions. The consideration of our ways is to be pursued, till our soul be humbled within us ; our heart rent, not with remorse for sin only, but with regret and kindly sorrow for it, as an offence to a "gracious and merciful God," Joel ii. 12, 13; our face filled with shame and blushing before him, in the view of our spiritual nakedness, pollution, and defilement, Ezra ix. 6; and we loathe ourselves as most vile in our own eyes, Ezek. xxxvi. 31; Job xl. 4.
3. Free and open confession of sin before God, without reserve. This is a very material part of the duty incumbent on us in religious fasting; and the due consideration and deep humiliation just now mentioned, do natively issue in it; producing, of course, extraordinary confession of sin, an exercise most suitable on such an occasion. Hence the Jews spent "one fourth part of the day in confessing and worshipping," Neh. ix. 3 ; and the angel, who brought the answer to Daniel's supplications about the time of the evening oblation, found him still praying and confessing his sin, Dan. ix. 20, 21. For here the sinner duly humbled has much ado, acting against himself the part of an accuser, recounting before the Lord his transgressions of the holy law, so far as he is able to reach them; the part of an advocate opening up the particulars, in their nature, and aggravating circumstances ; and the part of a judge, justifying God in all the evil he has brought upon him, and condemning himself as unworthy of the least of all his mercies, and deserving to perish under eternal wrath.
4. The exercise of repentance in turning from sin unto God, both in heart and life, the native result of deep humiliation and sincere confession; Joel ii. 12, "Turn ye even to me—with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning." In vain will we fast, and pretend to be humbled for our sins, and make confession of them, if our love of sin be not turned into hatred; our liking of it into loathing; and our cleaving to it, into a longing to be rid of it; with full purpose to resist the motions of it in our heart, and the outbreakings thereof in our life; and if we turn not unto God as our rightful Lord and Master, and return to our duty again. If we are indeed true penitents, we will turn from sin, not only because it is dangerous and destructive to us; but because it is offensive to God, dishonours his Son, grieves his Spirit, transgresseth his law, and defaceth his image; and we will cast away all our transgressions, not only as one would cast away a live-coal out of his bosom, for that it burns him; but as one would cast away a loathsome and filthy thing, for that it defiles him.
But withal, it is to be remembered, that the true way to deal with a hard heart, to bring it to this temper, is to believe the gospel. As ravenous fowls first fly upward, and then come down on their prey; so must we first soar aloft in believing, and then we shall come down in deep humiliation, sincere and free confession, and true repentance—Zech. xii. 10, "They shall look upon me whom they have pierced, and shall mourn." Therefore the Scripture proposeth the object of faith in the promise of grace as a motive to repentance, that by a believing application thereof the hard heart may be moved and turned; Joel ii. 13, "Turn unto the Lord your God, for he is gracious." One may otherwise toil long with it; but all in vain. "Without faith it is impossible to please God," Heb. xi. 6; and therefore impossible to reach true humiliation, right confession, and sincere repentance, which are very pleasing to him, Jer. xxxi. 18, 19, 20. The unbelieving sinner may be brought to roar under law-horror; but one will never be a kindly mourner, but under gospel influences. When guilt stares one in the face, unbelief locks up the heart, as a keen frost doth the waters; but faith in the Redeemer's blood melts it, to flow in tears of godly sorrow. Hard thoughts of God, which unbelief suggests to a soul stung with guilt, alienate that soul more and more from him; they render it like the worm, which, when one offers to tread upon it, presently contracts itself, and puts itself in the best posture of defence it can; but the believing of the proclaimed pardon touchesthe heart of the rebel so that he casts down himself at the feet of his Sovereign, willingly yielding himself to return to his duty.
5. Solemn covenanting with God, entering into, or renewing covevant with him in express words. As a fast-day is a day to "loose the bands of wickedness," so it is a day for coming explicitly into the bond of the holy covenant; Jer. 1. 4, "Going and weeping, they shall go, and seek the Lord their God." Ver. 5, "Saying, come, and let us join ourselves to the Lord, in a perpetual covenant that shall not be forgotten." Accordingly, this was an eminent part of their fast-day's work, Neh. ix. 38. It follows of course, on due humiliation, confession, and the exercise of repentance, whereby the league with sin is broken. And it lies in a solemn professing before the Lord, that we take hold of his covenant, believing on the name of his Son as the Saviour of the world, and our Saviour, and that in and through him, he will be our God, and we shall be his people; and that we are from the heart content, and consent to take him for our portion, Lord and Master, and resign ourselves to him only, wholly, and for ever. Heb. viii. 10, "This is the covenant, I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people." Isa. xlix. 8, "I will give thee for a covenant." Chap. Ivi. 6, "Every one that taketh hold of my covenant." John i. 12, "As many as received him, that believe on his name." Psalm xvi. 2, "O my soul, thou hast said unto the Lord, thou art my Lord." Isa. xliv. 5, " One shall say, I am the Lord's."
6. Lastly, Extraordinary prayer, in importunate addresses and petitions unto our covenanted God, for that which is the particular occasion of our fast. The confession and the covenanting are, both of them, to be done prayer-wise, as appears from Dan. ix. 4—15 ; Neh. ix. 6—38. But besides, there must be prayers, supplications, and petitions made for what the person or family hath particularly in view in their fast; Psalm xxxv. 13, "When they were sick, my clothing was sackcloth; I humbled my soul with fasting, and my prayer returned into mine own bosom." And, indeed, the great end and design for which such fasts are to be kept, is, that thereby the parties may be the more stirred up unto, and fitted for wrestling with God in prayer, anent the case which they have particularly at heart. So the Ninevites having their threatened overthrow at heart, it was ordered, that "man and beast" should be "covered with sackcloth, and cry mightily unto God."—Jon. iii. 8; that is, that the men should cry in prayer for pity and sparing; and to the end they might be moved to the greater fervency in these their praying cries, it is provided, that they and their beasts too should he covered with sackcloth; and that their beasts, having fodder and water withheld from them on that occasion, should be made to cry for hunger and thirst, even to cry unto God, namely, interpretatively, as the "young ravens cry unto him."—Job xxxviii. 41. At which rate, the cries of the beasts, being mixed with the cries of men, would make the solemnity of that extraordinary mourning very great; and the hearts of men being, every now and then during that solemnity, pierced with the cries of the harmless brutes, would be stirred up to a more earnest, fervent, and importunate pleading with God for mercy.
Thus far of personal, and family fasting and humiliation in the general.