Focus For the Fast

Standing among stones from the Temple destruction in 70 C.E.

It is customary to commemorate the destruction of both the first and the second Temples with mourning and fasting on the 9th day of the 5th month.

The Bible provides two dates for the destruction of the 1st Temple. In 2 Kings 25:8-9 it says that this took place on the 7th, while the prophet Jeremiah says that it happened on the 10th (Jeremiah 52:12). This is reconciled in the sources by stating that the final phases of the destruction began on the 7th and by the 10th it was completely ruined.

At any rate, the 9th of Av (Tishe B’Av) became a day of fasting and mourning. Even as early as the time of Zechariah, the purpose of fasting was called into question. Specifically, the fast of the fifth month, and that of the seventh are mentioned. According to Zechariah 7:5, the LORD of Hosts says to ask all the people, “Did you fast for my benefit?” The message could not be more clear. The prophet, speaking for the LORD, stated,

“when you did eat, and when you did drink, did you not eat for yourselves, and drink for yourselves? Should you not hear the words of the prophets which the LORD has proclaimed by the former prophets…” (Zechariah 7:5b)

This is then followed by the prophet’s plea to take up the causes which should be the focus of the people.

“Thus spoke the LORD of hosts, saying, Execute true judgment, and show loyal love and mercy every man to his brother: and do not oppress the widow, or the fatherless, the stranger, or the poor; and let none of you devise evil against his brother in your heart” (Zechariah 7:9-11). (Compare Isaiah 1:17; Jeremiah 7:5-7, 21:12, 22:3, & Micah 6:8)

Based upon texts in the Hebrew Bible, as early as the dedicatory speech of King Solomon, destruction of the house was promised for certain unseemly behaviors (I Kings 9:8). During the time of Jeremiah, in the final days leading up to the destruction of the first Temple, the prophet attempted to draw the people back to the essentials of the faith, but the focus of the people was on the external elements. In chapter seven, Jeremiah warns his contemporaries that trusting in lying words, “the Temple of the LORD, the Temple of the LORD, the Temple of the LORD are these,” would NOT ward off the impending doom of the house. Only true repentance and devotion to the most important aspects of the faith could avert the coming destruction. As proof of his claims, Jeremiah encouraged those feeling secure in their present path, to go to Shiloh, and to see what happened there, because of the “wickedness of My people Israel” (Jeremiah 7:12). The reference should have been obvious, but the warning was not heeded.

Chapter 26 of Jeremiah records yet another message delivered by the prophet concerning the destruction of the House. Once again, as in chapter seven, Jeremiah is told by the LORD to “stand in the court of the House of the LORD,” and proclaim the promised destruction. The response of the priests and prophets going to the Temple to worship there was to threaten the life of Jeremiah. He was seized with shouts of “you shall die!” A meeting was convened by the religious leaders, and charges were brought forth. If it were not for some of the elders, Jeremiah would likely have been killed. Those who spoke up, referred to another prophet who made similar predictions about the destruction of the House. They appealed to a situation in the days of King Hezekiah, during which Micah said,

“Therefore shall Zion for your sake be ploughed like a field, and Jerusalem shall become a heap of rubble, and the mountain of the house like the high places of the forest” (Micah 3:12).

Despite the sensible advice from the elders to follow the lead of the earlier case to fear and implore the LORD, so that the punishment might be renounced (Jeremiah 26:19), the people continued down the path to destruction.

The prophets continually warned the people to amend their ways and their doings. The people refused. For generations, there has been much emphasis placed on the mourning and fasting over the destruction of the Temples. Is this going to remedy the present problem? Is the fasting done in such a way as to bring about a reversal of the causes which led to the ruin of the House? Isaiah 66 is important to consider at this point.

“Thus says the LORD, The heaven is My throne and the earth is my footstool: where is the house that you would build for Me, and where is the place of My rest? For all those things has My hand made, and so all those things came to be, says the LORD. But to this man I will look: to him that is poor and of a contrite spirit, and trembles at My word” (Isaiah 66:1-2).

One is welcome to visit the site of ancient Shiloh, or on certain days, walk about on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. No House of the LORD is in either location. The last Temple was destroyed in 70 of the Common Era by Titus.

Perhaps it is time to work on the internal elements of true faith, and always remember that “unless the LORD builds the house, they who build it labor in vain” (Psalm 127:1a).

If people choose to mourn and fast, it should be in accordance with Isaiah 58. Perhaps it is here, in these verses that the answer resides. Here, the people ask why their fasting and the affliction of their soul has gone unnoticed. The answer? The focus is wrong. In short,

“you fast not this day to make your voice heard on high” (Isaiah 58:4b).

It is not enough to put on sackcloth and ashes (v 5). Rather, the focus during the fast should be on those in need. Isaiah then provides a list of acceptable actions – loose the chains of wickedness, undo the bands of the yoke, let the oppressed go free, break every yoke, share your bread with the hungry, bring the poor into your home, clothe the naked. Only then will the fast be acceptable and our voice heard on high.

Is the mourning and fasting on the 9th of Av over the loss of the House, or over the behavior that led to the destruction? One should carefully consider this question. One day, according to Zechariah, the days of fasting will “become times of joy and gladness, and cheerful feasts to the House of Judah” (Zechariah 8:18-19). Until these days become times of joy and gladness, we should all seek to amend our ways and doings – for this has always been the message of the LORD from the prophets.

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