Outward Show

Speak unto all the people of the land, and to the priests, saying, When ye fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh month, even those seventy years, did ye at all fast unto me, even to me? And when ye did eat, and when ye did drink, did not ye eat for yourselves, and drink for yourselves? Should ye not hear the words which the LORD hath cried by the former prophets, when Jerusalem was inhabited and in prosperity, and the cities thereof round about her, when men inhabited the south and the plain?
~ Zechariah 7:5-7

Ye have said, It is vain to serve God: and what profit is it that we have kept his ordinance, and that we have walked mournfully before the LORD of hosts?
~ Malachi 3:14

When I wept, and chastened my soul with fasting, that was to my reproach.
~ Psalm 69:10

In those days I Daniel was mourning three full weeks. I ate no pleasant bread, neither came flesh nor wine in my mouth, neither did I anoint myself at all, till three whole weeks were fulfilled.
~ Daniel 10:2-3

And he caused it to be proclaimed and published through Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles, saying, Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste any thing: let them not feed, nor drink water:
~ Jonah 3:7

He that turneth away his ear from hearing the law, even his prayer shall be abomination.
~ Proverbs 28:9

The sacrifice of the wicked is abomination: how much more, when he bringeth it with a wicked mind?
~ Proverbs 21:27

Moreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face; That thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret: and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly.
~ Matthew 6:16-18

And rend your heart, and not your garments, and turn unto the LORD your God: for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repenteth him of the evil. Who knoweth if he will return and repent, and leave a blessing behind him; even a meat offering and a drink offering unto the LORD your God?
~ Joel 2:13-14

Fast Days in Dead Times, by Jonathan Edwards.

Wherefore have we fasted, say they, and thou seest not? wherefore have we afflicted our soul, and thou takest no knowledge? Behold, in the day of your fast ye find pleasure, and exact all your labours. Behold, ye fast for strife and debate, and to smite with the fist of wickedness: ye shall not fast as ye do this day, to make your voice to be heard on high. Is it such a fast that I have chosen? a day for a man to afflict his soul? is it to bow down his head as a bulrush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? wilt thou call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the LORD?
–Isaiah 58:3-5

In the Isaiah 58:1 of the chapter, ’tis intimated that it was an exceeding degenerate time among the people of Israel. The Prophet is therefore directed to cry aloud, and not to spare to lift up his voice as a trumpet, to show the people their transgression. Yet, says God, “They seek me daily, and delight to know my ways.”

Though it was so corrupt a time among them, yet they kept up a form and (an) outside of religion; yea, they made a show of extraordinary zeal in religion. They were very much in the outward observances of it, as in the Isaiah 58:2: they sought God daily, and were very exact in their observance of ordinances, “as a nation that did righteousness, and forsook not the ordinance of their God,” much as was observed of ’em long after by Christ. They observed the least punctilios of the ceremonial law: they tithed mint, and anise, and cumin.

They made a show of a desire to know and do their whole duty: “They ask of me the ordinances of justice,” and seemed as though they took great pleasure in religion: they “delight to know my ways”: “They take delight in approaching to God.”

And among other religious observances that they kept up, they attended fast days. They made a show of extraordinary religion. It seems they were wont to fast much, and made a show of great devotion in fasting. And they had a high opinion of themselves upon these accounts, and wondered that God did not seem to take much notice of it. God seemed still to frown upon ’em in his providence, as though he were angry with them. They looked upon it that they had fasted and humbled themselves enough for their sins. They thought God had no occasion to be angry, and expected that God should manifest himself extraordinary pleased with their being so very religious, and highly reward them for it. In the words read may be observed,

1. The duty that they seemed to perform, viz. fasting. There was a fast to be kept every year on the tenth day of the seventh month, by God’s appointment. But it seems that the fasting here spoken of is an extraordinary fasting that they appointed themselves, considered the Day of Atonement. They would show themselves as extraordinary zealous in religion, and so appointed extraordinary fasts.

2. The extraordinary show of devotion and zeal in their manner of their keeping their fasts. They afflicted their souls: they bowed down their heads as a bulrush, and spread sackcloth and ashes under them: they made a show as though they were extraordinary humbled for their sins and abased in their souls before God.

3. We may observe their hypocrisy in these outward performances. Their fasting consisted in these outward performances, bowing down their heads like a bulrush. They went no further. This was the fast that they kept, and they did nothing else towards keeping of a fast, as is implied in those interrogations, “Is this the fast that I have chosen? Wilt thou call this a fast?”; as much as to say, “This is all you do towards keeping a fast?”

4. Wherein they manifested their hypocrisy, viz. in that notwithstanding their fasting, wickedness still greatly prevailed among ’em. “Ye exact all your labors. Ye fast for strife and debate, and to smite with the fist of wickedness”; i.e. you yet continue in these practices notwithstanding your tasting; for all your pretenses of repentance and extraordinary humiliation, notwithstanding your bowing down and spreading sackcloth and ashes, as though your hearts were greatly broken for your degeneracies, yet you continue in them.

There is a great show of humiliation on fast days, but no reformation. You are still as full of oppression and wrong as ever. Ye continue strife and debate, and to smite with the fist of wickedness, as you used to do, and rather grow worse than better.

5. (In the words read) may be observed the unacceptableness of their fasting to God on this account They admired that God did not seem to accept their fasting. But God says to ’em, “Ye shall not fast as ye do this day.” Saith he, “Is it such a fast that I have chosen? Wilt thou call this an acceptable day to the Lord?”


When it is a degenerate time among a people, they are ordinarily exceeding hypocritical in keeping fast days.

Prop. I. A people may keep up fast days and other external religion in time of great degeneracy. So it was in Israel at the time spoken of in the text, and fasting was not the only religious performance that they kept up. They also kept up public prayer: they attended it often at other times, as is doubtless implied in that expression in the verse before the text, “They seek me daily,” and “take delight in approaching to God.” They also kept up hearing. They asked of God the ordinances of justice, and seemed to delight to know God’s ways: they were very strict in attending ordinances: “They forsook not the ordinance of their God.” And we are told this of ’em elsewhere, as in the Isaiah 1:11–15. They offered a multitude of sacrifices: they came to appear before God: they often trod God’s courts: they kept the new moons, and sabbaths, and the calling of assemblies. They spread forth their hands and made many prayers. And yet it was an exceeding degenerate time among them, as God declares in that chapter, Isaiah 11:4–6. God complains that they were “a people laden with iniquity, a seed of evildoers, children that are corrupters; that had forsaken the Lord, and provoked the Holy One of Israel to anger.” They were revolting “more and more: the whole head was sick, and the whole heart faint, and from the sole of the foot.” And their hands were full of blood, as ’tis said in the Isaiah 11:15.

So we have an account in the forty-second of Jeremiah, how the people that were left of the captivity came to Jeremiah to pray for ’em, that God would show ’em the way wherein they should walk, and the thing that they should do, and professed that they would obey the Lord. But as soon as they had heard what God’s command was, that they should not go down into Egypt, they went and directly disobeyed. And they are there spoken of as a most wicked company.

And the like God complains of to the prophet Ezekiel. Ezekiel 33:31 “And they come unto thee as the people cometh, and they sit before thee as my people, and they hear thy words, but they will not do them.” And the like in Jeremiah 7:9–10, “Will ye steal, murder, and commit adultery, and swear falsely, and burn incense unto Baal, and walk after other gods whom ye know not; and come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name?” And we have the like account of the Jews in Christ’s time, especially among the scribes and Pharisees.1 They made long prayers: they fasted very oft: they made broad their phylacteries, and enlarged the borders of their garments: they tithed mint, and anise, and cumin: they were so strict and exact in observing the law about paying the tithe, that they did not omit to pay the tithe of all the herbs that grew in their garden: they were very zealous about the observance of the sabbath: they found fault with the disciples for so much as plucking the ears of corn, and found fault with Christ for healing on the sabbath day. And yet they are always spoken of in Scripture as a most wicked company of men, a “generation of vipers.” They lived in secret wickedness, were cruel persecutors, and it seems that some of (them) had committed the sin against the Holy Ghost. So that the keeping up of fast days and other religious observances is no sign that it is not a very corrupt time among a people. Those religious observances are oftentimes mixed with the most vile immoralities, as it was in Ezekiel’s time. Ezekiel 23:39, “When they had slain their children to their idols, then they came the same day into my sanctuary to profane it; and, lo, thus have they done in the midst of my house.” A people may keep up such observances when ’tis a very degenerate time among them from these causes.

First. They may do as a custom that they have received from their fore-fathers. A people that are a very corrupt and wicked people may yet be zealous of the customs of their forefathers. They don’t keep up external religion out of any respect to God’s command: they may have no respect to God in what they do, but may go on in it as a thing that they have trained up in from their childhood. Thus it was in Christ time, when it was an exceeding corrupt time in the Jewish nation. They were exceeding zealous of the customs and traditions of their fathers. And whether those traditions were the command of God or no, that would not abate their zeal for them. Yea, they seemed to be especially zealous of those that were not the command of God, for which Christ often reproves them.

A degenerate people may keep up fast days and other religious observances, as the Papists are zealous of the usages of their religion, and heathens of theirs, because they are customs that they received from their forefathers. A people may be zealous of good customs, and even of the ordinances of God, from no better principles than the Papists and heathens are zealous of their superstitions and idolatries; yea, and doubtless are zealous of God’s instituted worship and ordinances from the very same principles.

And therefore as a person may be a zealous Papist or a zealous heathen and yet be a very wicked man, so he may also be very wicked, and yet be zealous of the outward institutes and observances of the true religion.

And doubtless this is very commonly the case, that persons go to meeting, and there attend prayer, and preaching, and other ordinances, and keep the sabbath, and keep fasts and thanksgivings, only because it was the custom that they were brought up (in). Especially is it common that these things are observed from no better principle when it is a time of degeneracy among a people.

Second. These things may be kept up among many a very degenerate people out of respect to the esteem of men. There may be many that would willingly drop those customs, and put off all forms of religion, however customary they have been among their ancestors, if it were (not) for their regard to their credit.

‘Tis to be feared there are many that abstain from their ordinary business on sabbath days, and sometimes go to meeting, that if it were not for regard to their credit, would not confine themselves to any such observances, nor lay themselves under any restraints of religion. For they will now go contrary to the custom of their forefathers as far as they can, without making themselves infamous. Though the credit of religion is generally much sunk in a time of degeneracy, yet it may be a very degenerate time among a people; and yet an open neglect of the form of religion may be much to a person’s dishonor among them.

‘Tis not only a love to religion in the people that makes the form of religion credible among them; but some sorts of wickedness may expose a man to reproach among wicked men, as well as be accounted very dishonorable among good men.

Every man’s conscience tells him that religion is credible and honorable, and oftentimes men are ready to reproach others for that wickedness they themselves have no dislike of in their hearts, and it may be themselves do practice.

And it may be observed that among a backsliding and degenerating people, a zeal for positive duties and outward forms of worship is generally held up much longer than of moral duties, though moral duties are much more essential. So it was among the Jews in Christ’s time. They were a great deal more zealous of tithing mint, and anise, and cumin, than they were of judgment, mercy, and peace, though they were the “weightier matters of the law” (Matthew 23:23). It was a very corrupt time among the Jews in Christ’s time, and yet how much was done among (them) to be seen of men as we are often told.2

Third. There are many persons that hope to get to heaven by such observances, though they are otherwise persons of a very wicked life. The outward forms of worship, though they are things of least account with God, yet they are what men are most apt to trust to. And many that live immoral lives will yet be devout at church, and seem to trust to that, and hope that they shall get to heaven by it, though they go on in their vices. They seem to think that a little religion on sabbath days, or on fast days and festival days, will atone for their sensuality and loose behavior on other days. They hope if they do but come now and then, and behave themselves devoutly in the public worship, that they shall keep at good terms with heaven, and all will be well at last.

Though this argues a great degree of ignorance and inconsideration, and oftentimes is for want for persons being well taught, yet ’tis what persons are exceeding prone to, to trust in such things. Thus did they that we read of in Jeremiah 7:4, “Trust not in lying words, saying, The temple of the Lord, The temple of the Lord, The temple of the Lord, are these.” Those same persons, it is implied in the Jeremiah 7:9, would steal, murther, and commit adultery, and swear falsely, and the like.

Many that have but little religion, yet hope to go to heaven by it. A people may be a very degenerate people, and yet enjoy means of grace, and have many warnings from the Word; and when it is so, they must have something to quiet their conscience with. Hence persons of all kinds and characters are ready to flatter themselves with something: they must have something that looks like religion to quiet themselves with, and to pay for their carnal indulgences.

Men will willingly give God the forms of worship, if he will but be at peace with them, and let them enjoy their sins. They can a great deal easier comply with going to meeting, and keeping fasts and thanksgivings, and the like, than they can deny all their fleshly appetites, and cross their ambition and covetousness. Men had rather do great things of this nature than deny all their lusts. The Papists had rather whip themselves, and macerate their bodies with fasting, or pay great sums of money, and go long pilgrimages. The heathens had rather burn their children than deny all their lusts.

Fourth. There may be a number of good men among a people, though it be a very degenerate time among them. It was a very degenerate time in Israel in Elijah’s time. Elijah says to God they have “thrown down thine altars, and slain thy Prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away” (1 Kings 19:14). But God says to him, “Yet I have left me seven thousand in Israel, all the knees which have not bowed unto Baal, and every mouth which hath not kissed him” (1 Kings 19:18). It may be a very degenerate time among a people, and yet there may be some godly rulers, and a number of godly ministers, and some of all ranks and orders, that may truly (be) pious, that may promote religious performances, and may be a great means of keeping of ’em up. These observances may be kept up by the rest in an hypocritical compliance with them.

The few godly that are in the world are “the salt of the earth,” and if it were not for them, the very form of religion would probably be dropped by mankind. The godly do much towards keeping up the credit of religion: they are a great restraint to wicked men: they hold forth that to the world that awakens natural conscience in some, and keeps others from stupefying of it, to that degree that otherwise they would.

‘Tis much by their means that religion continues to be a creditable thing, and open wickedness accounted a dishonor.

Prop. II. That however a degenerate people may keep fast days, they are generally exceeding hypocritical in it. Not that they are all of them so; for I have just observed that there may be a number of godly people, sincere ones among a people in a time of great degeneracy. Many of these may probably be upright in keeping such days, though not all of them at all times; for these two things may be observed, viz.

First. That godly persons may be very hypocritical in keeping fast days, and prevailing degeneracy may have great influence even upon them to cause them to be hypocritical. For when ’tis a time of great degeneracy, not only the number of wicked men greatly increases, but the godly themselves decrease. They are not so lively, but are more dull and dead. Grace is not in that lively exercise; both the world and indwelling corruption prevails more. Matthew 24:12, “Because iniquity shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold.” And ordinarily at such times the godly are more formal in an attendance on outward duties of worship. There is loss of the presence of God not only with the people in general, but even with the godly. And the godly may greatly provoke God by their hypocrisy in keeping fast days, and help to bring down judgments on a land, as well as wicked men.

Second. Natural men may in some respect be sincere in keeping fast days. They may have a moral sincerity: they may have such a sense of their sins, and of their having provoked God, and exposed themselves to his wrath by them, as may accompany reformation. Though there be no gracious sincerity, or nothing done from any true respect to God, there may be such a sincerity as God may have great respect to in his public providence or in his dealings with a people. Thus it was with the Ninevites. They took great notice of the wrath of God by Jonah. ‘Tis said they believed God, and they proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the least of them to the greatest. And we read that the king of Nineveh, when the word came to him, rose from his throne, and laid his robe from him, and covered him with sackcloth, and sat in ashes; and proclaimed and published through Nineveh that neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything; but that men and beast should be covered with sackcloth, and cry mightily to God. And they were sincere in this. They had such a sincerity as was accompanied with reformation, and such as God had respect to, so as to avert the judgment that be threatened, as may be seen in the Jonah 3.

So persons may so far be sincere in their fasting that God may have great respect thereto in his providence to them; in particular, as it was with Ahab, when he heard the awful threatenings of God towards his family by Elijah.3 We read that he “rent his clothes, and put sackcloth upon his flesh, and fasted, and lay in sackcloth, and went softly.” And God had respect to it, so that upon it he said to Elijah, “Seest thou how Ahab humbleth himself before me? because he humbleth himself before me, I will not bring the evil in his days.”

But when it is a degenerate time among a people, they ordinarily are very hypocritical in keeping fast days. It is commonly done without either a moral or gracious sincerity; and the following reasons may be given of it.

1. When a people grow degenerate, they grow senseless of their sins, and have no desire to reform. The pretense of a people’s keeping fast days is to humble themselves for their sins, to mourn for sin before God, and exercise brokenness of heart; and to turn from sin, and to deprecate God’s anger, that their sins have deserved, and to pray for pardon.

Herein consists the very design and notion of a fast day. If we had no sins to confess and humble ourselves for, there would be no occasion for a fast.

This is the pretense in abstinence from the ordinary delights of life and outward ornaments used at other times.

But as a people grow degenerate, they grow more senseless of any need of humiliation, more senseless of their unworthiness or ill deservings. Sin is of a stupefying nature, and the more sinful, ordinarily the less sensible. The more sin a people have, the less sensible they are of it. The more unworthy they are, and the more they have deserved God’s judgment, the less sensible of their ill deservings. So that their show and pretense of humiliation and repentance on fast days in a degenerate time, is ordinarily nothing else but pretense and show.

And the more sinful and corrupt a people are, the more they love their sins, and the more loth they are to part with them. So that their pretenses of turning from their sins in such cases are ordinarily but a mere sham. When a people are degenerating, it is like a stone that rolls down from (on high): it goes swifter and swifter. So they are inclined to revolt more and more (Isaiah 1:5).

At such times, as when iniquity most abounds among a people, there is ordinarily less zeal in magistrates to suppress (it), and less opposition made against (it) by ministers. For in such cases the distemper ordinarily (afflicts) all ranks and degrees, all the members of the body, not only the people, but their magistrates and ministers. There is oftentimes like people, like priest, and like rulers. The whole head is sick, and the whole heart faint, as well as the less noble members of the body diseased. So that their pretense of turning from their sins, and praying against their sins, is then in such a case a mere mockery. So it was with Israel, as God tells them in the text. They pretended to humble themselves for their sins, but yet continued in them. “Ye fast for strife and debate.”4

2. When it is a degenerate time among a people, a public spirit fails among them; and so they are not concerned for the public, nor affected with public judgments. The pretense of a public fast is to deprecate public judgments, or to humble ourselves for public judgments that are inflicted, and to pray for public mercies; but there is no doing this in sincerity without a public spirit. Unless a people are a public-spirited people, they can’t with any sincerity keep either a public fast or thanksgiving.

If a people don’t care what becomes of the public, how can (they) mourn for public calamities, and be humbled under God’s hand in them? How can they sincerely keep a fast to pray for public mercies? When it is a time of great degeneracy among a people, commonly everyone is for himself only, and is in a great measure regardless of others. Their “God is their belly,” and if they can but fill and satisfy that, they don’t much care what becomes of the public interest. ‘Tis the spirit of Christianity not to look only at our own things, “but every man also at the things of others” (Philippians 2:4), and to prefer Jerusalem before our chief joy (Psalms 137:6). But when Christianity and (a) spirit of godliness fails, and sin abounds, it turns men into brutes, and makes men look no further than to their own private interests.

This private spirit among a degenerate people commonly appears by a backwardness in persons to lay themselves out, or to suffer any inconvenience for the promoting of the public good, a narrowness and niggardliness of spirit, the prevailing of injustice and oppression, and a spirit of contention. ‘Tis not ordinarily a sincere concern for public good that is the true cause of contentions and quarrels among a people, though this is often the pretense; but it is private interest that is at the bottom of it.

These things are often complained of in Israel in the times of their degeneracy, as they are in the text. God there complains that oppression and contention prevailed among them at the same time that they kept fast days: “In the day of your fast, ye exact all your labors; ye fast for strife and debate.”

Persons of such a spirit are notoriously hypocritical in their keeping fast days, and pretending to pray for public mercies and the averting public judgments; for they are not much concerned about these things (Amos 6:3–5). ‘Tis there observed how the people oppressed one another, and everyone regarded only his own interest and pleasure; “but,” ’tis added, “they are not grieved for the affliction of Joseph.”

3. When ’tis a degenerate time among a people, there ordinarily fails a sense of dependence on God’s providence in ordering their affairs. When a people keep a fast, the pretense is to humble themselves under frowns or threatening aspects of providence, or to beg God’s blessing on their affairs. But when ’tis a very degenerate time among a people, this is ordinarily nothing but pretense; for they have no sense of any such, or a divine hand, concerned in ordering their affairs. They have but little sense of a providence governing the world, and ruling all things.

When it is a very degenerate time among a people, an atheistical spirit ordinarily greatly prevails. A sense of a God, and a providence, and the like are in a great measure lost.

They pretend to humble themselves before God for their sins; but they ben’t sensible of there being a God that has taken notice of their sins, and that has been provoked by them. They pretend to take notice of divine rebukes, in frowning providence; but ben’t sensible that these calamities were from the providence in ordering of God. They don’t know but that they happened accidentally.

They ben’t sensible that the things they suffer are the fruits of their sins. Thus it was in Israel in their times of degeneracy. Ezekiel 8:12, “They say, The Lord seeth us not; the Lord hath forsaken the earth.”

When they keep fast days, they pretend to supplicate the divine majesty for these and those blessings; but ben’t sensible of their dependence on God for them.5

In a time of degeneracy, a people han’t much fear of the divine displeasure, nor do they much prize his favor.

4. In a time of degeneracy, a spirit of devotion fails among a people, or a disposition to go to God and look to him. When a people are backslidden, and have forsaken their God, their hearts are alienated from God. They don’t desire to have much to do with him. When they are under affliction and in times of need, they han’t a disposition to go to God with their difficulties and wants. The prevailing of a worldly and sensual spirit greatly indisposes persons to any engagedness or earnestness of spirit in any acts of religion. Their minds are turned off from God to other things that are most remote from (the) spiritual and divine. It tends to make them cold and dead in all their pretended worship and devotion.

5. When it is a time of degeneracy {among a people}, they are not wont everyone to reflect on his own iniquity, but to put it off as what belongs to others. They look upon the work of a fast day as work that belongs to others chiefly: they don’t see the occasion that they in particular have to keep a fast day.

The humble, sensible Christian is most ready to complain of himself. He is ready to cry out of his own badness, is ready to say that he has been the chief of sinners, and has been the most undeserving. His thoughts turn chiefly on what he has done, the hand he has had in provoking God, and bringing down his judgments. But in a degenerate time in a land, the land is full of persons of a directly contrary disposition that are least sensible of their own sins. Their thoughts turn upon the wickedness of others: they think of the wickedness of such and such rulers: they think of the great sins of these and those of their neighbors, and what cause they have to keep a fast. They can see cause enough others have of humiliation: they cry out of the pride, and covetousness, and injustice of other men. But they ben’t sensible how much they have of their own to be humbled for.

They think of the wickedness of this and the other person that they have had a difficulty with, and that they think has injured them: they think of the wickedness of the contrary party and the like, but don’t look inwards; (they) lay judgments to others, and leave reformation to others. In a time of degeneracy there may be much complaining and crying out of the badness of the time. All may seem to agree to it: what bad time it is grown; how things ben’t as they was formerly; and what need there is of reformation. But it may be observed that at such a time commonly all the complaint is about the others’ sins. They let themselves alone. They behold every man the mote in his brother’s eye. Hence it is that there is a world of hypocrisy on fast days. Men don’t fast for themselves, but for others. Everyone fasts for other men’s sins, and no man keeps fasts for his own sins. And they would have others reform, but no man looks on reformation as his work. (It is) the reverse of what is said about repenting, returning Israel, spoken of (in) Ezekiel 7:16, that were “on the mountains like doves of the valleys, all of them mourning, everyone for his iniquity.”


Use I, Of Instr. Hence we need not wonder if God in his providence don’t testify any regard to such a people’s fasting. God has often declared in his Word how little regard he has to a merely external service without the heart; that it is accounted wholly worthless by him, yea, and even abominable. An outward appearance of devotion and worshipping him, when there is nothing real in it, is very abominable to him. It provokes God exceedingly to have persons come in such a manner to him, pretending to worship him. This God declares in the Isaiah 1:11:

To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me? saith the Lord: I am full of the burnt offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts; and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of he goats. When ye come to appear before me, who hath required this at your hand, to tread my courts? Bring no more vain oblations; incense is an abomination unto me; the new moons and sabbaths, the calling of assemblies, I cannot away with; it is iniquity, even the solemn meeting. Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hateth: they are a trouble unto me; I am weary to bear them. And when ye spread forth our hands, I will hide mine eyes from you: yea, when ye make many prayers, I will not hear: your hands are full of blood.

And no wonder that it is so, for it is a great reflection cast upon the omniscience of God, as though God could not see the heart, for persons to come and {pretend to worship him}.

It is a mere mocking of God, and God looks upon it so, especially for people to pretend from time to (time to) keep a fast, and humble {themselves before God}, and yet to continue in their sins, contendent6 all the year what they do on fast days. It would be accounted nothing but mockery by a master, if a servant {pretended to humble himself before him}. And to keep a solemn day, a public day of fasting, and then openly to show that we don’t care how much we have provoked God, is a kind of solemn mocking of God, (an) open mockery in sight of the world. The more set and solemn the mockery, and so much the greater ado we make about it, so much the more provoking. ‘Tis a dishonor to religion in general when persons make such an abuse of it. It would be provoking to any one of us, if a man should come to us to pretend a great deal of friendship with a flattering tongue, and we knew there was nothing of it in his heart. We should nauseate his pretenses, especially if at the same time he openly showed himself our enemy in his practice.

Therefore when a people do thus, ’tis not to be wondered at that God don’t testify {any regard to such a people’s fasting}, if he still follows ’em with judgments, and don’t seem to regard what they do; if notwithstanding (he) should give ’em over to destruction, cast ’em off from being his people, as he did Israel for all their fast days. We are told in the text that they wondered that God did not seem to regard (them): “Wherefore have we fasted, say they, and thou seest not?” But it was no wonder, if it be cursed; that though they hang down (their heads), exacted all their labor, fasted for strife and debate, (it) is as a form and custom that we have received from our forefathers.

It was a thing that the first settlers of the country looked upon suitable, that they should every year in the spring keep a day of fasting and prayer to humble themselves for their sins, and particularly the sins of the year past; and to implore God’s favor on the land in the concerns of the ensuing year; and at the latter end of the year to keep a day of thanksgiving for the blessings of the year. And this custom has been ever since kept up amongst us, and we have been trained up in it from our childhood. Is not this the main thing that makes the land still zealous of keeping an annual fast, much more than any sense we have of any occasion for it by reason of the sins we are guilty, or a sense of our need of God’s mercy? Are we zealous of fasts and thanksgivings any otherwise than the Papists are zealous of the their saints days, and of Mass, and other popish customs they have among them? We are greatly backslidden, and are become a very degenerate people. It is evident that iniquity exceedingly abounds amongst us. And is there any appearance of a real conviction in the Lord of the folly and evil of our degeneracy, of our baseness to God in it, who has been so good to the land? And is there any appearance of the minds of the people of the lands being changed, of their coming to themselves and a sense of their error, and of a spirit in good earnest to lament our corruptions, and to turn from them? What are our fastings but a mere formality with respect to the body of the people?

Instead of our being ashamed and humbled for prevailing sins, and lamenting of them, don’t we rather grow in love to them? Don’t iniquity grow more into credit and esteem amongst us? Are there not many wicked practices that used formerly to be accounted a great reproach to a person, that now persons are not much ashamed nor esteemed much the worse for? Is it not evident that for all our so often keeping public fasts to pray for public mercies, that yet there is far less of a public spirit or concern for the public good than we by this custom pretend to?

Is not a private, selfish spirit evidently the prevailing spirit in the land? Do not all mind their own things, neglecting the things of others; everyone scraping for himself, little caring how it goes with others? Does not this appear by a great prevailing of oppression and injustice amongst us? Is there in the land that sense of God, and his providence, and the dependence of our welfare thereupon, as we make a show by our yearly keeping fast days?

Is not a spirit of devotion, a spirit to worship God, to think of and talk of God and divine things, in a great measure dwindled away from amongst us? And is there not an atheistical spirit greatly prevailing in the land?

And is not that a spirit greatly prevailing amongst us to find fault with others, and cry out of their sins, while we are insensible of our own? Don’t this spirit appear in that there is so much of evil speaking, and backbiting, and contention amongst us?

And particularly, let it be inquired whether or no, notwithstanding all the fast days that we have kept, there ever has been any such thing as a reformation of the land?

We from time to time keep days that we call days of humiliation, to humble ourselves for our sins and backslidings, to bewail and lament our prevailing corruptions, to confess that we have deserved God’s judgments, and to beg that (he) would not deal with us as we have deserved. And yet have we not all the while continued and gone on in those very corruptions?

We keep fast days to confess our sins, but love ’em too well to part with ’em. We as it were hang down our heads, and put sackcloth on us, as though we lamented our sins, but all the while hug ’em, and will not let ’em go. We keep a day of fasting to confess our covetousness and injustice, but when the day is over, do we not go to our covetousness and injustice? We come to God’s house to bewail our malice and sensuality, but when we have done, do we not go away to our malice and sensuality again?

There comes out an order every year that we should humble ourselves for our sins, and we pretend to obey the ordinance; but what is it but pretense? This was what God complained of in Israel in the text.7 There have been scores of public fasts in this land; but has there ever been one reformation that might be called a reformation of the land? Yea, instead of reforming, have we not waxed worse and worse, and are we not still revolting more and more continually? Have we not acted as though the work of a fast was to immerse ourselves further into wickedness?

We have a fast every year, and the pretense of every fast is reformation; but yet do we not come to every new fast worse than we were before the last? Are there not evidences of the disease having lately got to a great height, and becoming more threatening of life in its prevailing more upon the vital parts; when there is not only a corruption of manners, but when corruptions in doctrine so exceedingly prevail in the land, as they have done of late years?

Use II, Of Exam. (in two branches).

First. Let us inquire whether or no this be not the case in this land. We in this land pretend every year to keep a solemn day of public fasting, humiliation, and prayer, to humble ourselves for our sins, deprecate judgment, and implore mercy. We herein do more than other lands. We make a show and pretense, as though we were extraordinary (in) religion and carefulness to keep at good terms with God, jealous of ourselves, and had a spirit of religion and dependence on God.

But let it be inquired whether or no we are not exceeding hypocritical in these our pretenses.

Doubtless there are a number of sincere ones among us. And ’tis to be hoped there are some that are hearty in their humiliation on fast days, and do give honor to God therein; do mourn for their own iniquity and iniquity of the land, and have the interest of the public at heart; and do eye the hand of providence in disposing thereof. ‘Tis to be hoped there are some such among our rulers, and teachers, and all orders of persons. But have we not reason to see that they are but very few, and that the land in general is dreadfully hypocritical in the custom of keeping of annual fasts?

Is there an appearance of any such thing as humbling ourselves for our backsliding, truly lamenting and bewailing of them, and are not our fast days rather kept up amongst us?

Second. Let particular persons examine themselves whether they ben’t wholly hypocritical in keeping fast days. And here,

1. Are you not altogether hypocritical in the pretense that you make of humbling yourself before God for sins? The generality of us do make a show of humiliation. We abstain from our ordinary meat and drink, and common refreshments of life, as being a suitable expression of our sorrow and humiliation, and an acknowledgement that we have forfeited and deserve not so much as the common mercies of life. And besides that, you come with the rest to God’s house, where the professed work is to humble ourselves before God, and are present at public confessions of sin, and pretend to join in them. But is it not in mere hypocrisy? Are there not many that do these things that have no manner of sorrow for their sins, that don’t express so much as a moral repentance of them? Are there not those that do thus that are not only sinners, but careless, secure, resolved sinners, that are going on in a career in wickedness, that han’t so much as remorse of conscience for their sins, nor any reflections upon them, or serious thoughts about them? Are there not such that do thus, and come to public worship with the rest, that never so much as aim at any such thing as a humbling themselves, or at all to endeavor it? They had never had any thoughts of it, nor is it at all their design in coming to meeting, and doing other things that they do on fast days. All that they aim at is only to go with the multitude, and comply with custom. Are there not many that come and pretend to join in public confession, to confess how sinful they are by nature, that never had any sense of their corruption by nature; and confess how heinously and aggravatedly they have sinned, and how justly God might loath and abhor them, and at the same time have no sense of their own loathsomeness, see no evil in sin, but it even then appears lovely in their eye? They all the while love it and approve it, and their hearts entirely embrace it.

They pretend to confess that God might justly be angry with them, and might cast ’em into hell for their sins, and have no sense of their deserving any such thing.

They seem to humble themselves, as though they had an awe of God’s displeasure, when indeed they have no dread of his displeasure. They have no fear of God before their eyes, for (that) matter of any fear they have of God’s displeasure. They ben’t afraid to go away from God’s house directly, and commit the same sins again that they used to do. They appear to confess their sins to God, but really they have no sense of the presence or being of God. Neither are they at all hurt in their spirit that they have disobeyed God, and how they have done a thousand times, and no more than they intend to do again. They are neither sorry for their sins, nor do they seek it. They have so little sense of guilt that they don’t think it worth their while so much as to pray in secret, that God would enable them to be sorry for their sins. Are there not many persons now in this meetinghouse that appear here, and pretend to join in all the public exercises of the day, and it may be appear in a meaner habit than at other times, made pretense of being humbled for their sins, that han’t one thought of turning from their sins, nor han’t had this day but for the present design, to go on in them?

They have no sort of sense of their having contributed to the guilt of the land, and helped to provoke God thereby. Yea, they have no such thing as a sense of God’s displeasure, either towards the land or towards themselves.

Are you not one of those that, however you come to meeting, yet leave the work of the day, such as repentance and humiliation for sin, wholly for other persons?

2. Inquire whether you ben’t altogether hypocritical in your pretense of seeking God’s mercy. Another design of a fast day is to be a day of prayer, a day of humble and earnest supplication to God for his mercy. Are you not altogether hypocritical in this also? It is to be feared that there are many that pretend to keep fast days. They come and pretend to beg of God to forgive their sins, and being at peace with them, and that he would do them away in the blood of Christ; but at the same time they are not seeking any such thing. ‘Tis not a thing that they are at all in pursuit of. They don’t seek and want so much as ask for it when they are alone. Yea, they go on to provoke God to make God more angry with them. They are so far from seeking to have their guilt removed, that they are increasing of it as fast as they can. If a servant should commit a fault, and come and ask his master’s forgiveness, and then at the same instant in his master’s presence go on to commit the same fault, ‘twould be an evidence that the servant was not sincere, but that it was mere mockery in him. So they will seem to come and beg of God to keep (them) from sin, to give them the assistance of his Spirit, to help them against sin, that they may forsake all sin, and mortify all their lusts, and that they may do their duty for the time to come when at the same time they intend not to forsake their sins, nor do they desire to forsake ’em, but the contrary: they choose to enjoy ’em a while. Yea, this is their desire and purpose at the very same time that they seem to put up such requests to God.

They pretend on fast days to seek public mercies of God, to pray for the removal of his anger in the frowns of his providence, but this is in mere hypocrisy. They have no sense of those public frowns are from God. They are not wont to look at the hand of God in things that happen, neither do they realize any such thing as a providence. They look no further than second causes. They make a show, as if they were concerned at public calamities and for the public good, when indeed they make such a show on fast days, when at the same time ’tis no such thing. They don’t trouble themselves what becomes of the public.8

‘Tis to be feared there are many that pretend to keep fast days that come to meeting, that don’t go so far towards humbling themselves for their sins, and seeking (the) divine, as so much to regard what is said in public. While confessions and supplications are made, they don’t so much as take any care to know what is said.


1. JE’s account includes allusions to Matthew 23:14, Matthew 9:14, Matthew 23:5, Matthew 2:23; Luke 11:24; Matthew 12:1–2, Matthew 12:10–13; Luke 3:7; and Matthew 12:31–32, respectively.

2. As in Matthew 23:5, for instance.

3. Recounted in 1 Kings 21:25–29.

4. Here ends the first preaching unit. At the head of the second unit is “Isaiah 58:3–5 doc.”

5. JE deletes “Thus Isr. were not sensib. of their depend. on G. & that afflic were from they for help but went down into Eg. for help.”

6. Obs.: contending (OED).

7. JE deletes: “they afflicted their souls they Bow’d down their heads as a Bulrush they spread sackcloth & ashes under them But there was no reforma. they fasted for strife & debate they Exacted all their Labours still they fasted for strife & debate & to smite with the fist of wicked.”

8. JE deletes: “are you not one that in hant any Concern about the Publick Int. Lying on your Heart if you Can but be serve your own Private Interest if it be thus Consid how notorously Hyp you are in all Pretending to Keep fast days to Pray for Publick mercies.”