In times of crisis, American political leaders from time to time have called for a day of prayer, and sometimes even a day of fasting and prayer. The Pilgrims did it. The Puritans did it. In 1746 the settlements in New England did it when the French fleet threatened them. Shortly thereafter a storm destroyed the fleet.
In Revolutionary times, Civil War times, and even as recently as 2003, political leaders called for such observances. Various religious groups periodically call their congregations to days of prayer, and there is even a National Day of Prayer every May that Congress authorized in the 1950s.
God gave the nation of Israel a national day of prayer and fasting. It is commonly known today as Yom Kippur, or by its English name, the Day of Atonement. Why is this day a day of fasting? What are people praying and fasting for?
The key to the day’s nuances are found in the book of Hebrews. This New Testament book explained to the Jewish Christians of the time how their religious teachings and practices pointed forward to the Messiah. In chapter 9 the writer discusses the Day of Atonement.
Now when these things had been thus prepared, the priests always went into the first part of the tabernacle, performing the services. But into the second part the high priest went alone once a year, not without blood, which he offered for himself and for the people’s sins committed in ignorance; the Holy Spirit indicating this, that the way into the Holiest of All was not yet made manifest while the first tabernacle was still standing. (Hebrews 9:6-9 NKJV)
No one was allowed to go behind the veil into the Most Holy Place except the High Priest, and he was allowed to do so only once per year, which was on the Day of Atonement. His function was to offer sacrifices both for himself and "for the sins of the people committed in ignorance".
This day is a recognition that people sin. It recognizes that they often sin because they just don’t know better – they sin in ignorance. We all know people who are like this, and God has a day to recognize that people who are deceived need atonement too.
It is also a day for "the people". If we go back to the Old Testament book of Leviticus where this day was given to Israel, we see that the Day of Atonement is about "the people". It’s not about the king, not about the prophets, and not about the priests, but about "the people". That word "people", according to Thayer’s Greek Lexicon, refers to a people, a tribe, or a nation.
In Leviticus 16, we see again and again that the rituals were for the "people", or the "children of Israel", or the "assembly" (verses 15, 16, 17, 19, 21, 24, 33, 34). In chapter 23, we’re told that anyone who didn’t "afflict his soul" on that day was to be cut off from his people. That’s how important the day was, that a person who ignored the day would no longer be considered a part of the community.
Here is a day of national day of prayer and fasting for the nation’s sins committed in ignorance.
It would be a wonderful thing if all of God’s children everywhere used the Day of Atonement to pray and fast for their people, to intercede for the sins of their nations. Pray for God’s mercy on those who don’t know better. And of those who intentionally deceive others for their own gain or power, may God be their judge while not laying it to the people’s account.
More to the point, a nation at a crossroads needs a day of prayer and fasting. What better time in history to honor that day than our own?