The prayer of Jabez.

by K.W. Leslie, 10 November

1 Chronicles 4.9-10.

Back in 2000 Bruce Wilkinson wrote a tiny little book called The Prayer of Jabez: Breaking Through to the Blessed Life. It sold like hotcakes ’cause it was a little tiny book you could find near the register, it was inexpensive and brief (and therefore perfect for Christians with ferret-like attention spans), and you could buy extras to give ’em to friends.

It contains a single sermon’s worth of material about an obscure ancient Hebrew by name of יַעְבֵּץ/Ya’ebéch, or as the King James Version calls him, Jabez. (The editions of the KJV which include pronunciation marks intend you to say dʒɑ'bɛz, but Americans nonetheless call him 'dʒeɪ.bɛz.) And here’s the short little passage the entire book is extrapolated from: Every last thing the bible has on Jabez. ’Tain’t much.

1 Chronicles 4.9-10 KWL
9 Jabez was heavier than his brothers.
His mother called his name pain/Jabez to declare, “I birthed him in pain.”
10 Jabez called on Israel’s god to say, “If you bless anyone, you bless me!
You made my borders lengthy. Your hand’s with me. You’ve kept me from evil, lest it pain me.”
God went along with whatever he asked.

Yep, that’s it. Don’t know his parents’ names, even though this story’s in the middle of a bunch of genealogical charts. We think he’s from Judah, and think he existed round the time of the conquest of Canaan, ’cause of the charts in chapter 4. But he’s not in those charts. There’s a city named Jabez, 1Ch 2.55 and maybe it was named for him, but that information isn’t of any help.

Yeah, how I translated the passage isn’t how people popularly translate it. First of all, they tend to translate נִכְבָּ֖ד/nikhbód, “was heavier,” as “was more honorable” (KJV) —possibly to match the Septuagint’s translation ἔνδοξος/éndoxos, “glorious.” Preachers sometimes say he was more honorable because of his prayer; other times say he was honorable first, and God answered his prayer because he was so honorable. Me, I point out the context—what’s that verse about? Jabez is called nikhbód, and got named ya’ebéch, because his mother birthed him in pain. Why was she in such pain? Because he was heavy. Way heavier than his brothers. When a mother squeezes a 12-pound kid out her birth canal, she never stops talking about it. It totally explains his name.

Likewise other translations take Jabez’s statement אִם־בָּרֵ֨ךְ/im barékh, “if [you’re] blessing” (or “unless you bless,” Ge 32.26), and turn it into a wish, “If [only you’d] bless…” like the Septuagint’s Ἐὰν εὐλογῶν εὐλογήσῃς με/Eán evlogón evloghísis me, “When you bless, you should bless me.” The whole passage gets transformed into a prayer request, like the NIV puts it:

1 Chronicles 4.10 NIV
Jabez cried out to the God of Israel, “Oh, that you would bless me and enlarge my territory! Let your hand be with me, and keep me from harm so that I will be free from pain.” And God granted his request.

After all, if God granted his request, it’s gotta be a request.

It’s not. This is a prayer of thanksgiving. God had blessed this fat little baby, and grown him into a successful, influential person. His name meant pain, but God kept him from pain. He stretched out his mom; now God stretched out his territory. (Okay, I admit that last comparison’s a little gross. But you won’t soon forget it.)

So while the people snapping up The Prayer of Jabez read it and assume God granted all his wishes because he dared to pray big things, the rest of us can realistically understand this prayer ain’t a wealth formula. Jabez wasn’t asking for blessings; he was praising God after the fact, because God had blessed him. He was thanking God for his successes; he knew where his success really came from. Something many a wealthy Christian doesn’t always consider.

Look, there’s nothing wrong with asking God for success.

Wilkinson once came across some commentator who looked at Jabez with disdain. Jabez’s name means pain, so the commentator saw it as a bad omen. Too many Christians (especially the ones trying to sell you tchotchkes with a “biblical definition” of your name on it) like to read people’s fortunes into their names. It’s why every iffy prophet who finds out my middle name is Wallace, tells me I’m gonna be a mighty prayer warrior for God: They got that from Braveheart, not the Holy Spirit.

By this reasoning, if you’re named something awful, or your named for someone awful, it curses you and turns you into something awful. It’s why we don’t see a lot of Jews named Ahab, nor Christians named Judas. It’s why people insist of course Paul misbehaved when he was originally known as Saul; he’s named for a mad king! He needed a name change.

So the commentator was prejudiced against Jabez’s motives, and he interpreted Jabez’s prayer about an enlarged territory and defense from evil as selfish and offensive. How dare this guy ask God for more land, and a life free from grief? Why, he deserves nothing more than the usual pain and toil of humanity.

Which both Wilkinson and I see as stupid. For different reasons.

Wilkinson doesn’t think it’s wrong to ask God for bigger and better and greater and more. Jesus tells us to. Ask and it’ll be given you. Mt 7.7 But when we don’t ask, it’s not necessarily given us. If we do ask—if our prayer is “Bless me indeed!”—we might be surprised at how God answers it. So Wilkinson invites us to try. Pray “Bless me indeed!” with him, and let’s see what ways God might increase us.

Me, I figure Wilkinson skipped the historical context of Jabez’s prayer. That’d be this:

Exodus 34.23-24 NIV
23 “Three times a year all your men are to appear before the Sovereign LORD, the God of Israel. 24 I will drive out nations before you and enlarge your territory, and no one will covet your land when you go up three times each year to appear before the LORD your God.”
Deuteronomy 12.20 NIV
When the LORD your God has enlarged your territory as he promised you, and you crave meat and say, “I would like some meat,” then you may eat as much of it as you want.

Yep. One of God’s promises to the people of Israel was he’d enlarge their territory. (Or as in the KJV, “enlarge my coast.”) They weren’t limited to a scrap of land, surrounded by enemies on all sides, like they were when the lived in Goshen, Egypt. Nor scrabbling for manna like they did in Sinai. They were gonna live in a prosperous, fertile land. And if they felt like eating meat, there’d be no shortage.

Jabez wasn’t praying for something he had no business requesting. He was repeating an idea in the Law. It included everything this idea entailed: Lengthy borders for the people of Israel. Lengthy borders for Jabez’s tribe, Judah.

As for Jabez’s own personal tract of land… well actually, he couldn’t grow it. Because that’s not how things worked in ancient Israel. He could conquer as much land as he liked from the Amorites, but that land would automatically go to his tribe, not to him personally. Likewise he could buy as much land as he liked, but according to the Law, every 50 years all his purchased land had to revert to the families who originally owned it. Lv 25.23-24 Wouldn’t be his anymore.

Because land, according to the scriptures, belongs to God, not humans. Israel’s land was the LORD’s, and the Hebrews were just living there. It was never to be permanently sold. Any increase in Jabez’s own land holdings was a temporary thing. Therefore any prayer about stretching out his boundaries had to either be about Jabez’s metaphorical boundaries, like his sphere of influence or circle of friends; or his national boundaries, ’cause he wanted his tribe to prosper.

Nope, it’s not how big fans of The Prayer of Jabez book spin this scripture. It’s all about “Bless me indeed!”

And to remind you, there’s nothing wrong with praying that. Pray it all you want! Wanna ask God for a house? A car? A business that makes good money? Influence and charisma? Go for it. Just bear in mind this mindset can transform into Mammonism far too fast—where we’re following Jesus, not out of any particular love for him and an interest in his kingdom, but solely for the material wealth we expect him to grant us.

Stuff can easily turn into idols when we’re not careful. Happens all the time. Christians get materially and socially successful, and that becomes our priority, rather than God. Unlike Jabez, they forgot who gave ’em the stuff. They figure they earned it from their own hard work and virtue. They stockpile it instead of being gracious and generous with it.

God has no interest whatsoever in financing our idolatry. If he gives us any of this stuff, it’s to use to grow his kingdom. It’s to bless others, and give away. It’s to be his good and faithful servants. So if you think Jabez’s prayer is in any way about getting successful and rich, you’re interpreting it wrong.

Also nothing wrong with praying against evil.

As for praying about being kept from evil… well that’s in the Lord’s Prayer. Mt 6.13, Lk 11.4 You gotta be nuts if you object to that.

Most of the folks who gripe about The Prayer of Jabez book, point out God never promised us a life free from suffering. True, he doesn’t. Jesus warned us suffering is part of life. Jn 16.33 But Jesus also told us to pray that God alleviate the suffering in the world. And in loving our neighbors, we’re to do our part to help God alleviate that suffering. It’s just fatalism and pessimism to assume God never will, and apathy and ingratitude to assume we never should.

Now again, I contend Jabez wasn’t making a request, but offering thanksgiving. All the perfect-tense verbs in this passage indicate God already achieved all this stuff. God had blessed him. Had enlarged his territory. And went along with whatever Jabez asked: The fact God regularly answered Jabez’s prayers indicates Jabez’s will reflected God’s. That speaks highly of anyone.

So learn from Jabez’s example. Be thankful. Remember everything God’s done for you thus far. Ask him to be with you in future.