The prayer of Jabez.

Why it’s not quite how popular Christianity imagines it.

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 inexpensive and brief—perfect for Christians with ferret-like attention spans. It contained a single sermon’s worth of material about an obscure ancient Hebrew by name of Yahebéch/“Jabez.”

Here ya go: Every last thing the bible has on Jabez. It’s not 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.

True, that’s not how people popularly translate it. First of all, they tend to translate nikhbód/“was heavier” as “was more honorable” (KJV) —possibly to match the Septuagint’s translation éndoxos/“glorious.” I’ve heard so many preachers say, “His mother birthed him in so much pain, she even named him after the pain. But we don’t know any more of the backstory than that.” Y’know, Jabez being a 12-pound infant would totally explain everything.

Likewise other translations take 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 Eán evlogón evloghísis me/“When you bless, you should bless me.” The whole passage becomes 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. It’s thanksgiving. God had blessed this little fat kid 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 icky. But you won’t soon forget it.)

So while the people snapping up The Prayer of Jabez read it and assume God granted him all this stuff because he dared to pray big things, the rest of us can realistically understand this prayer ain’t a formula. Jabez praised God after the fact, not before. He remembered where his success really came from. Something many a materially successful 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 a certain amount of disdain. Jabez’s name means pain, so the commentator saw it as a bad omen; he’s probably one of those Christians who think your name is a blessing or curse, and if you’re named something awful, or named for someone awful, it curses you to become someone awful. It’s why we don’t see a lot of Jews named Ahab, or Christians named Judas.

So the commentator was already prejudiced against Jabez’s motives, and Jabez’s prayer about an enlarged territory and defense from evil offended him. He interpreted it as selfish: How dare this guy ask God for more land, and a life free from grief?

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 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 KWL
23 “Three times a year, all your males must appear in the presence of the Master, Israel’s LORD God.
24 For I evict foreigners from your presence. I make your borders lengthy.
No man will covet your land when you go up to appear
in the presence of your LORD God three times a year.”
Deuteronomy 12.20 KWL
“Because your LORD God makes your borders lengthy like he told you,
when you say, ‘I’ll eat meat’ because your soul yearns for meat, you can eat the meat you yearn for.”

Making one’s borders lengthy (KJV “enlarge my coast”) was one of God’s promises to the people of Israel. They weren’t limited to a scrap of land, surrounded by enemies on all sides, like they were when they lived in Goshen. 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 meat shortage.

Jabez wasn’t praying about 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, that’s not how things worked in ancient Israel. He could conquer as much land as he liked from the Amorites, but that land’d go to his tribe. Not him personally. Likewise he could buy as much land as he liked, but according to the Law, every 50 years all that purchased land had to revert to the families who originally owned it. Lv 25.23-24 Wouldn’t be his anymore.

The land, I remind you, didn’t belong to the citizens of Israel. It was the LORD’s land, and they were just living there. It was never to be permanently sold. Any increase in Jabez’s land holdings was temporary. 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 people 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 all these things can easily turn into idols when we’re not careful. Happens all the time. Christians get materially and socially successful, and that becomes their 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. And no, he doesn’t. Jesus warned us it‘s part of life. Jn 16.33 But Jesus also told us to pray that God alleviate the suffering in the world. It’s just fatalism and pessimism to assume God never will.

Now again, I contend Jabez wasn’t making a request, but offering thanksgiving. The perfect-tense verbs in this passage imply God already completed all this stuff. “God went along with whatever he asked,” which alone 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.