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The Prayer of Jabez: A Biblical-Theological Examination

Since Bruce Wilkinson's book The Prayer of Jabez became a runaway best seller; it has gotten a great deal of attention, from both Christian and secular publications.

  • Benjamin Shaw,
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Since Bruce Wilkinson's book The Prayer of Jabez became a runaway best seller; it has gotten a great deal of attention, from both Christian and secular publications. The secular publications have focused on the book as a publishing phenomenon, or on the demographics of the purchasers, or even on the question of what this book says about modern American notions of spirituality. The Christian publications have focused on the theology of the book, or its lack of theology. But little attention has been directed to the brief passage from 1 Chronicles from which the book takes not only its starting point, but allegedly its substance.

A Brief Exposition

A literal rendering of the Hebrew, by clause, reads as follows:

9a And Jabez was honorable more than his brothers

The Hebrew uses the Niphal of the verb kabad. This also appears in the description of Shechem in Gen 34:19, of Samuel (1 Sam. 9:6), and of Abishai and Benaiah (2 Sam. 23:19-23). The description given here of Jabez is proleptic, because the reason for his honor has not yet been given.

9b And his mother called his name Jabez saying,

The name Jabez is actually nonsense in Hebrew, the root 'abats not occurring elsewhere. Hence, we expect that the explanation will involve paronomasia.

9c Because I bore him in pain.

The explanation, as expected, is a play on words. She has rearranged the root letters of pain ('atsab), perhaps expressing the hope that this would undo the pain of his birth. The language here (I bore in pain) intentionally alludes to Gen. 3:16 (in pain you shall bear sons). She has recognized the reality of the curse in her own life, and hopes for the undoing of it in the life of her son.

10a And Jabez called to the God of Israel saying,

This is the introduction to the prayer. The language is common for prayer in the Old Testament (see, for example, Ps. 22:3; 34:7).

10b Oh that you would indeed bless me

This is the first petition. It is as vague and undefined in Hebrew as it is in English. The remaining petitions define the manner of blessing. The opening 'im commonly means "if," but is a "particle of wishing" in contexts such as this.

10c And you would multiply my territory

This is the second petition, giving the first sense of definition to the general plea for blessing. The context probably places Jabez in the generations after the initial entry into the land under Joshua. Thus, in asking that God multiply his territory, Jabez is not asking for more real estate, as Wilkinson alleges. Instead, Jabez is asking for God's help to take the territory that had been allotted to him. As the information in Joshua 13-20 makes clear, the land was divided among the tribes, with each tribe to divide up the land among the families of the tribe, and these then responsible to drive out the inhabitants from the land. That Israel as a whole did not do this is one of their great sins, the consequences of which the Book of Judges describes.

10d And your hand would be with me

This third petition makes more explicit the request of the second petition. Jabez asks for God's power to assist him in his task of taking territory. The image of God's hand as his power against his enemies is common in the Old Testament, particularly in the narratives about the Exodus and the conquest.

10e And you would keep me from evil, lest I cause pain.

This (literally, to do from evil) is clearly an idiom in the Hebrew. The idiom does not seem to be used elsewhere, but the sense seems clear enough. The final clause is the most disputed. Zuck rejects the NKJV rendering "that I may not cause pain" on the basis that the verb stem of 'atsab here is Qal, not Piel or Hiphil. However, the transitive Qal is well-attested in such passages as 1 Kgs 1:6 and Is 54:6. It is also the case that in many places, there is no clear distinction between the meaning of the Qal, Piel, and Hiphil of 'atsab. Further, the transitive Qal makes better sense in the context. Jabez had received his name because he had caused pain in his birth. He asks, then, that that causing of pain not be characteristic of his life.

10f And God brought that which he asked.

This concludes the little episode of Jabez. God honored his request and brought it to pass. The statement implies that the fulfillment of that request took place over time, and was not immediate.

Biblical-Theological Reflections

There are two primary aspects to this little narrative hidden among a string of genealogies. The first has to do with Jabez's name. The second has to do with his prayer. Each of these two aspects ties into the larger flow of Biblical redemptive history in three particular areas. First, they tie into the account of the Fall and its effects. Second, they tie into the kingdom and its works. Third, they tie into the development of the messianic hope.

The Naming of Jabez

The naming of Jabez takes the reader immediately to the story of the Fall and curse in Genesis 3. It affirms two things with that allusion. First, the curse is still in effect. The included explanation of the name makes that clear. Jabez's name, involving a rearranging of the letters for the word "pain" expresses a hope for the undoing of the curse, much as did Lamech's naming of Noah (Gen. 5:29). Second, the faithful are still looking for the seed promised to Eve. The preservation of the explanation of Jabez’s name would have provided encouragement for the same hope through the ages between the time of Jabez and the recording of the story by the author of Chronicles in the post-exilic period. It would then have provoked its new audience to that same hope—an undoing of the curse. Third, Jabez is of the line of Judah, which, according to the Blessing of Jacob (Gen. 49), was the line from which the king would come. This makes an implicit connection between the coming of the king and removal of the curse.

The Prayer of Jabez

As with the allusion of Jabez’s name to the Fall, the request for blessing also alludes to the undoing of the curse. Blessing, after the Fall, is usually contrasted with cursing (see, for example, Gen. 12:3). The prayer of Jabez also tells us something of the Old Testament understanding of the work of God's kingdom. The work of the kingdom is to bring about what God has already promised to do. It involves human effort, each one carrying out the task appointed to him. Jabez had been allotted a large territory, and Jabez prays for God’s help to accomplish that task. Notice that Jabez's prayer is first of all based on the promises of God. Jabez prayed for those things that God had already promised to give. Prayer, as Jabez understood it, was not for the purpose of getting things from God, but rather for the purpose of provoking God’s aid to accomplished those things He had already promised to do through the labors of his servants. In that sense, prayer also conforms the saint to the will of God. If the saint intends to pray for what God has already promised, he must know what things God has promised to give. In the case of Jabez, he knew that God had promised to give them the possession of the land, and that He had promised to provide Israel with the power to accomplish that end. Thus the failure in the period of Judges was a failure of faith. Israel as a whole neither knew God's promises regarding the land, nor did they press Him to accomplish his promises through them.

There is a third consideration in the prayer of Jabez. That is found in Jabez's last request. Here he asked that he be kept from evil that he might not cause pain. It is true that the Hebrew word ra'ah may mean physical calamity or natural disaster, as well as moral evil. However, both the prayer itself and the larger context of the Books of Chronicles argue that it is the moral sense that is in view. One of the points made throughout the narratives in Chronicles is that many of the kings of Israel/Judah started out well, but at some point committed a moral evil that had disastrous effects on the people as a whole. For David, while the account of his sin with Bathsheba and against Uriah is omitted, his sinful census is included (1 Chron. 21). The apostasy of Solomon is largely omitted, but the Chronicler does mention the fact that peoples who should have driven out of the land still remained (2 Chron. 8:8). The folly of Rehoboam is mentioned. As one follows the narrative through 2 Chronicles, time after time, the moral failure of the king has dire consequences for Israel. In 2 Kings it was especially the sin of Manasseh that brought Judah into the exile (2 Kings 21:11 and parallels). The Chronicler, however, notes the general apostasy of the people, and their rejection of the prophetic word as the cause for the exile (2 Chron. 36:14-17). Apparently Jabez recognized the human tendency to moral failure, with the negative effects not only for the individual but also for others. (This, as Jabez's mother recognized, is part of living in a fallen world). Hence Jabez prayed for God to keep him from moral evil, that he might not cause the attendant pain on others. It is this that made Jabez more honorable than his brothers. His concerns went beyond himself, to include the success of God’s kingdom. The readers of Chronicles would have recognized this significance of Jabez's prayer in the larger context of the book.

Contemporary Applications

The story of Jabez contains more than his prayer. It also contains the explanation of his name. The former reminds the reader, the modern one as well as the ancient one, that we live in a fallen condition, in a fallen world. Unlike Jabez, and the first readers of Chronicles, we live in a time when their hope for deliverance from the captivity of sin has been realized. We live in the light and the power of Christ. We have been transferred from the kingdom of darkness "into the kingdom of the Son of His love" (Col. 1:13). Thus we are named Christians, after Christ, who has undone the curse of sin.

But, in a certain sense, the prayer of Jabez, like his name, also retains significance for us. In some sense, it teaches us to pray. It teaches us that real prayer is that which dares to demand from God that which he has already promised (cf. Heb. 4:16). It means that we need to learn from God what he has promised, that we might pray rightly, and that our prayers might indeed be answered with something other than "No," or "Maybe." It also warns us of the dangers of our own moral failing. Such failings do not affect us alone, but all those with whom we are connected. It also reminds us that we are often involved in the answers to our own prayers. God did not give Jabez victory over his enemies while Jabez stood on the sidelines and watched. Jabez took part in the battle. Though we are now in the kingdom of Christ, yet we remain in warfare (Eph. 6:10-20), but dependent on the power of God for success in that warfare. Finally, it teaches us the importance of patience in prayer. God brought about what Jabez asked, but not in one year (Ex. 23:29-30; Deut. 7:22-23).