A CLOSER LOOK A JABEZ'S PRAYER
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By Michael D. Riley*
In the past few years Bruce Wilkinsonís little book The Prayer of Jabez has sold millions of copies. The words of Jabez found in 1 Chronicles 4:9-10 are being prayed by many Christians on a daily basis who believe that God is blessing them for their efforts. Pastors have shared Wilkinsonís principles of the prayer and have encouraged their congregations to pray the prayer of Jabez. In the preface of the book Wilkinson writes that God will always answer this prayer! With such great attention being given to the prayer of Jabez, a closer examination needs to be given to Wilkinsonís popular devotional book. Does the prayer of Jabez stand out as a model prayer in the Old Testament and should Christians continue to pray the Jabez prayer?|
The story of Jabez is sandwiched between fragments of a genealogical listing of the descendants of Judah. Apparently the mother of Jabez experienced greater pain than normal during the birth of her son. Following the delivery the mother named her son Jabez which is a play on the Hebrew word for pain. It is not known whether Jabezís own life was characterized by suffering. Certainly his name subjected him to insults and ridicule by those who associated his name with his character. Although the text is silent about whether Jabez was physically handicapped, it is possible that a life of suffering prompted his request for God to bless him. It is interesting, however, to note that Jabez was more honorable than his brothers. The word honor used in this passage implies a person who was treated with respect by the community. Thus, even before his prayer Jabez experienced the blessing of being a respected member of his society!
Wilkinsonís version of the prayer in his book reads: Oh, that You would bless me indeed, and enlarge my territory, that Your hand would be with me, and that You would keep me from evil, that I may not cause pain. Wilkinsonís understanding of the translation is slightly at odds with the Hebrew text. A more accurate expression of the prayer based on the Hebrew text: If you would bless me and increase my borders, if your hand would be with me and keep me from evil and cause me no harm. The prayer actually takes the form of a request/vow formula. Wilkinson divides the prayer into four parts but the prayer in the Hebrew is a singular petition. The request represents the first part of the prayer but the vow is missing. Wilkinsonís phrase that I may not cause pain is a curious rendering of the text. The phrase does not occur in the Hebrew and the addition of these words suggests that Jabez is thinking about more than merely himself. But in point of fact Jabez actually prays that God would cause him no harm. Perhaps the intention of Jabezís request for a blessing was to have been followed by a promise of obedience but the promise for some reason was never recorded in Scripture.
Jabez requested that God would bless him by enlarging his territories. His prayer includes a desire for health that he might enjoy his new lands. Some scholars believe that the town of Jabez, mentioned in 1 Chronicles 2:55, is to be associated with the man, Jabez. There is conjecture that pain and difficulty marred his life. After all his very name was an ever-present reminder of his fragile being. Jabez prayed that his life might be a contradiction to his name, that he might be both wealthy and healthy. Godís blessing would then serve to counteract the name given to him by his mother at birth.
Wilkinson writes that this prayer is the key to a life of extraordinary favor with God (Preface). It is true that God answered Jabezís prayer, but I am puzzled as to why Wilkinson elevates this prayer above all other prayers in the Bible. Wilkinson claims that he has prayed this prayer daily for over 30 years! In fact Wilkinson says that this one sentence, next to his salvation sentence, is the move revolutionary sentence in his life!
Does the Bible give the prayer of Jabez such lofty status? In the Hebrew Scripture the prayer is simply a request that God would intervene in a seemingly troubled manís life and reverse his conditions. There is no overtly spiritual reason why Jabez pleaded for God to act in his life. Even though God answered the prayer, Jabez is never again mentioned in the Bible. Wilkinson rightly states that if Jabez had worked on Wall Street, he might have prayed, ĎLord, increase the value of my investment portfolioí(31). How far this prayer is from Paulís counsel to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings (Philippians 3:10). But one does not blame Jabez for his lack of spiritual insight. He prayed in the dim shadows of faith before the light of Christ.
The Old Testament vision of blessing consisted of concrete realities. A Hebrew could not envision a spiritual blessing disconnected from material benefits. When Isaac was tricked into giving his blessing to Jacob, the blessing was tied to an abundance of grain and new wine (Gen. 27:27-29). Blessing in the Old Testament was consistently associated with property, power and things. Wilkinson takes a giant leap away from the intent of the prayer by imposing his own theological bias on the prayer of Jabez. Wilkinson insists that Jabez in reality had a spiritual intention to expand my opportunities and my impact in such a way that I touch more lives for Your glory(32). There is no place in the prayer of Jabez, however, where this interpretation is ever implied! Jabez is not praying for greater opportunity for ministry. To put it bluntly, Jabez is praying for wealth and health! Wilkinson further adds, From both the context and the results of Jabezís prayer, we can see that there was more to his request than a simple desire for more real estate. He wanted more influence, more responsibility, and more opportunity to make a mark for the God of Israel(30). I am not at all sure how Wilkinson derives this meaning from the text.
Throughout the Old Testament, the community of faith struggled with the relationship between success and failure. To be blessed of God would be evidenced by tangible, material prosperity. Therefore, it was thought that the righteous would prosper and the wicked would suffer. This theme occurs again and again in the book of Proverbs. Job, however, offers a dissenting perspective. Jobís three friends plead with him to confess his sins. His calamity surely must be a sign of Godís displeasure as a result of a personal affront to God. Yet the book of Job disavows the relationship between righteousness and blessing. Job testifies that sometimes bad things simply happen to good people, but it should be centuries before this concept would seep into the consciousness of Israel. First century listeners were shocked that Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount that blessing could be separated from material benefit. The Beatitudes present blessing in a different light from the majority of voices in the Old Testament. Jesus called the poor in spirit blessed as well as those who mourn, or the ones who are meek, or the merciful. A blessing apart from visible advantages had a difficult time registering on the hearts of Israel even in the time of Christ let alone centuries earlier! Even the disciples (John 9) could not comprehend tragedy apart from sin until Jesus enlightened them. Furthermore, Jesus as Messiah was rejected in large part because his kingdom was not of this world. John the Baptist, whom Jesus called the greatest man born among women, was thrown off balance when Jesusí mission took on a spiritual dimension to the neglect of an earthly kingdom. There is nothing in the prayer of Jabez that anticipates blessing with a spiritual dimension. The prayer of Jabez clearly reflects an Old Testament attitude about God and faith. True, there are a few mountain peaks in the Old Testament of prayer and faith that give us a hint that one day God will reveal himself more fully to the human heart. Solomonís prayer for an understanding mind is such a high point of faith as is Isaiahís vision of the Suffering Servant or Jeremiahís hope of a new covenant with God, but Jabezís prayer for blessing is not such a high watermark for Old Testament faith
In fairness Wilkinson shows that he is aware of the New Testament model of faith when he writes, Do we really understand how far the American Dream is from Godís dream for us? Weíre steeped in a culture that worships freedom, independence, personal rights, and the pursuit of pleasure(70). I could not agree with Wilkinson more but the prayer of Jabez is not the place to go to find such teaching. The lesson from Jabez is that God helps us to rise above our inherent hardships. Our birth circumstances do not necessarily define our existence if we have faith to trust in God. The prayer has a message for faith but it is an incomplete message. Jabezís prayer was not formed by the Masterís call to deny self and pick up oneís cross, and it is only in following the way of Jesus that we will receive Godís true blessing.
There is no biblical basis for Wilkinson to call the prayer of Jabez the most important sentence in the Bible next to his salvation sentence. The prayer is the expression of one man but not a model prayer for all of Godís people. The Psalms represent a more authentic articulation of prayer in the Old Testament; in fact the Psalter has been called the Prayer Book of the Church. In the New Testament, clearly the model prayer is the prayer Jesus taught his disciples to pray. A comparison between the prayer of Jesus and the prayer of Jabez reveals stark differences. A few examples will suffice: Jabez prayed that he might have his way; Jesus prayed for Godís will to be done. Jabez prayed for more land; Jesus prayed for just enough bread to meet his daily need. Jabez prayed that he might have his kingdom; Jesus prayed for Godís kingdom. When the disciples needed a model for their prayer lives, Jesus gave them one that would endure throughout the ages. Why would any serious follower of Jesus want to sit at the feet of Jabez when he could instead sit at the feet of Jesus?
* Michael Riley is pastor of First Baptist Church in Plano
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