The Prayer of Jabez

Are you old enough to remember the fad that was The Prayer of Jabez? That book rocketed to the top of the Christian best-seller list and influenced countless believers. In it, Bruce Wilkinson offered to Christians what he believed was a secret key for us to break through our ordinary lives and find ourselves blessed by God in new and amazing ways.

Without writing a critique of the book, I want to address the passage and the concept of the prayer of Jabez. These verses were part of my daily reading, and it just seemed like a good idea to offer a couple of, hopefully, biblical thoughts.

The entire book and fad was based on the following odd little verses in the middle of the genealogical passages at the beginning of 1 Chronicles.

1 Chronicles 4:9-11 – 9 Jabez was more honorable than his brothers; and his mother called his name Jabez, saying, “Because I bore him in pain.” 10 Jabez called upon the God of Israel, saying, “Oh that you would bless me and enlarge my border, and that your hand might be with me, and that you would keep me from harm so that it might not bring me pain!” And God granted what he asked.

The thing that started the fad for Wilkinson was the fact that this little narrative stands out in the middle of a list of names of who begat whom. This led Wilkinson to believe that, buried in the middle of the genealogy is a secret from God, a message on how to pray in order to receive blessing like Jabez did.

But there are major problems in interpreting this passage as a secret code to believers who, if they find it, will be brought to a higher level of blessing. Let me point out a couple of problems, and then offer what I think is a fair way to handle this passage instead.

A first problem is that of a form of Gnosticism. Gnostics believed that there is such a thing as a higher, sacred, secret knowledge that would raise people to heightened spiritual levels. Gnostics prided themselves on learning the secret spiritual code words to pass through the levels of the heavens. And while Wilkinson does not believe those things, his system mimics the secret knowledge idea. Telling Christians that praying this prayer on a daily basis unlocks blessings for them while not praying this prayer on a daily basis leaves those gifts unopened is gnostic-sounding, and it is certainly not anything like what we read in the rest of Scripture regarding the blessing of God.

A second problem with the call to repeat the prayer of Jabez is the concept of pagan fertility cults. Remember when the prophets of Baal spent all morning dancing around the altar of their false god and repeatedly chanted, “O Ball, hear us?” Pagans surrounding Israel believed they could force the hand of their deity by repeating certain prayers and certain sacrifices. But God’s word always presented true faith as a contrast, a polemic against such practices. God is not manipulated by our repetition of a mantra. Neither are his desires to bless us bound by our failure to repeat a phrase enough times. Jesus, teaching on prayer in Matthew 6, warns against vain repetition.

Finally, a simple interpretive framework does not allow for the interpretation of the above verses as the discovery of a key to unlock the blessings for your soul. You see, the word of God does not indicate to us in any way that such is the reason for that passage’s inclusion. The word tells us the story as a narrative and does not make further comment. For us to build a major belief system on 3 verses of obscure narrative that are never mentioned again in Scripture is hermeneutically irresponsible. You cannot handle Scripture like this and be faithful.

So, what do we do with the passage? Stop and ask what we actually know for sure. God is listing for us names of people born to people born to people throughout the history of Israel. Jabez stood out as more noble than his relatives. Why? He sought the goodness of God. Clearly, Jabez, in some form, believed in the Lord, called on the Lord, and asked for the favor of the Lord. The emphasis should not be on the specific blessings he asked for. Rather, the emphasis here should be on the fact that a man, blessed by God, called on the Lord when others around him were not doing so. A man stood out among his family by asking the Lord for help rather than thinking he could or should survive by his own merit and strength. And God blessed him.

I think the lesson for us is to remember that, even when others around us are not calling on and trusting in the Lord, there is a goodness, a grace, a blessing for those who continue to call on the Lord. No, there is no guarantee that we get rich from such a call. God’s word never calls us to hunger for riches or ease. Jesus promised us hardships and persecutions if we follow him. But God’s word also promises us his presence, his comfort, and eternal life as we turn from sin and trust in Christ. And the prayer of Jabez should remind us that it is worth crying out to God, even if we are the only ones in our family or in our nation who do so.

A Perfect Example of Context Really Mattering

If you know me, you will know that I often preach to people how important context is in interpreting a biblical text. If we remove context from our study of a passage, we will miss, often badly, the meaning of the text. And if you think that this is not the case, I want you to read the following words with no context. They are Scripture. What would happen if all you heard was that these are the words of God?

“attack ‘the lame and the blind,’ who are hated by David’s soul.”

Now, if those words are left to themselves, if they were seen as Scriptural commands, what would you become? It would be a real problem. And I did not do anything to those words. They appear above as they appear in Scripture. But, look at the context, and see how the meaning becomes clear.

2 Samuel 5:6-8 – 6 And the king and his men went to Jerusalem against the Jebusites, the inhabitants of the land, who said to David, “You will not come in here, but the blind and the lame will ward you off”—thinking, “David cannot come in here.” 7 Nevertheless, David took the stronghold of Zion, that is, the city of David. 8 And David said on that day, “Whoever would strike the Jebusites, let him get up the water shaft to attack ‘the lame and the blind,’ who are hated by David’s soul.” Therefore it is said, “The blind and the lame shall not come into the house.”

When David was planning to take the city of Jerusalem, the Jebusites said that David was so weak that the blind and the lame could ward him off. So, when David sent men to take the city, he sarcastically used the words of the arrogant Jebusites as part of his command. David does not hate blind and lame people. God does not command us to attack the disabled. Instead, we see here that David threw the boasts of the arrogant back into their teeth.

Friends, when you read the Bible, please, for the love of God (literally), handle the text in its context. Do not take a verse alone as a unit of thought. Ask what the verse is saying in the light of the paragraph, the unit of thought around it. Ask what book the verse is in and what that book is trying to communicate. Ask what timely and social constructs influence how that verse would have been understood by those who read it. Remember, context really matters.