And Jabez was more honorable than his brethren: and his mother called his name Jabez, saying, Because I bear him with sorrow. And Jabez called on God of Israel, saying, Oh that Thou wouldest bless me indeed, and enlarge my coast, and that Thine hand might be with me, and that Thou wouldst keep me from evil, that it may not grieve me! And God granted him that which he requested. (1 Chronicles 4:9–10)
Most likely you have seen the little book. It has been on the top of the best seller list, advertised in religious periodicals, rewritten for almost every conceivable reading audience, and even sold in grocery stores! The little book The Prayer of Jabez has become very popular.
The emphasis in the little book is something like this: you have great difficulties in your life. Maybe you have financial difficulties, or difficulties of another kind. Break through your difficulties. Ask God for the abundant blessing He longs to give you. Pray this prayer of Jabez, author Wilkenson says. Use it as something like a mantra as a set of words that you can repeat over and over, and then you will receive the answer you deeply desire. The author testifies that this has happenedfor him, and he urges his readers to join him. This sounds very good, even very appealing. After all, who does not want God’s blessing?
Many reviews have been written about this popular book, both negative and positive. One, appearing in a World magazine was of particular interest. It stated that the good thing about this book was the emphasis on something we often forget: God answers prayer. This must be emphasized regularly. The bad thing about this book is that when a book like this is successful, we are in big trouble!
Why are we in trouble? Because when the words of Scripture are taken apart from their context we are given a wrong impression of what God says!
In many ways, this prayer of Jabez is an Old Testament form of the Lord’s Prayer and the prayer we are taught at the end of the Book of Revelation, “Even so, come, Lord Jesus.”
The Historic Setting
These, now well-known words of Jabez, are tucked away in a part of the Bible we do not often read: the first nine chapters of I Chronicles. We see a list of names and besides struggling with a tongue that twists with almost every new name, we wonder about the value of such a list. These lists of names lay before us that fact that God continues to work out His plan. And from time to time God gives us the glorious gem of His truth. Here in the prayer of Jabez we are given one of those gems.
The books of Samuel and Kings give us an account of the political history of Israel, while the books of Chronicles give us the account of Israel’s spiritual history. We get a hint that this is a spiritual history when we read, “And the families of the scribes who dwelt at Jabez were the Tirathites, the Shimeathites, and the Sucathites” (I Chronicles, 2:55). Then in chapter four, verses 9 and 10, we read about Jabez, the man. Was he the founder of this town, or was he connected in some way with the town? We do not know, and it really does not matter much. However, these are the only places where the name Jabez appears.
Some things are said about this man which are very significant. If nothing else were ever said of us, we would like to have most of these things said. We are given a mini-biography of Jabez. Nothing more is known of him other than that his mother named him Jabez, his birth was difficult, that he “was more honorable than his brethren” and that he “called on the God of Israel,” — he prayed.
What is the purpose of this part of God’s revelation? Is there a reason why this prayer is found in this list of names? Why is it that Jabez uttered these words? For what does he pray? The words of this prayer hold the key to the understanding of the spiritual history of Israel. Thus, these words have a deep significance for the church today.
A Man Named Jabez
Jabez had many reasons to call upon the name of God. They were personal as well as spiritual.
The text tells us that when he was born, his mother gave him a terrible name: she called his name Jabez, meaning, “he will cause pain”. Imagine having a name like that! Can you possibly understand what it was like for him as a young person to hear someone say, “Here comes that pain in the neck,” or, “Here comes Mr. Pain”? All because his mother had given him the name after a hard, difficult birth! All through his life he had to carry this name! In a very real way his mother had laid a curse on him.
What a name! It was a prophecy of misery and sorrow for him and for the people of God. Obviously, Jabez knew himself to be sinful. He knew his weaknesses. He knew he was not as he ought to be. And so he cries out to God.
But even more: this verse seen in its historical context, what was taking place at the very time, reminds us that his concern goes beyond his sin and sinfulness, his problems and personal experience, to the spiritual condition of Israel. This is important to the understanding of his prayer.
Jabez lived the days of the Judges. Here in the first part of Chronicles we have the account of Israel in the days of the Judges. These days were times of deep spiritual darkness. Before the darkness of sin fell, during the same time of Joshua, the people of Israel had made a covenant. They had said, “God has forbidden that we should forsake the LORD to serve other gods” (Joshua 24:16). A marvelous covenant! As long as Joshua lived these words were a reality. But then we turn the Judges 2:8–11, “And Joshua the son of Nun, that servant of the LORD died, being a hundred and ten years old… And another generation grew up, who knew neither the Lord nor what He has done for Israel. And the children of Israel did evil in the sight of the LORD, and served the Baals.” What terrible words!
The land that had been given to Israel by God was still inhabited by the people they had been commanded to put out: the Philistines, Canaanites, Sidonians, Hivites, Amorites, Perizzites, Jebusites, and Hittites. Though they were to be gone according to God’s command, they were still there! Israel had decided she could co-habitate with them in the land that had been given to her exclusively!
How faithful would Israel be? Their faithfulness to God had begun to wear down amidst the ungodly temptations all around. They intermarried! Instead of looking for a spouse from among God’s people, they looked at the people around them. Had there been a bit of spirituality about them, they might have been able to change their partner. As usually happens, however, they were pulled down. Israel went after other gods! Israel gave in to unbelief. Oh, where was the promise of God? Oh, how few even cared about this God! Sin was on every hand.
A Prayer From the Depths
Knowing this, Jabez called on God! Why? Scripture says, “Jabez was more honorable than his brethren.” That is, he was more distinguished by reputation. He was different from those around him. He was godly amidst all the decay around him.
Life like this is never easy. This we know! Seek to be faithful to the Lord, and on every hand are those working against God’s Truth, and against us! Too often, we find this to be a convenient excuse to say, “Well, I will just go along with it. It is much easier that way.”
What happened among God’s people then, happens among us today, as well. When we no longer live antithetically, that is, as people of the antithesis, separated unto God, there is trouble. Forgetting that we are set apart unto God brings trouble.
Apparently, Jabez knew what it was to serve the Lord. He knew what sin was and what grace was. He was “more honorable than his brethren”. So he prayed, because he knew his weakness. He knew that because of his sinfulness he could bring pain. He did not want to do that. Rather, he wanted to be faithful to the Covenant God. He knew that he could not change the overwhelming circumstances around him. He had no power to do that. And so he prayed. Where else could he go?
Notice what the Scripture says: “Jabez called on the God of Israel.” Not just on God, this God of Israel had wrought deliverance from bondage for His people. He brought them through the Red Sea upon dry ground, brought them across the Jordan. Stones were piled up as testimonies of what God had done and what God had promised. He had delivered them from the enemy.
Jabez, knowing all this, pled with God, the God of Israel, for help. This God had the power. He was not like those miserable, sniveling Baals. They had mouths, but they could not speak. They had ears, but could not hear. They were nothing! He went to his God, the God of Israel, and poured out his heart before Him!
A Prayer For Blessing
Indeed, the prayer of Jabez was a prayer of faith—faith in God’s Covenant Promise. In the words of Scripture we have a mini-biography. We have all we need to know about this man in the distant past of the Old Testament. If we read this prayer very carefully we find that all four petitions have to do with God’s covenant in some way.
Jabez began, “Oh, that Thou wouldst bless me indeed.” This is a cry of faith, a cry of trust. This is from one who is so far in the depths of darkness that it is closing in on him. He is crying, “I can’t live without Thee. I need Thee every hour.” It is a cry of faith to that Covenant God who has promised us ever so much. And he adds that word “indeed”. In Hebrew this word is like putting five exclamation points after the words “bless me”. That is how important this was to him. He is crying out to his God: “Oh, how I need Thy blessing—that blessing which was promised!!!!!”
A Prayer for Faithfulness
He says, “…and enlarge my coast”—or, territory. Please do not forget that the land upon which Israel was placed was very significant. It was an evidence of God’s hand, His care, and His faithfulness. Israel did not have the evidence of the resurrection nor all the other blessing which we have in Christ. They could not pick up a Bible and say, “Here is the word of God.”
How then would they know that God’s promise was true?
God set them down upon a pledge of land. That piece of land was the evidence that God is faithful. The land was a physical blessing like the Tabernacle and the Temple. It said that God meant what He said.
What Jabez prays here is something like this: “Oh, that Thy kingdom and Thy power may be seen. Look what I see all around me: Thy people who are supposed to know and love Thee turn their backs on Thee and go their own way. Oh, that Thine enemies might be brought to nothing. May Thou been seen as God!” How important it is that God may be seen for what He is! That His promises might be expounded by all of this evidence.
A Prayer for Protection
Jabez continues: “that Thine hand might be with me.” Of course, we all know that God does not have a hand, for God is a spirit. Calvin reminds us that when God speaks of His eye, His hand, His mouth, His feet, He is using language we can readily understand in our weakness. Neither you nor I can possibly understand the greatness of God as Spirit. We can say this is true; we can get some understanding of it. But how can we explain God’s care or His actions? Calvin says that God uses those words about Himself, not because He has these features, but because He will speak to us where we are.
God’s hand speaks of His power and His protection. And so Jabez pleads: “Powerfully lead me and guide me so that I will be faithful to Thee. I live in the midst of a wicked society. Thy name is covered over by sin.”
The church must pray this also, for we live in such a wicked society. Jabez is saying: “Keep me, in spite of my weakness, in spite of the departure from Thee that I see all around. Keep me. I know my weakness; I know that I can be tempted, and I know that I can fall. Keep me. Let Thy hand be with me!”
A Prayer for Guidance
Finally, Jabez pleads: “that Thou wouldst keep me from evil, that it may not grieve me!” “Keep me from pain” is perhaps a better translation. He pleads this because he knows how easily he can react in pain. “I am so weak and so afraid. I know I can not get along without Thee. I need Thee every hour. Help me to testify of Thy greatness, even in this present darkness.” Remember what Jesus said: “Let your light shine so bright that men may see your good works and glorify your Father in Heaven.” This is Covenant living!
In the midst of all the decay around Jabez, he remembers the demands of the covenant and its promises. He knows he needs God so that in his life God would be seen. He knows this because he believes God’s promises. And so he cries out to God.
Later, Jesus would teach us to pray the same way. He said, “Pray, hallowed be Thy name.” The Heidelberg Catechism explains this: Oh Father, “may [we] so order and direct our whole life, thoughts, words, and actions, that Thy name might not be blasphemed but honored and praised on our account.” Is that not what Jabez sought?
Did not Jesus teach us to pray, “Thy kingdom come”? That is: “Preserve and increase Thy church; destroy the works of the devil, every power that exalts itself against Thee … until the perfection of Thy kingdom arrives.” “Even so, come, Lord Jesus.”
Jesus also taught us to pray, “Bring us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.” “Since we are so weak in ourselves and since our sworn enemies, the devil, the world, and our flesh, cease not to assault us…preserve and strengthen us.”
A Prayer for Today
This prayer was needed in Jabez’s day and it is certainly needed by the church today. We have enemies, and not just enemies that we can see. We are often tempted to live like the Canaanites. It is so easy to sing praises to the Lord on Sunday, and the rest of the week live like the Canaanites. That’s not Covenant living! Parents can not ignore the problems around us. We can not be weak. We cannot forget that the enemy is all around us!
On every hand we see opposition to God’s Kingdom. We live in an age of materialism. Things are important, and so when Possibility Thinking tells us that you can gain what you desire, there is great hope. But this is nonsense!
We live in an age of hedonism. We are taught that life is to be one laugh after another. Our enemies cunningly say, “Don’t you know that we are to have fun, even if it means that we use the flesh in an absolutely improper way?”
Materialism, hedonism, abortion, terrorism—this is all an opposition to God’s Truth. Don’t forget it. It is the mind of this age.
We in the church want the promise of the Covenant. It is wonderful! But, tragically, we do not want the demand of the Covenant. To hear about what God requires of us makes us uncomfortable. We want ease! We fail to ask God for what is necessary so that His Kingdom will come.
We seek money. But we seek it for ourselves, not so we can use it for the coming of the Kingdom. We ask for many things, but do we plead for the testimony of God’s grace in our lives? Do we pray— and really mean it—“Even so, come, Lord Jesus”?
A Prayer Answered in God’s Time
We read in verse 10, “And God granted him that which he requested.” With these words this mini-biography of Jabez comes to an end. We can only guess how Jabez saw that God had granted his prayer in his own life.
Certainly, he saw the answer in the land. God granted that Israel was not homeless for a long period of years. Yet, her imperfections and sinfulness brought pain, grief, and finally, captivity.
The land, however, was important. To Israel the land was not merely a physical piece of property on which to dwell. It was a sign of the true homeland that was yet to come. Abraham had had that in mind. “For he looked for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God” (Hebrews 11:10). He was not looking for the city of Jerusalem or the Temple Mount. He was looking for eternity with the Lord.
The rest that was brought by Joshua in the Promised Land was great, but it was imperfect. The New Testament Joshua, Jesus Christ, would need to come. He would say, “In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go and prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself: that where I am, there ye may be also” (John 14:2–3).
Finally, Jesus, the New Testament Joshua, came. His was quite a task! He had a battle to fight. Oh, we must fight many battles as soldiers of the cross, but He fought the one that you and I could never have fought. He fought the battle against sin, death, and against the devil. There on Calvary’s cross he “spoiled principalities and powers. [Making] a show of them openly, triumphing over them in it” (Colossians 2:15). He did that so that we would know great blessings in Jesus Christ, and so that we could pray this prayer, just as the Lord taught us to pray His prayer.
In reality, Jabez was praying in the midst of the darkness for the only blessing there really is: Fulfillment of the Covenant in Jesus Christ. Through Him only would this blessing come.
That truth is still the same today. God blesses His church. This blessing may not be filled with all those things—those toys that make us happy. It may even be filled with poverty or persecution. These, too, however, are blessings from God. But there is one blessing we know is surely ours: that which Jesus Christ has done for us.
Lest we faint in the seemingly growing darkness enveloping us on every hand, He promises us the glorious fulfillment of all He has said in the Book of Revelation. There will be that day when the Rider on the White Horse will proclaim victory.
And then, all things will be new.
Rev. Jerome Julien is the Stated Clerk of the United Reformed Churches in North America. He is a member of the Trinity URC in Caledonia, Michigan.