Yesterday I referenced Bruce Wilkinson’s book, The Prayer of Jabez, centered around 1 Chronicles 4:9-10.
“Jabez was more honorable than his brothers. His mother had named him Jabez, saying, ‘I gave birth to him in pain.’ 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.”
I mentioned that since that book came out in 2000, the criticisms of its theology have become well-known. It has been called an evangelical health-and-wealth, name-it-and-claim it type of doctrine. Because too many people want to understand this passage in terms of the Prosperity Theology, a proper understanding is lacking. It is my purpose to set the Prayer of Jabez in its proper context and interpret it appropriately.
1 and 2 Chronicles were originally one book. The author wrote a very theological interpretation of history from Adam to the Decree of Cyrus in 540 BCE, focusing on God working through history to bring about his divine purposes through the one, true family of Israel. Special emphasis is placed on David, the Temple, and the cultic practices of Israel. The theological approach is similar to that found in Deuteronomy that emphasizes the cause and effect relationship between God and his covenant people. If Israel maintains their part of the covenant, they can expect blessings. If they fail, they can expect curses. It was the purpose of the covenant that God made with Abraham (and Israel) that the world would be blessed and the curse of the Fall of Man would be reversed. The first nine chapters are genealogies showing how God worked through the families of the earth from Adam to Abraham and eventually to the Davidic line. In chapter four we get a snippet from the unknown life of Jabez. Why does the author of the Chronicles include the anecdote in his work? What purpose does it serve?
This two verse story opens with the knowledge that Jabez’s birth was troubled, and his mother named Jabez (sorrowful) because of the pain (jozeb) of the childbirth (reversing the last two consonants). The ancient Israelites believed in the power of words to shape reality under certain circumstances (i.e., blessings and curses), particularly when it came to the naming of children. The naming of a child at birth could affect its destiny. This is why Jacob immediately renames Benjamin to something more positive when Rachel calls out a sorrowful name and dies giving birth (Genesis 35:18). A bad name could leave a curse on one’s life. This appears to have been the case with Jabez. In his prayer, Jabez asked God to bless him so that evil would not bring him pain. He was seeking a reverse of the curse.
Now admittedly Jabez’s prayer was an immature one. He wanted to escape the pain of his life through material possessions. This attitude was not uncommon for a people that did not believe in an afterlife and conceptualized divine blessings in terms of children, land, and its produce.
Of course, many people today seek to escape the pain of their lives and the results of their characters and actions through the accumulation of material possessions. Jabez may have been more honorable than his brothers, but he was still very spiritually immature. Indeed, it is unadvisable for any Christian to pray such a prayer in this manner. Nevertheless, God did grant the request. I am reminded of Romans 8:26 when Paul says that “In the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.” In this incident, God answered the weakness of Jabez’s prayer for relief and reversed the curse with a blessing.
Knowing that this passage is about turning a curse into a blessing, it makes sense why the author of the Chronicles wanted to include it. The history that he unfolds is about the curses and the blessings that follow from Israel’s behavior towards the covenant. This reaches a head in the ultimate curse: expulsion from the land in the Babylonian exile (2 Chronicles 26). Yet, in the final three verses of the book, the Lord reverses the curse through the decree of Cyrus, and God’s people return to their homeland. God turned a curse into a blessing. Therefore, the Prayer of Jabez is an early example of what God would do with Israel. Ultimately, God uses Jesus to reverse the curse of the Fall and bless the whole world. But, again, the blessings of the covenant and the covenant itself were for the purpose of blessing the entire world.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with praying to God to relieve one’s pain or prevent pain from occurring (see Luke 22:42). 1 Chronicles 4:9-10 shows us a God who can reverse the curses in our lives and turn them into blessings. However, it should be noted, it’s God’s intention that the blessings he sends your way be used for the purposes of his Kingdom. The purpose of a blessing is to bless others. As both Jesus and Paul will teach, the major problem of Israel is that they wanted to keep that blessing for themselves. This selfishness with the blessing brought a curse. Therefore, pray to God to relieve your pain, but pray that God can use you to be a blessing for others.