1. 1 Chronicles 4:9–10 (ESV)
  2. Application

Application of Jabez’ prayer

1 Chronicles 4:9–10 (ESV)

9 Jabez was more honorable than his brothers; and his mother called his name Jabez, saying, “Because I bore him in pain.”

How does this prayer apply to Christians today? The hugely popular book, The Prayer of Jabez, by Bruce Wilkinson, appeared some years ago, and its basic assumption is that ordinary Christians can attain to an extraordinary life by seeking God’s blessing. The book treats the prayer of Jabez as a four-part formula for divine blessing: seeking to be blessed by God, seeking greater personal territory, depending on God’s power for significant ministry, and fleeing temptation. By repeatedly praying this prayer formula, success is guaranteed because God always blesses this kind of daring prayer.

Is this what we are to understand about prayer? It makes prayer really easy, and yet any Christian knows how hard it is to pray. A godly and biblical prayer has been turned into a mantra that the Lord Jesus condemns in the Sermon on the Mount: When you pray do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words (Matthew 6:7).

The question is whether this prayer is a random insertion into the Chronicles genealogy or whether it connects to the surrounding verses. Some questions therefore need to be asked concerning this deeply theological prayer.

  1. Who was Jabez?

    Does the fact that nothing is known about Jabez’s family mean that nothing can be known about the man himself? Concerning his placement in the genealogy of Judah, he seems connected to the family of Koz (1 Chronicles 4:8), on account of the words, Jabez was more honoured than his brethren. The older commentators have thus drawn the conclusion that Jabez was a son or brother of Koz.1

    Can one suppose that the sudden appearance of Jabez in the list means that he was totally unknown to those for whom the Chronicles were originally intended?2 Despite the suddenness of the appearance of the name, the supposition can be made that he was well known, for whatever cause, to those for whom the work was primarily intended.3

    He was a man of great character. This can be concluded from the words, He was more honourable than his brothers. The Hebrew word for honourable (כָּבֵד) denotes weight. In other words, Jabez was a man of weight, the weight principally applied to his character. Quite interestingly, the noun form of this word is used to refer to the glory and majesty of God. This term is particularly used to describe the visible manifestation of God’s presence; for example, the glory descended onto Mount Sinai as a consuming fire (Exodus 24:16–17); so too after completion of the tabernacle the “glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle” (Exodus 40:34–35).

    He was a man of learning. It is likely that he was connected with the families of the scribes that were located in the city of Jabez (1 Chronicles 2:55). The Jewish writers affirm that he was an eminent doctor in the law, whose reputation drew so many scribes around him that a town was called by his name (1 Chronicles 2:55).  And it should seem, by the mentioning of him so abruptly here, that his name was well known when Ezra wrote this.4

    He was a man of great piety. His devotional habit of prayer made him honourable in the sight of men; his devout prayer brought great blessing from God adding much to his honour. Note to whom he directs his prayer. Matthew Henry makes this very clear: He called on the God of Israel, the living and true God, who alone can hear and answer prayer, and in prayer had an eye to him as the God of Israel, a God in covenant with his people, the God with whom Jacob wrestled and prevailed and was thence called Israel.5

  2. What was the occasion for his prayer?

    Not much is known about the circumstances that caused Jabez to utter this prayer. It may be that he was entering into a work of critical importance or facing a very dangerous situation. Whatever the case, he knew that the help of man is vain and that he could only look to God with fervent prayer for help and blessing. Some of the older commentators suggest that he was among those who were to enter the land of Canaan to take possession of it.6

  3. What is the form of the prayer?

    The prayer is offered in the form of a vow indicated with the opening words, Oh that. The vow is incomplete because only the conditions of the vow are communicated: If or Oh that you will 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…, but the conclusion, stating his commitment in return—Then I vow to do this or that– is absent, thus not fully complying with the rules of a conditional sentence. However, as Keil and Delitzsch observe, the fact that God granted what he asked probably indicates that the vow had acquired importance sufficient to make it worthy of being handed down only from God’s having so fulfilled his wish, that his life became a contradiction of his name; the son of sorrow having been free from pain in life, and having attained to greater happiness and reputation than his brothers.7

  4. Should the Christian pray this prayer?

    It is understandable why some are hesitant to pray this prayer because it sounds too much like the health and wealth gospel of North America and Africa. Yet, this prayer forms part of the inspired text of the Bible. That means that we should be able to pray this prayer with confidence. It should not be rayed with selfish motives. Rather, prayer is about aligning your mind and heart with God's sovereign purposes.

    Prayer is a rich privilege God graciously grants to his children, enabling us to express our submission to his will for our lives. To that end, may we all learn to pray with the humility, dependence, and expectation of blessing Jabez exhibited. This is what marked the prayer of Jabez.

    The tendency of some is to stumble at the request to enlarge my border because it smacks of the prosperity gospel. It is not wrong to ask for physical blessing because we are after all physical beings with physical needs but it should always be done in dependence upon the Lord, in humility and according to His will and not ours. But there are spiritual implications to the prayer too. The principle of his request for progress could also apply to spiritual growth, increase in usefulness for God in serving others, success in studies, the workplace, and the church, and so on.8 The prayer was seen in a favourable light for he evidently desired with proper motives that honoured God and not selfish ends God would turn down (Psalm 66:18). He came as one who delighted in the Lord, a man whose desires God could meet (Psalm 37:4).

    The bright light of Jabez’s prayer and God’s answer encourages all who may feel bound by past circumstances that somehow determine their fate. This may include a name or label that has been given (loser, weakling, poor boy, dropout, outsider, not one of us, etc.), or a dysfunctional family background. By turning to the Lord, Jabez becomes a forerunner of the many who turn to Christ in his earthly ministry for healing and deliverance, and of countless others since who have experienced that if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come (2 Corinthians 5:17).9