The Prayer of Jabez
In this sermon series on ‘Great Prayers of the Bible’, I admit, this prayer may seem out of place. Who is this Jabez character anyway?
Up until a few years ago, the name Jabez was regarded as little more than the answer to a difficult trivia question. Everything that the Bible has to say about Jabez is found in two verses, in 1Chronicles 4:9, 10. Making his presence in Scripture even more obscure is the fact that the two verses about Jabez are in the middle of one of those lengthy genealogical tables. And, most of us, if we are honest, will admit to frequently passing over the first nine chapters of 1Chronicles because we lack the ability to stay alert while reading genealogies of such length.
But today, in 2004, the name Jabez has become quite well known in Christian circles thanks to a best-selling book written by Bruce Wilkinson entitled, ‘The Prayer of Jabez’.
While my intention is to speak to you this morning about the Jabez of Scripture, as opposed to the Jabez of Wilkinson’s book, I would be remiss if I did not share with you one concern that I have.
Because the book is based on a single verse prayer in Scripture, my concern is that the reader may mistakenly isolate the principles of prayer found in the prayer of Jabez to the exclusion of the myriad of principles of prayer that are found elsewhere in Scripture. This is why I have been compelled to bring you a series of sermons on prayer—because no single biblical prayer will suffice in teaching us everything we must know about prayer.
In my mind, writing a book on a single verse of Scripture is risky business. It would be like me writing a book on justice, based on Exodus 21:24 and titling it, ‘Eye for an Eye, Tooth for a Tooth’. Clearly, before we can appropriately apply a single verse of Scripture, we must bring all of Scripture to bear on the passage being studied.
So as we study, as we unpack, the prayer of Jabez, written for our edification in the Holy canon of Scripture, we do so mindful of the principles learned from prayers found elsewhere in Scripture.
As we have already said, all that we know about Jabez is contained in 1Chronicles 4:9, 10. There we learn that Jabez “was more honourable than his brothers” and that his mother named him Jabez, which means ‘sorrowful’, because she “bore him with sorrow” (4:9).
What we have then is a man named ‘Sorrowful’ praying for deliverance from sorrow. Jabez prays to the God of Israel, “Oh that Thou would bless me indeed, and enlarge my territory, and that Thy hand might be with me, and that Thou would keep me from evil, that I may not cause pain!” And then we read “God granted (Jabez) what he requested.”
I have a strong suspicion that the reason why the prayer of Jabez intrigues us so much is because of what is written following his prayer: “God granted (Jabez) what he requested.”
I suspect Jabez’s prayer would not be nearly as popular if not for the clear statement that Jabez got what he asked for. As Christians, we desperately want our prayers answered and so we gravitate to verses like this. And while we are prudent in studying the prayer of Jabez, we must be leery of our motivations for doing so.
If we approach the prayer of Jabez looking for a formula to coax God into giving us what we want, we misconstrue the intent of Jabez’s prayer and, even worse, we misuse prayer.
With a superficial glance, many have concluded that Jabez was praying simply for temporal blessings. And if we do not properly exegete his first petition, we are likely to conclude the same.
What is Jabez’s first request? “Oh that Thou would bless me indeed” (4:10). I am thankful for the modifier, “indeed”, as it seems to me to be the key to understanding the nature of the blessing that is requested by Jabez.
We rightly call a great many things ‘blessings’, but not all blessings are alike. Some things are blessings in name only; they gratify our wishes for the moment, but fail to satisfy our long-term expectations (Spurgeon). Other things that we rightly term as ‘blessings’—our daily bread, our home, our family, good health; as wonderful as these things are, we must confess that they are all temporary. None of these things last forever.
But what is the prayer of Jabez? “Oh that Thou would bless me indeed!” To be most blessed, to be blessed “indeed”, one must receive that which cannot perish. To be blessed “indeed” is to receive God and all His benefits. To be blessed “indeed” is to receive from God the Father His only begotten Son. To be blessed “indeed” is to receive, from Christ, His righteousness and the forgiveness of sins; it is to receive, from Christ, His Spirit and the transforming power found therein (Phil. 3:8-10); it is to receive, from Christ, citizenship in the heavenly city, the new Jerusalem (Phil. 3:20, 21).
Did the blessings obtained by Jabez include earthly, temporal blessings? I have no doubt that they did, but we must not reduce the blessings of Jabez to temporal blessings. Jabez did not look to God for superficial assistance, but he asked to be blessed “indeed”.
We move to the second petition of Jabez’s prayer, where we hear him pray “enlarge my territory”. What territory is Jabez speaking of? Is Jabez asking the Lord for a larger property? Is he asking for a larger slice of his inheritance? No; such a petition would be out of step with the rest of the prayer.
I think J.C. Philpot has it right when he says that “every (Christian) soul has a border.” We begin with “a slip” of spiritual territory and, at first, we struggle to move beyond our doubts, our fears, and our guilt. But as the Lord enlarges our “spiritual territory” we find our faith becomes strengthened, while our doubts and fears gradually subside. Areas of our life that once belonged to the enemy are eventually claimed by the Holy Spirit. Our spiritual territory is enlarged as our nature is continually transformed by Christ.
This takes us to the third petition, “that Thy hand might be with me”. Jabez understands that the expansion of his spiritual territory is not to be a solo effort. If progress is to be made against guilt, fear, anxiety, and doubt, then nothing short of supernatural assistance will do. When Jesus said to His disciples, “apart from Me you can do nothing” (Jn. 15:5), He was stating in the plainest of terms the truth that spiritual progress would be impossible without Him.
Such a petition is evidence of Jabez’s humility. Jabez did not see himself as a spiritual giant, but rather, he saw himself as someone who desperately needed the hand of God to lead him every step of the way.
We see this unequivocally in his final petition, “that Thou would keep me from evil, that I may not cause pain!” Jabez recognizes that, without the Lord’s help, his propensity is to do evil; his inclination is to do that which dishonours God and to do that which causes harm to others.
Such a petition is not too different from the petition Jesus teaches us in The Lord’s Prayer: “deliver us from evil” (Mt. 6:13). You see then, Jabez was not being unduly harsh with himself in his estimation of his moral composition. In advance of Jesus’ words, Jabez had the wisdom and humility to pray for deliverance from evil.
Following these four petitions, the author of 1Chronicles tells us that “God granted (Jabez) what he requested.”
We want this—don’t we? We want God to grant what we request. Yet, we must remember that God is not some supernatural genie; He is not some cosmic vending machine, dispensing products when the correct configuration of change is inserted. No. For God to grant what we request, we must request what God commends.
I call this the “praying in Jesus’ name” principle. Even though Jabez predates the Incarnation of Jesus, the principle of Jabez’s prayer that we must seek to emulate is the principle of praying in Jesus’ name.
What does that phrase mean? The instruction to do something in someone's name would have been readily understood by those Jesus was speaking to. Many Christians today, however, misinterpret this instruction.
Many Christians treat the phrase "in Jesus' name" as a magical incantation to get whatever they want in prayer. And, unfortunately, I have even come across some Christians who use the prayer of Jabez in this manner.
But can you imagine the implications if prayer worked in this way? If praying "in Jesus' name" was some magical incantation that forced God's hand, can you imagine what would be going on in heaven when we prayed? You would have someone praying, 'God, do this, and this, and this . . . in the name Jesus', and then God would say, 'Ah shucks, they said the magic phrase! This is going to mess up everything we are doing in the kingdom, and now we have to answer this prayer.'
This is not how prayer works. What is it then, to pray in the name of Jesus? Keep in mind that, in the 1st century, they did not have telephones. They did not have e-mail. If you wanted to send a message to someone in a distant land you sent an ambassador—and they would go in your name. The task of the ambassador was to go, and then say exactly what you wanted said.
To pray "in Jesus' name" then, is to pray exactly how Jesus would have us pray. This conclusion is confirmed in 1John 5:14, where we read, "This is the confidence which we have before Him, that, if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us." In other words, we can expect God to grant our requests when we pray as Christ would have us pray.
This, my friends, is the merit of the prayer of Jabez. The petitions Jabez offered were not disunited with God’s own purposes for Jabez.
Jabez wanted to know the fullness of being in a relationship with God. Jabez also wanted to personally progress and develop in this relationship, and so he asks for God’s assistance. Not only did Jabez know that he needed help going forward, but he also knew he needed God’s help to prevent him from going backwards in this relationship.
What Jabez wanted for himself was precisely what God wanted for Jabez. When we can say that, then we can say that we have prayed like Jabez. When we can say that, then we can say that we understand what it means to “pray in Jesus’ name”. Amen.