By Rev. Charles Cooper
|The Prayer of Jabez By Bruce Wilkinson|
Sisters, OR: Multnomah Publishers, 2000
93 pages $9.99
The Prayer of Jabez has sold over nine million copies. This does not include the sale of support materials like devotionals and journals, or the coffee mugs, calendars, paperweights, plaques, key rings, bookmarks, and compact discs. Numerous publishing accolades, best-seller awards, and positive reviews by prestigious publishing sources adorn this book. It is a publisher’s dream-come-true.
Since books are passed around, it is conceivable that the nine million copies sold translate into 30 plus million readers. It spells success any way you look at it. Having known Bruce Wilkinson for the better part of 15 years, I can safely vouch for the man’s heart, love and commitment to Jesus Christ. His Walk Thru the Bible Ministries has taught millions a basic knowledge of both the Old and New Testament in fun-filled creative ways. The Prayer of Jabez has added many more to the list who have been solidly helped by Wilkinson’s ministry. In this case, many have been moved to prayer with the expectation that God will work in their daily lives.
Yet, the book, The Prayer of Jabez, appears to have applied the illustration and not the theological principle. Wilkinson’s book is based on a simple prayer recorded in 1 Chronicles 4:9-10. The book of Chronicles is an oft-ignored Old Testament record of King David’s faithfulness or lack of faithfulness to God. The first nine chapters of 1 Chronicles list the genealogical pedigree of the nation of Israel with an emphasis on the priority of Kind David. The remainder of the book focuses exclusively on the rule of David. Both his highs and lows are recorded.
The primary purpose of the book of 1 Chronicles is to explain the ascendance of the tribe of Judah. Jacob’s first-born son was Reuben who should have received a double portion of his father’s estate and prominence among his brothers. However, Reuben sinned against his father resulting in Joseph receiving the rights of inheritance of the first-born and Judah receiving the prominence among his brothers. In the genealogical lists of 1 Chronicles, the tribe of Judah is listed first for this reason and because it is the tribe of King David. Jabez is the only individual singled out in the genealogy of Judah. It is written of him,
Jabez was more honorable than his brothers; and his mother called his name Jabez, saying, “Because I born him in pain.” 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.
Jabez obviously represents a man blessed of God. The immediate question is this: what is the proper way to apply Jabez’s example to us, the modern reader? The reason Wilkinson’s book is unsettling is that he attempts to apply the specifics of the prayer rather than the general principle upon which the prayer is based.
When asked by His disciples to teach them how to pray, Jesus issued a model prayer for the ages,
Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is done in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil (Matt 6:9b-13).
There is a stark contrast between the prayer of Jabez and the prayer of Jesus.
Wilkinson’s encouragement to repeat a prayer over and over again throughout one’s life smacks of formulizing one’s walk with God to the degree that it becomes all about “me” with very little focus on God. Notice in the prayer of Jesus the number of “us” and “we” occurrences. Notice their absence in the prayer of Jabez.
The Jabez prayer is based on a simple biblical principle that is repeated explicitly in the New Testament. James writes, “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working” (James 5:16b – ESV). Jabez’s prayer was answered because he was a righteous (more honorable) man. A fact established by time. Wilkinson’s book might give some the idea that good intentions are all that is necessary to begin receiving bountifully from the Lord. Now to be fair, Wilkinson is not suggesting that the prayer of Jabez is the only prayer a believer ought to pray. However, that a believer might pray it at all is equally troubling. Please notice that the Bible does not explicitly state precisely what God did in response to Jabez’s request. The text merely states, “And God granted what he asked.” Well, he requested four things: (1) bless me; (2) enlarge my border; (3) your hand be with me; and (4) keep me from harm. The text says, “And God granted what he asked.” Unfortunately, we are not told exactly how.
The key to understanding the prayer of Jabez is in the details. His name is Jabez. Now nearly all Hebrew proper names have meaning. For example, the name David means “beloved one.” The name Jabez does not have a similar meaning. Because at his birth, his mother used a pun to make up his name. “His mother called his name Jabez, saying, because I bore him in pain.” In the Hebrew, Jabez (yabez) and the term for pain (ozeb) have the last three letters switched. This pun on pain is used as a tool to explain the circumstances of the child’s birth.
The last line of Jabez’s prayer is, “so that it might not bring me pain.” The sense seems to be “keep me from afflictions so that they (the afflictions) would not bring me pain.” In other words, Jabez prays that his name would not be a prophetic indicator of his life. A person’s name given at birth was a big issue in biblical times. “Ideally, the name was either descriptive of the parent’s wishes or prophetic of personality to be manifested by one so named.” 
In as much as Jabez’s prayer is framed between the concept of pain, it is more likely that Jabez’s prayer is focusing on the deliverance from a life of pain. That is, Jabez prays that God will deliver him from the life that his name implies—pain. Put another way, Jabez recognizes that he was born in pain, but wants to live a pain-free life. That this is the intent of this text is supported by the following fact. Jabez prays that God would “enlarge my border.” Actually, the Hebrew says territory. Wilkinson errs when, instead of praying for land (the literal application), he substitutes “more influence, more responsibility, and more opportunity” (The Prayer of Jabez, page 30).
Jabez specifically asked God “to enlarge his borders.” This is basically a land request. Acquiring land in Israel was not a simple matter. After bringing the Children of Israel out of Egypt, God set specific laws to govern how the Israelites were to deal with their individual land grants. Leviticus 25:23 declares, “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine.” That is, no one could sell his land rights—only the use of the land could be sold. However, anyone forced to sell the use of his land knew that he would receive it back in the year of jubilee. The point is this: there simply was no land to get. Therefore, it appears strange that Jabez would be asking God for more land.
Therefore, Wilkinson is correct to teach the modern reader not to pray specifically for more land, but he is incorrect to teach the modern reader to pray for “more influence, more responsibility, and more opportunity.” These things are fine, but they are not based on 1 Chronicles 4:9-10. This passage merely teaches that the prayers of a righteous man avail much (James 5:16). Jabez prayed that the circumstances that characterized his birth and led to his name would not characterize his life. This God answered! Jabez did not live up to his name. He lived beyond it!
1. Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, Vol. 4, (Grand Rapids: Regency Reference Library, 1976), page 362.