The Prayer of Jabez
A review of Bruce Wilkenson's, "The Prayer of Jabez: Breaking through to the Blessed Life," by Dr. Richard Hess.
Wilkinson, Bruce with the assistance of David Kopp. The Prayer of Jabez: Breaking through to the Blessed Life. Sisters, Oregon: Multnomah, 2000. 93 pp. Hardback, $5.79. ISBN 1-57673-733-0.
Wilkinson’s work has become one of the few theological essays on an Old Testament passage that has achieved number one bestseller status in the United States, at least in the last century. This essay represents the culmination of decades of personal experience for the author, in which he has prayed the prayer of 1 Chron. 4:10 daily and experienced the challenges and blessings of what can only be deemed a fruitful ministry. The essay relates some of the opportunities for ministry that emerged after praying this prayer. It describes how this ministry has resulted in blessing many and in increasing Wilkinson’s Walk Thru the Bible seminars, an outreach that has achieved international prominence.
Wilkinson uses the NKJV translation of this prayer: “Oh, that You would bless me indeed, and enlarge my territory, that Your hand would be with me, and that You would keep me from evil, so that I may not cause pain!” He then provides a phrase by phrase discussion of the prayer, arguing that it is a prayer that anyone can prayer and that it represents the proper sentiments of a Christian believer. He notes the concluding observation of v. 10, “And God granted his request.” The focus of Wilkinson’s argument seems to be that by praying this prayer Christians are not becoming greedy and self-centered; but expressing their openness to God’s blessing and to an enlargement of their ministry into more and more opportunities.
It should be emphasized that Wilkinson nowhere falls into the “trap” of proclaiming what has been called “the prosperity gospel.” That is to say, he nowhere states that this prayer (or any other) will provide the believer with whatever they want of this world’s blessings. This seems most explicit in his remarks on pp. 70-71, in the section commenting on “that You would keep me from evil”:
Do we really understand how far the American Dream is from God’s dream for us? We’re steeped in a culture that worships freedom, independence, personal rights, and the pursuit of pleasure. We respect people who sacrifice to what they want. But to be a living sacrifice? To be crucified to self?
Like Jabez, we should plead to be kept from the powerful pull of what feels right to us but is wrong
It is true that the implications of a living sacrifice could be more explicit. However, given the consistency of illustrations that move in the worlds of evangelism and healing broken relationships, the nature of the work as a short direct tract, and the overall tenor of the author’s words and ministries; it goes too far to leap to charges of “prosperity gospel” for this exposition.
Instead, it is best to see here a helpful guide for believers who wish to be more effective in their personal life and ministry. That is the heart of the book and its repeated concern. A prayer lifted from Chronicles can certainly assist in that desire. The urge to daily repeat it is by no means amiss insofar as it brings the believer closer to God and more open to the opportunities of living the life of a disciple from moment to moment.
A few words on the exegesis of this text may be appropriate. The name, Jabez, is intended as a word play on the word for “pain” or “toil” that appears at the end of v. 9 and in a verbal form (infinitive construct plus first common singular suffix) at the end of the prayer in v. 10. The noun in v. 9 is pronounced as “‘otsev” or, closer to the name Jabez, “‘ozeb”. As can be seen, even in the simplified English rendering, the “b” and “z” of Jabez are reversed in the word, “‘ozeb”. Thus Jabez and the word for “pain” sound similar but are not identical. This is common in wordplay in the Old Testament. However, it is wrong to state, as Wilkinson does, that any Israelite who heard the name, Jabez, would understand it as “pain.” Nor is it correct to assume that names composed of words referring to pain, struggle, or toil, would put an onerous buden on the name bearer. Such names were not uncommon in Old Testament times. By the way, the reference to the birth “in pain” duplicates the verb, prepostiion, and root of the object of the preposition found in Gen. 3:16. Wilkinson is correct to assume that it does not necessarily refer to pain in child birth but could describe broader concerns of toil and suffering. The same is true in Genesis.
Contrary, to some translations (e.g., NIV), Wilkinson is correct in choosing a rendering that emphatically translates the request of Jabez to bless him, “bless me indeed”. The final phrases, “keep me from evil, so that I may not cause pain,” are particularly difficult to translate from Hebrew. The first of these is literally, “may you do/make/give from evil.” It is necessary to add an object to the verb and most translations insert “me”. This results in a more fluent, “may you keep me from evil.” Some translations, such as the NIV, interpret “evil” as “harm” here. This is not impossible and perhaps likely. However, “evil” is closer to the original and carries a connotation not always realized in the term, “harm.” The final phrase is composed of two words in the Hebrew: the negative purpose particle (“so that not”) followed by the an infinitive of the verb with a first common singular suffix (“my”; “I’). This particular stem (Qal) of the verb occurs at only two other places, 1 Kings 1:6 and Is. 54:6. In the former it describes how David had treated his son by never bothering or interfering with him. In other words he never caused him any distress or pain. In Is. 54:6 the term is used in a passive form to refer to a rejected and abandoned wife whose spirit is therefore distressed or grieved. In the prayer of Jabez, which follows a noun formation of this same root, meaning “pain” (v. 9), the verb can be rendered as “cause pain” or possibly, “be in pain.” This would yield, “so that I may not cause pain” (Wilkinson and NKJV) or “so that I will be free from pain” (NIV). Given the context and our limited knowledge of this verbal form, either is possible.
Thus Wilkinson’s interpretation of the text is not incorrect, in the main. He should be more careful in discussing naming practices in Israel and wordplay in Hebrew. The final phrase of the prayer remains slightly ambiguous. It might also be worthwhile to observe that nowhere is anyone commanded to pray this prayer (unlike the Lord’s Prayer in the New Testament) nor does the text indicate whether Jabez himself prayed this once or many times. However, these points do not detract from the prayer of Jabez as a model for the Christian disciple who seeks to be used by God. In that, Wilkinson succeeds.
Richard S. Hess
Professor of Old Testament