Critique of The Prayer of Jabez
I am grateful for the Walk Thru the Bible Ministries of Dr. Bruce Wilkinson. It has helped countless numbers of people grasp the whole scheme of
the Bible fairly quickly. But I am troubled by his book published by Multnomah in 2000, The Prayer of Jabez.
It is treated as a shortcut to the fullest experience of the Christian life. The book's goals are lofty and in fact touch many important areas.
But I would characterize the book as a lovely building built upon a faulty foundation.
The book uses a spiritualizing form of interpretation and imposes upon the text a meaning that it never had. While doing that, it appears to
discover a secret to fullness of experience which one can only wish that David, the prophets, and the Apostle Paul could have known.
Most likely the popularity of this book, at a height now, will dwindle quickly. But it presents a danger in that some people will undoubtedly
see it as a shortcut and use it as a substitute for the rest of the Bible's message. This will be to their own hurt and to that of the cause of Christ generally.
In this critique, I will first discuss a proper interpretation of 1 Chronicles 4:9-10 without reference to Wilkinson's book. Then I will draw
attention to various problems in the book.
Seeking to Understand the Scriptural Text
The following is the text for our consideration:
And Jabez was more honorable than his brothers, and his mother named him Jabez saying, "Because I bore him with pain." Now Jabez called on the
God of Israel, saying, "that Thou wouldst bless me indeed, and enlarge my border, and that Thy hand might be with me, and that Thou wouldst keep me from harm, that it may not pain me!"
And God granted him what he requested. (1 Chronicles 4:9-10 [All Scripture quotations are NASB.])
This passage seems to be arbitrarily stuck into the chapter in which it appears, a chapter full of names. Some attention to the context will
reveal that this is a listing, not as complete or cohesive as one might like, of the Israelites as they conquered the land of Canaan and settled in it. It is arranged by tribe. Our text
appears in the section devoted to Judah, and the latter part of the chapter concerns that of Simeon.
Our text records a bit of history without parallel in Scripture. It explains briefly the honor of Jabez, the reason for his name, and a prayer
which he prayed and which was realized. That is the sum of it.
In keeping with the context, we will see that the text is not as mysterious as it first might seem. It relates the very special success of a man
who sought the help of God in carrying out the revealed plan of God written in Scripture. It is not a text that will bear any meaning we wish to give it.
The birth of Jabez was difficult. The exact difficulty is not spelled out, but his mother gave him a name which would all his life be a
reminder. His name is based upon the Hebrew word for pain. It is reasonable to assume that, because of that difficult birth, he had some disadvantage in life. One might say that
his name itself became a disadvantage.
God had commanded the Israelites to go into the land of Canaan, destroy the people who then lived there, and take the land for themselves.
Jabez, though a man with some disadvantage, perhaps some kind of disability, desired to participate in this God-given mission. He prayed that God might give him success in the mission,
and God honored his prayer.
In the phrase "that Thou wouldst bless me indeed," the Hebrew way of expressing this intense request is to repeat the verb in some form. That
similar repetition appears two other places. The first is Genesis 22:17 where God says to Abraham: "indeed I will greatly bless you, and I will greatly multiply your seed as the
stars of the heavens, and as the sand which is on the seashore; and your seed shall possess the gate of their enemies." At issue here is the Abrahamic Covenant, the promise of God to
Abraham which regarded descendants especially.
The second such repetition appears in Deuteronomy 15:4 which has special significance for our discussion. It says: "However, there shall be no
poor among you, since the LORD will surely bless you in the land which the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess..." The issue here is the Palestinian Covenant
in which God promised the land of Canaan to the people of Israel. Jabez is involved in the fulfilment of this promise.
Jabez asks God for a blessing and then specifies what that blessing is. The first part is that God might enlarge my border. The term
border, with a suffix in the Hebrew, appears fifty-nine times in the Bible. In every case except one it is a reference to a region or boundaried portion of the earth's surface,
usually ground but sometimes water (Ezekiel 27:4). In the remaining case of Ezekiel 43:13 it is the boundaries or edges of the altar. In every case the border is a measurable line or edge
of a physical or material object. It is never whatever one imagines it to be, and it is never figurative.
Among those passages which contain the term border are four which hold special significance for us in that they also speak of
enlarging borders, using the same Hebrew terminology. They are as follows:
"For I will drive out nations before you and enlarge your borders, and no man shall covet your land when you go up three times a year to appear
before the LORD your God." (Exodus 34:24)
"When the LORD your God extends your border as He has promised you, and you say, 'I will eat meat,'because you desire to eat meat, then you may
eat meat, whatever you desire." (Deuteronomy 12:20)
"And if the LORD your God enlarges your territory, just as He has sworn to your fathers, and gives you all the land which He promised to give
your fathers" (Deuteronomy 19:8)
Thus says the LORD, "For three transgressions of the sons of Ammon and for four I will not revoke its punishment, Because they ripped open the
pregnant women of Gilead In order to enlarge their borders." (Amos 1:13)
You notice that each one of these expressions involves the acquisition of land through conquering. In three cases it is Israel, accomplished by
God through His people. In one case it is the sons of Ammon. But the usage of the terminology is consistent.
The second part of the blessing specified is that "Thy hand might be with me." This is a figurative expression. Wherever the Hebrew words
for hand (with suffix) might be are used figuratively, they refer to either being hostile (two times in the Bible) or being an ally (three times in the Bible). In this case
Jabez is requesting that God might be his ally in the challenge at hand of taking the land from the enemy.
Of interest here is the example in Psalm 119:173: "Let Thy hand1 be ready to help me, For I have
chosen Thy precepts." This verse gives a basis upon which the psalmist expects God to join as an ally; it is that the psalmist is living a life of obedience. This goes beyond expecting a
blessing simply because one has asked for it.
The third part of the blessing specified is that "Thou wouldst keep me from harm, that it may not pain me." This is really the negative
of the above request. Positively he is requesting God's assistance, for he is a man with a disadvantage. Negatively he is requesting that God prevent harm from coming to him, again
because he has a disadvantage.
The Hebrew expression from harm or from evil (another possible translation) appears a number of times in the Bible with the
following meanings for harm: an intended murder, an established guilt, a way of life, and a discomfort. From these meanings, only an intended murder and a discomfort can possibly
make sense here, and, considering the historical context, probably it should be understood as an intended murder. In that case, Jabez is praying that his life be spared by God, that his
life be protected, as he acts with God's help to take possession of land God has promised to the Israelites.
The end of the passage says that "God granted him what he requested." We do know what it was that God gave him. He gave him real estate
of uncertain amount, divine alliance in conquering territory, and protection from death in that mission.
This prayer with its result is not included in Scripture so that you would have a biblical mantra. It is not there so that you can repeat it and
use it to magically move God to produce whatever you wish, even in terms of spiritual success. In fact, we can confidently say that the prayer of Jabez could not be prayed except by an
Old Testament Israelite in the time when Israel was conquering the land of Canaan. But, having said that, it is a historical record because it does have value for us.
It is an outstanding example of a man taking God at His written Word to His people. It reports an example of a man who acted in faith, who
prayed according to a promise/command, and who realized that fulfilment. Jabez was more honorable than his neighbors in that he, though having a disadvantage in life, by faith followed
through in obedience to the plan of God and realized the intended result.
In order to apply this to ourselves, I offer here one example. Colossians 3:5-11 describes the old life before coming into a relationship with
God through Jesus Christ. You are told to consider yourself dead to such attitude-behaviors as immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed. You are further told to put aside
such attitude-behaviors as anger, wrath, malice, slander, abusive speech, and lying. Then in verses 12-15 you are given a number of positives to put on such as compassion, kindness,
humility, gentleness, patience, forgiveness, and love.
Your life should manifest those positives. Are you that kind of person? If you are a real Christian, you no doubt have problems in some of those
areas at least some times. You know by reading Colossians 3 what God's will is for you. You can and should ask God to be your ally in your task of putting off these negatives and of
putting on these positives--you are the one commanded to put off and to put on, and He will be pleased to answer your prayer. This is one legitimate application of the prayer of Jabez
Interacting with the book, The Prayer of Jabez
There is no shortcut to the 'blessed life.' I am suspicious whenever I hear of a mantra, a charm, a magic wand that will unleash the blessings of
God and bring one into the fullness of Christian experience. Chapter one attempts to do just that by encouraging one to daily repeat the prayer of Jabez. In stark contrast are passages in
the Scripture which speak as Matthew 10:22: "And you will be hated by all on account of My name, but it is the one who has endured to the end who will be saved." Blessing, yes, but not
received until after a period of suffering.
On page 24 the author says that Jabez left the nature of the blessing totally up to God, that he did not dictate the nature of the blessing.
That is false, because Jabez specifies in his prayer exactly what blessing he expects. And the blessing is consistent with the earlier commands and promises of God to Israel. It is
closely related to the experience of Joshua in Joshua 19:50: "In accordance with the command of the LORD they gave him the city for which he asked, Timnath-serah in the hill country of
Ephraim. So he built the city and settled in it." The reason the author presents Jabez' request for blessing as undefined is that such a view leaves blessing open to whatever you
wish it to be--allows you to spiritualize the passage instead of understanding the literal intent as I have pointed out in the previous section of this paper.
To encourage the believer to appropriate every blessing available in Christ is good, but this encouragement should not have to malign the nature
of God. On pages 25 - 27 the author relates an illustration, a supposed story taking place in heaven. An illustration is usually useful to a point, and one should not expect it to say
more than it does. But this illustration makes a statement (that God has a stash of blessings in heaven which go unclaimed and therefore unused) about God that one concerned with
Scriptural revelation would not expect. It portrays God as inefficient, sloppy, and limited in knowledge. He packages an immense amount of blessings, never knowing whether someone will
claim them or not. The God of the Bible is not like that. God is not the victim of man's choice, of man's act, or of man's failure to act. Isaiah 46:9-10: "Remember the former things long
past, For I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is no one like Me, Declaring the end from the beginning And from ancient times things which have not been done, Saying, 'My
purpose will be established, And I will accomplish all My good pleasure.'"
He goes on to portray God as good. God certainly is, but one should take the revelation concerning God in its entirety. To focus only on God's
goodness at the expense of others of His attributes will lead one astray.
In chapter three the author relates various experiences which he presents as answers to his praying the prayer of Jabez. Other people, including
myself, could relate similar experiences totally unrelated to praying that prayer. The result is that one cannot claim that prayer to be the means of obtaining those blessings.
On page 43 the author defines miracles as follows:
Do you believe miracles still happen? Many Christians I've met do not. I remind them that miracles don't have to break natural law to be a
supernatural event. When Christ stilled the storm, He didn't set aside universal law-the storm would eventually have subsided on its own. Instead, He directed the weather pattern.
I contend that Jesus did more than direct the weather pattern. Jesus superseded the operating natural laws. Why? Mark 4:39 says, "And
being aroused, He rebuked the wind and said to the sea, 'Hush, be still.' And the wind died down and it became perfectly calm." The verse indicates that calmness came immediately upon
Jesus speaking the word-that's why the disciples immediately wonder who He was. If all He had done was redirect the weather pattern, the stimulus would have disappeared, but inertia would
have dictated that the wind and waves subside over a period of time. Jesus certainly superseded at least the natural law of cause and effect in this case. The author dilutes the
definition of a miracle. The result of the author's definition in this case is to broaden the idea of a miracle so that we can call miracles those results in life which we might not
previously have called such. In turn this dilutes our understanding of genuine miracles and robs them of their significance in demonstrating the power of the Almighty.
Chapter four has a good emphasis in seeking God's help, since we are not adequate for the tasks to which He calls us. Yet I do caution against a
possible influence of that chapter. The title ("The Touch of Greatness") and the approach taken may encourage a person to seek greatness. Greatness is God's business, not ours. Our
responsibility is rather to be servants of all. Luke 22:26: "But not so with you, but let him who is the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as the servant."
On pages 67 - 68 the author encourages us to ask God to lead us away from temptations. Part of this is an attempt to connect with the request
made in the prayer Jesus taught His disciples, "do not lead us into temptation" (Matthew 6:13). But the connection simply isn't there. James 1:13 informs us that God does not tempt
anyone, and 1 Corinthians 10:13 promises that God provides a way out of every temptation. That issue is already covered, and we do not need to distort a prayer from another place in
Scripture in order to understand the prayer of Jabez. His request to be kept from harm or from evil can well be understood in its own context as is explained in the previous section. It
has no relationship to temptation.
On page 84 the author tells us that when praying this prayer becomes our habit, God will pour out upon us so many blessings that we will at
various times tell Him to stop. I have difficulty here and throughout this book with the impression that I am the one who pulls God's strings, and that is definitely backward. When I want
blessing, I pray the prayer of Jabez; when too much blessing comes, I tell God to stop! What kind of a God is He anyway? Is He my heavenly servant who doesn't really understand me? And
who can say he has ever been blessed too much?
On pages 86 - 87 the author gives instructions for how to get started in this blessed life. One is to pray the prayer of Jabez every morning.
Another direction is to read Wilkinson's book each week for the next month. It seems a bit arrogant to me. I would rather encourage someone to be reading the Bible; it could not be bad
for a person, and it would lead a person on solid ground to spiritual growth in Christlikeness.
Reading the Bible will clarify our thinking and deflate the books of men to their proper size. I read in Ephesians 1:3 that I already have all
spiritual blessings in Christ. I do not need what Wilkinson's book offers. I already have it in Christ, and no prayer regularly repeated will add to that.
Furthermore, the discussion presented in the book appears to contradict statements Jesus made to others and the prayer of Jesus in Gethsemane.
Matthew 16:24, "Then Jesus said to His disciples, 'If anyone wishes to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.'" Also, Luke 22:42, "saying, 'Father, if
Thou art willing, remove this cup from Me; yet not My will, but Thine be done.'" The life of self-denial and submission to the expressed and sovereign will of God is clearly taught by
Jesus in Scripture. How does the daily repeated request for blessing square with that, unless it is blessing that God has already promised?
Let us make sure that our goal is to be pleasing to Christ (2 Cor. 5:9, "Therefore also we have as our ambition, whether at home or absent, to
be pleasing to Him.") and that we are giving our attention to the Word which will bring us to that goal (John 17:17, "'Sanctify them in the truth; Thy word is truth.'").
If you have questions or with to interact with the author, you may contact him at
1Italics by the author of this paper to draw attention to the phrase.