THE REAL PRAYER OF JABEZ by Iain Duguid

Jabez was more honored than his brothers. His mother had named him Jabez, saying, “I gave birth to him in pain.” Jabez cried out to the God of Israel, “Oh, that you would bless me and enlarge my territory! Let your hand be with me, and keep me from harm so that I will be free from pain.” And God granted his request. (1 Chron. 4:9–10 NIV)

This little vignette, tucked away among the genealogies of the Chronicler, spawned a best-selling book at the dawn of the twenty-first century. Unfortunately, the best seller missed the point of the story, which reinforces some of the Chronicler’s key themes. The Chronicler tells us that Jabez, a descendant of Judah, was more honored than his brothers (rather than “more honorable,” as most of our English translations render it: the Hebrew word describes attitudes toward someone, not necessarily their behavior). That honor was surprising given his naming, for Jabez was named for pain. Yet, as his story unfolded, the pain that surrounded his birth was not what defined him. Jabez prayed and God transformed his situation from curse to blessing.

The point is not that Jabez’s prayer has some kind of magic power in its words. The point is that Jabez’s God has awesome power to change a person’s destination from curse to blessing. The experience of Jabez’s mother was far from unique: the word for her pain (and the experience that it names) comes straight from Genesis 3:16 and God’s curse upon Eve. We are all like Jabez in that sense, born under a curse, headed toward a life of pain and futility. But God has the power to rescue us from that fate and to bless us with freedom from pain and futility that are consummated in a new creation. “Oh that you would surely bless me” is a reversal of “You shall surely die” in Genesis 3. Jabez prays to be kept from evil so that the pain of the curse might not come upon him. God hears and answers his prayer, and he is blessed.

The point is not that Jabez’s prayer has some kind of magic power in its words. The point is that Jabez’s God has awesome power to change a person’s destination from curse to blessing.

For the original audience of the book of Chronicles, who had been through the experience of the divine curse in the shape of expulsion from their homeland and who had now returned there, this was good news indeed. Though they may have been born into a people who were under God’s judgment, that curse could be transformed into a blessing by God’s hand, which is stretched out in response to His people’s prayer. This is the point of 2 Chronicles 7:14: “If my people who are called by my name humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their evil ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” Jabez provides yet another prooftext of the power of prayer, a key theme in Chronicles.

But we haven’t finished with Jabez until we see the contrast that his experience poses to that of another descendant of Judah many centuries later. This man’s name means “salvation,” and He also prayed to His Father to deliver Him from the cup of pain and woe that was set in front of Him. Curse was not the destination that this descendant of Judah had been born into. He was the King of kings and Lord of lords, the One who certainly deserved to be honored above all His brothers.

But the Father in His grace declined to let the cup of pain and woe pass from Jesus. Christ had no evil for which He should experience pain, yet He was cut off for our transgressions and bruised for our iniquities. He had no offspring, no earthly inheritance, no children, no house, no possessions. But He is indeed now more honored than all His brethren. He has a glorious eternal inheritance: brothers and sisters whom He is not ashamed to call His people. His boundaries have been enlarged to bring in men and women into His kingdom from the north, south, east, and west. Of His glory there shall be no end.

So we should certainly pray like Jabez did, trusting God to transform our native curse into a blessing. But we are to pray remembering God’s promise to conform us to the life of Jesus, whose way to blessing runs through the path of suffering first, glory later. We can pray in His name knowing that He is even now praying for us in heaven. The Father will certainly not decline His request: Jesus will receive all the nations of the earth as His inheritance (Ps. 2:8).

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