Ordained Servant Online
The Prayer of Jabez: A Berean Look: A Review Article
J. V. Fesko
The Prayer of Jabez: Breaking Through to the Blessed Life, by Bruce H. Wilkinson. Colorado Springs: Multnomah Press, 2000, 96 pages, $9.99.
Prayer is unquestionably a central part of the life of any Christian, or at least it should be. To this end Dr. Bruce Wilkinson several years ago wrote a book entitled The Prayer of Jabez: Breaking Through to the Blessed Life. So, then, should not The Prayer of Jabez, a book encouraging Christians to pray a scriptural prayer, be received with open arms? The answer to this question all depends upon what the book has to say about the one-verse prayer it commends to the reader:
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! (1 Chron. 4.10).
The Prayer of Jabez has sold millions of copies, which at first blush, might lead us to believe that it is orthodox. After all, how can millions of people be wrong? We must not, however, decide matters of doctrine based upon the number of people that line up behind a doctrinal proposition. Rather, we must decide whether a doctrinal proposition holds up to close scrutiny against the teaching of the whole of Scripture.
Therefore, let us carefully consider how Dr. Wilkinson explains this little prayer. We will see that Dr. Wilkinson has failed to interpret properly the prayer of Jabez. We will explore the prayer of Jabez, therefore, in its historical and redemptive-historical contexts, and we will also briefly reflect upon a proper theology of prayer. Let us first briefly survey Dr. Wilkinson's understanding of the prayer before we critique it.
The Contents of the Prayer According to Wilkinson
Dr. Wilkinson opens with the following statement: "I want to teach you how to pray a daring prayer that God always answers. It is briefonly one sentence with four partsand tucked away in the Bible, but I believe it contains the key to a life of extraordinary favor with God" (8). Dr. Wilkinson then spends the rest of the book dissecting the parts of the prayer. The first request is for God's blessing. Wilkinson writes, "Let me tell you a guaranteed byproduct of sincerely seeking his blessing: your life will become marked by miracles. How do I know? Because he promises it, and I've seen it happen in my own!" (24-25).
Wilkinson elsewhere writes, "If Jabez had worked on Wall Street, he might have prayed, 'Lord, increase the value of my investment portfolios'" (31). Dr. Wilkinson then explains that the prayer of Jabez is ultimately a request for God to grant more ministry opportunities: "O God and King, please expand my opportunities and my impact in such a way that I touch more lives for your glory!" (32). The third request is for God's presence and power: "We release God's power to accomplish his will and bring him glory" (48). The last request is for God to keep a person away from evil: "'Stay out of the area of temptation whenever possible,' Jabez would advise, 'but never live in fear of defeat. By God's power, you can keep your legacy of blessing safe'" (74). Now, we must ask, how well has Dr. Wilkinson explained this verse?
Looking at the Prayer in its Context
One of the primary rules of Bible interpretation is examining a verse within its context, because a text out of context is a pretext, which is no text at all. Therefore, to understand rightly the prayer of Jabez, we must examine the context of the passage.
The prayer is found in the midst of a genealogy in the book of I Chronicles, written around the time of the Babylonian exile. God had punished his people by removing them from the promised land. At this point, the people of God had no land and were dwelling in captivity, or possibly beginning to return to the promised land to rebuild the temple under the ministries of Ezra and Nehemiah. This historical context tells us that when Jabez asked God to enlarge his territory, he was not praying the modern equivalent of God blessing one's stock portfolio, nor was he requesting greater opportunities for ministry as Dr. Wilkinson explains. Rather, Jabez was asking God to restore the boundaries of the promised land that the people of God once possessed. In fact, this is one of the main thrusts of the genealogy.
Another factor to consider is that the prayer of Jabez is not included in the genealogy because it was special. A survey of Chronicles shows that Jabez was not the only one blessed through a prayer of faith and trust in God (1 Chron. 5:18-22; 17:16-27; 21:1-22:1; 2 Chron. 6:12-42; 7:12-16; 14:11-13; 18:31; 20:5-30; 30:18-20; 32:20-24; 33:11-13). Rather, victory and safety through prayer is a major theme of Chronicles. One commentator notes, "The name Jabez in the line of Perez apparently raised a difficulty for the Chronicler. Perez was the ancestor of David whose lineage the Chronicler wanted to exalt. Nevertheless, the name Jabez means 'pain' in Hebrew, hardly a flattering name to include in such an exalted lineage. For this reason, the Chronicler introduced his story with the explanation that Jabez was more honorable than his brothers (4:9). His name did not reflect his character. Instead, his mother gave him this name because she bore him in pain (4:9). The reputation of the line of Perez remained intact" (Pratt, 1 & 2 Chronicles, 74). In other words, the Chronicler is showing the triumph of Jabez's faith over his name, not the uniqueness of his prayer. The prayer of Jabez, however, takes on an even greater significance in the light of the advent of Christ.
When we consider the prayer of Jabez in its redemptive-historical context, we gain further illumination. Recall that Jabez's prayer was that God would enlarge his territory, namely that he would return Israel from exile and restore the promised land (cf. 1 Chron. 2:42ff). We know from other portions of Scripture that God's promise to give Abraham the land was ultimately not about obtaining more real estate but about heaven itself. The author of Hebrews tells us that, "By faith," Abraham "was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God" (Heb 11:9-10). So then, given the prayer's redemptive-historical context, Dr. Wilkinson fails to account for the nature of the promised land and what it means in the light of the advent of Christ.
One cannot transpose Jabez's request that God would enlarge his territory into greater financial or material blessings, even if oriented towards noble ends, such as greater ministry opportunities. Rather, one must account for the typological relationship between the promised land, foreshadow, and heaven, the reality. We find Jabez's prayer transposed by the New Testament in terms of the Lord's Prayer, "Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven" (Matt. 6:10). If we pray the prayer of Jabez, we must do so through the Lord's Prayerthat God would advance his kingdom, not our stock portfolios. There are theological considerations to which we can now turn.
The Theology of Prayer
Let us briefly consider three main points about the theology of prayer in relation to principles that Dr. Wilkinson sets forth in his book.
First, Christ did not teach his disciples to pray the prayer of Jabez because it was a specific prayer for a specific contexta request for God to bless his people by restoring the promised land. The Lord's Prayer (Matt. 6:9-13), on the other hand, explicitly states how all Christians should praythe aim is the kingdom of God, not personal financial and material wealth.
Second, Dr. Wilkinson's explanation of how the prayer of Jabez works, nullifies the sovereignty of God. Note who is in control when Wilkinson writes, "God's bounty is limited only by us, not by his resources, power, or willingness to give. ... What counts is knowing who you want to be and asking for it ... Through a simple, believing prayer, you can change your future. You can change what happens one minute from now" (29; emphasis mine). Is this how we are supposed to pray? Note the emphasis upon the first person personal pronouns. Is prayer about being who we want to be or is it about God teaching us to desire his will and in response God conforming us to the image of his Son?
Third, according to Dr. Wilkinson's logic, we will miss out on God's blessing unless we pray the specific prayer of Jabez. This view nullifies the work of the Holy Spirit. What if a person does not know what or how to pray in a given situation? Paul tells us that "the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words" (Rom. 8:26). If Dr. Wilkinson is right, then the Holy Spirit is hamstrung if we do not use the correct set of words. If Paul is right, then a person can cry out to God in desperation, in the absence of wisdom not knowing what to say, and the Holy Spirit will intercede for him. It goes without saying that the Holy Spirit speaking through Paul is correct and that Dr. Wilkinson, while well-intended, is in error.
While Dr. Wilkinson has undoubtedly brought his book forth with sincere motives, it seems to reflect a current trend towards fortune-cookie spirituality. Instead, we should study the Scriptures like good Bereans so that we would know and love Christ. Let us therefore look to Christ in prayer and ask that his kingdom would come, not that our personal wealth would increase.
John V. Fesko is the pastor of Geneva Orthodox Presbyterian Church Woodstock, Georgia. Ordained Servant, November 2007.