A few years ago the small book The Prayer of Jabez became a runaway hit. It sold nine million copies and made the New York Times bestseller list. The book also sparked criticism from some who accused its author of promoting a kind of prosperity gospel.
Jabez and his prayer are included in today’s genealogy. A careful reading indicates that the point of this prayer is not to provide a formula for guaranteed success or prosperity but to give testimony to the redeeming power of God’s grace. At his birth, Jabez’s mother gave him an unfortunate name, apparently a kind of pun based on a similar sounding Hebrew word for pain (v. 9). It might have reflected her experience with a difficult birth. The statement in the text that Jabez was “more honorable than his brothers” could, however, point to an additional reason for her pain. Apparently Jabez’s brothers brought shame to the family. Perhaps she expected this child to do the same.
Rather than lead a life of dishonor and pain that his name seemed to predict, Jabez asked for God’s hand of blessing. He framed his request in two parts. First, he asked God to enlarge his territory. This is not stated as a demand but as a plea that reflected God’s promise to give Israel the land. Second, he asked God to keep him from harm so that he would be “free from pain” (v. 10). The language could refer to physical pain or emotional sorrow, and probably both are in view.
The secret to the success of this prayer is not found in some magic formula of wording but in the God to whom it is addressed. Its tone is one of faith, which recognizes that the answer is dependent upon God’s power and His will.