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In Defense of Jabez
First Things ^ | 10/01 | Phillip Zaleski

Posted on 10/29/2001 6:59:00 AM PST by Aquinasfan

In Defense of Jabez

Philip Zaleski


“Read not the times, read the eternities,” said Henry David Thoreau. It isn’t often that the two realms intersect, but they have this year—and not only in the New York Times, but in news media across America—with the runaway success of Bruce Wilkinson’s The Prayer of Jabez: Breaking Through to the Blessed Life (Multnomah, 2000). The Prayer of Jabez, as almost everyone knows by now, proclaims the blessings that derive from reciting an obscure prayer buried in a genealogical litany of, well, biblical proportions in the driest book in scripture, 1 Chronicles. The pertinent text, in the New King James Version favored by Wilkinson, reads:

Now Jabez was more honorable than his brothers; and his mother called his name Jabez, saying, “Because I bore him in pain.” And Jabez called on the God of Israel, saying, “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, that I may not cause pain!” So God granted him what he requested (1 Chronicles 4:9-10).

Wilkinson first recited the prayer as a young seminary student uncertain about his future. The results, he writes, “revolutionized my life,” launching him on a thirty-year career as a minister and writer. They have also spawned a mini-industry of audiotapes, gift items, spin-off books (The Prayer of Jabez Journal, The Prayer of Jabez for Teens, etc.), and a website,, packed with accounts of “miracles” by those rescued or revitalized by saying the prayer. One correspondent writes of the prayer’s role in foiling a plane hijacking, another of using the prayer to comfort a child scared by a mouse.

The Prayer of Jabez is, if nothing else, an astute blend of literary archaeology, evangelical cheerleading, and attractive packaging. That Wilkinson brought the Jabez prayer to public attention is admirable enough; like Poe’s purloined letter, it has been in plain sight for thousands of years, translated into hundreds of languages as a portion of the most widely read book in the world, and yet it has remained utterly invisible. Even the Church Fathers, exegetical Argonauts who explored the vast seas of the Old Testament inch-by-inch, overlooked it; I found not a single mention of it in the standard thirty-eight-volume Edinburgh edition of the Ante-Nicene, Nicene, and Post-Nicene Fathers.

Wilkinson has no interest in scholarly analysis; he uses each of the prayer’s four petitions as a springboard for an affable, upbeat sermon whose key message is that God wishes to “release His miraculous power in your life now. And for all eternity, He will lavish on you His honor and delight.” As the 7.4 million copies sold to date indicate, the public has rushed to accept this divine outpouring with opened arms and wallets.

The success of The Prayer of Jabez is the major publishing story of the year, testimony to our intense hunger for a fruitful relationship with God. But of equal interest, I believe, is the extensive (but by no means universal) condemnation of the book by the news media, the intelligentsia, and the professional theological community. Most of the objections take one of four basic forms:

Discomfort with evangelical religion. This is easy enough to spot. One sees it, for example, in the opening sentence of many of the news reports. Thus the Washington Post begins its story in mock-preacher style, asking readers to “Please bow your heads.” The New York Times Book Review’s essay starts in similar fashion: “Our text today is The Prayer of Jabez.” Such openings, blending condescension and wit, put the reader on notice: what follows should be read with one eyebrow arched. That the national media have a hard time with evangelical stories is scarcely a revelation, but it should be borne in mind when analyzing the widespread opposition to Wilkinson’s book.

Discomfort with Wilkinson’s style. Only those with a tin ear can defend Wilkinson’s way with words; his prose is the stuff of billboards (“Friend, have you ever seen the Holy Spirit break through emotional and spiritual barriers right before your eyes?”), as pushy and gawky as a down-on-his-luck Bible salesman. But this is a sin against style, not against God; it says nothing about the efficacy of the Jabez prayer or the fundamental integrity of Wilkinson’s message.

Discomfort with petitionary prayer. Here lies the heart of most assaults on The Prayer of Jabez. A number of liberal theologians object to the very notion of petitionary prayer, considering it to be a “low” form of prayer and contending that God, who is not given to caprice, has better things to do than cater to our transient whims. Moreover, the argument goes, petitionary prayer is redundant, as God already knows our most intimate needs and desires. The answer to these objections, of course, is that no less an authority than Jesus of Nazareth, when asked by his disciples, “Lord, teach us to pray,” responded with a paradigmatic set of petitions, at least some of which (“give us this day our daily bread”; “deliver us from evil”) bear comparison with the Jabez prayer. It’s worth noting, too, that prayers of petition appear prominently in every religion (even nontheistic forms of Buddhism), for every religious community instinctively senses that such prayers have a legitimate place in worship and that they (sometimes) work.

Many critics, however, point their fingers not at petition in general, but squarely at the second clause of the Jabez prayer: “enlarge my territory.” This request, especially in light of Wilkinson’s rather ham-handed declaration that “if Jabez had worked on Wall Street, he might have prayed, ‘Lord, increase the value of my investment portfolios,’” has raised the specter of Reverend Ike and his ilk; thus the London Times headline of May 10, “Please Lord, make me rich.” Here theologians go for the knockout, declaring the Jabez prayer and its disciples to be crude, self-serving, and narcissistic.

But these punches miss the mark. Wilkinson emphasizes throughout his book that while praying the Jabez prayer we must want “nothing more and nothing less than what God wants for us.” That is: “not my will, but Thine, be done” (Luke 22:42). In the book and on the website, the vast majority of answered prayers have nothing to do with personal aggrandizement and everything to do with bringing peace and goodwill to others, usually by spreading the gospel. We hear testimony, for example, from a worried mother who discovers that “enlarge my territory” means that her kids will accompany her to Sunday School. This entails, of course, a more-than-literal interpretation of “territory,” which brings to mind those Church Fathers mentioned above. Surely, if they had noticed the prayer of Jabez, they would have offered allegorical, analogical, and symbolic interpretations in addition to a literal reading; they too might have argued that “enlarge my territory,” especially when voiced by an “honorable” man such as Jabez, meant “enlarge the glory of God.”

As for those few who recite the Jabez prayer, or any prayer, out of selfish motives, one trusts that if the prayer is unworthy, God will not answer it. One also prays that those who ask blessings for themselves will do the same for their neighbors. It should be noted, however, that the impulse to ask God for help—for success on a school test, a marriage proposal, a commercial venture—is natural, healthy, and hardly limited to our reportedly narcissistic culture. Consider, for example, this prayer for success in gathering seaweed, collected in the nineteenth century on a remote Scottish isle by the peripatetic anthropologist Alexander Carmichael and included in his Carmina Gadelica:

The people watch and hope and pray for the coming of seaweed, and are anxious at the prospect of impending famine. When the seaweed comes they rejoice and sing hymns of praise to the gracious God of the sea who has heard their prayers:

Seaweed being cast on shore,
Bestow, Thou Being of bestowal;
Produce being brought to wealth,
O Christ, grant me my share!

Discomfort with the promised results of the prayer. Few commentators have addressed this issue, and yet I believe it is the only serious objection to The Prayer of Jabez. “God really does have unclaimed blessings waiting for you,” writes Wilkinson, and few who believe in God and His love for mankind will disagree. But what sort of blessings? Christianity teaches that our final destiny is holiness: “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). This perfection is not won without suffering and sacrifice, as the testimony of two thousand years of saintly attainment bears witness. The Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it succinctly: “There is no holiness without renunciation and spiritual battle. Spiritual progress entails the ascesis and mortification that gradually lead to living in the peace and joy of the Beatitudes.”

The Prayer of Jabez hints at the mysterious value of suffering, for instance in Wilkinson’s warnings against spiritual pride, but the message is never spelled out. The abiding assumption seems to be that “blessings” means worldly wealth and happiness, albeit in the service of God. But who would hogtie the Almighty in this way? Every spring the Church celebrates the feast day of Justin Martyr, whose very name proclaims the redemptive suffering bestowed by God. Blessings, it seems, can come in many forms. The Bible doesn’t tell us if Jabez had undergone a similar trial of suffering and self-sacrifice, but curiously enough, his name, like Justin’s, strongly suggests it. A number of scholars have pointed out that Jabez (y‘btz) is a play on b‘tzb, the Hebrew word for pain. As Sara Japhet unpacks the prayer in her I & II Chronicles: A Commentary (1993), the boy’s given name was actually Jazeb, which his mother distorted in “an intentional mispronunciation . . . as an urgent plea to God to avert the name’s inherent dangers.”

Thus Jabez, a man whose adopted name constitutes in itself a petitionary prayer and who, despite the affliction of his accursed birth-name, grows “more honorable than his brothers”—that is to say, closer to holiness. By what means could Jabez’s virtue have grown, if not by the inevitable path of the saints? God has blessed Jabez and granted him his prayer, but this blessing must have entailed genuine metanoia, with its concomitant suffering. As Kierkegaard reminds us, “Prayer does not change God, but it changes him who prays.” So, too, I suspect, the Jabez prayer may change us all, in ways easy or hard to swallow, but always to the greater glory of God.


Philip Zaleski is currently writing, with his wife Carol Zaleski, The Language of Paradise: Prayer in Human Life and Culture, to be published by Houghton Mifflin in 2003.

TOPICS: Culture/Society; Miscellaneous
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I have to admit, I was pretty skeptical of the whole "prayer of Jabez" phenomenon. I had kind of lumped it in with name-it-and-claim-it-ism. But the author makes the case for the prayer very nicely.
1 posted on 10/29/2001 6:59:00 AM PST by Aquinasfan
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To: Aquinasfan
Regardless of how it may come across, the Word of God does not come back void. I'm praising God that many who have never read the Word may have read this little book. While we don't want folks to treat God like a celestial bellhop, perhaps some will actually take the time to get to know the One to whom they are praying this little prayer.
2 posted on 10/29/2001 7:01:47 AM PST by anniegetyourgun
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To: Aquinasfan
Problems With the Prayer of Jabez --Berit Kjos
3 posted on 10/29/2001 7:04:08 AM PST by spycatcher
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To: anniegetyourgun
I have a friend that has come back to the Lord as a result of this book.
Give God the glory!
4 posted on 10/29/2001 7:11:53 AM PST by pubmom
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To: anniegetyourgun
This is the best critique I've read on the subject... Do You Jabez?

"...Dr. Wilkinson encourages folks to pray Jabez's prayer VERBATIM EVERYDAY (p. 11). This is contrary to Jesus' instructions of "when you pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do." Wilkinson seems to be selling Jabez's prayer as a scripturally sanctioned incantation that can guarantee blessings. So, you decide - Who's instructions on prayer are you going to follow: Dr. Bruce Wilkinson's or Jesus'?"

"...To Dr. Wilkinson, the key isn't God's choice to answer Jabez's prayer. To him, the key is that Jabez stumbled upon the RIGHT FORMULA for asking things of God. Wilkinson reverses the cause and effect and declares that Jabez was honorable because he figured out the right way to pray."

"...If any good is to come from the Jabez phenomenon, it will be that people will spend more time in prayer to God. "

"...I'm not concerned that the book has been printed or that people actually believe the things in it. I'm concerned because we're seeing the camel's nose of what I perceive as heretical beliefs poking into the tents of formerly sound mainline denominations and independent churches. Dr. Dobson's endorsement has caused the book to literally fly of the shelves and I think he has given creditability to what would have previously been denounced as a prosperity gospel or "name-it and claim-it" theology. For me though, the real tragedy of Bruce Wilkinson's book will be in the carnage created as desperate souls follow his advice and pray Jabez's prayer for a month and see no change or things getting worse around them.

The book has no discussion of what to do when the prayer seems to fail (and a child dies, a marriage fails, a job is lost or healing does not come, etc.). Many of them will turn to themselves seeking the reason. Wilkinson seems to have guaranteed that the prayer will work and the implication must be that a failed prayer means failed faith or something else wrong with the individual in question. They will hurt and they will feel alone and like spiritual failures, unable to confess what they're going through to a church that has embraced The Prayer Of Jabez. Many who fail to see the promised results will turn from God thinking that Christianity is a sham. They will question God's existence or His faithfulness because, in my opinion, the book teaches a shallow 'results-oriented' faith that is supposed to guarantee success as a opposed to a deep, abiding, loving relationship with our Father that will sustain us through heartaches, failure and success. So that there will be people there to pick up the pieces, please pray that God will use you when the time comes."

"...I would like to close by asking Dr. Wilkinson and his followers a few questions: Would the Apostle Paul have been beheaded if he had prayed Jabez's prayer? Would the Apostle Peter have been crucified upside down if he had Jabezed? And would John the Beloved have been exiled to the Isle of Patmos if he had possessed his very own copy of The Prayer Of Jabez?"

5 posted on 10/29/2001 7:16:21 AM PST by spycatcher
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To: Aquinasfan
I'm curious how reciting this rote prayer to "activate" certain heavenly blessings, is any different from the same sort of thing practiced in certain pagan religions, like Santeria.

They, too, think you can recite certain formulaic prayers, to bring the favor of the "saints" that they have synthesized from both west African mythology and Roman Catholicism.

6 posted on 10/29/2001 7:17:54 AM PST by Illbay
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To: spycatcher
That's a good article, spycatcher. The fact is I don't see how muttering the words of a prayer by rote--a prayer that is after all merely an English translation of Hebrew, I believe--is going to "bring down the blessings on your head," unless you believe in magic.

The fact is that we have to put some work into it. The Lord does not make any distinction about the order of words in personal prayer. "The Lord looks on the heart."

7 posted on 10/29/2001 7:23:38 AM PST by Illbay
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To: Illbay
I read it in the latest Spiritual Counterfeits Project newsletter and luckily found a Googled cache of it elsewhere on the web.
8 posted on 10/29/2001 7:30:14 AM PST by spycatcher
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To: Aquinasfan
“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, that I may not cause pain!”

It's sort of interesting that the last clause is translated so only in the New King James Version* and that in his book he doesn't discuss it at all. Still, I don't see anything wrong with praying that G-d will increase our territory. Of course, I'm thinking of territory as that which lies within my control. There are all sorts of areas in my life that I'd like to have more fully under my control: disciplined use of my time and abilities, restraining myself from a tendency to despair when things get tough, doing what has to be done regardless of how I feel, etc..

*It doesn't matter how much one paraphrases it, the Textus Receptus is still an inferior instrument being derived from later and more corrupt manuscripts (even though the beauty of the English in the KJV is fantastically wonderful--though dated and, hence, to that degree unintelligible). People have known this for over 400 years. By the way, the name "textus receptus" got its start as an advertising blurb for a particular edition translated from a certain set of manuscripts. It stuck and conferred upon these documents an authority they didn't at all deserve.
9 posted on 10/29/2001 7:43:16 AM PST by aruanan
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To: pubmom
I have a friend that has come back to the Lord as a result of this book.

Glad to hear it.

10 posted on 10/29/2001 7:43:39 AM PST by Aquinasfan
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To: Aquinasfan
Matthew 8:20
Jesus replied, "Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head."

Luke 20
You know the commandments: `Do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honor your father and mother.'"
21 "All these I have kept since I was a boy," he said.
22 When Jesus heard this, he said to him, "You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me."
23 When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was a man of great wealth.
24 Jesus looked at him and said, "How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!
25 Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."

Luke 9 23
Then he said to them all: "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.

The problem I have with praying for wealth and riches are these teachings of my Lord Jesus, who didn't even have a place to lay his head on this earth. What makes me or anyone else better than The Son of God, Himself? Taking up my cross and denying myself just doesn't sound like rolling in the lap of luxury to me.

11 posted on 10/29/2001 7:55:56 AM PST by Walkin Man
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To: Aquinasfan
When hearing of all the wonderful blessings people are receiving I wonder this ....

Could it be that these blessings were happening in these peoples' lives all along and there were not aware of them because they were not 'praying for a blessing' specifically in their minds?

Could it be that since they began to pray a prayer that they have become more cognizant of the blessings that were already in their lives but did not take the time be be aware of them?

I am the grateful recipient of blessings daily. From just waking in the morning full of grateful thoughts to my spouse being blessed with a bonus at work.

They are all blessings from the Lord.

Perhaps, we all need to encounter life with gratitude to recognize our blessings, the blessings that were already there and those to come.

12 posted on 10/29/2001 7:59:44 AM PST by zeaal
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To: Aquinasfan; CCWoody; the_doc; Uriel1975; RnMomof7
I much prefer this commentary of the "Prayer of Jabez" to that of Wilkinson:

The Prayer of Jabez -C.H. Spurgeon

13 posted on 10/29/2001 8:05:54 AM PST by Jerry_M
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To: zeaal
I absolutely agree with you. I am currently in group that is doing the Prayer of Jabez Bible Study. What I have seen is exactly what you have said.

There are many Christians who go through life with their heads down. They don't look up to see God's hand in all they do. I believe this prayer was so important to Jabez because of his birth. What is sad to me is that this book is so enlightening to so many Christians. I mean, how can so many Christians go throught life not knowing the absolute love of God and his desire to give good gifts? The greatest of which is a relationship with Him in which we fulfill His purpose with our lives through whatever means He sees fit.

14 posted on 10/29/2001 8:14:29 AM PST by KsSunflower
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To: Jerry_M
I too felt that Spurgeon took a deeper,and more meaningful look at those obscure verses..

You know Jerry,the depth of God's word never ceases to amaze me

Man can take one verse and meditiate on it for days,no weeks and have God do a mighty work in His life through that one verse...

His Word is sharper than any double edged sword..We always ask,"May God bless the reading of His word".....and He does!

15 posted on 10/29/2001 8:17:59 AM PST by RnMomof7
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To: Jerry_M; the_doc; RnMomof7; Uriel1975
We had one of our elders in last week for a sermon. He spoke about the prayer of Jabez: Oh that Thou wouldest bless me indeed and enlarge my borders... from the context of Psalm 127:
Except the LORD build the house, they labor in vain that build it. Except the LORD keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain.

It is vain for you to rise up early, to sit up late, to eat the bread of sorrows; for so He giveth His beloved sleep.

Lo, children are a heritage of the LORD, and the fruit of the womb is His reward.

As arrows are in the hand of a mighty man, so are the children of the youth.

Happy is the man that hath his quiver full of them; they shall not be ashamed, but they shall speak with the enemies at the gate.

I enjoyed it very much that he spoke of the blessing as a heritage from God. He talked about his children and his spiritual children. Still, I think I like Spurgeon's better.
16 posted on 10/29/2001 8:19:04 AM PST by CCWoody
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To: Jerry_M
Thanks for the Spurgeon link
17 posted on 10/29/2001 8:19:56 AM PST by spycatcher
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To: CCWoody
Happy is the man that hath his quiver full of them; they shall not be ashamed, but they shall speak with the enemies at the gate.

A quiver holds 7 arrows..this mom of 7 would like to atest to the truth of that Psalm!

18 posted on 10/29/2001 8:28:44 AM PST by RnMomof7
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To: spycatcher
A lot of people seem to be reading analyses of Wilkinson's book, rather than the book. The Prayer of Jabez is scarcely longer than the critiques, so I suggest some of you read it.

I read it, and while I don't pray it, I saw no harm in it. The problematical enlarge my territory line, as tought by Wilkinson, does not refer to material possesions and stock portfolios. He meant, rather to pray for the enlargement of one's territory of influence on behalf of God.

It's a pity that rags like The Enquirer portray the book as a "rags-to-riches prayer, but that simply is not the case. Jabez is not the most profound book I've ever read, but I can see where it has value for some.

19 posted on 10/29/2001 8:38:30 AM PST by Sans-Culotte
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To: Aquinasfan
Merchandising... thats all it is.

Gotta run, i'll look at this thread later.

20 posted on 10/29/2001 8:42:26 AM PST by jude24
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