From Blessing Decreed to Blessing Indeed:
Some Thoughts on the Prayer of Jabez by Jules Grisham
Jabez was more honorable 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 Chronicles 4:9-10)
A few weeks ago I was reading through a book of Jewish prayers and came upon a remarkable little proverb from the eighteenth century. It goes like this: “Keep two truths in your pocket, and take them out according to the need of the moment. Let one be: ‘For my sake the world was created.’ And the other: ‘I am dust and ashes.’”
I suspect that Jabez was a man who knew in his very being the truth of these two statements. “For my sake the world was created.” Jabez was an honorable man. This is the first thing we are told of him, that he “was more honorable than his brothers.” Here indeed is a man who stands out from the surrounding genealogical lists as one whose honor was such as to merit special comment by the Chronicler, in order that we so many generations hence should still remember him. Jabez is a true child of Israel, a son of the covenant from the royal tribe of Judah, that tribe from whose ranks had arisen the great King David, and from whom in turn would come the true and greatest king, even Jesus Christ. Thus was Jabez an honorable man from an honorable lineage, a man of distinction among God’s chosen people.
Yet… “I am but dust and ashes.” Immediately after learning of his honored status, we are told something which, at first glance, seems powerfully to undercut the entire thrust of our initial take on Jabez. A dark note enters the picture as we read that his mother had named him Jabez “because she bore him in pain.” And for the Hebrew reader this would naturally have drawn attention back to his name, for “Jabez” is in that language a sort of play on the word “pain.” In other words, Jabez’ mother, in the bitterness of pain she had experienced in giving birth to this boy, memorialized her anguish forever in the very naming of her son, such that every time Jabez’ name would be invoked through the course of his life, it would summon to mind the pain he had caused his mother in childbirth.
What a terrible burden this must have been! His very name carried with it a weight of dishonor, of shame, of an unhappy reminder of tragic events in the distant past. And this theme of pain must surely have weighed heavily in his life, because when we read his prayer in verse 10, it concludes by petitioning the Lord that he be kept from pain. So Jabez may have been a man of honor, but he was also a man all too familiar with pain.
This brings us, then, to the first point which today’s passage teaches us, which is that the honorable man, the honorable woman, is familiar with pain. Now, that may seem painfully obvious! But it points to a rich and wonderful truth of our condition. We need to ask the question: Why did the Chronicler include this account in his book? You’ll recall that he was writing to the post-exilic community in Jerusalem, to shore them up as they sought to rebuild their lives and their country after seventy years of exile in the Babylonian Captivity. He was writing to remind a people whose society had been destroyed by foreign armies, whose Temple had been burned, whose kingdom had been toppled, who had been raised either in the painful condition of exile themselves or in the painful circumstances of the restoration, when the Jews who returned to Jerusalem and its environs found themselves weak, defenseless, and surrounded by enemies on all sides. These were people who, like Jabez, had been reared in pain. But, like Jabez, too – and here was the Chronicler’s point – that condition of pain did not have to be their destiny. The Lord was still their God. His covenant promises stood in all their splendor for them to enjoy in renewed covenant faithfulness. Despite the terrible pain of their experiences and circumstances, yet they remained honored of God.
And isn’t this the condition of all humanity, of every one of us? We are born in pain and unto pain. We are beset, inevitably and inexorably, by evils during the course of our life – evils which hound us and cause us pain. This is the curse of Adam, and of our being fallen in him, in the estate of sin unto dying. Like Jabez, who wore his name as a testimony to the burden of that pain, we toil under the burden of that accursed destiny which is ours in Adam. Sooner or later, every one of us comes to know all too well the wisdom gained by experience in this world: which is that “We are but dust and ashes.” But praise God, that’s not the whole story!
Consider the fact that, though Jabez’ mother had called him Pain, yet God called him to Honor. Here is a splendid truth, which when apprehended can liberate the spirit from its sense of bondage to pain’s ultimacy and triumph. We are not bound by the destiny of our births, nor by the unpromising conditions of our rearing, nor even by the pain we’ve caused. Being born of blood to a world of pain is not the end of the matter – at least it need not be. For the Lord has called his people into covenant with him, and those whom he has called, he has honored.
We read in the first chapter of Ephesians of how God the Father “chose us in [Christ] before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before Him,” and that “in love He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself.” This is extraordinary honor! This is God’s blessing decreed for those, born anew of the Spirit, who by grace, through faith, abide in the honored blessings of God’s redeeming covenant.
Thomas Watson, the great Puritan writer and preacher, referred to this being-in-covenant as insigne honoris – a sign, a badge, of honor, imprinted as it were on our very being, a renewing of the glorious image, the bearing of which we were designed for. In short, through no thing we have done, yet in covenant, in Christ, we have been declared honorable. Through faith in the Faithful One, we are declared righteous before God.
Surely, the call of God to honor overrides, overcomes, overawes with magnificent power and splendor the unhappy destiny of our flesh. Though we be called “Pain,” and be seemingly compelled to that end and destiny, God would call us to Christ, and in him, to honor. Praise God for this!
Yet… yet, we are not thus kept from the experience of pain. We must still endure the travails of pain. Though our destiny be secured, though our status with God be reckoned aright, yet we’ve not arrived at that ultimate good end. Though we’ve been declared righteous in status, yet we remain sinners in fact. And it is an always-fact, that the honorable man, the honorable woman, is yet familiar with pain. Indeed: “Keep two truths in your pocket, and take them out according to the need of the moment. Let one be: ‘For my sake the world was created, for I am in union with Christ.’ And the other: ‘I am dust and ashes.’”
But what are we to do with this pain which afflicts us? Given that we enjoy the inestimable honor of reconciliation with God in our union with Christ in the covenant, how yet do we deal with the pain with assaults us with such terrible alacrity? Well, what did Jabez do? Did he sit back with stoic acceptance and ponder, Buddha-like, the inevitability of suffering? No! He prayed. And clearly the Chronicler thought this act so important that he included it in the midst of his genealogical lists, that we would see this as the right act of an honorable man.
Jabez, having caused his mother pain in childbirth and having worn that burdensome name of reproach all the days of his life, nevertheless prayed boldly to the Lord for blessing, and, lo!, he was more honored than all his brothers. And the Chronicler’s point for that post-exilic community of Jews long ago is the same as that for God’s covenant children in all ages: we are urged on the authority of God’s Word to pray, because prayer is a crucial means by which God’s will to bestow blessings upon us is effected.
In other words, as the Lord has called his people, so must his people in turn call on the Lord. Honor may be imputed by God’s revivifying and ingrafting grace, but it is imparted by means of our bold and obedient prayer. Do you see this? Through the agency of our prayers, blessing decreed becomes blessing indeed! In short – and this is the second point which our passage teaches us – the honorable man, the honorable woman, prays for blessing.
Let us look no further for evidence of this great truth than to Jesus himself, the ultimate man of honor – the Son of God, full of grace and truth! – who, surely familiar with pain – he was the Man of Sorrows, the Suffering Servant who bore our sins and infirmities that we might be saved – yet as he faced the ultimate pain-bringing evil, which was death on the Cross though an innocent man – indeed, though the only innocent man – Jesus prayed, lifting his eyes to heaven and saying (this in John chapter 17): “Father, the hour has come; glorify thy Son, that the Son may glorify thee…” And from there forward, he proceeded to pray for his disciples and for the Church in the times which lay ahead. Our Lord himself, the honorable man if ever there was one, was yet, like us, a man familiar with pain, and was further, like we ought to be, a man who prayed to his Father in heaven.
But to this some might reasonably respond, But no. No, wait a minute, now. Our Lord’s prayer was directed toward the benefit of others. It was intercessory prayer. Jabez’ prayer – bless me, enlarge my territory, keep me from evil – is all about himself! It’s a selfish prayer, they might say, and is therefore not quite up to the moral standard of a good, Christian, other-oriented, unselfish-type prayer. They might even go further in their denunciation of Jabez’ presumptuousness in calling upon God for personal blessing, and argue that his prayer reflects more the worldly wisdom of Confucius than that of the Bible – in that his underlying worldview seems to be “What goes around comes around,” so he prays that the pain he’s caused another not come back to cause pain for himself. Harumph, they might add for emphasis. That’s not Christian prayer!
Oh, no? But isn’t that exactly what we do when we approach God as sinners – people who have caused pain all our lives – praying for forgiveness, that the wrath due to us as sinners not come against us, but that our sins be covered by the blood of Christ? Let’s face it: grace is something we desperately need desperately ought to desire. But its very nature – free favor, forgiveness-unto-reconciliation – is selfish. Is this then bad?
Paul shows us how to answer such questions: Certainly not! What does our Lord himself tell us about the nature of the Kingdom, but that it is like a pearl of great price. Sell everything you’ve got, but lay hold of that pearl and guard it with your very life! Share everything you have, but take every care not to cast that pearl away from your possession. Jesus himself teaches us to pray a pretty selfish prayer, when you think about it: “Give us our daily bread. Forgive us our sins. Keep us from evil…” Seen in this perspective, then, Jabez’ prayer begins to look less like the selfish prayer of some deservedly obscure Old Testament figure and more like the obedient prayer for blessing which conforms to the very pattern by which our Lord has instructed us to pray!
Many of you may be aware that a book was published last a few years back, a best-seller called The Prayer of Jabez, which focused on this passage and suggested that we pray the very words of Jabez’ prayer every morning if we desire to receive great blessing. Let me suggest, strongly, that this reading goes too far. The prayer of Jabez which is recorded here in 1 Chronicles 4:10 is not to be used as a sort of mantra – as some formula which when repeated compels the powers that be to issue blessing. That is not Christian prayer. It is not covenantal prayer. Because Christian, covenantal prayer is not about recitations of strings of words, but about the amazing reality of a creature talking to his Creator, drawn in Christ as by the power of the Holy Spirit before the Heavenly Father. The prayer of Jabez does not give us a mantra, but a principle. And the principle is this: For heaven’s sake, and by all means, pray for blessing!
If you want help with the form of how to do this, look to the Lord’s Prayer. Jesus instructs us on how we ought pray to God for blessing. But above all else, do pray for that blessing! When it comes to the ultimate issues of grace and of our access to the Kingdom of Heaven, forget the American virtue of “pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps,” and be bold to ask your Father in heaven for every good thing.
After all, our Lord tells us to Ask, to Seek, and to Knock. Indeed, he says, knock at the door until you dare weary God with your persistence! For such as these, we are told, come the blessings which God would give his children. So, the honorable man, the honorable woman, familiar with and confronted by pain, prays for blessing.
But there’s one final point which our passage teaches us, which is that the honorable man, the honorable woman, in fact receives God’s blessing. Jabez, who had been born in and to pain, was yet bold to pray for blessing, and we read that God granted what he requested.
God desires to bless us. It is his will to bless his children. So by all means turn to him as to your Father. “Or what man is there among you, when his son shall ask him for a loaf, will give him a stone? Or if he shall ask for a fish, he will not give him a snake, will he? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more shall your Father who is in heaven give what is good to those who ask Him!”
And I pray that you apprehend this lovely truth, and that you understand with renewed clarity, that the Christian life is a process and a progress from blessing decreed to blessing indeed; that the Christian life is that by which we come to know in marvelous degrees and increments the broadening vistas of our amazing salvation: by which God the Father chose us before the foundation of the world, God the Son redeemed us at the Cross, and God the Holy Spirit gave us new life, in Christ, in whom and by whom we have abundant life – blessing indeed! – before the Father. We stand, spiritually united to Christ, already declared righteous before God, our end and destination of glory secure. Yet the Kingdom already present is not yet come in its fullness. We remain sinners. And so we strive, slip, scrape, bump, and stumble our way along through all the pain which sin has wrought in this life – but our gaze is affixed to that shining object of our hope, the everlasting rest of the saints and the joyful abiding which awaits us. And our faith is a rope drawing us surely toward that hope, a rope to which we cling tenaciously as we approach that glory which is ours by God’s great love.
We are already saved in Christ, yet we continue to work out our salvation with fear and trembling. We are already adopted as sons of the Living God, yet we await our revelation in fullness as the sons of God in glory. We are already honored as God’s own, but we await the consummation of that honor when Christ shall come again.
Brothers and sisters, “Keep these two truths in your pocket, and take them out according to the need of the moment. Let one be: ‘I am dust and ashes.’ And the other: “For my sake the world was created, for I am in union with Christ.’”