The Prayer of Jabez

In the prison bible study we were working through 1 Chronicles and we came to the prayer of Jabez:
1 Chronicles 4.9-10 (NKJV)
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.
A lot of you, when you hear "the prayer of Jabez," think about the best-selling Christian book The Prayer of Jabez: Breaking Through to the Blessed Life by Bruce Wilkinson. The Prayer of Jabez took the evangelical world by storm in 2000 when it was first published. But it also drew a fair amount of criticism.

Specifically, some felt that Wilkinson took the phrase in the prayer "Bless me, and enlarge my territory" in a prosperity gospel direction. You pray the "prayer of Jabez" so that God might bring you success and good things in life--the expansion of your "territory."

But that's not how the men in the prison study heard the prayer of Jabez. They heard something quite different.

The men didn't focus at all on the "expand my territory" line. Rather, they were drawn to the fact that Jabez means pain (or sounds like pain in Hebrew).

A child named pain.

Apparently named so because of the pain he caused his mother in childbirth: "His mother called his name Jabez, saying, 'Because I bore him in pain.'"

Given the life histories of the men in the study, they could identify with a child named pain.

And the child named pain grows up to pray a prayer about pain. A prayer that he might be protected from pain or that he might not be the cause of any more pain.

There appears to be some interpretive ambiguity on this point. Most translations have the prayer being a request for protection from pain and harm:
that you would keep me from hurt and harm

that you would keep me from harm so that it might not bring me pain

keep me from harm so that I will be free from pain 
That seems to be the consensus view, that the one named pain requests to be protected from pain.

But for some reason, the New King James Version goes against the flow and gives a different meaning:
that I may not cause pain
That might be a bad translation, but most of the guys in the study carry the NKJV so that was the line that most of them read in the prayer of Jabez. And that was the line that most affected them. Most profoundly affected them.

A prayer that I might not cause any more pain.

These men have caused a lot of pain. A lot of pain. A pain that goes on and on. In the lives of their victims. In the lives of their loved ones and families. In their own lives.

More, it's a daily struggle not to cause more pain. To not add pain upon pain.

Such a great, sad, awful, soul-crushing weight of pain.

These men, their name could be Jabez. Their name is Jabez.

And the prayer of Jabez that night in the prison was not "expand my territory." The prayer of Jabez was something different. Something full of sadness, loss, shame, regret, guilt and sorrow.

I pray, Dear God, that I might not cause any more pain.

This was the prayer of the children of pain.

This was the prayer of Jabez.

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20 thoughts on “The Prayer of Jabez”

  1. Thanks--this is great. When I was a kid I read Wilkinson and didn't get the "prosperity gospel"--more of a plea, help me not be a failure, help my life to count for something, help something I do succeed. That doesn't sound like a bad prayer to me either.

    I now want to check the Hebrew/ commentaries and figure out why the NKJV goes this way.

  2. I love that translation and your application. It makes me reflect on the connection between the harm that is often caused by expanding territory. Even if the precise translation is dubious (I have no idea if it is), it does a much better job of reflecting the arc of scripture and the recurring arc of so many stories in scripture.

  3. It seems that the underlying Hebrew to v10 contains one of those ambiguities that are not resolvable with our present understanding of the text. It's either possessive, with Jabez causing pain or accusative with Jabez on the receiving end.

  4. You reminded me of Psalm 51, it offers comfort to those who view it from their perspective.

  5. I really enjoy your posts that share insights from the prison Bible study (like the one . "Bad translation" to me seems irrelevant to the work that the Holy Spirit seems to do when we read a narrative like this and find a heart plea that helps us communicate with God. And by hearing this story (or interpretation or what-have-you), I am moved to ask God to help me, that I not cause any more pain, and that any of my growth or progress would not be at the expense of anyone else. This is not so easy, and seems like God's help would have to be at work to make it possible.

    Thank these fellas for helping me make sense of a prayer that I was not too sure about when I just heard the blessed life type of interpretation.

  6. It's actually an odd construction, and gets treated in the grammars. Most of them concur with the majority translation, but they regard this as a slight exception to the normal grammar--based on the "context." So it's a wash.

    Specifically, it's one of those gerund-type infinitives in Hebrew; Jabez is praying that God act to prevent "my harming." Does this mean "my [act of] harming" or "my [experience of] harming"? The preceding phrase is also ambiguous, where he asks God "to act to prevent badness." "Keep me from evil" is a good translation, but it isn't clear whether this means doing evil or experiencing harm.

    An OT scholar would let the weight fall on the well-attested practice of praying for protection from evil and from pain. But the Psalms do have "keep me from incurring guilt" as a parallel to the way NKJV renders this.

  7. Thank you. It really hit me hard as well. So glad you like these posts. I feel compelled to write them so it's nice to know the stories resonate.

  8. I read that book and got a lot out of it at the time, but in my mind, the territory that I thought of was the souls of people I love, their inclusion in the kingdom of heaven. I am no scholar, just a person. But, I love this write-up. My heart goes out to those prisoners, because even if I'm not technically a criminal, I have caused pain and was born in pain. I think we all cause pain, and that is a deep longing - to never cause pain. I pray those prisoners can be blessed. Thank you for sharing.

  9. Reading the prayer in this post the line about not causing anymore pain also jumped out at me. Thank you for this post and a different perspective on this prayer.

  10. Thanks, Richard. You have just rehabilitated a prayer that I had all but abandoned because of the negative associations with Wilkinson's book. A truly beautiful post.

  11. Grateful to have heard this perspective to balance things. Being somewhere in-between the places of luxuriously prosperous, and a child of pain, I can taste a humble message of desiring to build on his kingdom with joy in suffering.

  12. My thought is that it is when we are born in and receive pain that we hurt others and the cry is for freedom and deliverance from this corrupt cycle. Praise be to Christ who steps into our humanity and releases his divinity! Remember we are dealing with a two edged sword, so it is not merely one or the other, black or white, but usually Yes and More!

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