People journeying to southern California either by car or by airplane have to cross hundreds of miles of barren desert. And those traveling east from California to Arizona or Nevada or places beyond have to do the same. People fortunate enough to look down on the desolate waste from the air-conditioned comfort of a plane can see in all directions. For the most part the barrenness of the landscape is broken only by hills that are devoid of growth. Only occasionally does one see a cluster of trees and the reflection of the sun's rays on the placid surface of a small lake. Otherwise there is a monotonous sameness that is depressing.
In like manner, the reader of the First Book of Chronicles faces nine chapters of genealogies. It is an almost uninterrupted record of "begats" and those who were begotten. To the Jewish reader, however, these chapters are like taking a walk among the graves of the honored dead who lie buried in a vast national cemetery, for they are all his or her relatives.
These chapters can be outlined as follows:
The Royal Line of King David (1:1-9:44)
For those of us who are Gentiles and find these genealogical tables boring, there is an unexpected blessing. It is to be found in 1 Chronicles 4:9-10. There we come upon a small "oasis." All of a sudden the seemingly endless chronological record is interrupted to make mention of a man named Jabez. He appears unexpectedly and without any reference to his father.
And Jabez [was] more honorable than his brothers. And his mother called his name Jabez, saying, "Because I bore [him] in sorrow." And Jabez called on the God of Israel, saying, "Oh that (lit. if) You would bless me indeed and make my border larger, and [that] Your hand would be with me, and [that] You would keep me from evil that it may not grieve me!"
And God gave what he asked.
The name Jabez comes from the same root as the word for "pain" or "sorrow," and we might just as easily translate verse 9 as "And Sorrowful [was] more honorable than his brothers. And his mother called him 'Sorrowful," saying, 'Because I bore him in sorrow.'"
We may not think this a very appropriate name for someone to carry through life, but Jabez' story has been of encouragement to all who suffer pain and have had to endure adversity. The scant information about him may be summarized as follows:
The words that introduce Jabez to us describe him as an honorable man. This indicates that over time his character had been tested in the furnace of affliction and he had been refined by the process. In other words, he had not succumbed to the vicissitudes of life, but had triumphed over the difficulties he faced. And he had done so without giving way before adversity or compromising his beliefs.
How significant was the life of this seemingly insignificant individual? When Jerome translated the Bible into Latin in the 4th century A.D., he asked some rabbis if there was a connection between the man named Jabez and the place near Bethlehem called Jabez (1 Chronicles 2:55; after all, it is unusual to call the place where people live "the Village of Sorrow" or "Pain Town"). Their response was affirmative. They explained that Jabez, after much diligent study of the Bible, had risen to become a doctor of the Law. He gathered about him scribes who made copies of the Scriptures so that God's people living in the towns and villages of Judah might have their own scrolls of His Word. From these scrolls the elders could read to the people the stories of the Lord's dealings with those generations that had preceded them.
We have no means of knowing if the rabbis were correct in their understanding of Jabez' contribution to the spiritual life of God's people. We do know that the word translated "honorable" is kabod, meaning, "to be heavy." This does not mean that Jabez was overweight. The word is used figuratively of a person's reputation. When people spoke of him, it was with respect. He was a man of integrity. His word could be trusted. He was just and equitable in his business dealings. And, in his social contacts with others, he would not be a party to slander or gossip. We are not surprised to note, therefore, that he became an influential man in his community.
Because the text contrasts Jabez with his brothers, there exists the possibility that he was the youngest in the family. If he had been the oldest son, there would have been no need to even mention his younger brothers, for the firstborn was automatically given respect. This respect diminished with each son until the last to be born was deemed to be the one of least importance (cf. what is said of David in 1 Samuel 16:1-13).
Next we read about Jabez' mother. But why, at the time of her son's birth, did she give him the name "Sorrowful"? Did his name refer to the pain of childbirth or to something else?
We do not wish for one instant to minimize the pain associated with the birth of a child (cf. Genesis 3:16), and it is possible that Jabez' delivery was particularly difficult, but it is most unusual for a mother to give her son such a name (cf. Christ's words in John 16:21). It seems preferable to conclude that Jabez' mother gave him the name "Sorrowful" because of the kind of things she believed would be true of his life.
This has led others to conclude that when Jabez was born his mother saw that he was deformed in some way. Many who have borne some physical limitation know what it is like to be the object of practical jokes or the butt of callused humor. And all too often they suffer rejection at the hands of their peers. Those in this kind of situation have drawn comfort from Jabez' life and experiences. His triumph over adversity has encouraged them to persevere through the difficulties they face.
Helen Keller is an example of such perseverance. Soon after she was born she suffered from a high fever. The fever did not last for very long, but it left her blind and deaf. This caused her mother considerable anguish and she may have wondered what would become of her daughter. Refusing to be mastered by adversity, Helen taught herself Braille and read everything she could find. Later she met a teacher named Anne Sullivan who, with much patience, taught Helen how to speak. In the course of time Helen graduated from Radcliffe College (now a part of Harvard University). She then began to travel with Anne Sullivan and gave lectures all over the world pleading for those who shared her disabilities to be given a chance to become useful citizens.
There is a third explanation, however, that carries considerable weight. With no mention being made of Jabez' father, the biblical writer may well be implying that his father was dead. If this is the case, then Jabez' mother may have lamented the loss of the love of her life and the fact that her son would have to grow to manhood without the involvement, modeling and instruction of a father. But this raises the question, When did her husband die? And why was it necessary for Jabez to pray that the Lord would enlarge the size of his farm?
As we read these verses, it is quite possible that Jabez' father had been killed by a band of Amalekites who had chosen to raid the part of the Negev (or Southland) where this family lived. These wily nomads made a habit of sweeping down on some unsuspecting farm or village, killing anyone who opposed them, and driving off the sheep and cattle. If Jabez' father had been killed by these raiders from the desert in the first few days of his wife's pregnancy, she may have found herself a widow before she knew that she was carrying another child. Within a day or two of her husband's death the land he possessed would have been divided among his sons. There was no such thing as probate in those days (with courts taking a year or two to disburse a deceased person's assets), and the allocation of the land among her husband's sons would have taken place almost immediately. All that was needed was for the division of the property to be rehearsed in front of the elders of the village who acted as witnesses.
If this reconstruction is accurate, then the estate of Jabez' father could have been settled before Jabez' mother knew that she was pregnant. And it would have been eight-plus months before the family would have known if the child she was carrying was a boy or a girl. And once it was known that she had borne a son, it would still have been twelve years before he would have been treated as an adult and be able to make transactions accordingly. By that time each of his older brothers would have developed his inheritance, and it is unlikely that they would willingly give up what each intended to give to his own children when he died.
The grief of Jabez' mother at the birth of her youngest son may have been occasioned by the fact that Jabez would have no inheritance within the tribe of Judah. In other words, he would be persona non grata – a person without standing in the community, and no family in their tribe would give their daughter to him in marriage for he would not be able to support a wife and children.
The early fears of Jabez' mother would have been reinforced over and over again as she overheard conversations in the market place or at the village well, or saw her son face unjust criticism or opposition. There is no pain like the pain of rejection (with the loneliness that often accompanies it), and Jabez' mother probably anticipated the pain she believed her son would experience. And so, to try and alleviate his suffering, she may have approached Jabez' older brothers with the request that he be given some land to call his own.
If the land Jabez' father had possessed was again subdivided, with Jabez being given a very small portion, then it would explain why on attaining manhood he needed to enlarge the size of his inheritance. On the other hand, Jabez may have acquired a small parcel as a result of thrift and hard work. However he came by it, it was inadequate for his needs – certainly insufficient to raise a crop of either wheat or barley, and far too small for sheep or cattle to graze on. The need for him to enlarge the size of his farm, therefore, was obvious. And so he prayed to the Lord:
"Oh that You would bless me indeed and make my border larger, and [that] Your hand would be with me, and [that] You would keep me from evil, that it may not hurt me!"
It is often in our extremity that we turn to the Lord and seek His help. But wasn't Jabez' prayer selfish? And what about the way it begins (in the Hebrew text the first word is ʿim, "if," implying a conditional element, "If you will do such-and-such... then I'll do such-and-such." But his prayer lacks the expected conclusion and so the ʿim is better translated "Oh...").
As to Jabez' prayer, let us note first of all that he prayed to the God of Israel. He petitioned the One who had entered into a covenant with Abraham and promised him the land of Canaan for a possession (Genesis 12:1-3; 15:18-21; etc.). And so, in contrast to many of the people of Judah, who had already begun worshiping idols, Jabez began by acknowledging his reliance upon the only true God. His prayer, therefore, was for the Lord to fulfill His revealed will.
But how did Jabez learn of God's promise? He had evidently been taught about the Lord (either by his mother or some godly person in the village where he lived), and what he had been taught he took to heart. He also believed that inasmuch as the Lord had graciously answered the prayers of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and Moses, Aaron and Joshua, so He would answer the prayer of one of the least of His followers. And so he prayed in faith, and the Lord answered him.
It is as we read God's Word that we learn of His past involvement in the lives of His people, and this serves to encourage us to bring our petitions before Him, trusting Him to help us resolve the difficulties we face (cf. Psalm 46:1; Hebrews 4:16; 1 Peter 5:7).
We hear a lot today about being in the will of God and praying according to His will. However, unless we know what God has chosen to reveal in His Word, how will we ever know if we are praying according to His will?
Years before Jabez had been born, and after the Israelites had come out of Egypt and were camped on the western bank of the River Jordan, the Lord had spoken to Joshua, and said:
"...arise, go over this Jordan [river], you, and all this people, into the land that I will give them, even to the children of Israel. Every place that the sole of your foot shall tread upon, to you I have given it..." (Joshua 1:2-3).
At first God's people set out enthusiastically to take possession of the land, but after a while they became discouraged and slackened in their commitment. Then they began living among the Canaanites and Amorites, and a decade later it was necessary for Joshua to remind the Israelites that "there remains much land to be possessed" (Joshua 13:1). It is also tragic to note that, after all of the Lord's warnings, His people had also begun worshiping pagan deities, and by the time of Jabez those who remained true to the Lord were a small, struggling minority. When Jabez prayed to the "God of Israel" he was demonstrating his faith in the One who had delivered His people from Egyptian bondage and promised them the land. His prayer, therefore, was in the will of God!
Years later the apostle John would write words of encouragement to us:
Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have boldness toward God; and whatsoever we ask we receive of Him, because we keep His commandments and do those things that are pleasing in His sight (1 John 3:21-22).
What a comfort to know that the Lord still hears and answers our prayers!
Before we go on with Jabez' prayer, we need to consider the importance of requesting God's blessing before we engage in any new undertaking. Without His help, we labor in vain (Psalms 94:17; 127:1). We need to have guidance from the start, not pray for His blessing on our plans after we have made them. Jabez realized his limitations. He knew of his need for divine strength and wisdom, and that is why he also prayed "and that Your hand might be with me." When God's "hand" is with us, guiding and protecting and enabling us, we can accomplish things that otherwise might be impossible.
But this is not all. Having faced opposition and borne reproach and rejection all of his life, Jabez also prayed that the Lord would break the cycle of evil, and so he prayed "and that You would keep me from evil, that it not cause me sorrow." The apostle Paul also knew from bitter experience the pain of opposition from Alexander the coppersmith, and he handed him over to the Lord for Him to deal with him as He saw fit (2 Timothy 4:14). In this way he was kept from nursing grudges or harboring any ill will.
We have already noted that Jabez' prayer began as a vow (though the conditional element was never added [cf. Genesis 28:20-22; Judges 11:30-31]). God, in grace, answered him without requiring that Jabez do anything for Him. And he still answers prayer today, not because He must, but because He wants to (cf. John 14:12-14; 16:24). And so, with the ease of one recounting a simple cause-and-effect relationship, the writer adds, "So God granted him what he requested."
The fulfillment of Jabez' prayer was orchestrated by God as He brought together a fortuitous combination of circumstances. Jabez worked and God worked, and God blessed Jabez' efforts and enabled him to achieve what many probably believed to be impossible.
What abiding lessons can we learn from this story?
Most of us are not numbered among the movers and shakers of this world. We are insignificant people, and few of us will be remembered after we are dead. The story of Jabez – an honorable man – should serve to encourage us to lead lives of practical righteousness, to be true to our word, and over time to develop a reputation for integrity.
But Jabez' life also serves to encourage us to pray. A person who doesn't pray is like a tree without roots. E. M. Bounds wrote:
Prayer is the easiest and the hardest of all things; the simplest and the sublimest; the weakest and the most powerful; its results lie outside the range of human possibilities – they are limited only by the omnipotence of God. Few Christians have anything but a vague idea of the power of prayer; fewer still have any experience of that power. The Church seems almost wholly unaware of the power God puts into her hand; this spiritual carte blanche on the infinite resources of God's wisdom and power is rarely, if ever, used – never used to the full measure of honoring God. It is astounding how poor the use, how little the benefits. Prayer is our most formidable weapon, but the one in which we are the least skilled, the most averse to its use.
One of the heroes of the Christian church, though now long-forgotten, was John Hyde. The son of a Presbyterian pastor, John intended to follow in his father's footsteps. However, after completing both college and seminary, he joined a group of missionaries bound for India. Once there, he was assigned the Punjab region as the place of his ministry. Hyde quickly learned several of the local languages and became well known as one of rural India's most powerful preachers.
After several years of ministry, Hyde became dissatisfied with the results of his evangelistic efforts and turned increasingly to prayer. So intense did his prayers become that he would often spend forty or more hours on his knees, missing meals and unaware of his bodily needs. Such prayers eventually occupied much of his time and he became known as "Praying Hyde." The results of his intercession were soon evident. Numbers of Indians – that increased each year – came to know Christ.
Such is the power of prayer! Jabez prayed and the Lord heard him and granted his request.