This series examines the prosperity gospel every Thursday and Friday during the month of June. We explore the theology, sociology, and international influence of this popular but aberrant teaching. The Gospel Coalition International Outreach (IO) is partnering with African authors and publishers to create a resource that biblically examines the prosperity gospel and that will be distributed free across Africa and beyond. In Prosperity? Finding the True Gospel, African pastors Michael Otieno Maura, Ken Mbugua, and Conrad Mbewe are joined by John Piper and Wayne Grudem in pointing pastors and other Christians beyond the deceptions of prosperity theology to the true gospel of Jesus Christ.
In books veering toward the “soft prosperity gospel” (defined here and here), none has outpaced The Prayer of Jabez. Since its publication in 2000, over nine million copies have sold. And while its greatest impact is behind us, its legacy remains.
Most fundamentally, the prosperity gospel is driven by a faulty hermeneutic. The Prayer of Jabez offers a very popular example of that method of reading Scripture, unwittingly espousing a soft prosperity gospel in a work written by a non-prosperity teacher.
In contrast to the bestselling book, the biblical story of Jabez tells how God comforts those in remarkable pain. But marketed to upwardly-mobile Christians, The Prayer of Jabez told this Israelite’s story as if he was one of us. But that’s the problem: Jabez isn’t like us. He doesn’t live amid our modern materialism. And his prayer can’t be directly applied to us without seeing how it relates to his own situation first and then to Jesus Christ.
Instead of seeing Jabez in the narrative of 1–2 Chronicles, which in turn relates to the covenant promises to Israel that find their fulfillment in Christ, The Prayer of Jabez and so many other books and sermons like it move directly from text to individual application. As a result, many evangelicals—many who otherwise find health and wealth theology abhorrent—have had seeds of dangerous soft prosperity implanted in their hearts.
Here’s how it works: by claiming a promise-bearing verse (or verses) as their own, such believers unintentionally bypass Christ and his cross—the true source of all blessing. Without intending to deny the gospel, they do precisely that.
Call it accidental prosperity preaching, but it is the Achilles’ heel of evangelical preachers who take shortcuts in order to make the Bible relevant. While not making wild promises of riches or healing, they take a verse of Scripture and say: “You can enjoy more of God’s blessing if you pray this prayer or implement these principles.” Such approaches to Scripture amount to a formula which, when prayed, prompts God to open the windows of heaven and unleash material blessings on us.
Through poor interpretive practices, any of us can sow seeds of soft prosperity. Though there are insidious false teachers who intentionally espouse health and wealth doctrine, many of us deviate from orthodoxy simply by means of inconsistent or unintentional methods of interpretation. For the sake of preaching the true gospel, this must stop—but not by exiling Jabez.
In order to avoid such misleading hermeneutics, we need to return to Jabez. For in his story of pain, we can discover the comfort of Christ and learn how to avoid accidentally preaching a soft prosperity gospel. We can apply Jabez faithfully in ways that lead to true spiritual blessings of comfort, peace, wisdom, and strength to steady us in the full-court press of everyday life. Here are seven observations about Jabez’s story.
1. The Bible is God’s covenant book for his community of faith.
The Bible is not an individual’s guide to self-help; it’s not a tract aimed to deliver persons from their privatized plight. It’s a community book, one that tells the story of how God chose Abraham, redeemed his offspring from Egypt, and created a new Israel by means of Christ’s death and resurrection.
Since the Bible is a story of God’s redeemed community, it must be read as such. To isolate individuals from their community is to superimpose on them our modern individualism. With Jabez, we must not read his prayer as a request for private blessing, but as a cry for God to bless him as a part of God’s covenant people.
2. Jabez is in the Old Testament.
Under the old covenant, God’s arrangement with Israel was different than today. The blessings of Israel were generally physical in nature. They included military prowess, national security, fertile soil, and so on. By contrast, the blessings of the new covenant are generally spiritual in nature.
There are, of course, spiritual blessings under the old covenant (e.g., God’s Spirit was present with Israel) and physical benefits related to the new (e.g., the resurrection from the dead). Nevertheless, we can’t import Israel’s material blessings directly into our new covenant setting. To do so radically misconstrues how those covenant blessings have been altered by the inauguration of Christ’s kingdom.
Under the new covenant, it is the Spirit who is our blessing (Eph. 1:3; Gal. 3:14), not material opulence or unfettered security. In fact, those who have the Spirit are promised hardship until Christ returns (John 16:33; 2 Tim. 3:13). The Lord may increase our territory, but he also may bless us by taking it away. When reading Jabez’s prayer we must consider the covenant context and beware of seeking Christ mainly for something else he can give us.
3. Jabez resides in a genealogy.
Genealogies are not written to hide secrets for Bible decoders; they are given to remind us of God’s unfolding of history. In 1 Chronicles, the story of Jabez doesn’t give ancient hearers tips on calling down the blessings of God; it reminds post-exilic saints of God’s grace, faithfulness, and sovereign rule in their history.
To infer a “secret blessing” in Jabez’s prayer annihilates the author’s original intent and moves towards rank allegory: praying this prayer will give you that blessing. As always, we must read every passage with an eye to its genre. Prosperity theology far too often fails in this fundamental area of Bible interpretation and fabricates what amounts to another gospel.
4. Jabez is a royal son of Judah.
In the lengthy genealogy of 1 Chronicles 1–9, all the tribes of Israel are mentioned, but two are central: Judah and Levi. The former recounts God’s promised kingdom, the latter focuses on Israel’s appointed priests. Significantly, Jabez hails from Judah and is, therefore, a royal son.
While many Americans may miss this point, no son of Israel would. It was a royal blessing to be born in Judah (see Gen. 49:9–12), until and unless a son of Judah had no father.
5. Jabez is fatherless.
Isn’t it strange that in a genealogy listing fathers and sons, Jabez has neither? Might his father’s absence contribute to his unusual name? Jabez means “pain,” and though we don’t know the cause of his (mother’s) pain, we know he’s without a father—a profoundly painful situation in ancient Israel.
Living at the time of the Judges, a time renowned for its chaotic anarchy, Jabez’s father may have been killed or his mother raped. Regardless, his plight stands in stark contrast to the father-son pattern found in 1 Chronicles 4.
Surely this plays a part in understanding Jabez’s prayer. Without a father, he would have no place in the land. He was essentially an outsider to the land that signified God’s blessings. Therefore, when we hear him pray for his border to be increased, we must hear him as a homeless refugee, not one of us struggling to make payments on our iPhone.
6. Jabez’s name recalls Genesis 3.
There’s another passage in the Old Testament that speaks about pain and childbirth—Genesis 3:16. In that verse, God curses the woman, which in turn shapes the rest of human history.
Even if the average American reader misses this connection, the conflation of pain and childbirth would have been unmistakable in Israel. Jabez and his mother are suffering the effects of the curse. Thus, when Jabez cries out for deliverance, he is crying out for redemptive mercy.
7. Jabez is a true son of Abraham.
While Jabez’s brothers with fathers (i.e., the men of Judah) had hereditary access to God’s promises, many—including Onan (2:3), Achan (2:7), and Hezron and Jair (2:21–22)—forfeited their inheritance through their wickedness. Not so Jabez; he was more honorable than his brothers because he called upon the Lord. While fatherless, he inherited a place in the land because of his faith (as evidenced by a town named after him in 1 Chronicles 2:55).
Despite incurring the covenantal peril of fatherlessness, Jabez was a true son of Abraham and a precursor to David. His pain prepared the way for him to receive God’s blessings. And it is here, in God’s merciful comfort to Jabez, we begin to see a contemporary application.
To apply his prayer, we must see how his forward-looking faith travels down the covenantal highway to Jesus. For us, situated on the other side of Calvary and Pentecost, the prayer of Jabez encourages us to bring our pain to the Lord. God doesn’t promise he will remove every thorn (2 Cor. 12:7)—thus Scripture is bereft of any guarantee of health and wealth. But he does promise that every prayer offered in faith will be answered with the comfort Christ gives in the Holy Spirit. This is how we experience God’s blessing in a fallen world. And this is a far more glorious gift than silver, gold, or even a few more years of life in a fallen world.
How to Preach Jabez
In the end, Jabez’s story—like other promise-filled stories—is not in the Bible so we can co-opt it for our own personal initiatives. It is there to invite sufferers to find mercy in the God who comforts us with his Son and his Spirit. Much like Jesus (who also cried out to God and was heard because of his reverence, Heb. 5:7–10), Jabez is a model of faith for all to consider and imitate (Heb. 13:7).
After all, his prayer doesn’t point to a secret mantra for material blessing. It calls sufferers to trust that the covenant God of Israel loves to comfort those who come to him in faith. In this way, Jabez’s prayer doesn’t preach a soft prosperity gospel, but gospel comfort for those suffering the effects of the fall. And for that reason, we should not be afraid to tell his story often—so long as we show how it leads to Christ.