[Note: This is the prepared text for a message given to the United Church of God congregation of Portland, Oregon, on Sabbath, July 24, 2021.]
A few months ago we looked at the promise given to all believers in Romans 8:28 with the question of whether or not we believe what God has promised us here. Let us turn our attention to the exact opposite pole of God’s promises and look at God’s promises to a single believer in the Bible. What lessons can we learn from promises given to a single person? Let us begin today by looking at the promise of the prayer of Jabez and then we will discuss what lessons result from it. The prayer of Jabez, as it is known by those who know it at all, takes up two verses in what is otherwise a forgotten section of genealogy at the beginning of 1 Chronicles 4. In 1 Chronicles 4:9-10 we find this prayer and God’s response to it. Let us turn to 1 Chronicles 4:9-10, which 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.
This passage may seem somewhat random and trivial, but there are two lessons that could be drawn here. An author drew the lesson from this passage that it was important for believers to ask God to enlarge their territory, putting him in line with the Gospel of wealth and prosperity that some people have. This is not the lesson we will draw from this short passage. The other possible lesson to draw is a discussion of the meaning and importance of Jabez’ name. Depending on where one draws meaning, it appears that Jabez as a name and its meaning come from the Hebrew root word ‘asab, which means pain or grief or suffering. The name Jabez, as a result a process known as metathesis, where letters are deliberately swapped, then would mean “He causes pain,” or “He will grieve,” or something of like nature. Jabez did not want to cause pain, and so he prayed that God would spare him from such a fate, and God did, viewing him as being more honorable than his brethren, presumably because he was thinking of others and not only himself.
Why does this matter? Names have meaning and importance, and when we name something, we are trying to place upon that which we name a particular destiny. The Bible is full of names like Jabez that have somewhat of a checkered history, and the response that people have to those names is interesting. Let us explore this sort of area briefly in the Bible, because there are two stories of names that are a lot like Jabez, and they are dealt with very differently by the people involved. First, let us turn to a story that has a lot of similarities to that of the story of Jabez, except the name was changed to avoid a bad name being given to a newborn infant. Genesis 35:16-18 tells us about the birth of Benjamin, and there are a lot of parallels between that story and the one of Jabez. Genesis 35:16-18 reads as follows: “Then they journeyed from Bethel. And when there was but a little distance to go to Ephrath, Rachel labored in childbirth, and she had hard labor. Now it came to pass, when she was in hard labor, that the midwife said to her, “Do not fear; you will have this son also.” And so it was, as her soul was departing (for she died), that she called his name Ben-Oni; but his father called him Benjamin.” Here we see a mother suffering from hard labor who takes out their suffering on a child by giving that child a bad name. In this case, we better understand the importance of a name by realizing that Ben-Oni means “Son of my sorrow,” reflecting Rachel’s sorrow in dying in childbirth, while Benjamin means “Son of my right hand,” or, metaphorically, “Son of my strength.” Here we see that Jacob’s desire to speak of his strength in having twelve sons outweighed his desire to fasten upon that son a name that recognized the sorrow and suffering of his beloved but dying wife Rachel.
The second example we see of someone with a terrible name does not have so fortunate an income for the person so unfortunately named. Let us turn to look at this story in 1 Samuel 25:25-26. Here we see the efforts of Abigail to assuage David’s wrath and to prevent him from slaughtering everyone who belonged to the household of Nabal. In seeking to save the life of her and the other members of Nabal’s household, she makes prominent use of the meaning of Nabal’s name, which like that of Ben-Oni and Jabez is a rather unfortunate meaning. 1 Samuel 25:25-26 reads: “Please, let not my lord regard this scoundrel Nabal. For as his name is, so is he: Nabal is his name, and folly is with him! But I, your maidservant, did not see the young men of my lord whom you sent. Now therefore, my lord, as the Lord lives and as your soul lives, since the Lord has held you back from coming to bloodshed and from avenging yourself with your own hand, now then, let your enemies and those who seek harm for my lord be as Nabal.” Abigail uses very harsh language to describe Nabal, whose name means fool, but in this case that harshness is well-deserved. Nabal’s greed and lack of justice in his dealings with David’s armed and hungry men jeopardized the lives of all who lived in his household, and by her generosity and quick-thinking Abigail first saved the lives of the household, and later on became one of David’s wives, a much better outcome for her. Here we see, though, that Nabal was for whatever reason given a terrible name and he lived down to it.
Why does this matter for us? What is the importance of a name? And what blessings and promises are attached to those names? We have seen from the pages of scripture that a few people were given terrible names, and that these names caused them or the people around them to reflect upon the meaning of those names and to pray to God for the curse attached to that name to be removed. Jabez asked that he not cause pain and suffering, and God blessed him for his desire and viewed his wish not to inflict pain on others to be honorable. Jacob reversed the curse of the name on his twelfth and final son by giving him a positive name in its place. And Nabal suffered from his name, which was an accurate reflection of his foolish nature and evil character, and his longsuffering wife sought, as best as she could, to keep his own folly from ruining anyone else at least. Names in the Bible matter a great deal. To name something was to try to pronounce its destiny.
Names matter. When we look in the pages of scripture, we see people like Jabez, Benjamin, and Nabal who were originally given bad names that they (and those around them) did not want them to suffer from. To the extent that we are labeled by others with an evil and undesirable name, it should be our thought and prayer to God that we do not live up to the evil that others would wish to fasten upon us. On the other hand, the names that we choose for ourselves tend to reflect our hopes and aspirations rather than more unpleasant matters. And there our prayer should be different, that we live up to the promise and the blessing of the good names that we call ourselves and that we wish for others to call us. In both cases, our names, whether good or bad, should cause us to reflect upon what those names mean and on the promises and curses attached to those names. Let us, in our own lives, have the same resolve of Jabez not to live down to any bad name that others call us, and that we may be honorable and live up to the blessings of whatever identities we give ourselves. For as God’s children, we are called by His name, and that ought to matter to us a great deal.