Pity poor Jabez. For some 2,500 years, he languished in one of those endless biblical genealogies, as the 35th "son of Judah" enumerated in the Book of Chronicles, just after the listings for his relatives Anub and Zobebah. Upon reaching him, the biblical author breaks stride, but only for a moment, to acknowledge that he was regarded as "more honorable than his brothers" and that he had a favorite prayer, which the Bible reprints. Then it was on to Chelub and Shuhah.
But as Jesus noted, the last shall be first. After only a year on the market, a slim inspirational text called The Prayer of Jabez, written by an evangelist based in Atlanta, Bruce Wilkinson, and published by a tiny firm in Sisters, Ore., has sold a Grisham-like 3.5 million copies and advanced this week to No. 1 on the New York Times Advice, How-to & Miscellaneous best-sellers list--even though the Times does not count books sold in religious bookstores. Says Lynn Garrett, religion editor at Publishers Weekly: "It's a raging success, and I think it's going to continue to build. It could easily become this year's hardcover best seller."
The question Jabez himself might well have posed is, "Why me?" After decades of willful ignorance, the publishing world has learned--via the triumph of the apocalyptic Left Behind series--that titles by and for evangelical Christians can sell angelically. But unlike Left Behind, which trades on the spectacular cast and characters of the Book of Revelation, Jabez is essentially a bulked-up sermon, pouring much of the evangelical mission into the prayer's five short clauses.
Wilkinson, 53, says he first heard about the prayer from a seminary chaplain 30 years ago and has been "praying Jabez" as a kind of evangelical mantra ever since. What he appears to have found most attractive is the prayer's expansiveness. Evangelical life abounds in thou shalt nots and stresses humility before God. By contrast, Jabez's demand that the deity "bless me indeed" seems buoyant and liberating. Reading the volume's back-cover blurb ("Do you want to be extravagantly blessed by God?"), one might even imagine that Wilkinson is selling Prosperity Theology, a widespread if superficial gospel that amounts to praying for dollars. This turns out not to be the case. The riches he has in mind are the wealth of God's spirit, and the more one has, the more one wants to spread it. He interprets Jabez's next request, "enlarge my territory," as a plea for the biggest possible evangelizing field. "Clearly," he writes, "it is His complete will for us to reach the world--right now!"
Wilkinson, who sweetens his thesis with anecdotes from his personal and preaching life, concludes by claiming that daily recitation of the prayer can turn you into...someone like him. Wilkinson, who has preached at Promise Keepers' rallies, asserts that his success in reaching millions via his Walk Thru the Bible Ministries is almost shocking evidence of what God's grace and Jabez praying can do.