DALLAS -- The obscure prayer tucked deep within a ponderous genealogy almost defies notice. Yet "The Prayer of Jabez: Breaking Through to the Blessed Life" has managed to fulfill every aspect of the ancient Hebrew's plea by becoming a full-fledged publishing phenomenon.
Written by Dr. Bruce Wilkinson, the pocket-size book examines two sentences in 1 Chronicles 4:10 about a man named Jabez and his very simple prayer.
Although it was released last April, the book has recently topped both religious and secular best-seller charts and has sold more than 3 million copies. Jabez study groups are cropping up everywhere, preachers are preaching about it, and Web sites are devoting space to testimonies from folks who have been praying the prayer.
"We have been shocked," said Wilkinson, founder and president of the international organization Walk Thru the Bible Ministries. "We can't claim any credit or brilliance. It's just God deciding Jabez prayed this prayer thousands of years ago, and maybe now it's time to get it answered."
Referred to by Wilkinson as the "Bible's Little Big Man," Jabez is never mentioned again. The verse before the prayer notes that Jabez was more honorable than his brothers, and says that his mother named him Jabez because she gave birth to him in pain.
Then: "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 it may not grieve me!' So God granted him what he requested." (1 Chronicles 4:10)
Wilkinson, who lives in Atlanta, has been praying the prayer since 1972, when he was a senior at Dallas Theological Seminary.
"When I was at DTS, Dr. Richard Seume preached on Jabez," he said. "He used the concept that Jabez was more honorable than his brethren. By the time it was over, we all wanted to be like Jabez. I went home and I looked at it and I began to think about it and pray. I saw such wonderful answers that I continued to pray it."
And he has been speaking about it for years. Everywhere he goes, he said people tell him "Jabez stories."
"People are not excited about the book," Wilkinson said. "They're excited about what happens to them when they pray Jabez. They get a whole new vision of what can happen to them. God can bless them a whole lot, but they must ask for it. If they ask God to use them more, he will do that."
Still, people want explanations about the prayer, so they buy the book. Multnomah Publishers and Tommy Nelson will soon release adaptations for children, teens and women. A journal, a Bible study and a video series are in the works.
"It is selling extremely well," said Dickie Richard, owner of Blessings Bookstore in Carrollton, Texas. "Everybody is looking to expand their territory. The only thing else that sells like this is, of course, the 'Left Behind' series."
Nathan Harden, assistant manager at Lifeway Christian Store in Plano, Texas, said most people don't buy just one copy.
"They buy several," he said. "And churches buy them by the 20s and 30s.... Even people who wouldn't come into a Christian bookstore, necessarily, are coming in for that book."
The book has topped the Christian Booksellers Association and Christian Retailing lists and has been ranked No. 2 on the Publishers Weekly nonfiction list and the New York Times advice list.
Matt Rollins, a manager at Barnes and Noble on Northwest Highway in Dallas, said the book has topped its local hardback/nonfiction list for several weeks.
"To fuel numbers of this kind, there have to be multi-copy sales, and it's not a hit on (customers') wallets," he said of the book, which his store sells for half of the $9.99 price.
Kate McDawter of Arlington, Texas, recently bought three copies for friends. She read it a month ago and said she has had several opportunities to minister to people since then.
When she heard a customer talking about grief at a store one day, she walked over and began talking to the woman.
"It just clicked," she said. "My friends have always told me that I would be good with grief ministry. I never had it confirmed in a way like that."
The Rev. Pete Briscoe, senior pastor of Bent Tree Bible Fellowship in Carrollton, Texas, ordered 4,000 copies of the book and audiotape to give to every family for the church's 25th anniversary recently.
"My desire was that we be a praying church," he said. "And I know most people function best when they have a pattern for prayer. I just think the prayer of Jabez is a great way to order prayer."
He challenged members to use the prayer to pray for Bent Tree and God's work in the church, as well as the universal church.
"What I stress is for people not to think of it as a magic potion," he said of the prayer. "It doesn't work that way. Faith has to be in God, not in the prayer. Then, I think it can be a healthy thing. Otherwise, it can be damaging."
The Rev. Ed Young, senior pastor of Fellowship Church in Grapevine, Texas, agrees.
Young, who preached a three-part series on the prayer in February, said he plans to devote a future service to the stories of people who have been praying it. The church is also posting testimonies on its Web site.
"I try to show people it's not some rabbit in the hat, lucky charm prayer, like, 'OK, God, I prayed this prayer, and I can live the way I want,'" he said. "We have to be obedient and do what the Bible says."
The Rev. Dale Launderville said it would be difficult to misuse the prayer.
"All the petitions are to bless, which is fine," said the Old Testament scholar at St. John's University in Collegeville, Minn. The only petition that could be misconstrued, he said, was "enlarge my territory."
"It's not likely, but people could distort that" to mean make them more prosperous, he said.
Wilkinson tells people to guard against that.
"When people talk about praying for a car or something, I laugh and say, 'Where did you get the red Mercedes from?'" he said. "Jabez didn't pray for a specific thing. What Jabez is praying is, 'Would you fill my heart in a way that I feel like a blessed person?'
"We oftentimes get mixed up in our minds. We think that a thing outside of us is what blesses us. But in reality, blessing occurs in your heart."