"And Jabez was more honourable than his brethren." -- 1 CHRON. iv, 9.
This is a curious fragment of biography, half-hidden in a dreary mass of wholly uninteresting names. We cannot conjecture how it got there. It seems to have no connection either with what comes before or what follows. It is like a sweet little poem in the midst of a dry, genealogical chart; or like a real, living face with the flush of warm colour in it, speaking amid endless rows of mummies or waxwork effigies.
It is indeed the short, incomplete story of a life with neither beginning nor end. We are not told who his father was, or who his mother was, or what tribe or family he belonged to. Not a word about origin, descent, pedigree. And there seems to be a purpose in this. For the sacred writer at this point is doing nothing else but tracing pedigrees. These four chapters are to us the most useless in the Bible: names, nothing but long-forgotten names. Names of everybody's father, grandfather, great-grandfather, back to a remote antiquity. I question whether there are many Bible readers who have ever laboured through the list. Yet these family trees, as we may call them, were very precious to the Jews. They thought as much of long descent as my lord Noodle does now. It swelled them immeasurably in self-importance if they could trace their lineage back in unbroken line to one of the twelve patriarchs, or to one of those who came out of Egypt. And the historian ministers to this prejudice or vanity by diligently recording the whole dry catalogue, and then, as if weary of the business, or, perhaps, with just a touch of scorn, he introduces this one name as something worth talking about.
Here was a god-made nobleman, whose heraldry need not be written on earth, because it is more surely written in heaven. All the rest were their fathers' sons, and that was about all. This man did not need a pedigree: he won a name and reputation for himself without the help of a distinguished ancestry. By prayerfulness, and energy, and courage, he fought his way from obscurity to honour. And when that happens, when a man has fought the fight with adverse circumstances and overcome them, when he has made his mark in the world by sheer force of work and character, no one cares to grope through musty fusty parchments in search of his progenitors. What does it matter! God has given him a certificate of noble birth; that was surely what the historian meant: "Jabez was more honourable than his brethren."
Now there are two or three touches in this little story worth noticing. God sends us some of our best joys in the guise of sorrows.
He came into the world without a welcome.
I venture to say, and I thank God for it, that there is hardly one of my readers of whom that can be said. No matter into what home you were born, there was a welcome awaiting you on the part of one at least. It may be that no one else was particularly glad, that every one else looked upon you as one too many; but your mother at least met you with a sweet kiss which plainly said, thank God for this gift. Here, however, there was not even that; this child was received with misgivings and fears, and awoke no joy in the mother's breast. She called his name Jabez, which means sorrowful, because she had borne him in sorrow.
Of course, we do not know what lies behind that, but it was something of a heart-burning or heart-breaking kind; either the father was dead, or the home was in a state of terrible poverty and distress, or the child was a child of shame; you can only guess, and all your queries will probably be wide of the mark. But the mother looked mournfully upon him, and wished he had not come, and could not believe that a life which commenced so untowardly would ever be anything better than a burden to her, and a misfortune and misery to himself. She expressed her fears and forebodings in the name which she gave him -- Jabez, the child of sorrow.
And while she was gloomily predicting his future with the black colours of her despondency, God was writing the child's story in golden lines which would have set her heart leaping for joy could she have read them. This despised one was to win for himself a noble name, and build up the house in honour, and become his mother's pride, and make her young again in hope and gladness.
What fools we are when we set ourselves to forecast the future of our children! They rarely develop on the lines we draw for them; the most promising of them sometimes flatter us in the bud and blossom, and mock us in the fruit. Where we hope most there comes most heartache, our favourites are made our burdens, our pride is humbled by a harvest of sorrow. And where we have bestowed most tenderness we get most ingratitude -- the child of many gifts, the joy of the household, the flower of the flock, turns out the nightmare of our lives, the one unhappy failure which costs us endless tears.
And perhaps it is partly our own fault, because we have pampered, flattered, and indulged them too much. Ah! and just as often the reverse is true -- the child whom in our hearts we called Jabez; the slow, dull child so hard to teach, so unresponsive, or perhaps so wilful and obstinate that we never thought or spoke of him save with secret fears and misgivings -- the child who was always to be a burden and a cross to us, develops by-and-by in beautiful and unexpected ways, grows into moral strength and religious grace, becomes honourable in the sight of all men, and saves our old age from going down with sorrow to the grave. The golden harvest of our lives grows not where we look for it, but often in the neglected places where God bids it grow. Where our pride built its palace of content we find emptiness and shame, and that which we almost cursed God for sending us becomes our crown of rejoicing. She called his name Jabez, my sorrow, and lo! he became her very consolation, most honourable of all.
Faith wins the battle of life against many odds.
Yes! this is indeed a romance of faith -- faith overcoming the world. This child or youth starts out with all things against him. He is likely to grow up into an Ishmaelite if he grows up at all. He starts with an ill-starred name -- a name that spells misfortune. He starts without his mother's blessing and without a glimmer of hope to cheer him; no father to give him a helping hand by the way -- without endowment, fortune, family, or friends. What chance can there be in the race for one so heavily handicapped? Failure is written on his brow by the hand that nursed him. Failure is written on all his circumstances. It will be a desperate struggle all through. There will be none of the prizes of life for him. If he gets a bare living wage, it is as much as he may expect.
That is what he has before him, apparently! Well, for one thing, he puts on courage, and starts on his way singing Nil desperandum. And then, knowing well that he has few or no human friends, he falls back on the Father of the fatherless and the Helper of those who have no other help. He relies on faith instead of fortune. He will make prayer his main weapon, and the light of the Lord his guide, and duty his pole star. He will pursue a straight course, avoiding evil, trying to feel the hand of God upon him, and the watchful eyes of God over him. And he will make a brave fight of it day by day, doing his best, and leave a higher power to determine what shall follow. That is what we read between the lines of this story. Nay, that is all expressed. "He called on the God of Israel." He committed his life to the ordering of the Almighty. And the Almighty promoted him. He became more honourable than his brethren.
They are poor creatures who complain that the battle is lost before it is even begun, who groan that the chances of life are all against them before they have made one brave venture and endeavour; and they are vain and self-deceiving men who fancy that the victory will be easy because somebody has given them a good start, and they have the backing of family, social position, wealth, and mental gifts. If some of you think because your fathers stand high, because your education has been well looked after, because there are unlimited money and plenty of friends to push you on -- if you think that because of these things you can dispense with the fear of God, and the daily obligations of duty, and make pleasure and self-indulgence your main ends, and do without honest, persevering, self-denying toil, you will be miserably disappointed. God has some hard things to say to you before you get far on in years. It does not matter how promising one's beginnings, if there is no steady, conscientious brave self-discipline, and endeavour.
Life is always a failure and a disgraceful thing with a downward course, if there is no serious purpose in it and no great thoughts. And if you are ever tempted to say, as many do, that there is no hope for a life which commences heavily weighted; that all the chances go to those who are clever, and richly endowed; that if a youth begins with no money to back him and no friends to push him into promotion, he must remain chained down to that low condition to the end -- then I point you to this little bit of biography. I could take you round a certain town and point you to a hundred men who have repeated that bit of biography in their own lives, and I tell you that even now the chances are plentiful: waiting at the feet of those who tread life's way, a brave heart within and God overhead, and that no one need despair, however unpromising his start, who makes God his guide, and prayer his inspiration, and duty his chosen companion, and shuns evil, and pursues that which is good. Faith and loyalty to conscience and a courageous temper are still the weapons which conquer in the fight. Jabez, the child of sorrow and misfortune, became more honourable than all his brethren.
And now I commend this prayer to all of you -- the prayer which this youth offered when he went out carrying his unhonoured name and empty hand into the rough places of the world. It is a beautiful prayer. It is on the whole a wise prayer. There are better and more Christian prayers in the gospels and epistles; but in the Old Testament there are few prayers more worthy of imitation than this.
He asked that "God might bless him indeed," that is, above every human blessing and favour, that he might, by his life and conduct, deserve it He asked what we may all safely and humbly ask of God, provided that we give a large and not a low meaning. He asked that "God would enlarge his coast." If that meant broad estates, you had better drop it out of your prayer. But if it means to have your life enlarged, your sympathies and interests widened out, your influence and your power of service increased, it is such a prayer as Christ might have taught you. Never forget to offer it. He asked that "the hand of God might be with him"; that every day he might feel the leadings and take no step which was not a step approved by God. And he asked that the watchful and restraining power of the Almighty would "keep him from evil."
You will do well to offer that prayer at the beginning. You will do well to offer it every day to the end. It is a prayer that will keep; you will find it fresh each morning. And every day will be a better day which is thus commenced, and every life will grow honourable in the sight of men, and beautiful in the sight of God, which develops in the spirit of it.