My Dear Shepherds,
Years ago, I returned to the tiny burg in South Dakota where my family lived till I was seven. Ephraim, a gentle old farmer who remembered us, asked if I’d like to see the old church building. Their congregation had dwindled to nothing and the building was no longer used. So I was surprised to see that Ephraim still kept everything neat and clean. Bibles and offering plates were on a table by the door. Hymnals waited in the pew racks. Ephraim surveyed it all, sighed and said, “I wonder what we did wrong.”
Maybe they hadn’t done anything wrong, given the decline of rural communities, but when I hear of churches that have lost their way, that are defeated or dying, my first thought is always, I wonder if they were praying? Did those believers gather to pray specifically and persistently for the blessing of God on their church, fortified by his promises? Did that pastor prioritize prayer?
The books of Chronicles were written for Jews who’d returned from the Babylonian exile to remind them of their God-given promises and priorities. Amidst plodding genealogies is a breath of fresh air, a tiny, chiastic story about Jabez, whose very name, “Oh, the Pain,” surely resonated with the returning Jews.
Jabez was more honorable than his brothers. His mother had named him Jabez, saying, “I gave birth to him in pain.” Jabez cried out to the God of Israel, “Oh, that you would bless me and enlarge my territory! Let your hand be with me, and keep me from harm so that I will be free from pain.” And God granted his request. (1 Chron. 4:9-10)
As with all the best prayers, Jabez drew life from God’s covenant promise to bless his people. His three specific petitions grew from that rich soil, the second being, “Let your hand be with me.” Jabez was using the language of the Exodus where God’s “mighty hand and outstretched arm” was the oft-repeated reason for their deliverance. When the tribe of Judah (to which Jabez belonged) went first into the Promised Land (Judg. 1:1-11), I imagine they sang the song of Moses with lyrics like, “You stretch out your right hand, and the earth swallows your enemies” (Ex. 15:1-18).
God’s hand connotes something more active than God’s presence. God’s hand “shattered the enemy.” It is also our hiding place. When Moses blessed Israel for the last time he said, “All the holy ones are in your hand” (Deut.33:3). Jesus promised, “no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand” (John 10:28-29).
When pastors face giants in the land, we begin our assault by praying, “Let your hand be with me.” When a saint seems enslaved or our flock seems trapped between the devil and the deep Red Sea, pray for God’s mighty hand. When we’ve been broken, Peter says, “Humble yourselves under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time.” When it seems that defeat has defined us and pain is our name, pray for the blessing of God’s hand.
When I ask for the guidance and protection of God’s hand I think of my dad. One of my most treasured memories is of his hand upon my shoulder. Perhaps pastors help our people sense the hand of God that they pray for by the way we put our hand upon their shoulder or on the head of their child, the way we “lay hands” on mission teams, and extend our hands over our flock as we say again and again, “The LORD bless you and keep you ….”
Be ye glad!