The Jealousy of God
The jealousy of God is his holy commitment to his honor, glory, and love that manifests itself in the salvation of his people and the just condemnation of all who stand in opposition to him.
In this essay we begin by defining jealousy more generally before turning to the Scriptures to see what they teach regarding the jealousy of God. Moving from text to concept we explain what the Bible means by God’s jealousy before tracing out the necessary entailments for Christians.
Often when people think of jealousy, they think of a powerful human emotion that can do a great deal of harm unless harnessed and kept under control. Jealousy is not something that immediately comes to mind in connection with God unless people have carefully read through the Bible. When we read about God’s covenant relationship with the nation of Israel and then see how it is ultimately fulfilled in his relationship with the church, we discover that the jealousy of God is an important theme and a necessary aspect of God’s majestic, holy, and loving character. As James Montgomery Boice has said, “Rightly understood, the idea of jealousy is central to any true concept of God” (Boice, The Sovereign God, vol. 1 of Foundations of the Christian Faith [Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1978], 164). However, to understand and appreciate what Boice’s statement, we must examine what the scriptures say about divine jealousy and then explore how this doctrine relates to our lives.
Definitions of Jealousy
Dictionary definitions of jealousy are consistently uniform and often distinguish the human variety of jealousy from that which is said to characterize God. Human jealousy is described as a “feeling of resentment against someone because of that person’s rivalry, success, or advantages. It is characterized by or proceeds from suspicious fears or envious resentment” (Dictionary.com). Another definition speaks of “a feeling or showing an envious resentment to someone or their achievements, possessions, or perceived advantages” (Oxford Dictionary of English, Second Edition, 929). Both definitions highlight the negative aspects of jealousy.
At the same time these same dictionaries also recognize that human jealousy is not always negative. So, for instance, they speak of jealousy as “being solicitous or vigilant in maintaining and guarding something” (Dictionary.com) or of being “fiercely protective of one’s rights or possessions” (Oxford Dictionary) or of “zealous vigilance” (Merriam Webster). This further component of jealousy moves us closer to jealousy as it applies to God, which they explain as his “intolerance of unfaithfulness or rivalry” (Dictionary.com) or “demanding faithfulness and exclusive worship” (Oxford). As helpful as these definitions are as a starting point, they require us to go back to the scriptures and take note of how God speaks of his jealousy and what exactly it means for human beings generally and Christian believers in particular.
Biblical Context and References
The first time we encounter jealousy by name in the Bible it is sinful human jealousy. In Genesis 30:1, Rachel is jealous of her sister Leah in their ongoing battle for the affections of their husband Jacob. Later in Genesis 37:11 we are told that the sons of Jacob were jealous of their brother Joseph because of the way he favored his favorite wife’s first son. This sibling jealousy played a significant role in the treacherous betrayal of Joseph by his brothers and his resulting slavery in Egypt even though God was at work to save the entire family. What is significant for our study of God’s jealousy is that jealousy, even though human and sinful, first appears in the context of family relationships that are dysfunctional because the main characters have rebelled against the God’s will for marriage and the family as revealed in Genesis 2:24. Following this basic pattern, what is subsequently revealed about God’s jealousy will be tied to human sin and the violation of a marriage covenant relationship just as it will transcend these realities by God’s sovereign grace.
The first reference to God’s jealousy comes in Exodus 20:5-6: “You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.” This revelation of God’s jealousy comes at Mt. Sinai where God makes a covenant with the children of Israel whom he has redeemed from Egypt. In this part of the covenant law it is given as the reason they are to turn away from idolatry and love the Lord exclusively and obey his commandments.
The next time we read of God’s jealousy he is renewing his covenant with Israel after they had violated it by their idolatrous worship of a golden calf it was still being inaugurated (Exod. 34:14 cf. Exod. 32). Because of their outrageous betrayal God threatened to destroy Israel, but Moses interceded, and God forgave their sin and agreed to go up among them, even though he initially refused. Moses was encouraged by his experience of God’s grace and emboldened to ask for a vision of God’s glory. God graciously agreed to let Moses see his glory and to rewrite the law of the covenant on tablets of stone and thus reestablish the covenant (cf. Exod. 33-34). As in the original covenant the Lord warns Israel about idolatry and forbids his covenant people from following the way of the nations. They are not to worship any other god, “for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.”
In Deuteronomy Israel is reminded of the jealousy of God at the beginning and end of the book. In Deuteronomy 4 Moses is preparing a new generation of Israelites to enter the Promised Land after his death. He urges them not to forget the covenant the Lord their God made with them by making a craved image in the form of anything that God has forbidden, “For the Lord your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God” (v. 24). The same thing is said in Deuteronomy 6:14-15 about going after the gods of the people around them “for the Lord your God in your midst is a jealous God, lest the anger of the Lord your God be kindled against you, and he destroy you from off the face of the earth.” Near the end of the book Moses returns to this theme this time warning the people to watch their hearts as well as their conduct. If they walk in the stubbornness of their hearts, “the Lord will not be willing to forgive them, but rather the anger of the Lord and his jealousy will smoke against that man, and the curses written in this book will settle upon him, and the Lord will blot out his name from under heaven” (29:20). God’s jealousy is mentioned a final time in the Song of Moses once again connected to idolatry, “They stirred him to jealousy with strange gods; with abominations they provoked him to anger…; they have made me jealous with what is no god; they provoked me to anger with their idols” (32:16, 21).
At the end of his life, Joshua, reminds Israel of an inconvenient truth they do not want to hear: “You are not able to serve the Lord for he is a holy God. He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins. If you forsake the Lord and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you harm and consume you, after having done you good” (Josh.24:19-20).
Other Old Testament references (e.g., 1Kgs. 14:22; Psa. 78:58; 79:5; Ezek. 8:3-5; 16:38, 42; 23:25; 36:5ff.; 38:19; 39:25; Joel 2:18; Nahum 1:8; Zeph. 1:18; 3:8 are consistent with antecedent references to God’s jealousy, although in the prophets a new theme emerges. This emerging theme is seen in Ezekiel where the Lord goes from indicting Israel for her outrageous sins and adulteries (8:3-5; 16:38, 42; 23:25) to burning with zeal against Edom and the nations who have made his land their possession and plundered its pastureland (36:5ff). In his zeal and fiery wrath, the Lord will come to the aid of his land and his people (38:19), and he will restore the fortunes of Jacob and have compassion on all the people of Israel, and he will be zealous for his holy name (39:25). Joel 2:18, Nahum 1:8, Zephaniah 1:18; 3:8 all speak of the judgment of God as an expression of his jealous wrath that goes hand in hand with the ultimate salvation of his people.
In the New Testament God’s jealousy is mentioned in 1 Corinthians 10:22 and James 4:5 in connection with idolatry and spiritual adultery, and believers are exhorted to avoid those things that contradict all that God has done for them in Christ. Instead they are to be devoted to God who wants them to walk in humility and holiness before him and to worship and serve him alone.
Theological Meaning of God’s Jealousy
What does the Bible mean when it says that God is a jealous God? Whatever it means, it cannot refer to or imply anything sinful in God. He is a holy God and is never sinfully jealous. He is never jealous because he is needy, greedy, or covetous, or because he is lazy and unwilling to put forth the effort necessary to accomplish his purposes. God is not jealous because he takes a petty dislike to certain individuals and begrudges their achievements, or because he is frustrated with his position in the universe. Such suggestions are absurd!
Wayne Grudem defines God’s jealousy as “God continually seeking to protect his own honor” (Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000], 205). For J. I. Packer, “it is his holiness reacting to evil in a way that is morally right and precious…; it is a praiseworthy zeal on his part to preserve something supremely precious” (J. I. Packer, Knowing God, [London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1973], 189. Both explanations capture important aspects of the biblical doctrine of God’s jealousy. Building on their statements, I would like to suggest that we can think of God’s jealousy in 3 ways: (1) God’s jealousy related to his honor and glory, (2) God’s jealousy and his holiness, and (3) God’s jealousy and his love.
God is jealous for his honor and glory.
When human beings seek their own honor and glory, they are denying their creatureliness and heading in the wrong direction because they were made to glorify God and to enjoy him forever (cf. Westminster Shorter Catechism). But this is not the case with God. He is infinitely glorious and worthy of our praise and adoration. There is no one like God. He is completely self-sufficient. He is the uncreated creator who ought to be worshipped by all that he has made. He has the right to command our obedience, love, and devotion and, therefore, he is rightfully jealous when we do not worship and serve him, which is the very best thing we can do for ourselves and for others. To worship anything, or anyone, other than the Triune God of the Bible rightly provokes the Lord to jealousy and it cannot be any other way.
God’s jealousy is also linked to his holiness.
God does not conform to a standard outside of himself; he is the standard of what is pure and holy. God is in a class by himself, not only in terms of his ontological being, but also in his moral purity. He is undefiled by sin and he knows what is right and good because he knows himself. When he encounters that which is a contradiction of his holiness, he reacts in wrath and he is jealous that what is right and good be pursued instead. God’s jealousy is not indicative of weakness or a character flaw on his part, but it is a part of his holy omnipotence. He will pursue his holy purposes, and, in his zeal, he will accomplish all the set out to do.
God’s jealousy is linked to his love.
This is where the marriage analogy reappears. Holy, righteous love without jealousy is an oxymoron. Even at a human level if a husband and wife truly love each other they will feel jealousy if that intimate love relationship is threatened. In a marriage this kind of jealousy – which is a necessary by-product of love (Packer, 189-191) – is evoked as a way of protecting the relationship and keeping it intact. It wants to preserve that which is valuable and beautiful. Human marriage is patterned after the relationship that exists between God and his people in the Old Covenant and Christ and his church in the New Covenant. Just as a husband is properly jealous for the love his wife, so the Lord is jealous for the love of his covenanted people—the Israel of God.
The Implications of God’s Jealousy
- Because God is a jealous God, Christians should turn away from all that provokes his jealousy. It is disingenuous to say that we love him and then live contrary to the rightful demands that he makes on our lives. Believers in all generations are required to love the Lord our God with all our hearts, souls, and might (Deut. 6:4-6 cf. Matt. 22:37-38). The experience of God’s gracious redemption does not mean that we can live carelessly or in rebellion to his will for our lives. His deep love and commitment to us should continually fuel in us a desire to please him in everything.
- Because God is a jealous God, we should worship him in spirit and truth as Jesus instructed us (John 4:24). One of the many problems with false teaching is that it misrepresents God. All doctrines are connected to our view of God, and when we go astray in any area of Christian truth – the authority of the scriptures, the triune nature of God, the person and work of Christ, the application of salvation to the believer, the doctrine of the church, and the future triumph of our Lord – we rob God of his glory and we invite his rebuke and discipline. While our understanding of scripture will never be perfect until we stand before him in glory, that does not excuse lazy thinking and self-styled worship that is man-centered rather than God-centered.
- Because God is a jealous God, we should be passionately committed to his cause. We have many examples of passionate commitment in the Bible. In the Old Testament Phinehas (Num. 25:11-13) and Elijah (1Kgs. 19:10, 14) were zealously committed to the Lord in a time of moral and spiritual compromise. In the New Testament the apostle Paul faithfully served the Lord who rescued him by his grace. He was so transformed that he told the church in Ephesus that “he did not account his life of any value nor as precious to himself, if only he may finish his course and the ministry that he received for the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24). Surpassing all others is our Lord Jesus Christ whose commitment to his Father fulfilled Psalm 69:9, “Zeal for your house has consumed me” (cf. John 2:17). He taught his disciples to pray, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come; your will be done on earth as it is in heaven’ (Matt. 6:9-10). It is not surprising, then, that Christians are “zealous for good works” (Titus 2:14). We must not be like the Laodicean church that was nauseatingly lukewarm and in danger of being spit out (Rev. 3:14-21). Instead, knowing who God is, and all that he has done for us, we should serve the Lord with gladness and come before his presence with singing knowing that the Lord, he is God! It is he who made us, and are his, we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture (Psa. 100).
- James Montgomery Boice, The Sovereign God, 1 of Foundations of the Christian Faith (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1978), 164.
- Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 205-206.
- J. I. Packer, Knowing God (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1973), 186-195.
- Richard A. Muller, The Divine Essence and Attributes, vol. 3 of Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy, 1520-1725 (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003.
- Charles Haddon Spurgeon, A Jealous God – A Sermon.
- John Piper, The Lord Whose Name is Jealous.
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