Jealousy is an ugly word. “It’s the green-eyed monster,” said Shakespeare in Othello.
It has overtones of selfishness, suspicion, and distrust, and implies a hideous resentment or hostility toward other people because they enjoy some advantage.
It stifles freedom and individuality, it degrades and demeans, it breeds tension and discord, it destroys friendships and marriages. We view jealousy as a horrible trait and we hate it.
We do not read very far in the Bible before we hear God saying, Exodus 20:4-5 (ESV) “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5 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 the fourth generation of those who hate me.”
A jealous God! How can a God who is holy, just, loving, gracious, merciful, and long-suffering possibly be jealous? We need to explore a side of jealousy that may have escaped us.
Yes, God is a jealous God. Why? Because He will not share His praise with another: “I am the LORD; that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to carved idols” (Isaiah 42:8).
God carefully maintains and protects what is rightly His. This is divine jealousy, and it is worlds apart from the type of sinful jealousy that causes people to envy, suspect, and resent others.
The Meaning of God’s Jealousy
The root idea in the Old Testament word jealous is to become intensely red. It seems to refer to the changing color of the face or the rising heat of the emotions which are associated with intense zeal or fervor over something dear to us.
In both the Old and New Testament words for jealousy are also translated “zeal.” Being jealous and being zealous are essentially the same thing in the Bible. God is zealous—eager about protecting what is precious to Him.
One thing He views as especially important to Him in the Old Testament is the nation Israel. She belongs to Him as His special possession, His unique treasure.
For the LORD has chosen Jacob for Himself, Israel for His own possession (Psalm 135:4).
In fact, He views her as His wife. Through the Prophet Hosea He said to the nation, “And I will betroth you to Me forever” (Hosea 2:19).
In Exodus 20:5, it is not that God is jealous or envious because someone has something He wants or needs. “You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God…”
Notice that God is jealous when someone gives to another something that rightly belongs to Him.
In these verses, God is speaking of people making idols and bowing down and worshiping those idols instead of giving God the worship that belongs to Him alone.
God is possessive of the worship and service that belong to Him. It is a sin (as God points out in this commandment) to worship or serve anything other than God. It is a sin when we desire, or we are envious, or we are jealous of someone because he has something that we do not have.
It is a different use of the word “jealous” when God says He is jealous. What He is jealous of belongs to Him; worship and service belong to Him alone, and are to be given to Him alone.
The marital relationship may be the best way to help us understand the difference between sinful jealousy and righteous jealousy. I can be jealous over my relationship with my wife in a wrong way or in a right way.
For example, if I feel resentment or anger merely because I see her talking to another man, that would be self-centered possessiveness and unreasonable domination—in other words, sinful jealousy. It would stem from my own selfishness or insecurity rather than from my commitment to her and to what is right.
But, on the other hand, if I see some man actually trying to alienate my wife’s affections and seduce her, then I have reason to be righteously jealous.
God gave her to me to be my wife. Her body is mine just as my body is hers. I have the exclusive right to enjoy her fully, and for someone else to assume that right would be a violation of God’s holy standards.
Being jealous for something that God declares to belong to you is good and appropriate. Jealousy is a sin when it is a desire for something that does not belong to you.
Worship, praise, honor, and adoration belong to God alone, for only He is truly worthy of it. Therefore, God is rightly jealous when worship, praise, honor, or adoration is given to idols.
This is precisely the jealousy the apostle Paul described in 2 Corinthians 11:2, “I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy…”
He Is Jealous for His Holy Name.
It wasn’t long after God first spoke of His jealousy that He had occasion to demonstrate it. Moses had come down from the mount with the two tablets of the law in his hands only to find the people of Israel carousing in idolatrous worship before the golden image of a calf. He dashed the tablets to the earth, burned the calf and ground it to powder, then commanded the Levites to discipline the people. It was a vivid expression of God’s jealousy operating through His servant Moses.
When the crisis was past, God invited Moses back to the mount for a fresh encounter with Himself. That was when He revealed His glory to Moses as no one had ever seen it before.
Moses saw Him as a compassionate, gracious, long-suffering God who abounds in mercy and truth (Exodus 34:6).
The culmination of that revelation came a few moments later when God said, “Watch yourself that you make no covenant with the inhabitants of the land into which you are going, lest it become a snare in your midst. But rather, you are to tear down their altars and smash their sacred pillars and cut down their Asherim—for you shall not worship any other god, for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God” (Exodus 34:12-14).
God’s name is the epitome of who and what He is, and He says His name is Jealous. Jealousy is not merely a passing mood with God. It is the essence of His person. He cannot be other than jealous.
Since He is the highest and greatest being there is, infinitely holy and glorious, He must be passionately committed to preserving His honor and supremacy. He must zealously desire exclusive devotion and worship. To do less would make Him less than God. He said about Himself:
God is sovereign and supreme over all. Were He to share His glory with other so-called gods, He would be elevating them to a position that would not be consistent with their true nature, and it likewise would be making Him untrue to His own nature—less than the preeminent God He is.
He must be faithful to Himself and maintain His high and holy position, and He wants His creatures to attribute to Him that degree of honor. Basically, that is what He means when He says, “I shall be jealous for My holy name” (Ezekiel 39:25).
”You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain” (Exodus 20:7) (relate to careless words we use: exclamation of excitement surprise, crisis (OMG). We are not talking to God…not talking about God…we ARE taking His name in vain!
His jealousy does not grow out of insecurity, anxiety, frustration, covetousness, pride, or spite, as ours usually does. It is the natural and necessary by-product of His absolute sovereignty and infinite holiness.
We live in a pagan society where money is god and material possessions are the chief object of man’s worship. We need people who will be very jealous for the Lord God of hosts, people who will stand alone if need be against this insidious and contagious brand of idolatry and show the world that the Lord is God, people who will adopt a simpler lifestyle and use their resources for His glory rather than for their own comforts and pleasures.
We should be reminded, however, that it is possible to be jealous for God in the wrong way. Paul accused the Jews of his day of having a misdirected jealousy: “For I bear them witness that they have a zeal [jealousy] for God, but not in accordance with knowledge” (Romans 10:2).
The Jews thought they were exalting the Lord above all gods, but in their system of salvation by performing religious rituals and deeds they actually exalted themselves above God. It was a jealousy for God all right, but not consistent with the knowledge God has revealed about Himself in His Word.
He Is Jealous for Our Best Interests. Not only is God jealous for Himself, but He is also jealous for us. He has a passionate, consuming zeal for our best interests, and He wants us to share that zeal by being jealous for one another.
- If we shared God’s jealousy for other believers, we would be busily engaged in intercessory prayer, faithfully bringing their needs to God’s attention.
- Our prayer lives would not be wholly occupied with our own problems, but we would beseech God on behalf of the specific needs of others in the body of Christ.
- We would want what is best for them, and we know that patterning their lives according to His Word will always result in their greatest possible good. If we cared enough we would share the very best—the eternal truths of God’s Word.
So our God is a jealous God! The truth of His jealousy challenges us to give God His due and to put Him before all else.
But it likewise guarantees that He is looking out for our best interests. Getting to know Him as a jealous God will increase our level of devotion to Him, deepen our trust in Him, and strengthen our dedication to pray for others and faithfully share His truth with them.
Forty great soldiers from Cappadocia in Rome’s vaunted 12th legion sha red Paul’s jealousy for God some 250 years after his death.
Licinius was reigning over the eastern portion of the empire but was sensing an increasing military threat from the west. He became more and more repressive in his policies, particularly toward Christians. To solidify his strength, he called on his armies to demonstrate their support by offering a sacrifice to the pagan gods.
Most of the legion stationed at Sebaste, a city south of the Black Sea, dutifully complied, but the 40 Cappadocians, all Christians, respectfully declined.
For more than a week they were placed under guard, where they sang and prayed together continually. Their captain pleaded with them: “Of all the soldiers who serve the emperor, none are more loved by us and more needed right now.
Do not turn our love into hatred. It lies in you whether to be loved or hated.” “If it rests with us,” they replied, “we have made our choice. We shall devote our love to our God.”
It was sundown when they were stripped and escorted shivering to the middle of a frozen lake with guards stationed along the shore. A heated Roman bathhouse stood ready at the shore for any of them who were prepared to renounce their faith in Christ and offer a pagan sacrifice. Their jailer stood by with arms folded, watching, as a bitter winter wind whipped across the ice.
But through the whistling wind the soldiers could be heard singing: 40 good soldiers for Christ! We shall not depart from You as long as You give us life. We shall call upon Your Name whom all creation praises: Fire and hail, snow and wind and storm. On You we have hoped and we were not ashamed!
As midnight approached, their song grew more feeble. Then a strange thing happened. One of the forty staggered toward shore, fell to his knees and began crawling toward the bathhouse.
“39 good soldiers for Christ!” came the weakening, trembling song from the distance. The jailer watched the man enter the bathhouse and emerge quickly, apparently overcome by the heat, then collapse on the ground and expire.
The other guards could not believe what they saw next. The jailer wrenched off his armor and coat, dashed to the edge of the lake, lifted his right hand and cried, “40 good soldiers for Christ!” then disappeared over the ice into the darkness.
All 40 were dead by the next day, but it was the jailer who caught the captain’s notice as their bodies were being carted away. “What is he doing there?” he demanded.
One of the guards replied, “We cannot understand it, Captain. Ever since those Christians came under his care, we noticed something different about him.”
The martyrs of Sebaste were jealous for the name of their God, and it had a profound impact on that jailer who looked on.
Our jealousy for God will have a similar effect on the people around us. ( Related in Decision, December 1963, page 8.)