Dr. Richard L. Strauss
February 10, 1980
Jealousy is an ugly word. It has overtones of selfishness, suspicion and distrust. It implies resentment and hostility toward people who have some advantage over us or who threaten our best interests. It sounds possessive, demanding and overbearing. It stifles freedom and individuality, it degrades and demeans, it breeds tension and discord, and it destroys friendships and marriages. We view jealousy as a horrible trait, and we hate it.
But the Biblical narrative does not progress very far before we find Moses on Mt. Sinai, receiving the Law from God's hand.
"You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God" (Exodus 20:4-5a, NASB).
The root meaning of that 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. It emphasizes intense zeal or fervor for something dear to us. In fact, both the Old Testament and New Testament words for jealousy are the very same words that are also translated "zeal." Being jealous and being zealous are essentially the same thing in the Bible. And God is zealous—eager and fervent about protecting what is precious to Him.
One thing He views as especially precious to Him in the Old Testament is the nation Israel. She belongs to Him as His special possession. "For the Lord has chosen Jacob for Himself, Israel for His own possession" (Psalm 135:4 NASB; see also Exodus 19:5). Israel is Jehovah's unique treasure. 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 NASB).
No man with any moral fiber wants to share his wife with another man, and neither does God want to share His. He expects exclusive devotion from her. And when she goes after other lovers, that is, when she worships other gods and thus commits spiritual adultery, He is said to be jealous. When the term jealousy is applied to God in the Bible it is almost always because His people are worshipping idols.
That was the warning of the second commandment. But they failed to heed it. "For they provoked Him to anger with their high places, and moved Him to jealousy with their carved images" (Psalm 78:58 NSRB).
What is it that makes God jealous? When His wife, Israel, goes after other lovers.
That idea is present in the New Testament as well. After a discussion of idolatry in the church of Corinth, Paul suggests that they are trying to provoke God to jealousy (1 Corinthians 10:14-22).
The marital relationship may best 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, it is sinful jealousy. It would stem from my own selfishness or insecurity rather than from my commitment to what is right.
But if, on the other hand, I see some man actually trying to alienate my wife's affections and seduce her, then I have reason to be righteously jealous. She is my wife. God gave her to me. 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.
Even secular sociologists are now admitting that the most stable and successful marriages are those which are built on absolute fidelity. I am zealous for the exclusiveness and purity of my marriage. That is a righteous jealousy. And that is exactly the way Jehovah feels about His relationship with His wife. There is no selfishness in His jealousy. It is the appropriate expression of His holiness.
Technically, there is a difference between jealousy and envy in the Bible. They are two entirely different words in the Greek New Testament. Jealousy involves the desire to have what somebody else has. That can be wholesome, particularly when we desire to develop the positive spiritual qualities we see in others, or when we seek to enjoy the spiritual riches God wants us to have which we see other enjoying. Just so, God wants what is rightfully His—the exclusive devotion of His people—and that is right and good.
But for us, jealousy may degenerate into something bad, as when we feel frustrated and bitter because we cannot obtain what we want, or when we find fault with those who have what we want or who keep us from getting it.
So jealousy can be either good or bad. On the other hand, envy is nearly always bad.
Envy is a feeling of displeasure over the blessings others are enjoying and it makes us want to deprive them of what they have. Jealousy wants what others have, but envy wants to keep them from having it. It is a malicious and vicious trait which Solomon calls "the rottenness of the bones" (Proverbs 14:30).
There are some notorious examples of sinful jealousy and envy in the Bible. For example, because of Joseph's favored position with his father and because of that regal coat Jacob gave him, "his brothers were jealous of him" (Genesis 37:11, NASB). Their sinful attitudes resulted in sinful acts, as first they plotted his death, then decided to throw him in a pit and sell him into slavery. Selfishness was written all over their lives.
Another example occurred when the apostles in the book of Acts preached with power and performed miracles of healing. Multitudes were added to the Lord and the Jewish religious rulers were furious. The Bible records that "they were filled with jealousy" (Acts 5:17, NASB). First they threw the apostles into prison, and later had them flogged. Their selfish motives were obvious.
When we are jealous in a sinful way, we often try to hurt others, just as both Joseph's brothers and the Jewish leaders did. We pick at them, find fault with them, and gossip about them. Critical attitudes toward others are usually spawned by selfish jealousy.
But there is not a trace of selfishness in God's jealousy. Let's examine it more closely. God is jealous over two things.
1. God Is Jealous for His Holy Name
It wasn't long after God first spoke of His jealousy that He had an occasion to demonstrate it. Moses came down from the mount with the two tablets of the law in his hands, only to find the people carousing in idolatrous worship before the golden image of a calf. Moses was incensed. 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 Moses.
When the crisis was passed, God invited Moses back to the mount for a fresh encounter with Him. That was when God revealed Himself to Moses as all those attributes we've been studying: merciful, gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth (Exodus 34:6). That passage in Exodus 34 is probably the greatest revelation in a single verse in the Bible describing God's attributes. There are more attributes crammed into that verse than any other verse.
But the culmination of that revelation came a few verses later.
"Watch yourself that you make no covenant with the inhabitants of the land into which you are going, or it will 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 [idols]—for you shall not worship any other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God" (Exodus 34:12-14, NASB).
God's name is the epitome of 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 being. And He cannot be otherwise. Since He is the highest and greatest Being there is, infinitely holy and glorious, He must be passionately committed to preserving His own honor and His own holy name. He must zealously insist that He receive the exclusive devotion and worship He deserves. To do less would make Him less than God.
"I am the Lord, that is My name; My glory"—that's the sum total of who God is—"I give to no other, nor My praise to idols" (Isaiah 42:8, NSRV).
God is sovereign and supreme over all. Were He to share His glory with others, that would be elevating them to a position that would not be consistent with their true nature and it would be making Him untrue to who He is, less than the pre-eminent God He is. He must be faithful to Himself and maintain His high and holy position, and He expects His creatures to attribute to Him the honor He is due. That fact—that He expects His creatures to attribute to Him the honor that rightfully belongs to Him and no one else—is basically is what His jealousy is.
He says, "I will be jealous for His holy name" (Ezekiel 39:25). 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.
If God, by virtue of His essential being, must be jealous for His uniqueness and His supremacy above all, then those who know Him and want to please Him should also be jealous for Him.
That means if we are serious about our relationship with God—not just "playing church" because it's the thing to do on Sunday morning—we will exalt Him above everyone and everything in our lives. We will be absolutely dedicated to living for His honor. We will be zealously committed to doing His will. We will live our lives for one primary purpose: to show the world that our God is the one true and living God, that He alone makes life meaningful and worthwhile.
That's the way Elijah lived. He put his life on the line to prove that Jehovah is God when He stood alone on Mt. Carmel against those 450 prophets of Baal and called down fire from heaven on his water soaked sacrifice. The fire of the Lord did fall; it consumed the sacrifice, the wood, the stones, and the dust, and it licked up the water in the trench around the altar.
"When all the people saw this, they fell prostrate and cried, "The Lord—He is God! The Lord—He is God!" (1 Kings 18:39).
It was a spectacular victory for the Lord over the pagan idols of the Canaanites. And it all happened because one man could say, "I have been very jealous for the Lord God of hosts" (1 Kings 19:14). That's what made him be able to endanger his own life to prove who God is. He was righteously jealous for the Lord.
What we need in our pagan society, where money is god and material possessions are the chief object of man's worship, are some people who will be very jealous for the Lord God of hosts, who will stand alone if need be against this insidious and contagious brand of idolatry and show the world that the Lord is God. We need a cadre of people who will live for His glory rather than their own, who will live to please Him rather than themselves.
The Apostle Paul qualified for that company.
"I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain" (Philippians 1:20-21).
His great desire was to bring glory to Jesus Christ, to show the world around him by the way he lived and by the way he died the magnificence and pre-eminence of the Savior. That is being jealous for God.
Look at it again in his last visit with the Ephesian elders.
"However, I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the good news of God's grace" (Acts 20:24).
The focus of his whole life was on telling people about God's grace. He let nothing interfere with that great over-riding purpose. Whatever else he had to do was always secondary to and supportive of accomplishing that primary goal: magnifying Christ and making His grace known to others. That is being jealous for God. And his life serves as a positive example of the kind of lifestyle God wants us to cultivate.
We should be reminded 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 God.
"Brothers and sisters, my heart's desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved. For I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge" (Romans 10:1-2).
That word zeal is the same as the word jealousy. The Jews thought they were exalting the Lord above all gods, but their man-made system of salvation by performing religious rituals and doing religious deeds 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.
The discovery of God's jealousy—if you're discovering it for the first time today—is not a challenge to become religious. It is a challenge to put our trust in God's gracious provision for our salvation (the death of His sinless Son) and a challenge to develop a lifestyle that reveals Him to a lost world.
2. God Is Jealous for Our Best Interests
There is another facet of God's jealousy which we should mention. 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 for one another.
Let me illustrate. When the mighty Assyrians threatened to destroy the city of Jerusalem, King Hezekiah brought their insolent threats before the Lord. It was the prophet Isaiah who came with the reassuring answer. God would put a hook in the nose of Assyria's king and lead him right back where he came from (Isaiah 37:29). Jerusalem would be saved.
"For out of Jerusalem will come a remnant, and out of Mount Zion a band of survivors. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this" (Isaiah 37:32).
The zeal of the Lord. That's our word, jealousy. Because God is jealous for His people to have what was best for them, He would protect them through their siege.
We see it again after God allowed His people to be disciplined by the Babylonians. He loved them dearly and His discipline was the expression of that love. But now he is ready to restore them and bless them.
"Then the angel who was speaking to me said, 'Proclaim this word: This is what the Lord Almighty says: "I am very jealous for Jerusalem and Zion, and I am very angry with the nations that feel secure. I was only a little angry, but they went too far with the punishment." Therefore this is what the Lord says: "I will return to Jerusalem with mercy, and there My house will be rebuilt. And the measuring line will be stretched out over Jerusalem," declares the Lord Almighty. Proclaim further: This is what the Lord Almighty says: "My towns will again overflow with prosperity, and the Lord will again comfort Zion and choose Jerusalem"'" (Zechariah 1:14-17).
Just as we are jealous for those we love when they are threatened, wronged, or abused, so God is jealous for those whom He loves, and He takes positive steps to bless them.
He is jealous for us. He wants the very best for us, at this very moment. He is planning things that will bring benefit and blessing to our lives.
Now He wants us to have the same attitude toward others, to be jealous for their good. A friend of Paul named Epaphras felt that way toward his Christian friends.
"Epaphras, who is one of you, a servant of Christ Jesus, greets you. He is always wrestling in his prayers on your behalf, so that you may stand mature and fully assured in everything that God wills. For I testify for him that he has worked hard for you and for those in Laodicea and in Hierapolis" (Colossians 4:12-13, NSRV).
His jealousy for them led him to pray for them daily. If we shared God's jealousy for other believers, we would be busily engaged in intercessory prayer, bringing their specific needs to God's attention. Faithfully. Daily. Do you remember the needs of other Christians and pray for them daily? If you share God's jealousy for them you do.
The Apostle Paul shared God's jealousy for other Christians. When his converts at Corinth began to fall for the subtle perversion of the gospel being propagated by Satan's servants, Paul said:
"I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy. I promised you to one husband, to Christ, so that I might present you as a pure virgin to Him" (2 Corinthians 11:2).
As their spiritual father, he had promised them to Christ, their spiritual bridegroom, and it was his desire to present them to their husband as a pure bride, untainted with the distorted doctrine of those false apostles. For that reason, he faithfully taught them the truth at great personal sacrifice and encouraged them to submit to it.
If we shared God's jealousy for others, we would be filling our minds with God's truth and tactfully sharing it with those whom God sends our way. We want what is best for them and we know that patterning their lives according to His Word will always result in their greatest possible benefit and blessing. The only question that remains is, "Do we care enough to share the very best, the eternal truths of Scripture?"
Our God is a jealous God. But that isn't so bad after all. In fact, it turns out to be rather good.
It challenges us to give Him His due and put Him before all else. But it also 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 stronger than our dedication to praying together and sharing His truth with others.
Trusting Jesus as Your Savior
Now I want you to know that God is not only jealous for your well-being in time, but also for eternity. He wants you to have the very best throughout eternity. That's why He sent His Son to Calvary's cross. That's why He laid on Jesus, as He hung on that cross, the awful shame and guilt, the degradation and condemnation, and the punishment for your sin. God knows that our sin separates us from Him for all of eternity, so He provides, through His grace, the gift of salvation if you only trust Jesus for the payment of your sins.
If you do that, you will have eternal happiness in His presence. He did that because He's a jealous God and is jealous for your best interests. Have you ever acknowledged what He did for you? Do you believe that He sent His Son to the cross to die in your place? Have you acknowledged that you're a sinner and put your trust in Jesus as your Savior. If you haven't, we invite you to do it right now.
For you shall not worship any other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God
Exodus 34:14 NASB
Continue to AT-18: Treasures of Wisdom