We regard jealousy as one of the ugliest and most destructive human attitudes. How then can it be right to worship a Being who describes himself as a ‘jealous’ God?
To many non-believers, it’s a no-brainer. The very idea of divine jealousy shows just how bankrupt the Christian concept of God is. James Kirk Wall, for instance, while describing himself as someone who ‘aspires to be patient and respectful’, cannot restrain himself from labelling the idea of a jealous God ‘insane’:-
The Second Commandment declares that god is a jealous god. How can this insanity be ignored? Would the sole creator of life and billions of galaxies really need a bunch of gnats stroking his ego? Is it more likely that a jealous god created jealous men, or jealous men created a jealous god? I have to go with the latter. Of all the madness in the Bible, a jealous god has to be the most absurd.
Another sceptic describes the notion of divine jealousy ‘truly pathological’. Why does the God of the Bible demand exclusive allegiance? Why is his ego so brittle? If he dislikes idols so much why doesn’t he just set fire to them? Why is his nature so unattractively infantile?
Yes, God is ‘jealous’
Let’s be clear that the Bible does describe God as ‘jealous’. There’s no getting away from it. James Kirk Wall is quite right to draw attention to the Second Commandment, in which God describes himself as ‘a jealous God’ (Exodus 20:5). Shortly afterwards, God said to Moses, ‘the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God” (Exodus 34:14). There are further references to God’s jealousy in the Pentateuch There are references to it elsewhere in the Pentateuch (Num 25:11; Deut 4:24; 6:15; 29:20; 32:16, 21), in the historical books (Josh 24:19; 1 Kings 14:22), in the prophets (Ezek 8:3–5; 16:38, 42; 23:25; 36:5–7; 38:19; 39:25; Joel 2:18; Nahum 1:2; Zeph 1:18; 3:8; Zech 1:14; 8:2), and in the Psalms (Psa 78:58; 79:5). It is repeatedly presented as motive for divine action, whether in wrath or mercy.
The idea of God’s jealousy is also present in the teaching of the New Testament, as in 1 Corinthians 10:22 and James 4:5.
It’s an anthroporphism
Let’s be clear too that to for God to be described as ‘jealous’ is for him to be described anthropomorphically. It is just the same when references are made to God’s ‘arm’ or ‘hand’, or ‘anger’, or joy’, and so on. There are descriptions of God drawn from our experience and language as human beings. This is not to say that we are creating God in our own image, but rather that God is accommodating himself to our limited knowledge and understanding.
Of course, anthropomorphic descriptions have their limitations. Something will be lost when the infinite is described in terms of the finite; the perfect in terms of the imperfect. We should not jump to the conclusion that God’s jealousy is like ours in every respect.
Two kinds of jealousy
But even human jealousy is not always wrong. We can, in fact, readily distinguish between two forms of human jealousy. There is jealousy ‘of’ and jealous ‘for’: and they are very different.
The first form of jealousy is (as J.I. Packer says) the expression of the attitude: ‘I want what you’ve got, and I hate you because I haven’t got it.” This attitude is destructively malicious. Jealousy of another man’s success, or his popularity, or his wife, that’s a bad thing, and can do great harm.
There is a second kind of jealousy. Take a businesswoman of considerable honesty and integrity. She has built up a good reputation, and is trusted by her many customers. Now, suppose malicious rumours begin to spread about her and her business dealings. And suppose, in response to those rumours, customers begins to desert her, and even friends start to give her the cold shoulder. Because she is ‘jealous’ of her good name, it would be entirely right and proper for her to act to protect it.
This second kind of jealousy – jealousy ‘for’ – also manifests itself in a strong commitment to others. Take a man and woman who have promised lifelong faithfulness to one another in marriage. They would be right to guard that commitment ‘jealously’ (as we sometime say), and to resent all rivals and threats to that commitment. In fact, it would be wrong of them not to do so. More positively, they will seek to build and nurture the relationship. That kind of jealousy is a positive virtue. When Paul wrote to the Corinthians, ‘I feel a divine jealousy for you’, he meant that he felt strongly protective of them and concerned about their spiritual well-being (2 Cor 11:2).
A jealous God
God’s jealousy is of this second kind. In fact, how much more is it right for God, in all his divine perfections, to be protective of his name than it is for us, with all our imperfections, to be protective of ours. He is the one true and living God: he will not share his glory with another. He vindicates his holy name and nature by judging sin.
Again, there is a positive side to this divine jealousy. He has committed himself in covenant love to his people. In Scripture, this commitment is often expressed in terms of his marriage to his people (another anthropomorphism). Just as a faithful husband will brook no rivals for his wife’s affections, so God will not stand by while his people worship dumb and lifeless idols. When his people fail on their side of the commitment (as they so often do) God remains faithful, and he provides for their ransom and redemption, calling his people to love, serve and praise. So, whether in judgment or in mercy, God acts out of jealousy for his holy name (Eze 39:25). ‘For my own sake, for my own sake, I do this. How can I let myself be defamed? I will not yield my glory to another’ (Isa 42:8; 48:11).
John Stott says:-
It is written that Yahweh, ‘whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God’. Now jealousy is the resentment of rivals, and whether it is good or evil depends on whether the rival has any business to be there. To be jealous of someone who threatens to outshine us in beauty, brains or sport is sinful, because we cannot claim a monopoly of talent in those areas. If, on the other hand, a third party enters a marriage, the jealousy of the injured person, who is being displaced, is righteous, because the intruder has no right to be there. It is the same with God, who says, ‘I am the Lord, the is my name! I will not give my glory to another or my praise to idols’. Our Creator and Redeemer has a right to our exclusive allegiance, and is ‘jealous’ if we transfer it to anyone or anything else.
If God has, in this sense, jealous regard for his own name (i.e. his reputation and his character), then our proper response is to be zealous for those things too. In this regard, we follow the supreme example of the Lord Jesus, John 2:17.
Recall that the watchword of the Protestant Reformation was not simply Deo Gloria (to God be glory), but Soli Deo Gloria (to God alone be glory).
All this applies to us in a number of vital ways:-
Love: J.C. Ryle has finely written:
If we love a person, we are jealous about his name and honor. We do not like to hear him spoken against, without speaking up for him and defending him. We feel bound to maintain his interests and his reputation. We regard the person who treats him ill with almost as much disfavor as if he had ill–treated us. Well, it is just so between the true Christian and Christ! The true Christian regards with a godly jealousy all efforts to disparage his Master’s word, or name, or church, or day. He will confess Him before princes, if need be, and be sensitive of the least dishonor put upon Him. He will not hold his peace, and suffer his Master’s cause to be put to shame, without testifying against it. And why is all this? Simply because he loves Him.
Worship: is our primary concern to make our worship acceptable to those who come along to our services, or to make it pleasing to God?
Evangelism: what are our motives: obedience to the great commission? Concern for the ultimate destiny of the lost? To what extent are we motivated by a concern that God ‘s name is not being glorified in our homes, in our schools, colleges and universities, in our workplaces, in our neighbourhoods; a concern that men and women ‘have worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator’ (Rom 1:18-32), and we long that his name should be honoured and glorified?
Unity: in Jn 17 Jesus brings together the glory of the Father and the Son with the unity of believers. This is because without a motive derived from the former we shall never achieve the latter. ‘Unless our entire motivation is set on fire by an overwhelming desire for the glory of God—all wills bowing in the same direction, all hearts burning with the same flame, all minds united by the same obedience—we shall never know the unity for which Jesus prays.’ (Eric Alexander)
J.I. Packer, Knowing God
Eric Alexander, ‘The Missing Motive’, TableTalk, Feb 2010
J. C. Ryle, Holiness.
John Stott, The Message of Acts, p278.