We don’t typically understand jealousy as a good thing. How, then, can I dare suggest that God is characterized by jealousy? To many, that sounds virtually blasphemous. So let’s take a close look at this oft-neglected attribute of God.
(1) We need to understand from the start that jealousy can be both good and bad. Jealousy can be driven or motivated both by holy and righteous motives as well as unholy and unrighteous ones. Jealousy can be a sign of both sinful weakness and wounded pride, on the one hand, and genuine love, on the other. Jealously is sometimes the expression of an excessively possessive spirit, and at other times the fruit of care and concern for the welfare of the one who is loved. Jealousy is often the result of deep insecurity in a person’s soul, but also a reflection of commitment and devotion to the person that you love. As we will see, the jealousy that burns within the heart of God is good and godly and holy.
(2) God is an emotional being. He experiences within the depths of his being genuine affections. The Bible is replete with references to divine joy, mercy, love, compassion, kindness, hatred, just to mention a few. But what of jealousy? The fact that we balk at the suggestion that God might be truly jealous indicates that we have a weak, insipid view of the divine nature. At the very core of his being, in the center of his personality is an inextinguishable blaze of immeasurable love called jealousy. Several texts confirm this. For example:
“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. 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, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments” (Exod. 20:4-6).
“For you shall worship no other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God” (Exod. 34:14).
“Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, has turned back my wrath from the people of Israel, in that he was jealous with my jealousy among them, so that I did not consume the people of Israel in my jealousy” (Num. 25:11).
“For the Lord your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God” (Deut. 4:24).
“You shall not go after other gods, any of the gods of the peoples who are around you – 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” (Deut. 6:14-15; cf. 29:20)
“They stirred him to jealousy with strange gods; with abominations they provoked him to anger” (Deut. 32:16; cf. 32:21).
“But Joshua said to the people, ‘You are not able to serve the Lord, for he is a holy God. He is a jealous God . . . ” (Joshua 24:19).
“For they provoked him to anger with their high places; they moved him to jealousy with their idols”(Ps. 78:58).
“Therefore thus says the Lord God, ‘Now I will restore the fortunes of Jacob and have mercy on the whole house of Israel, and I will be jealous for my holy name” (Ezek. 39:25).
(3) An especially instructive text is the following passage from Ezekiel.
“He put out the form of a hand and took me by a lock of my head, and the Spirit lifted me up between earth and heaven and brought me in visions of God to Jerusalem, to the entrance of the gateway of the inner court that faces north, where was the seat of the image of jealousy, which provokes to jealousy” (Ezekiel 8:3).
The Israelites had placed an idol of some sort at the entrance to the north gate of the temple. Literally, it reads “the jealousy that provokes jealousy”, a reference to the passion that this object ignites in God’s heart. “Look,” says the Lord, “look at that abominable statue which draws away the hearts of my people. They are loving it, not me. They are bowing down to it, not me. I am red hot with jealousy, for I will not stand for anything or anyone to come between me and the devotion of my bride!”
(4) Is it a serious matter to attend both a pagan feast devoted to idolatry and the Lord’s Supper? Paul comes straight to the point: “Shall we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than he?” (1 Cor. 10:22).
For people to sit both at the table of demons and the table of the Lord, i.e., for people to walk in idolatry, whatever form it might take, and then to partake of the Lord’s Supper, will only serve to stoke the fires of jealousy in God’s already burning heart (see also 1 Kings 14:22; Ezek. 16:38,42; 23:25; 36:5ff; 38:19; Joel 2:18; Nahum 1:2; Zeph. 1:18; 3:8; Zech. 1:14; 8:2; Ps. 79:5).
(5) To say that God is jealous certainly does not mean that he is suspicious because of some insecurity in his heart. This kind of jealousy is the result of ignorance and mistrust. Such is surely not true of God.
(6) To say that God is jealous does not mean he is wrongfully envious of the success of others. Jealousy that is sinful is most often the product of anxiety and bitterness and fear. But surely none of this could be true of God. Sinful jealousy is the sort that longs to possess and control what does not properly belong to oneself; it is demanding and cares little for the supposed object of its love.
But as J. I. Packer explains, “God’s jealousy is not a compound of frustration, envy, and spite, as human jealousy so often is, but appears instead as a . . . praiseworthy zeal to preserve something supremely precious” (Knowing God, 153). Divine jealousy is thus a zeal to protect a love relationship or to avenge it when it is broken.
(7) Jealousy in God is that passionate energy by which he is provoked and stirred and moved to take action against whatever or whoever stands in the way of his enjoyment of what he loves and desires. The intensity of God’s anger at threats to this relationship is directly proportionate to the depths of his love.
This is no momentary or sporadic or infrequent or occasional burst of anger or minor irritation in the heart of God. This is no passing twinge in God’s mind. This is the incessant, intensely persistent burning in the heart of the infinitely powerful, uncreated God. In the ancient near east, the word for “jealousy” literally meant to become intensely red, a reference to the effects of anger on one’s facial complexion. Jealousy in God is not a “green-eyed monster” but a “red-faced lover” who will brook no rivals in his relationship with his people.
(8) For what, then, is God jealous? God is most jealous for his own glory, fame, and honor! God desires above all else that his name be preserved and promoted and he will act quickly and powerfully to vindicate his glory. “The jealousy of Yahweh,” writes Ray Ortlund, “is his profoundly intense drive within to protect the interests of his own glory (Ex. 20:4-6; Ezek. 39:25), for he ‘will admit no derogation from his majesty’” (Whoredom: God’s Unfaithful Wife in Biblical Theology, 29, n. 15).
God is jealous for the supremacy of his name in this world, in this land, in your home, in your life, and in our church. It isn’t your name that he is jealous to protect, but his own. Your reputation is not first on God’s agenda. His is.
Consider the incredible events that unfolded in the life of Nebuchadnezzar as told in Daniel 4. To put it bluntly, he was reduced to live as a cow for seven years. Why, for heaven’s sake? Because he provoked God to jealousy. He claimed glory and responsibility for what God alone had done. His judgment would last until he came to recognize “that the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will” (4:32; cf. 4:37).
Worse still was the judgment that came upon King Herod, although the reason for it was the same as in the case of Nebuchadnezzar. We read in Acts 12:21-23: “Immediately an angel of the Lord struck him down because he did not give God the glory, and he was eaten by worms and breathed his last.” God’s jealousy for the glory of his name is so intense that he may well send worms to gnaw and consume the flesh of anyone who dares try to keep a little for himself!
(9) God is also jealous for the devotion, wholeheartedness, loyalty, and love of his bride, his people. Just as a husband cannot be indulgent of adultery in his wife, so also God cannot and will not endure infidelity in us. What would we think of a man or woman who does not experience jealous feelings when another person approaches his/her spouse and threatens to win their affection? We would regard such a person as deficient in moral character and lacking in true love.
If I were to receive a phone call or letter with news that a man had been seen delivering flowers to my wife, expensive gifts, or serenading her outside our bedroom window, and I did nothing and felt nothing, would this not be a reflection on my lack of character, lack of love, and lack of zeal for the welfare of my wife and my relationship with her?
(10) But does not predicating jealousy of God expose him to the charge of selfishness? It seems so self-centered of him to destroy anything that might hinder our love for him and devotion to him. Yes, I know it seems that way, but you must remember that God is the only Being for whom jealous passion for his own glory is a supreme act of love (I owe this observation to John Piper).
If God is going to love you he must give you the best, most beautiful, and most satisfying thing in all the universe. He must freely give you the greatest treasure, the most exquisite prize, the most enduring and enjoyable thing in all the universe. And what might that be? Himself, of course! But that is only half the story. God must then work in your heart so that you experience him as the preeminent treasure that he is. He must awaken in your soul satisfaction in himself. He must open your eyes to his beauty and lead you to taste and savor the sweetness of knowing him and loving him and enjoying him.
Does that sound like God is pursuing his own glory and his own praise? Yes. But it also sounds like God is loving you passionately and powerfully. It could not be otherwise unless there is something other than God that is better than God with which he can satisfy your soul. It could not be otherwise unless there is something other than God with which he might captivate your heart and fascinate your mind and with which he might bring you into unending joy and delight and peace and happiness. But there is no such thing!
That is why it is true of God alone that for him to pursue his own glory and praise is for him to love and bless you. God’s jealous pursuit of his own glory and fame is the most loving thing he could ever do for you. God’s jealous passion for the undivided loyalty and praise of your heart is the preeminent expression of his love for sinful men and women like you and me. For you to deny that, is to say that there is something or someone or an experience of some sort that can satisfy and enthrall your soul more than God can. And that is blasphemy!