This post is part of a series about the names of God in the Bible. This series is based off of the study that took place in our Ladies’ Bible Class. You can watch those sessions online at WestsideLife.org/media. Just look for the “Name Above All Names” media series.
A Jealous God
God is passionate about his people—whether it’s the nation of Israel in the Old Testament, or the body of Christ in the New Testament. When God chooses a people to be his own, he pledges himself completely and wholeheartedly. And he expects that same kind of loyal, exclusive commitment in return.
The Marriage Metaphor
To help us understand the depth of God’s commitment to us in a way we can understand, God uses the metaphor of romance and marriage. When we think about God’s affection for us and his commitment to us, we are invited to consider how a husband and wife pledge their love completely and exclusively to one another on their wedding day. They aren’t promising to love their spouse alongside a dozen or so other men or women,; they’re committing to their spouse as their one and only romantic partner. It is not just love—it is exclusive love.
That’s why an extramarital affair is so devastating to the marriage. If a husband or wife engages in an affair, they are breaking their commitment to exclusivity. They violate their vows of loving their spouse and only their spouse.
In Jeremiah 3:20, we discover God felt this way about Israel when they turned away from him and began worshipping false idols:“But like a woman unfaithful to her husband, so you, Israel, have been unfaithful to me,”declares the Lord.”
God uses the language of a cheating spouse because he knows it will be relatable (and painful) to his people. He wants to shock Israel into an appropriate understanding of how their spiritual infidelity pains God on a deep level.
(Content note: For more on the marriage metaphor in the Bible, you can watch Westside’s sermon series “It’s Complicated” from February 2020 on the Westside website and app.)
God is Jealous for Us.
The word God uses to describe all this is jealousy. One of the Ten Commandments was a prohibition against worshipping idols. God expected his people to be wholeheartedly devoted to him and him alone—an exclusive relationship with Israel.
Exodus 20:4-6 says this:
4 “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. 5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, 6 but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.
The word for jealous in this passage is Qanna (kan-naw). All in all, God describes himself as jealous in five separate places in the Old Testament:
- Exodus 20:4-6
- Exodus 34:10-14
- Deuteronomy 4:23-24
- Deuteronomy 5:8-10 (which is actually identical to Exodus 20:4-6)
- Deuteronomy 6:13-17
God’s Name is “Jealous”
In the majority of those cases, “jealous” is used as an adjective to describe God’s character. What kind of God is he? He is a jealous (adjective) God. But in Exodus 34:10-14, the Bible actually uses “Jealous” asGod’s proper name:
“10 Then the Lord said: “I am making a covenant with you. Before all your people I will do wonders never before done in any nation in all the world. The people you live among will see how awesome is the work that I, the Lord, will do for you. 11 Obey what I command you today. I will drive out before you the Amorites, Canaanites, Hittites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. 12 Be careful not to make a treaty with those who live in the land where you are going, or they will be a snare among you. 13 Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones and cut down their Asherah poles.14 Do not worship any other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.”
Based on that passage, jealousy doesn’t just describe God, it’s part of his identity. God is jealous for his people the way a husband is jealous for his bride.
Isn’t Jealousy a Bad Thing?
One thing that can be confusing about this name for God is the fact that jealousy is normally something to avoid, not celebrate. In the New Testament, envy and jealousy frequently appear in lists of sins and vices that Christians are called to reject (e.g. Romans 13:11-14, 1 Corinthians 3:1-4, 2 Corinthians 12:20, and Galatians 5:19-21).
As an example, consider these words from Galatians 5:19-21, which stand in contrast to the fruit of God’s Spirit:
“19 The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.”
For Paul, jealousy and envy are obviously part of the sinful nature, not of the Spirit. To emphasize that point further, when Paul explores the true meaning of love in 1 Corinthians 13, one thing he says is that love doesn’t envy.
So if jealousy is obviously wrong, and envy is incompatible with love, why does God describe himself as a jealous God whose name is Jealous (Exodus 34:14)? It can’t be true that God is openly bragging about sinning, is he?
Of course not! But to understand why, we’ll need to take a closer look at two very different reasons why a person might feel jealous.
Why is God Jealous for His People?
God is described as jealous in five different Old Testament passages. When you take the time to read each one, you will notice something specific that all of them have in common: a prohibition against idol worship.
- Exodus 20:4-6 — Do not form for worship images (idols).
- Exodus 34:10-14 — Break down altars to false gods.
- Deuteronomy 4:23-24 — Do not make any idols.
- Deuteronomy 5:8-10 — Do not form for worship images (idols)
- Deuteronomy 6:13-17 — Do not follow other gods.
God’s jealousy is rooted in his desire to be Israel’s exclusive partner—the sole object of their worship and affection. This type of passion is normal and expected between spouses who have made an exclusive commitment to one another. It is entirely appropriate for a husband to feel jealous when another man makes romantic overtures towards his wife—and even more so if she reciprocates. The lack of jealousy in that situation might even suggest that the husband didn’t really love his wife all that much to begin with. After all, what would it say about the health of a marriage if a spouse didn’t mind being cheated on?
Selfless Vs. Selfish Jealousy
The major difference between sinful jealousy and appropriate jealousy has to do with a person’s heart. At the heart of sinful jealousy is a desire for something that a person has no rightful claim to. I might be jealous of my neighbor’s awesome Prius, or his amazing 84 inch ultra HD T.V., or his collection of Star Wars coffee mugs. But the reality is, those are rightfully his, not mine. I have no claim on them.
That kind of selfish, self-centered jealousy involves feelings of insecurity, anger, resentment, and discontent. I feel wronged and hurt because I do not have what I have no right to possess. Out of that place of hurt and insecurity, I am likely to act out in sinful ways to try and medicate my feelings of discontent.
But God’s jealously for us is entirely different for at least two reasons.
First—God has a rightful claim to us. We are made in God’s image, for his glory. Everything that has been made (including you and me) belongs to God:
“To the Lord your God belong the heavens, even the highest heavens, the earth and everything in it,” (Deuteronomy 10:14).
This is not a case of God envying what never belonged to him. Instead, God longs to love and be loved by the people whom he formed and created, a people that belongs to him.
Second—God’s jealousy is selfless. In his infinite wisdom, God knows what kinds of choices we need to make to experience life to the full. He knows where each possible path that is set before us leads. He knows that when his people turn away from God and pursue the values and priorities of the prevailing culture, that path leads away from God and away from the ideal. God loves us so much that he never wants us to settle for second-best. By giving Israel the Law, by giving them his Word, God told Israel in advance how to walk the path that leads to everlasting life. God’s frequent call to reject all other gods and to follow God alone isn’t the call of a desperate lover who needs constant attention to soothe feelings of insecurity. It’s not even primarily about God’s needs. Those calls to reject idols and make God our top priority flow out of God’s desire to give us the best life imaginable. His jealousy is inherently about us, not him.
And that’s the major difference between sinful jealousy and appropriate jealousy.