ecently a well-known television personality described her departure from Christianity. It apparently began in her younger years when she was in church one Sunday morning. While the charismatic preacher was recalling the characteristics of God in his sermon, he spoke of Jehovah as a “jealous” God. This statement connecting the omnipotent God with the ugliest of human vices took the young woman aback. She wondered,
If you have been around faith culture for any amount of time, you have likely heard about our God’s jealousy issues. Scores of Americans have heard the statement, “I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God,” but in a culture that loves sound bites, very few could give the context of this biblical quote. For many, it is just as ambiguous and misunderstood as “Judge not, that ye be not judged” (Matt. 7:1).
This quote about God’s jealousy first appears in Exodus 20:5 as Jehovah is enumerating the Ten Commandments to Moses. It comes as a rationale for the first and second commandments: worship God alone, and do not make an idol. God has a low tolerance for infidelity. This same scripture describes His love for us as being so intense that He allows the effects of sin to be carried out through several generations—He will discipline His people.
For 400 years, Israel had been a slave nation. Morning to night and day to day, they were cogs in the Egyptian nation- building machinery. For all they knew, that’s the only thing their people would or could ever be. Then God heard the cries of their suffering, and like a prince stooping to rescue a common beggar, He began His pursuit of Abraham’s descendants. Ten plagues and three months later, Israel was going to meet her suitor face-to-face for the first time.
The Relationship God Yearns For
The most prevalent metaphor used in the Bible to describe God’s relationship with His covenant people (whether Israel or the Church) is marriage. From Hosea and Gomer to the Marriage Supper of the Lamb, it is the most appropriate way to illustrate the relationship of reciprocal love that God has always desired from His people.
If deliverance from Egypt was Israel’s betrothal, Sinai was her wedding day. Doubtless there were those among the Hebrews who saw the recent events that had resulted in their newfound freedom only in natural terms—as a political and national victory. Exodus 19:4 tells us, however, that Israel’s deliverance was supernatural. God had carried them “on eagles’ wings” and brought them to meet with Him. His message to them was, “If you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession” (v. 5 NIV).
Israel responds positively, saying they will do whatever God asks them to do, and they prepare for the wedding by consecrating themselves—washing their bodies and their clothing. The Lord speaks, laying down the terms of their covenant relationship in chapters 20-23.
Tragically, the rest of the Old Testament seems to be the story of Israel’s self-destructive adultery cycle. Time and again they corporately abandon their covenant security to chase after other lovers. Yet, God’s jealousy for His people provokes Him to continually pursue them until there is restoration—even if it includes some harsh tactics (especially 70 years of Babylonian exile). God’s love for Israel and adherence to His promise make for a story of relentless pursuit. He sends prophets, poets, priests, judges, kings, and even other nations as messengers in order that Israel will know the extent of His jealousy for them.
Two Types of Jealousy
On a much smaller scale than God’s covenant relationship with the Hebrew nation, we can relate to God’s intense desire for His people’s fidelity to Him. I have been married for 14 years, and my wife and I believe strongly in the covenant relationship of marriage. There are, however, times when jealousy plays a part, even in the strongest marriages.
First, there is the unhealthy kind of jealousy that stems from a lack of trust, our own insecurities, or simple selfishness. This kind of jealousy arises when we do not trust our spouse even in the simplest of interactions with others.
Second, there is a healthy kind of jealousy in the marriage relationship. It warns us when we realize someone else is trying to alienate our partner’s affections and seduce them. Over the course of our marriage, my wife and I have both seen examples where someone was trying to form unhealthy relationships that would draw us away from our covenant together (and this happens far too often to those in ministry). I would warn my wife, or she would warn me, and we would take caution in those relationships.
My wife and I belong to each other through covenant love, and no one else has the right to a relationship with her as I do. Therefore, my jealousy for her drives me to protect and preserve our relationship.
The Bible also differentiates between healthy jealousy and envy or covetousness. While God’s loving pursuit of Israel is an example of a healthy jealousy that protects and preserves a relationship, unhealthy jealousy is a corruption of desire that Shakespeare’s Othello called the “green-eyed monster.”
Paul uses the term “godly jealousy” to describe his love for the Corinthian church in 2 Corinthians 11:2. One chapter later he lists jealousy as one of those characteristics he does not want to see among members of this church (12:20). This kind of jealousy happens when we allow discontent to grow into envy of others or into insatiable covetousness. Of course, the God who made all things is not bound by such human frailty. God’s jealousy is not based on the kind of temporary emotions we experience over the course of life—His jealousy is based in truth. It is an understanding that no one will love us and give himself or herself for us like He has.
God’s Unreasonable Attention and Affection
So despite what a famous TV talk show host might think, God is jealous for us, not of us—what a difference a preposition makes! Also, God’s jealousy is not a defect of Christianity, but rather it is one of its greatest features.
In a world where people labor and sell themselves into slavery for their chosen idols, our God pursues us and woos us. His jealousy for us drives Him to do unreasonable things to win our attention and affection.
Though this world tries to alienate our affections from God, we must faithfully practice the disciplines that cultivate our love for Him. Rather than provoking God’s jealousy, we ought to live as a covenant people worthy of the valuable price paid for our redemption.