Jealousy. Envy. The green-eyed monster. We think of jealousy as a very negative emotion full of resentment, selfishness, and even hatred. So how is it that the Bible can describe God as a jealous God?
If jealousy is bad but God is righteous, can God be jealous? Or have we been using this word wrong all along?
God declares that He is jealous. Jealousy is an attribute of God that only He may rightly possess. Human jealousy is sinful because it challenges God’s glory and sovereignty.
The Oxford English dictionary defines jealousy as:
- Feeling or showing envy of someone or their achievements and advantages.
- Feeling or showing suspicion of someone’s unfaithfulness in a relationship.
- Fiercely protective or vigilant of one’s rights or possessions.
The third definition is where we focus our attention because when God describes Himself as jealous, this is the aspect of jealousy that He is referring to. Though the second definition touches on human behavior that may invoke God’s jealousy.
What is God Protecting?
The first time that God describes Himself as jealous is found in the Ten Commandments:
“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. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God…Exodus 20:4-5b
God’s jealousy is directly related to His prohibition against idol worship. The things in the heavens and on the earth are all created things, finite and inferior to God.
Only God is worthy of our worship.
So when we worship created things, our idolatry undermines God’s sovereignty as Creator and directs the glory that is due Him to an inferior object.
Whenever God speaks of His jealousy, it is always in the context of the worship of false gods and idols:
- Do not worship any other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God. – Exodus 34:14
- Do not make for yourselves an idol in the form of anything the Lord your God has forbidden. For the Lord your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God. – Deuteronomy 4:23b-24
Viewing these passages through the definition above, let us examine how God’s jealousy relates to His protection of His rights (to glory and honor) and His possessions (all created things).
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.Isaiah 48:11
God does not use the word “jealous” outside of the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) to describe Himself, but His jealousy is expressed in statements such as this one in Isaiah.
As sovereign Creator, God says, He has the right to retain all glory, because all glory is His.
Everything that exists was made by God and for God. The psalmist says that the “heavens declare the glory of God.” (Psalm 19:1). And through Isaiah, God testifies that we are created for God’s glory:
Bring my sons from afar
and my daughters from the ends of the earth—
everyone who is called by my name,
whom I created for my glory,
whom I formed and made.”Isaiah 43:6b-7
To give glory to any created thing or person, then, is to invoke God’s jealousy by glorifying the things that were meant to glorify Him. Here, God also claims ownership of His people, which leads us to the second aspect of His jealousy…
And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God ask of you but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul…
To the Lord your God belong the heavens, even the highest heavens, the earth and everything in itDeuteronomy 10:12, 14
Just as the heavens and the people are made to proclaim God’s glory, all that was created belongs to God. The heavens and the earth are His, and do not exist for themselves or apart from Him.
Similarly, by calling us to serve Him with all our heart and all our soul, God is claiming our whole being—thoughts, feelings, and actions—as His possession.
Why is Jealousy Bad for Us?
One difficulty we have with God’s jealousy is the fact that we understand jealousy as a negative trait. When we harbor jealousy, it is indeed negative. Paul includes jealousy among the “acts of the flesh” (Galatians 5:20) that are contrary to life in the Spirit.
So why can God be jealous when we can’t? The simple answer is because God is God, and we are not God.
To experience jealousy, we must assume superiority over the object(s) of our jealousy. Any jealousy that we experience is a manifestation of pride because we elevate ourselves, which we cannot do without somehow diminishing our thoughts toward God.
It was for this reason that Jesus came as a humble servant. He had every right to demand glory, but he chose to voluntarily set aside his divine right for our sake (Philippians 2:6).
Yet, after Jesus reached the lowest humility of death on a cross, He was raised from the dead, and His divine glory was fully revealed (v 9).
Paul brings this poem back to God’s glory by declaring “that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth.” (v 10)
A Glimpse into Heaven
It is impossible for us to overstate God’s glory. When John gives us a view into heaven’s throne room in Revelation 4, we observe 24 elders (God’s people) and four creatures (God’s creation) singing praise and declaring God’s glory. Let’s draw out two important details:
- Day and night, they never stop singing. (v 6)
- They lay their crowns before the throne. (v 10)
They declare God’s glory at all times, and whatever glory God bestows on them (represented by their crowns), they rightfully give fully back to Him.
The same is true of us. Whatever goodness, whatever glory, whatever honor we have has been given to us by God, to use in all aspects of our lives to reflect His glory.
When we claim glory as our own, we lay a claim of entitlement to what is really an unmerited gift. In doing so, we invoke God’s jealousy and invite corrective humbling into our lives.
Fortunately, God has graciously given us a means of remembering His glory so that we don’t rightly claim it as our own:
But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.2 Corinthians 4:7
Our own frailty, imperfection, and weakness reveal God’s glory. When we allow His Spirit to work through us, despite our limitations, our lives magnify His glory as we walk in righteousness and humble service, which we could never do apart from Him.