God's Jealousy

Why is it okay for God to be jealous when we often think of jealousy as a sin? What does it mean exactly?

The following is a talk given to the morning assembly of the Cornerstone Christian School in Lynden, Washington on December 13, 2017.

When we think of jealousy we often think of it as being a bad thing.  Your parents might tell you it’s not good to be jealous of someone else’s stuff or their looks or whatever else.  When we use the word “jealous” in that way, what we’re really talking about is envy.  Envy is a sin.  It’s coveting, sin against the Tenth Commandment.  You want what someone else has.  In that sense “jealousy” is not good.

But there is another type of jealousy we can say is good.  There is a kind of jealousy where we would even say it’s wrong if it’s not there when it needs to be.  You can see it best in the relationship between a husband and a wife.  A husband should be jealous for the love of his wife, and a wife should be jealous for the love of her husband.  That’s normal.

Shai Linne has a song where he vividly describes this jealousy.  It’s on his album The Attributes of God.  The song is called “the Jealous One” (listen here) and the first part of the song goes like this:

Ok, let’s begin- let your mind roam/Our scene takes place inside of a home/The husband has just walked up the staircase/He glares into space with despair on his face/His soul is on fire, inside there’s a war/That can’t be denied,/ He stands outside the door/On the other side, His bride and her lover/Oblivious to the fact their lie has been discovered/So as they embrace and try to make haste/They have no idea what’s about to take place/Gun in hand, he longs to understand/What would lead his wife into the arms of another man?/He thinks back to the day they made their vows/Before God, before the minister and the crowds/Exchange of the rings, the joy of the reception/Now a tainted memory destroyed by deception/He had been faithful to her/Now the fire of his desire got him ready to do something hateful to her/He never thought his wife would be just a faker/And that her lust would make her a covenant breaker/The promise of fidelity they made was glorious/But now his jealousy has made him furious/And they can’t see the danger/No screams or pleas they make could ever ease the pain or appease his anger/He kicks open the door- they jump out of the bed/“Don’t move!” is all he said, gun pointed at his head/The screams of his wife as she clutches the covers close/Her lover spoke to plead for his life/The husband says to the guy- “Look me in my eye/My face will be the last thing you see before you die”/The husband cried inside- his love was bona fide/Trouble for the bride- double homicide

You see, what kind of husband would just be okay with that situation?  What kind of husband would just look the other way while his wife is unfaithful to him?  He would be a bad husband if he were not jealous for the exclusive love of his wife.  Jealousy in the marriage relationship is a good thing, isn’t it?  By the way, Shai Linne is not saying it’s okay for jealous husbands to kill their wives, and neither am I.  He’s simply saying that in our world, jealousy produces these strong emotions that sometimes make people act violently.  That’s what happens in human relationships.

In the Bible, God says that he has a relationship with us.  He compares the relationship with his people to a marriage.  God is the husband and his people are his bride.  This is found in a few places in Scripture, but the place where it’s described most is in the book of Hosea.  At the time Hosea was written, God’s people were being wicked and sinful.  They were worshipping idols.  God says this was unfaithfulness to him.  They were in a covenant relationship, a relationship which is like a marriage.  In that relationship they were only supposed to love him and be committed only to him.  But God says in Hosea that they were like a wife who commits adultery.  And God doesn’t look the other way.  He sees this and it arouses his jealousy.  He becomes righteously angry at their spiritual adultery and he expresses his jealous anger.  In chapter 1 of Hosea he says that he will have no mercy on his people.  He says they are no longer his people and he is no longer their God.  And there will be consequences.  It’s all very intense.

Let’s try to think a little more deeply about this.  First, what exactly is God’s jealousy?  We could say that it is God’s intense zeal to protect the exclusiveness of the relationship with his people.  It is God’s passionate desire to have all the love and commitment of his covenant people.  Furthermore, it leads to God’s wrath against his people when they are unfaithful to him.

There is far more we can say about it.  If you look in article 1 of the Belgic Confession, you find a list of God’s attributes.  It’s a good biblical list, but it is not a complete list.  God’s jealousy is not directly mentioned there.  The Westminster Confession of Faith is another Reformed confession, used by our Presbyterian sister churches.  The Westminster Confession has an article mentioning God’s attributes as well.  It’s a fuller list than you find in the Belgic Confession.  But there too, we don’t find any explicit mention of God’s jealousy.

This is because God’s jealousy is usually connected with another attribute of God.  Some connect it to his righteousness and holiness.  They say because God is righteous and holy, he must be jealous for the love of his people.  There is truth to that – in Joshua 24:19, Joshua says to Israel, “You are not able to serve the LORD, for he is a holy God.  He is a jealous God…”  You find the same thing in the Second Commandment.  We hear it every Sunday:  you shall not worship idols, “for I the LORD your God am a jealous God.”  His holiness means that he must be jealous for the exclusive love of Israel.  If they don’t love him exclusively, they will face his holy judgment and wrath.  He will visit “the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation” of those who hate him.  That’s righteous, holy wrath.

However, in view of what we read in Hosea and elsewhere, we can also see God’s jealousy as connected to his love.  If a husband didn’t love his wife, there would be no jealousy if she were unfaithful.  Similarly, if God didn’t love his people, there would be no jealousy if they were unfaithful.  God’s love is therefore at the root of his jealousy.

One of the key things to remember about God’s jealousy is that it has a background against sin.  To say it more correctly, it has a background against the possibility of sin.  A husband is jealous for the love of his wife, because we live in a broken world where we know unfaithfulness happens.  He doesn’t want his wife to be unfaithful to him.  But in a perfect world where nobody was ever unfaithful, jealousy wouldn’t need to exist.  It’s the same with God.  He is jealous for the love his people, because there is a fallen world where unfaithfulness happens.  God doesn’t want his people to be unfaithful to him.  Therefore, because it is a broken and fallen world, God expresses his jealous love in his Word.

Whenever we sin against God, we are being unfaithful to him.  Whenever we break one of his commandments and do our will instead of his, we are committing spiritual adultery.  We are God’s people, but we are not acting like his people.  Instead, we’re acting like we belong to someone else.  The Bible says that our sin is covenant-breaking – it violates the relationship with God and provokes his jealousy.

This is why we need Jesus.  As I mentioned, God’s jealousy exists within the context of his relationship with his people.  We have a special word for that relationship:  the covenant.  God has his covenant with us, with believers and their children.  This is a relationship between a holy God and a sinful people.  The distance between these two could not be greater.  But there is someone who has bridged that distance.  That someone is the Mediator of the covenant, Jesus Christ.  He goes between a sinful people and a holy God and he makes the relationship work.  He does that in two particular ways.

One is that Jesus took the jealous wrath of God on himself before and during his time on the cross.  Though he had never done anything to deserve it, he took our place.  Jesus took our hell in body and soul.  He took the punishment against all our unfaithfulness.  If we are trusting in Christ, then God promises that all our unfaithfulness and spiritual adultery is forgiven.  We are restored to a healthy relationship with him.  The breach has been healed.

With his blood shed on the cross, Christ wipes our slates clean.  There’s not a trace of unfaithfulness left on our account with God.  That’s good news!   But the good news gets even better.  Our Saviour doesn’t just leave our slates clean.  He fills them up with his own righteousness.  He was consistently faithful to God.  He never worshipped idols.  Jesus never provoked his Father to jealousy.  He was always 100% committed to God, loved him perfectly, obeyed him flawlessly.  The Belgic Confession echoes the Bible when it says that “his obedience is ours when we believe in him.”  When we are joined to Christ through faith, God looks at us and he sees Christ and his faithfulness, his love, his commitment.  He sees us as he sees his own Son.

The forgiveness offered on the cross plus the obedience offered during Christ’s life makes the covenant of grace work between us and God.  Even though we are still sinful and imperfect, we can still have this beautiful relationship with a holy God.  It’s all through Christ, through Christ alone.

This is the gospel, this is the good news that warms our hearts in love for God.  When we see Christ in his glory living and dying for us, then we’re in the right place to begin hating all our unfaithfulness.  We’re in the right place to see it as something to be suffocated.  We have to kill it.

Because we’ve been rescued by Christ and saved by God’s love, we don’t want to provoke him to jealousy anymore.  How do we avoid doing that?  First of all, we have to recognize that when the Bible speaks about God’s jealousy oftentimes it’s in the context of idols.  Exodus 34:14 says, “For you shall worship no other god, for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.”  Idols are not just Baal, Ashtaroth and all those false gods of the Old Testament.  Idols are anything we turn to the in place of God.  John Calvin once said that we are idol factories.  We crank them out.  We create them out of everything and anything.  Idols are anything we turn to in the place of God for joy, satisfaction, or purpose.  Sports can be an idol.  So can money, music, sexual pleasure, work, and just about anything.  We need to see our idols and see them for what they are.  Jeremiah 2:13 says that they are broken cisterns that can’t hold water.  They can’t sustain life.  Idols are never going to bless you – instead, they’re only going to destroy you.  Part of the way they do that is by wrecking your relationship with God.  Once you see that reality, you will see that there is a superior joy, a superior satisfaction, and the highest purpose in God, in loving God and living in his ways.  Listen to what his Word says about the reality of idols.  Don’t listen to the world and its fantasies about idols.  The world tells us lies about our idols.  The Bible tells us the truth, and it’s that truth that will set us free.  It’s that truth that will help us to steer clear of provoking our God to jealousy with our idols.

I don’t think we reflect very often on God’s jealousy.  That’s too bad, because this is something included in the Bible to make us see the real nature of God’s relationship with us.  When we sin against God with our idols, it’s like a spouse cheating.  The spouse cheated upon takes it personally.  The spouse cheated upon feels hurt and angry.  God’s jealousy tells us that God takes it personally when we’re unfaithful to him.  What kind of God would he be if he weren’t like that?  What would it say about his love if he weren’t jealous for our love?   Seeing this reality of what our God is like and what our relationship to him is like is meant to draw us closer to him, meant to motivate us to care about being faithful to him.  May he help us with his Holy Spirit to do that.

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