On Divine Jealousy

A sad reality is that many people who call themselves Christians really believe and act little differently than atheists. Both share a common trait. Both don’t want God meddling in their lives. Both live and act as if they are the centre of the universe, and both resent the very idea of a God who makes demands and commands allegiance.

An atheist recently complained about the fact that I mentioned the judgment of God. One can understand why. A judging God means a God whose holiness is the standard of what is right and wrong. A judging God means we are not our own boss, but we all must submit to the Lord of the universe.

A judging God means not everything we do or say is pleasing to a holy God, and it means that we will all one day have to give an account of our lives. A judging God means an end to our autonomous lifestyle, and the beginning of personal responsibility, accountability and a final reckoning.

But sadly many Christians also find these truths to be uncomfortable. The carnal, worldly Christian, just like the atheist, simply does not want God sniffing around in his life. A deistic conception of God may be OK – that is, a remote, uncaring, impersonal God who makes no demands of us, has no expectations of us, and does not love us enough to intervene in our lives.

Both pagans and carnal Christians want to be left alone to live life the way they want, with no pesky God telling them what to do. Thus they hate the idea of a judging God. But the truth is, the judgment of God is good news indeed. It tells us God is so concerned about us, that he will always act when a breach in our relationship occurs.

Another way of looking at this is to speak of God’s jealousy. That word sounds offensive to modern ears. We think of people who are angry and emotive, motivated by fear, envy and insecurity. But the biblical concept is different than what we normally have in mind.

Image of Godly Jealousy: A Theology of Intolerant Love
Godly Jealousy: A Theology of Intolerant Love by K. Erik Thoennes (Author) Amazon logo

God’s jealousy is a function of his love for us and his commitment to us. As K. Erik Thoennes puts it in his important study, Godly Jealousy, “Does not exclusivity demand intolerance to any breach of that exclusivity?” He argues that this is a “real and deep passion of God. To be sure, the jealousy here is not the suspicious, petty, envious kind we often see arising out of human insecurity. This jealousy is based in God’s right to be exclusively worshipped and served.”

Many dozens of texts can be appealed to here. Let me just focus on the Second Commandment (Exodus 20:4-6; Deuteronomy 5:8-10). This speaks of God as a jealous God, which is why he commands us to have no other gods, and to avoid idolatry like the plague. God is inimitable and cannot be imaged.

John Goldingay puts it this way: “The risk in making an image is that Yhwh is a passionate or jealous God. Indeed, Yhwh’s very name is ‘Jealous.’ That is how radically Yhwh is ‘a jealous God’ (Ex. 34:14). Jealous passion is very close to the center of Yhwh’s nature.”

But the important thing to note here is how divine jealousy is part and parcel of divine love. As Alec Motyer states, jealousy “is part of the essence of true love, and the Lord so loves us that he cannot bear it when our desires and loyalties go elsewhere.”

Walter Kaiser says that “jealousy is that emotion by which God is stirred up and provoked against whatever hinders the enjoyment of that which he loves and desires. The greatest insult that can be done against love (in this case, God’s love for us, his people) is to slight it and to embrace a lesser, more base love.”

Philip Graham Ryken says this about the commandment: “No husband who truly loves his wife could possibly endure seeing her in the arms of another man. It would make him intensely jealous, and rightly so! God feels the same way about his people. His commitment to us is total. His love is exclusive, passionate, intense – in a word, jealous.”

Christopher Wright in his commentary on Deuteronomy says that we moderns dislike this very concept. It “easily grates on the modern person because of the infectious pluralism that disapproves such exclusivity”. But he reminds us that the “jealousy of Yahweh is a function of his covenant commitment to his people.”

He continues, “Having committed himself exclusively to them, he requires loyalty in return. In a context of committed love, the exclusion of rivals (i.e., jealousy) is a perfectly proper concern. . . . A God who was not jealous for the reciprocal commitment of God’s people would be as contemptible as a husband who didn’t care whether or not his wife was faithful to him.”

We too should exhibit this

Not only does God rightly show a deep and passionate jealousy for his own glory and his beloved, but so too should his people. There are numerous examples of this found throughout Scripture. One thinks of the life of Moses for example, and his profound commitment to God’s honour and reputation. Or David’s. Or Jesus himself.

Let me here offer just one New Testament example: Paul. And let me select just one text – of many possible – which bears this out. In 2 Corinthians 11:1-14 Paul speaks of his deep concerns for the Corinthians, and how they are allowing themselves to be turned away from Christ.

In verse 2 he says “I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy”. In this he fully shares God’s own heart. He wants only the best for these believers, and he knows that anything that will separate them from God will be injurious to them, and must be fiercely resisted.

Thus he strongly and unflinchingly resists the false teaching found there. In verse two he also uses a metaphor of the church being engaged to Christ. This picks up a key Old Testament theme of Yahweh being the bridegroom and Israel being the bride.

Here Christ is the bridegroom and the church is betrothed to him. As D.A. Carson explains, “Paul, acting as the father, has betrothed the Corinthian church to Christ. As an honourable father, he desires to present his daughter as a pure virgin to her prospective husband when he comes for her (at the parousia).

“Instead, Paul hears reports that she is playing around with other lovers, and he is appalled. More, he is jealous for his daughter (not ‘of’ her, but ‘for’ her): incensed at the seducers, lovingly concerned for her purity and her future, hurt, outraged at her fickleness.”

And recall that in ancient Near Eastern culture betrothal was seen as a binding commitment, basically as binding as marriage itself. It was a far more serious commitment than modern Western engagements are. Thus complete sexual faithfulness was expected during the betrothal period.

Given that the endpoint of history is about “the marriage of the Lamb” in which “the bride has made herself ready” for the bridegroom (Revelation 19:7), this is very important indeed. It is all about, as Paul says, the attempt “to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless” (Ephesians 5:25-27).

No wonder such jealousy is so very vital. This sort of jealousy is a good jealousy, a healthy jealousy, and one which all believers should embrace and champion. It is in large measure because we lack, ignore or disdain this fundamental attribute of God that the church is so weak and anaemic today.

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11 Replies to “On Divine Jealousy”

  1. Thanks Bill,

    I can’t remember a recent sermon on Godly jealousy but we had a timely one on the subject of hell this Lord’s Day just past. Hopefully the subject of Godly jealousy won’t be too far behind. I am thankful to be part of a fellowship that values and teaches the whole counsel and Word of God, not just the fuzzy bits.

    Kerry Letheby

  2. God’s jealous love for us is a vital truth; He really cares about us and we are really capable of hurting him. That’s how important we are.
    Jon Newton

  3. Hi Bill,

    Speaking of believers’ jealous commitment to God’s honour and reputation; what are your thoughts on how ordinary Christians should respond to the casual blasphemy of those around us (e.g. those who use God’s name as an exclamation or oath)?

    Should one always say something? Should it be private or public? On what grounds do we ask that they desist (our offence alone, or because it will bring God’s wrath on them and our nation…)? What response if they refuse to stop?

    Mansel Rogerson

  4. Unfortunately so many of our politicians lay claim to the label of Christianity, yet behave as you describe in the first few paragraphs. We have responsibility to pull them into line by describing to them the demands of Christianity and asking them not to call themselves Christian if they won’t meet those demands.
    Catherine Dodd

  5. There are many nominal Christians living in what they call a partnership but not a marriage; in other words their new mate takes precedence over God – perhaps.
    Ilona Sturla

  6. I have no problem acknowledging that it’s what God wants for my life that matters, not what I want – but the problem is being sure that what I think is wanted really really comes from Him, and is not infected by my own hidden desires; if we really know ourselves, we know that self-deception is always (or at least often) a possibility.
    John Thomas, UK

  7. Our Pastor gave an excellent sermon on God’s nature as judge last Sunday, but I have rarely, if ever, heard one on His jealousy. Your article is good and thought provoking. This is a bit (!) controversial – but I have thought since the event that the one good thing the Taliban did was to destroy the idols of Buddha in Afghanistan. Something else has struck me – how many nominal Jews I know who have turned to the false spirituality/religion of new age beliefs. Any suggestions as to why?
    Katharine Hornsby

  8. I’d like to comment on the judgment part of this. The people who have a problem with God judging them have an even bigger problem with the idea that any kind of a real standard can exist, because that implies that people will sometimes discern a deviation from that standard. That is precisely what has been the chief cause of the moral breakdown and the consequent social breakdown over the past four decades — an erosion of the standard of sexual behavior as being just for male-female marriage. And it also points to the core of what it is so difficult to reverse the trend: The case has to be made effectively that it is legitimate for one person to tell another that he is doing something in violation of a valid and beneficial standard. There is also the even more delicate question of how that should be expressed.
    John O’Connor

  9. Katharine – can you please elaborate on why you think it is a good idea that the Taliban destroyed the Bamayan Buddhas? Many buddhists commented at the time that they thought it was not such a bad thing to be reminded that they were only stone statues, and that like all material things, they will pass away in time. Many others, Buddhists and others, were apalled by the destruction of objects of great historical and cultural significance. I’m wondering if your point of view was the first one above, or was there something else in your mind? I’ve never heard any Christians say that before, and am curious.
    Peter Hillson

  10. The first thought that came to my mind when I saw you raise this topic, was the “jealousy offering” of Numbers chapter 5 verses 11 to 29, made when a man feels jealous of his wife’s infidelity, whether it is true or not.
    In particular a careful reading of this seems to imply (in verse 29) that the man is vindicated in his being jealous irrespective of whether she in fact has done anything wrong. Suggesting perhaps that not just outright infidelity but behaviour that could trigger jealousy is also not excusable.
    These laws mirror God’s expectations of all humans – mankind and womankind alike are not meant to leave God in any doubt as to their commitment to Him.
    He is therefore “right” in his jealousy, if what we do provokes him to jealousy, whether by flirting with the enemy or trying to impose demands, deadlines and conditions on our loyalty to Him.
    Harvey Brice

  11. Dear Bill,
    thank you for that article!
    It shows how much God loves us – how much he desires the best for us, that we don’t get hurt.

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