Some believe God is a jealous and merciless being. Is this idea found in God’s Word? What does the Bible mean when it says that God is a “jealous God”?
From our own experiences, we all know what human jealousy is. Jealousy is commonly understood as resentment against a person for having or enjoying what we think should be our own. As novelist, poet and essayist Erica Jong put it, “Jealousy is all the fun you think they had.”
But is this the only type of jealousy discussed in the Bible? What is godly jealousy?
One man who tells us he had the kind of jealousy that God has is the apostle Paul.
Paul’s “godly jealousy”
Would you have thought of the great apostle Paul as someone who harbored jealousy? But he said he did. Let’s consider the context of his statement.
On his second evangelistic tour, he stopped in the bustling city of Corinth. While living there, Paul learned firsthand about the difficulties the Christians living in Corinth faced. Corinth was a wealthy, multiethnic port city. The business of the docks brought exposure to languages, ethics, cultures and religions from all over the known world; and it was a center for pagan worship. Cults for the gods of Egypt, Rome and Greece were all found there.
The famous temple of Venus (also known as Aphrodite, the goddess of love) was said to have 1,000 “priestesses” or temple prostitutes. The city’s reputation for rampant sexual immorality was known everywhere and inspired the phrase to Corinthianize, meaning “to live like the Corinthians; hence, to lead a life of licentiousness and debauchery” (William Dwight Whitney, The Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia: Dictionary, 1906).
It’s no wonder Paul had a soft spot in his heart for those striving to maintain their Christianity in spite of daily difficulties in Corinth. Even after he left Corinth to continue his journeys, the members there were often in his thoughts.
Two letters he wrote to the Corinthians show the deep love and concern he felt for them—even to the point of correcting them and trying to protect them.
Dangers from sin and false teachers
In his second epistle to the church at Corinth, Paul reminded them to beware of false prophets and not give their words any credence. Then he wrote, “Oh, that you would bear with me in a little folly—and indeed you do bear with me. For I am jealous for you with godly jealousy. For I have betrothed you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ” (2 Corinthians 11:1-2, emphasis added throughout).
“Jealousy” here is from the Greek word zelos and can be either an “intense positive interest in something—zeal—ardor, marked by a sense of dedication” as in 2 Corinthians 11:2, or the word can refer to “intense negative feelings over another’s achievements or success, jealousy, envy” as in 1 Corinthians 3:3 (Frederick William Danker, The Concise Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament).
Paul knew that the Corinthians’ faithfulness to the one true God was threatened by the prevalence of sin in their society and by the influence of false teachers. He spoke to the Corinthian members as a father would to a daughter he loved and wanted to protect, because he loved them in that same way. He was on guard for them. Dictionary.com defines jealousy as “vigilance in maintaining or guarding something.”
We all have the desire to guard and protect something or someone we care for, with every available means—to be jealous for them (not of them). This is the sense in which Paul was jealous for the Corinthians, and it is the type of jealousy God feels for His own children as well.
“Jealous God” misunderstood
Godly jealousy can be easily misunderstood when considering a scripture such as Exodus 20:5, which says in the context of the Second Commandment, “For I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations.”
This can sound as though God punishes innocent people! But is that what this is really saying? This would instill terror instead of love into our understanding of who and what God is.
This interpretation is contradicted directly in Ezekiel 18, which states plainly that the father who sins will be accountable for himself only, and his child will not bear the spiritual consequence of his father’s sin. But even the sinner, if he repents and “turns from all his sins … and does what is lawful and right, he shall surely live; he shall not die. None of the transgressions which he has committed shall be remembered against him” (Ezekiel 18:21-22).
A caring father corrects his child when he does wrong or persists in an activity that is dangerous, because parents want the best for their children. So does God.
The context of Exodus 20 shows that God was concerned that His people would worship idols and false gods, taking them away from the knowledge of the one true God and into sin. The passage in Exodus 20 states that God would visit “the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me [continue in sin], but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments” (verses 5-6).
Although God does not punish later generations for the sins of their predecessors, there is a tendency for sin in one generation to carry forward, often down to the third or fourth generation following.
Note, for example, Leviticus 26:39, in this connection: “And those of you who are left shall waste away in their iniquity in your enemies’ lands; also in their fathers’ iniquities, which are with them, they shall waste away.” Too often, children follow the poor examples of their parents; that is the meaning of this statement.
The loving God of the Old Testament
People often think of “the God of the Old Testament” as an unfair, tyrannical judge—perhaps as a God showing the human form of jealousy. But a glance at just a few scriptures counters that assessment.
- “The LORD your God in your midst, the Mighty One, will save; He will rejoice over you with gladness, He will quiet you with His love, He will rejoice over you with singing” (Zephaniah 3:17).
- “But You, O Lord, are a God full of compassion, and gracious, longsuffering and abundant in mercy and truth” (Psalm 86:15).
- “Thus says the LORD: ‘Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, let not the mighty man glory in his might, nor let the rich man glory in his riches; but let him who glories glory in this, that he understands and knows Me, that I am the LORD, exercising lovingkindness, judgment, and righteousness in the earth. For in these I delight,’ says the LORD” (Jeremiah 9:23-24).
The beautiful word lovingkindness implies mercy, kindness, favor, graciousness and forgiveness. Does that sound like a harsh and angry God who doesn’t love you? He is not a God who is jealous with the selfish, human type of jealousy.
And of the New Testament
God’s goodness and love are exemplified throughout the New Testament. Jesus Christ tells us, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).
The apostle Paul also wrote a lot about God’s love.
What kept Paul going in spite of everything others did to him? He had come to know the love, mercy and faithfulness of God, and he trusted Him. Paul sums it up in his letter to the Christians living in Rome:
“Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:37-39).
Growing to understand God’s love
As disciples of Jesus Christ, James and John were jealous and zealous for God. Christ even called them the “Sons of Thunder” (Mark 3:17). But Jesus showed that their hotheaded jealousy was misguided. When a village in Samaria refused to receive Christ, James and John angrily wanted to call down fire from heaven and destroy the whole town.
Jesus sharply corrected them for their impetuous, angry attitude: “You do not know what manner of spirit you are of,” Jesus told them. “For the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives but to save them” (Luke 9:55-56).
This rebuke must have left a deep impression on John. The disciple known as a “Son of Thunder” later became known as the apostle of love. In the Gospel and epistles that bear his name, we gain much insight into the nature of God’s love.
As we come to know God more deeply, understanding His love, our natural response should be to love Him in return and to learn to always put Him first. We love Him because He first loved us (1 John 4:19). Even while we were sinners, God sent His Son to die for us so that we might live. Romans 5:8 says, “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
Obviously, God does not want us to turn our backs on His love or to trample the sacrifice of “the Son of God underfoot” (Hebrews 10:29). He is jealous for us for our own good—because He loves us.
John, the apostle of love, shows how God’s love begins to work in us, writing in his first epistle, “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and keep His commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome” (1 John 5:2-3).
This brings us back to what we are told in the Second Commandment, that God is a “jealous God” who shows “mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.” God knows that keeping His commandments will bring us blessings and that breaking them will hurt us, so out of godly jealousy—out of love—He greatly desires for us to obey.
For more about God’s love and how He wants us to respond, see the following articles:
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