A Jealous God
Q: I am currently “on the fence” about whether to consider Christianity. When I read the Bible I have “red flags” that jump out at me constantly. Things that don’t make sense ... things that God or Christ should know about, but don’t. One of these is how can God be perfect, yet he is a “jealous God”? Is there any way to make this make sense?
A: There are any number of ways to read the Bible. In order to understand it in relation to Jesus Christ, we must read it correctly, with Him as Scripture’s center, its focus, and its ground of being. He said of the Old Testament Scriptures and Himself, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me. (John 5:39)” The New Testament continues to focus on Jesus and His saving work. Jesus is also the “lens” through which we read and by which we understand God’s Word.
Knowing Jesus illuminates what God meant when telling Israel, “I the Lord your God am a jealous God. (Exodus 20:5)” We may begin asking, “Does this mean that the Lord pouts in His room when we ignore Him?” However, as we learn more of the Scriptures and experience Christ more in our lives, we discover that our understanding both of God and of jealousy is weak and incomplete.
While the word “jealousy” often sparks visions of an intolerant “green eyed monster” acting in hatred or suspicion, standard English allows another understanding. Of “jealousy,” the 11th Edition of the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary includes this definition: “zealous vigilance.” For “jealous,” MW includes “vigilant in guarding a possession: ‘new colonies were jealous of their new independence’” among the definitions.
Similarly, the Hebrew root word includes both a state of ill will and an attitude of deep devotion and protectiveness, depending upon the context in which it is used. Its original, literal meaning is “to become dark red.” Perhaps this refers both to the anger of improper jealousy and the blessed passion of jealousy expressed as a proper desire. You can often see the shades of meaning as Bible translators sometimes use words such as “zeal” or “desire” in place of “jealousy.”
Since you have a good understanding of what the New Bible Dictionary calls “morally blameworthy” jealousy, I’d like to use this dictionary’s definition of jealousy’s “praiseworthy” form, as expressed both by God and by His people: “The Bible however also represents the other possibility, of a ‘divine jealousy’ (2 Corinthians 11:2), a consuming single-minded pursuit of a good end (1 Kings 19:10; Exodus 20:5; 1 Corinthians 12:31). This positive usage is frequently associated with the marriage relationship where a jealousy for the exclusiveness of the relationship is the necessary condition of its permanence (Numbers 5:11ff.; Ezekiel 16:38; 2 Corinthians 11:2). Jealousy is referred to God as well as men (Exodus 20:5; 34:14; Nahum 1:2).
“Difficulty is sometimes felt with this, due principally to the way in which the negative connotations of the term have come to predominate in common English usage. Scripture however also witnesses to a positive application of jealousy and finds in this idea a highly relevant term to denote God’s holy zeal for the honour of his name and the good of his people who are bound to him in the marriage of the covenant (Deuteronomy 32:16, 21; 2 Kings 19:31; Ezekiel 36:5f.; Zechariah 1:14f.; John 2:17). In this sense the jealousy of God is of the essence of his moral character, a major cause for worship and confidence on the part of his people and a ground for fear on the part of his enemies.”
Certainly Jesus had this proper jealousy. Note His zeal for “the lost sheep of the House of Israel (see Matthew 10:5-6).” Yet even as He worked to reconcile His covenant people, He also reached out with blessing to many “other sheep that are not of [His] fold. (John 10:16)” This included the Canaanite woman whose daughter suffered demonic possession (Matthew 15:21-28). This love was likewise for all other lost sheep. It has been known by all subsequent Jewish and Gentile believers, including the Christians of today.
God sometimes expressed His jealousy for His people by violence against their enemies, as when He toppled pagan kingdoms who oppressed Israel. He also made occasion to turn His violence inward to discipline kings, prophets, and priests who mislead His people and to rebuke those who followed them. At other times, the Lord’s desire to lead and protect His people took the language of a Husband professing love for His bride: “For your Maker is your husband, the Lord of hosts is his name; and the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer, the God of the whole earth he is called. (Isaiah 54:5)”
Jesus, God’s holy Son, held and expressed this same desire. Teaching in the holy city between Palm Sunday and Thursday’s Last Supper, He paused to say, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not! (Matthew 23:37)” Yet as Israel’s Redeemer and Savior of the world, the Christ refused to lash out violently against those who resisted His call or mislead His people. Instead, Jesus allowed sinful mankind’s violence to fall upon Himself. In His suffering we see the clearest portrait of God’s jealous love for all lost and sinful people, Jew and Gentile alike.
Please permit me here a personal illustration. When I was little, my father was the biggest, strongest man I could imagine. Bill Cosby (who seemingly had the same type of dad) later joked about such men, who could say to their children, “I brought you into this world and I can take you out.” Yet this same strength that could terrify when roused to anger also was my greatest comfort during violent storms or times of severe sickness or injury.
As a child of 3 or 4 years, I sneaked onto our driveway and into Dad’s Chevy station wagon. I released its brakes and shifted it out of gear. Panicking, I jumped out and dashed behind the car, trying to hold it into place. How did I even imagine keeping it from going down the drive? It ended up knocking me down and rolling its left rear wheel over my legs during my futile attempt at stopping it. Dad heard my yells of fear and pain, dashed out of the garage, and swooped me out of the way barely before the front tire reached my prone torso. As afraid as I had been, the look in his eyes and the catch in his words told me that Dad was even more fearful of my life and safety. He was jealous for me!
Granted, Dad wasn’t perfect. He sometimes over- (or occasionally under-) reacted. Yet He provided for His household. He set a good example of faithful citizenship both in this country and in God’s eternal kingdom. He stressed responsibility and moral behavior. He possessed, valued, and demanded of his children a good education. He also forgave us and he sought forgiveness and reconciliation when he was at fault. In such, he was jealous for his wife and children, wanting the best for us and doing all in his power to grant it to us. This attitude, although flawed by his own sinfulness, stemmed from belief in our “jealous God” and, especially, in God’s jealous Son, who sacrificed Himself that His people might live.
Dear friend, our heavenly Father is likewise jealous of you! His Son zealously and perfectly kept God’s holy Law in order to bring forgiveness to you, me, and all others. He suffered alienation from His own people and abandonment by His Father in order to reconcile us to God and guarantee that we’d never be forsaken. If you are truly “on the fence,” that means that God’s Word and His Holy Spirit are acting on you. You’re already hearing his jealous desire to be your exclusive God, Father, and Savior. He asks you to give Him the worries and weights of this life that He might give you rest.
Keep listening to His Word. He’ll not flatter you with vain praise or mislead you with false promises. He’ll tell you clearly that you don’t — you can’t — live up to His standards. Yet He’ll also continually remind you that Jesus has already fulfilled the Father’s expectations and credited His perfect life to you. I hope and pray that He soon leads you into a loving, faithful church family, allowing you to live among other sinner-saints the life of a forgiven, beloved child of God. There, you’ll continue to learn and experience the difference between our earthly, often petty jealousies and the divine, loving, perfect jealousy of our Father in heaven.
Definitions from the New Bible Dictionary, © 1962, 1982, 1996 by InterVarsity Press and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th Edition, © 2003 by Merriam-Webster, Inc.
Scripture quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version™, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles.
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Walter Snyder is the pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Emma, Missouri and coauthor of the book What Do Lutherans Believe.
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