Knowing God, Chapter 17

God and the Green-Eyed Monster

Scripture is filled with statements which are unexpected, surprising even, catching us off guard and causing us to struggle to understand the God who is revealed in them. Sometimes, I think, we just move past these remarks without giving much thought to the things we have read, and we remain largely unmoved by the great truths which are intended to shock us and cause us to reevaluate our ideas about God. One such statement is found in Exodus 34, when God proclaims his name to Moses, telling him that the Lord is gracious and loving, slow to anger and faithful. And then he says, “the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.”

Now think about that for just a minute. Isn’t jealousy, the green-eyed monster, a vice? Isn’t it one of the most harmful and destructive tendencies found in human relationships? How can God possibly be jealous? Is there even the remotest chance that we’ve just misunderstood what he said in Exodus 34? But no. It’s as clear as it can be. God’s character and nature as revealed to man can be summed up in one word: jealous.

One objection, which J. I. Packer dismisses immediately, is that jealousy seems to be completely foreign to how you or I might imagine God to be. He says, “Nobody would imagine a jealous God. But we are not making up an idea of God by drawing on our imagination; we are seeking instead to listen to the words of Holy Scripture, in which God himself tells us the truth about himself.” And indeed the jealousy of God is widely spoken of in the Bible, with references in the OT including the Pentateuch (Ex. 20:5; 34:14; Num. 25:11; Deut. 4:24; 6:15; 29:20; 32:16, 21), the historical books (Josh. 24:19; 1 Kings 14:22), the prophets (Ezek. 8:3-5; 16:38, 42; 23:25; 36:5-7; 38:19; 39:25; Joel 2:18; Nah. 1:2; Zeph. 1:18; 3:8; Zech. 1:14; 8:2), and the Psalms (78:58; 79:5). Even the NT speaks of provoking the Lord’s jealousy (1 Cor. 10:22; Jas. 4:5). Whatever else it might be, God’s jealousy is not a figment of our imagination but is revealed in his word.

A second objection is that jealousy is a vice, an immoral or evil practice, and, as such, it would not be found in a holy God. To this challenge, Packer responds with two important points:

  • Biblical statements about God’s jealousy are anthropomorphisms. In order for God to reveal himself to us in ways we could understand, he uses language which is taken from our experience as humans. This makes sense, because we are more like God than any other creature, being made in his image. One limitation in using such language is that we might begin to assign human limitations or sinful tendencies to God, and this would be a mistake. When the Bible speaks of God’s jealousy, “[it] is not a compound of frustration, envy and spite, as human jealousy so often is, but appears instead as a praiseworthy zeal to preserve something supremely precious.” This leads us to Packer’s second point.
  • There are two sorts of jealousy among humans, and only one of them is a vice. Jealousy may be a childish anger that rises when we don’t get something we want, or it may be “zeal to protect a love relationship or to avenge it when broken.” This latter form is actually a virtue, as R. V. G. Tasker explains, “[a married person] who felt no jealousy at the intrusion of a lover or an adulterer into their home would surely be lacking in moral perception; for the exclusiveness of marriage is the essence of marriage.”

In the same way, God expects his children to worship him exclusively, according to the covenant of love that he has made with them, and he will respond jealously to any and every threat to that relationship. When God told Moses that his name was “Jealous,” he meant, “that he demands from those whom he has loved and redeemed utter and absolute loyalty…[and he] seeks what we should seek – his glory, in and through men – and it is for the securing of this end, ultimately, that he is jealous.” If God’s concern for us is so strong that he would take the name, “Jealous,” then how great should be our concern for him and his glory?

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