“For the LORD your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God.” – Deuteronomy 4:24
“You shall not go after other gods, the gods of the peoples who are all around you (for the LORD your God is a jealous God among you), lest the anger of the LORD your God be aroused against you and destroy you from the face of the earth.” – Deuteronomy 6:14–15
We usually think of jealousy as a shortcoming, an imperfection, or a sin. So it can be confusing for people when they come across Bible verses that speak of God being a jealous God, such as Exodus 20:5 and Joshua 24:19. I have had several people ask me why God is described as jealous since that would seem to imply that He is petty and sinful.
The main problem with this issue is that we have confused two terms: jealousy and envy. Let’s look at the definitions of these two terms and then go back to address the question. Merriam-Websters Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed. defines the terms as follows:
Jealous – 1a: intolerant of rivalry or unfaithfulness. 1b: disposed to suspect rivalry or unfaithfulness. 2: hostile toward a rival or one believed to enjoy an advantage. 3: vigilant in guarding a possession.
Envy – 1: painful or resentful awareness of an advantage enjoyed by another joined with a desire to possess the same advantage.
Unfortunately, we have not always used these terms properly, and it has led to confusion on this issue. I know I’ve done it countless times, and it wasn’t until the past few years that I have made an effort to refrain from conflating the terms. How many times have you said that you were jealous of someone (or said that someone was jealous of you or someone else), but what you really meant is that you were envious of them (or they of you)?
What’s the difference? If someone else had something that you desired, or they accomplished something that made them look better than you and you wanted that prestige or standing, then you are not really jealous, you are envious of them. Desire for what they have or resentment for them because of their position is envy.
Jealousy comes from the Latin word for zealous. This word refers to someone who is “marked by fervent partisanship for a person, a cause, or an ideal.” Someone with zeal has “an eagerness and ardent pursuit of something.” (Definitions from Merriam-Websters Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed.)
When the Bible states that God is jealous, too often we think of envy. God is often described as jealous when speaking about His intense concern for Israel. He refused to tolerate their repeated idolatries. He was vigilant in guarding her, Israel, as a possession. God knew what was best for her and He wanted the people to follow Him instead of pagan gods that cannot save. For a wonderful testimony of God’s care and faithfulness of Israel even after they were repeatedly unfaithful, read the book of Hosea.
As Hosea reveals, a good picture of this can be seen in marriage. I am very jealous for my wife. This means that I would not tolerate any rival or unfaithfulness (not that I have to worry about that). And I’m glad that she is very jealous for me. But I do not envy my wife. How could I? She has to put up with me.
We have developed a nuance in modern English when speaking of jealousy, although maybe we aren’t very consistent. If someone said they were “jealous of” someone else then envy is what they usually meant. If they said that they were “jealous for” someone else then it seems to imply the proper definition.
The Apostle Paul told the Corinthians: “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 11:2). Paul’s jealousy for them was not wrong. He wanted what was best for the Corinthians—to be blameless and pure for Christ.
I am thankful that God is jealous for His people, that He is “vigilant in guarding a possession” as the definition states. He cares deeply about us and wants what is best for us. Like a good father disciplines an erring child, God, the infinitely better Father, chastens those He loves (Hebrews 12:6) because He knows what is best for us. We must recognize His gentle correction and trust Him rather than become aggravated and irritated as if He is trying to spoil our fun. He has something so much greater in store for us. We need to trust our loving and jealous God.