“You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God…” –Exodus 20:4–5a
Jealous? How can God, the perfect Creator of the universe, be jealous? We tend to think of jealousy as a flaw in one’s character. And in human history jealousy has been a root leading to all kinds of unspeakable evils.
But so many of the bad things about us are only corruptions of original goods. That’s the meaning of “the Fall.” In its simplest form, it means, due to human rebellion against the divine will and purpose, what was perfect and good no longer is—everything is upside down. Now everyone is born with a bent toward corruption, a fundamental flaw at the core of our being that throws off everything.
In personal relationships, jealousy indicates our lack of ownership over, or insecurity about, the one we love. We have an intense desire for this person, and we want that feeling to be reciprocated. Is that person being faithful? We worry, and some border on paranoia, wondering if the object of our desire has taken a greater interest in someone else. Jealousy on our part can be selfish, inappropriate, or just plain obsessive.
William Shakespeare, the Bard of Avon, had people’s personalities down to a science. His insights pierced through the outer layers of their persona and exposed clearly and, often, in very humorous ways, the inner workings of their mind—love, hatred, jealousy, insecurity, betrayal, and more. In Othello, which is the name of the play and the lead character as well, Iago, knowing how powerfully jealousy can be used for destructive ends, feeds on Othello’s own insecurity about Desdemona’s love for him and nurtures his insecurity to a tragic ending.
Of course, human jealousy may be to guard their loved ones, but more often it is born out of blatant selfishness and covetousness, and is downright harmful. These self-ward tendencies lead to overwhelming rage, irrational judgments, and an inability to perceive anything other than distorted views of the person they presume to love. Love easily turns to hatred and a desire to hurt the person as much as they can.
But that isn’t the case with God. His jealousy is a self-giving jealousy that works for us. He created us to live in an everlasting love bond with him. He wants our love and faithfulness because that’s exactly what leads to our joy and purpose in life. God’s jealousy is tilted in an “us-ward” direction.
God’s jealousy is intended to protect us from our penchant for self-destruction, our wandering off that gets us into all kinds of trouble. As Pastor Robert Robinson profoundly penned this human characteristic in the beloved hymn, Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing:
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it;
Prone to leave the God I love.
So like the loving spouse, God watches out for us. He knows that we have a bent toward following illusions and delusions, and that we’re easily fooled and full of misperceptions of what is real and good.
In the Old Testament, God unabashedly declares himself a jealous God. His jealousy is a divine, pure jealousy—free from any egocentric tendencies. His faithful love toward his people Israel kept them from the self-destructive worship of pagan gods. These man-made gods demanded people sacrifice children, to engage in acts of gross immorality or violence, leading God’s people in a downward spiral toward physical and spiritual destruction—permanently.
The dire warnings in the Bible, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world” (Romans 12:2) might give the impression that God is narrow-minded and far too strict—a real fun killer. In reality, our sovereign God knows where things inevitably lead, and he’s determined to keep us from the grief, sorrow, regret, and just plain foolishness of taking the wrong path.
It’s always been that way. God remains jealous because he remains loving and faithful. He remains fully committed day in and day out to getting us home in one piece, no matter what. He’s not particularly concerned with our approval of this aspect of his character because his will is the way to our safety and salvation. In essence, God’s words to us are, “I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with unfailing kindness” (Jeremiah 31:3).