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God says that He is a jealous God. How can that be?

The first reference to God saying that He is a jealous God can be found in Exodus 20:5 where we read: “…you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. 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 of those who hate Me.” This is part of the second of God’s Ten Commandments.

Young’s Analytical Concordance shows that the word for jealousy in this verse is “qanna” which can mean zealous and jealous. The same word is used in the same context in other verses as follows:

Exodus 34:14: “…for you shall worship no other god, for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God…”

Deuteronomy 4:24: “For the LORD your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God.”

Deuteronomy 5:9: “… you shall not bow down to them [carved images] nor serve them. 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 of those who hate Me…”

In passing, the meaning of this verse, and also the one in Exodus 20:5, quoted above, is explained in our Q&A, titled “What does it mean that God will visit the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate Him (compare Exodus 20:5)?” In short, it points out that the negative conduct of the parents may have in many cases a negative impact on the children, but the children are not doomed to have to follow their parent’s bad example.

Deuteronomy 6:15: “…(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.”

The word “ganno”, also meaning zealous and jealous, is used in Joshua 24:19 and Nahum 1:2, also referring to God being a jealous God. There are a number of other references too.   We can quickly understand that God is zealous which can be defined as “jealous for the good or the promotion of some person or object; ardent; eager; fervent; devoted.” That is a quality of God and must also be a quality that we must have. It is not within the scope of this Q&A to look at the zealous nature of God but to answer the question about jealousy.

Deuteronomy 4:23-24 states: “Take heed to yourselves, lest you forget the covenant of the LORD your God which He made with you, and make for yourselves a carved image in the form of anything which the LORD your God has forbidden you. For the LORD your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God.”

The following Scriptures also show that God would not accept unfaithfulness towards Him and had to be first in the lives of the ancient nation of Israel and, therefore by extension, in our lives today:

Leviticus 18:3: “According to the doings of the land of Egypt, where you dwelt, you shall not do; and according to the doings of the land of Canaan, where I am bringing you, you shall not do; nor shall you walk in their ordinances.”

Leviticus 20:23: “And you shall not walk in the statutes of the nation which I am casting out before you; for they commit all these things, and therefore I abhor them.”

Deuteronomy 12:30: “… take heed to yourself that you are not ensnared to follow them [pagan nations], after they are destroyed from before you, and that you do not inquire after their gods, saying, ‘How did these nations serve their gods? I also will do likewise.’”

They were instructed to put God first, to love God with every fiber of their being, to teach God’s Way to their children and not to learn the way of the heathen. Nothing else would be acceptable.

God was making sure that His people kept Him at the center of their lives, and we should do exactly the same today.

We know that God is perfect in every way. How then do we understand the verses quoted above?

One commentator observed that “this is part of the second commandment – you shall have no other gods before God. The meaning is clear, beautiful and as righteous as a man being jealous for his wife. In an environment where many gods compete for the affection of man God is intensely competitive in vying for the affections of His people.”

God was “jealous” in the sense that He expected full devotion, not merely a partial, lukewarm commitment. Worship belongs to God, and He is right to be “jealous” of it.

God entered into a committed relationship with the ancient nation of Israel. In Exodus 19:4-6 we read: “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be a special treasure to Me above all people; for all the earth is Mine. And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words which you shall speak to the children of Israel.”

The commitment was that Israel was to “obey My voice” and “if you keep My covenant”, as God put it. The demands of the covenant were the laws and statutes that regulated the relationship between Israel and God and between the Israelites themselves. We read the response from the Israelites in Exodus 19:8: “Then all the people answered together and said, “All that the LORD has spoken we will do.” So, Moses brought back the words of the people to the LORD.” Agreement had been reached.

We know that Israel reneged on these commitments time and time again. We can read this in Psalm 78:10-11, where the sub-heading to the chapter in the New King James Bible is “God’s kindness to rebellious Israel”: “They did not keep the covenant of God; They refused to walk in His law, And forgot His works And His wonders that He had shown them.”

As the people of God, Israel failed miserably much of the time. As the people of God and “spiritual Israel” today, we have a special relationship with God. In our booklet God’s Teachings on Sexual Relationships” we state on page 26 the following: “As we can see from Ephesians 5:31-32, Paul is addressing here the mystery of the relationship between Christ and His Church. He emphasizes that those who are called must come out of the ways of this world in order to be joined with Christ. Christ must be continuously living within them (1 John 2:15–17; Romans 12:2; Galatians 2:20). Paul also shows that the physical institution of marriage is pointing at a spiritual union between God and man. It is pointing at a spiritual marriage between Christ and His Church.”

In 2 Corinthians 11:2, the apostle Paul wrote: ”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.”   Paul desired that the church be fully devoted to Christ. His “jealousy” was one of wanting the very best for the Church and their relationship with God. Anything that would divert their attention and commitment of worshipping God would be seen as a disaster. That was a type of Godly jealousy, where Paul earnestly wanted the best outcome for the Church which would be their closeness and commitment to worshipping God.

If Paul could be “jealous” for God in the right way, how much more would the perfect Creator God have righteous jealousy for the spiritual well-being of His people?

However, jealousy with man is usually a very negative force.  In the “works of the flesh” in Galatians 5:20, we read some traits to be avoided: “idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies,” none of which, along with the other “works of the flesh,” are to be part of a true Christian’s way of life.

In 1 Corinthians 10:22 we read: “Or do we provoke the Lord to jealousy?  Are we stronger than He?” This was talking about idolatry, and it is a very dangerous exercise to provoke God in such a way; particularly, when true Christians should have known then, and should know today, that God always has our best interests at heart and God’s jealousy is based on his love and concern for us. He wants us to make it into His kingdom – for eternity!

We can see that jealousy is used in God’s Word in both a positive and a negative way. When jealousy is used as an attribute of carnal man, it is invariably used in a negative way, but when used as an attribute of God, it is always used in a positive sense because God is perfect in all His ways.

Isaiah 42:8 contains more than just a clue as to why God is a jealous God: “I am the LORD, that is My name; And My glory I will not give to another, Nor My praise to carved images.” He clearly states that He will not share His praise with any other so-called god as He is the only true God and all the other gods are just idols from the imagination of man. He looks after His own and protects us mightily and that is divine jealousy, all in the best interests of man.

In Matthew 10:37 we read: “He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me.”

This Christian struggle of choosing God above all else is vividly described in James 4:4-5, where we read: “Adulterers and adulteresses! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Whoever therefore wants to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. Or do you think that the Scripture says in vain, ‘The Spirit who dwells in us yearns jealously’?”

We have to live a life worthy of our calling. In 1 John 2:6 we read: “He who says he abides in Him ought himself also to walk just as He walked.” By following such instructions we will be able to get our priorities right and God will be first in our lives. It has been said and written many times that God should be first, followed, in that order, by our mate, our children and then our job, but how many times have we failed to get our priorities right?

In the Church of God, we have often used the phrase that God’s jealousy can be defined as “intolerant of unfaithfulness.” God demands of us, for our own benefit, complete fidelity to Him as He knows what is best for us and guides us down that path through the lead of the Holy Spirit. On the other hand, the jealousy of the carnal human mind is always linked to envy and covetousness of which we must not be guilty. The difference between Godly jealousy and man’s jealousy is unbridgeable.

We should be very grateful that God is a jealous God as He has the very best interests of all of His people at heart.

Lead Writer: Brian Gale (United Kingdom)