It can be perplexing for Christians, then, when they come across a passage like Exodus 34:14: “You shall worship no other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.” How could a perfect, loving, patient God call himself jealous? Is God insecure? Do passages like this simply represent a primitive, Old Testament idea of God that is thankfully done away with by the time we get to the New Testament?
ABSTRACT: To many people, the word jealousy is laden with negative connotations. In Scripture, however, we read that “the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.” God is rightfully jealous for his own glory and for the devotion of his covenant people. Holy jealousy also characterizes the most godly men and women, from David and Elijah to Jesus and Paul.
It can be perplexing for Christians, then, when they come across a passage like Exodus 34:14: “You shall worship no other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.” How could a perfect, loving, patient God call himself jealous? Is God insecure? Do passages like this simply represent a primitive, Old Testament idea of God that is thankfully done away with by the time we get to the New Testament? Maybe this is just a human way of talking about God that should not be taken seriously, or perhaps jealous is a bad translation of a Hebrew word that could allow for a less troublesome English word?
Despite confusion and aversion to this attribute of God, we must not reject or neglect this important aspect of God’s character. The jealousy of God is an attribute that pervades the pages of Scripture and is an essential part of God’s covenant love. To understand why God would call himself jealous, and even intensify this description by turning it into one of his divine names, we need to see Exodus 34:14 in its biblical context. This is also true for the hundreds of other times God declares or displays his jealousy in the Bible.
Jealousy and Envy
While all human words are frail and limited in describing God, we need to allow God’s verbal revelation to hold the power and meaning he intends for it to have. Jealous is actually a very good English word to translate the Hebrew word kana in Exodus 34. Kana (as well as the Greek equivalent zelos) could be translated as zeal or envy in other places in the Bible. Zeal is a general strong feeling to see something come about. Envy is a desire to gain possession of something that does not belong to you, and it is always sinful. Jealousy is a strong desire to maintain relational faithfulness that you believe does belong to you. Jealousy can be sinful if it is unwarranted or expressed in wrong ways, but it can also be an entirely appropriate and righteous emotion. We don’t usually make any distinction between envy and jealousy, which contributes to the public-relations problem jealousy has.
God’s jealousy is his righteous and loving demand of exclusive faithfulness from his covenant people. Because God rightly loves his own glory, and graciously loves us, he demands that we worship and serve him above all. In human history, God is most glorified by the undivided devotion of his redeemed people, and his ultimate jealousy for his glory demands this devotion. If he does not care when we love idols more than him, he would allow himself to be dishonored and let us settle for so much less than he intends us to have from life. God’s jealous love demands the best of us and our relationships.
In Exodus 34, God is giving Moses the central demands of relating to him as his covenant people — a covenant he compares repeatedly to a marriage (Isaiah 54:5; Jeremiah 2:2–3; Hosea 2:2). God is the husband of his people, and we are his bride. This metaphor only intensifies when we get to the New Testament (Matthew 9:15; Ephesians 5:22–33; Revelation 19:6–9). To worship any God but the true God is spiritual adultery, and any husband who does not care that his wife committed adultery most certainly does not love her. Right at the heart of the laws of the covenant, God wants his people to know that this covenant relationship is permanent and exclusive. He wants them to realize that he is a personal God establishing a personal relationship with his people, and that his people should relate to him as he is, not as a more user-friendly god of their own making.
God’s Jealousy for His Own Glory
Throughout the Bible, God is rightfully jealous when he is dishonored, as we can see in the reason God gives for the second commandment:
You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me. (Exodus 20:3–5)
God demands the fidelity of his people because he loves them, but ultimately because he is most glorified when they ascribe to him the honor that belongs to him alone. God achieves this goal of making himself known so that people will acknowledge, fear, worship, and obey him as the one and only Lord. Every key stage of salvation history points to this supreme aim. God’s covenant love and compassion are no less operational than his jealousy; he is jealous for the devotion of his people because he has the loving heart of a father, but ultimately because he desires to protect the honor of his name.1
God has a unique right to seek his own glory, a right none of us should seek to take for ourselves. Only God deserves absolute honor, worship, and glory, and he reacts with jealousy and anger when those he has created do not ascribe it to him, or when they desire it for themselves. God is righteous and therefore values above all else what is of ultimate value. He loves most what is most worthy of being loved, which is his own character, being, and perfections. Therefore, God’s jealousy for his glory does not conflict with his love. Indeed, his perfect justice and love necessitate his own self-exaltation.