In the workplace, an employee who is jealous of his coworker’s promotion is not a good example. Within a family, a woman who is jealous of her brother’s new car would not be praised for it. Among married couples, a jealous husband who distrusts his wife and tracks her every action is not behaving righteously. The word “jealous” seems to be universally regarded as a negative trait. Why then does the Bible so frequently describe the God of Heaven as being a jealous God?
This term first appears as God provided the Hebrew people with the Ten Commandments. “…For I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God…” (Ex. 20:5). A bit further on, the statement seems to be made more emphatically. “For you shall worship no other god, for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God” (Ex. 34:14). This turn of phrase does not reveal an alternate name for Jehovah, but rather it expresses a trait which is totally linked to His identity and character. This would be like the phrase, “Worthy is His name,” or when someone in the modern day might say, “Adventure is my middle name!” So, how is it that a key component of God’s identity would seem to contradict with other aspects of His character? The Bible teaches us that God is love (1 John 4:8). And yet love is not jealous (1 Cor. 13:4 NASB). How can God be both?
Part of the answer to this apparent problem is found in a study of Bible languages. The Hebrew word “qana” and the Greek word “zelos” both express the idea of warmth or heat. Depending on how the terms are being used, they can express a negative or a positive trait. The words merely present the picture of powerful, red-faced emotion or zeal, whether for right or wrong. As a bad example, Joseph’s brothers were moved by strong emotion to sell him into slavery (Gen. 37:11; Acts 7:9). In a good example, Paul urged the Christians of Corinth to earnestly desire spiritual gifts (1 Cor. 12:31) and expressed a burning desire for them to remain faithful in their relationship with God (2 Cor. 11:2). In all these cases, terms for jealousy are used. When these words appear in the Bible, they can express good or evil passion, but they always indicate strong desire. Careful study will lead us to discover what the strong feeling was in each situation and whether the one having the emotion was justified and acted rightly.
It should also be clearly stated that love and jealousy are not incompatible. God’s description of Himself as a jealous God speaks of the beauty of fidelity in a covenant relationship. He was not envious of the Israel’s accomplishments or seeking to control them against their will. He desired what was legitimately and rightly His, which was agreed upon (Ex. 19:8; 24:3). God and Israel had a spiritual marriage, though His people often played the harlot (Jer. 3:6; 31:32; Hos. 1:2). As a husband, He will permit no rival, and so He called for their return. This is the right kind of jealousy. Today, the church is the bride of Christ (Eph. 5:25-33). We have entered a covenant relationship and God still duly requires faithfulness to Him alone. Our God is a jealous and loving God.