A Biblical Understanding of Jealousy

The term jealousy is often used to describe that feeling of hostility toward a rival, or one believed to enjoy an advantage. It is closely related to envy. However, there is a distinction between jealousy and envy.

 To envy is to want something which belongs to another person. “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house, his wife or his servant, his ox or donkey or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” In contrast, jealousy is the fear that something which we possess will be taken away by another person. Although jealousy can apply to our jobs, our possessions, or our reputations, the word more often refers to anxiety which comes when we are afraid that the affections of a loved one might be lost to a rival. We fear that our mates, or perhaps our children, will be lured away by some other person who, when compared to us, seems to be more attractive, capable and successful” (Dr. Gary Collins, Homemade, July 1985).

In Scripture, as an emotion, jealousy [Heb. qanna’ (kaw-naw), to envy, to have a zeal] is ascribed to God as a divine attribute, and so need not be a sinful emotion. It must be kept in mind that when speaking about God, human emotions are ascribed to Him which He may or may not have in order to understand better some facet of His essence. This is known as an anthropopathism.

God the Father is Jealous.

“Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me” (Exodus 20:5).

“For thou shalt worship no other god: for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God” (Exodus 34:14).

“For the LORD thy God is a consuming fire, even a jealous God” (Deut. 4:24).

“Thou shalt not bow down thyself unto them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me” (Deut. 5:9).

“(For the LORD thy God is a jealous God among you) lest the anger of the LORD thy God be kindled against thee, and destroy thee from off the face of the earth” (Deut. 6:15).

The Apostle Paul was jealous for Christ’s sake.

“For I am jealous over you with godly jealousy: for I have espoused you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ” (2 Cor. 11:2).

God the Holy Spirit is Jealous.

“Do ye think that the scripture saith in vain, the spirit that dwelleth in us lusteth to envy? [epipotheo; to lust, to yearn, to desire); to dote upon, i.e., intensely crave possession (lawfully or wrongfully)” (James 4:5).

It is possible to provoke the Lord to jealousy.

God can be provoked to anger through idolatry.

“They provoked him to jealousy with strange gods, with abominations provoked they him to anger” (Deut. 32:16).

“They have moved me to jealousy with that which is not God; they have provoked me to anger with their vanities: and I will move them to jealousy with those which are not a people; I will provoke them to anger with a foolish nation” (Deut. 32:21).

God can be provoked to anger through sins of immorality.

“And Judah did evil in the sight of the LORD, and they provoked him to jealousy with their sins which they had committed, above all that their fathers had done” (1 Kings 14:22).

“For they provoked him to anger with their high places, and moved him to jealousy with their graven images” (Psalm 78:58).

Unsanctified jealousy can lead to irrational behavior with tragic consequences, such as public examination and shame

“And the spirit of jealousy come upon him, and he be jealous of his wife, and she be defiled: or if the spirit of jealousy come upon him, and he be jealous of his wife, and she be not defiled: 15 Then shall the man bring his wife unto the priest, and he shall bring her offering for her, the tenth part of an ephah of barley meal; he shall pour no oil upon it, nor put frankincense thereon; for it is an offering of jealousy, an offering of memorial, bringing iniquity to remembrance” (Num. 5:14-15).

“Or when the spirit of jealousy cometh upon him, and he be jealous over his wife, and shall set the woman before the LORD, and the priest shall execute upon her all this law” (Num. 5:30).

In the Old Testament era, Joshua warned the people of God of presumptuous sin.

“The LORD will not spare him, but then the anger of the LORD and his jealousy shall smoke against that man, and all the curses that are written in this book shall lie upon him, and the LORD shall blot out his name from under heaven” (Deut. 29:20).

“And Joshua said unto the people, Ye cannot serve the LORD: for he is an holy God; he is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions nor your sins” (Joshua 24:19).

In the New Testament era, the Church is not to provoke the Lord to jealousy.

“Do we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than he?” (1 Cor. 10:22).

A Christian can provoke, irritate, or excite the Lord to jealous anger by worshipping someone, or something other than Himself.

God is pleased when individuals are jealous for His holy name.

Phinehas honored the name of the Lord among the people of His generation.

“Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, hath turned my wrath away from the children of Israel, while he was zealous for my sake among them, that I consumed not the children of Israel in my jealousy” (Num. 25:11).

The prophet Elijah was jealous for the cause of the Lord in his generation, and so apposed the prophets of Baal.

“And he said, I have been very jealous for the LORD God of hosts: for the children of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thine altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away” (1 Kings 19:10 cf. 1 Kings 19:14).

God is jealous to protect His own character.

“Therefore, thus saith the Lord GOD; Now will I bring again the captivity of Jacob, and have mercy upon the whole house of Israel, and will be jealous for my holy name” (Ezekiel 39:25).

As God is jealous to protect His name, so He will move to protect all that He uses for His own glory.

The Land of Palestine.

“Then will the LORD be jealous for his land, and pity his people” (Joel 2:18).

“So, the angel that communed with me said unto me, Cry thou, saying, Thus saith the LORD of hosts; I am jealous for Jerusalem and for Zion with a great jealousy” (Zechariah 1:14).

“Thus, saith the LORD of hosts; I was jealous for Zion with great jealousy, and I was jealous for her with great fury” (Zechariah 8:2).

The Nation of Israel Prior to AD 70.

“God is jealous, and the LORD revengeth; the LORD revengeth, and is furious; the LORD will take vengeance on his adversaries, and he reserveth wrath for his enemies” (Nahum 1:2).

In order to bring many in the nation of Israel to repentance, God once provoked the people to jealousy by showing special favor to the Gentiles.

“But I say, Did not Israel know? First Moses saith, I will provoke you to jealousy by them that are no people, and by a foolish nation I will anger you” (Romans 10:19).

“I say then, Have they stumbled that they should fall? God forbid: but rather through their fall salvation is come unto the Gentiles, for to provoke them to jealousy” (Romans 11:11).

When individuals do not arrest the slightest outburst of unsanctified anger, the potential increases for self-destructive and other destructive behavior.

“For jealousy is the rage of a man: therefore, he will not spare in the day of vengeance” (Prov. 6:34).

There is an unforgiving element to jealousy, for a key component is anger.

“How long, LORD? Wilt thou be angry forever? Shall thy jealousy burn like fire?” (Psalm 79:5).

A jealous person can be a mean person, in as far as they consider and manifest their jealousy. 

“Set me as a seal upon thine heart, as a seal upon thine arm: for love is strong as death; jealousy is cruel as the grave: the coals thereof are coals of fire, which hath a most vehement flame” (Song of Solomon 8:6).

Because jealousy is such a strong emotion, the Lord is presented as going forth with such passion to war against His enemies.

“The LORD shall go forth as a mighty man, he shall stir up jealousy like a man of war: he shall cry, yea, roar; he shall prevail against his enemies” (Isaiah 42:13).

“And I will judge thee, as women that break wedlock and shed blood are judged; and I will give thee blood in fury and jealousy” (Ezekiel 16:38).

“So will I make my fury toward thee to rest, and my jealousy shall depart from thee, and I will be quiet, and will be no more angry” (Ezekiel 16:42).

If God is gracious, He will show the believer that which arouses His anger.

“And he put forth the form of an hand, and took me by a lock of mine head; and the spirit lifted me up between the earth and the heaven, and brought me in the visions of God to Jerusalem, to the door of the inner gate that looketh toward the north; where was the seat of the image of jealousy, which provoketh to jealousy….8:5 Then said he unto me, Son of man, lift up thine eyes now the way toward the north. So I lifted up mine eyes the way toward the north, and behold northward at the gate of the altar this image of jealousy in the entry” (Ezekiel 8:3).

God first warned national Israel about His jealous rage, and then He demonstrated it through the Assyrians in 721 BC, and then the Chaldeans in 586 BC.

“And I will set my jealousy against thee, and they shall deal furiously with thee: they shall take away thy nose and thine ears; and thy remnant shall fall by the sword: they shall take thy sons and thy daughters; and thy residue shall be devoured by the fire” (Ezekiel 23:25).

“Therefore, thus saith the Lord GOD; Surely in the fire of my jealousy have I spoken against the residue of the heathen, and against all Idumea, which have appointed my land into their possession with the joy of all their heart, with despiteful minds, to cast it out for a prey. 6 Prophesy therefore concerning the land of Israel, and say unto the mountains, and to the hills, to the rivers, and to the valleys, Thus saith the Lord GOD; Behold, I have spoken in my jealousy and in my fury, because ye have borne the shame of the heathen” (Ezekiel 36:5).

“For in my jealousy and in the fire of my wrath have I spoken, Surely in that day there shall be a great shaking in the land of Israel” (Ezekiel 38:19).

The jealousy of God is intense, and the destruction of His enemies complete.

“Neither their silver nor their gold shall be able to deliver them in the day of the LORD’s wrath; but the whole land shall be devoured by the fire of his jealousy: for he shall make even a speedy riddance of all them that dwell in the land” (Zeph. 1:18).

“Therefore, wait ye upon me, saith the LORD, until the day that I rise up to the prey: for my determination is to gather the nations, that I may assemble the kingdoms, to pour upon them mine indignation, even all my fierce anger: for all the earth shall be devoured with the fire of my jealousy” (Zeph. 3:8).

On a personal level, there are many examples in Scripture of the self-destructive nature, and other destructive consequences of jealousy.

Cain was jealous of Abel’s offering before the Lord.  

Sarah was jealous that Hagar was able to bear children and she was not.

The brothers of Joseph were jealous because God and man favored him.

Saul was jealous of David because the women of Israel sang his praises.

Joab, the captain of the army of Israel was jealous of the position of Abner, and found an occasion to kill him.

The Ephraimites were jealous of Gideon, and then of Jephthah, the ninth judge of Israel.

The elder of the prodigal sons was jealous of the younger brother’s favor with the father after returning home from a life of debauchery.

Sectional jealousy existed between Israel, and the tribe of Judah.

There is a fable of an eagle which could out fly another, and the other didn’t like it. The latter saw a sportsman one day, and said to him:

“I wish you would bring down that eagle.” The sportsman replied that he would if he only had some feathers to put into the arrow. So the eagle pulled one out of his wing. The arrow was shot, but didn’t quite reach the rival eagle; it was flying too high. The envious eagle pulled out more feathers, and kept pulling them out until he lost so many that he couldn’t fly, and then the sportsman turned around and killed him. My friend, if you are jealous, the only man you can hurt is yourself” (Moody’s Anecdotes).

Jesus Christ can cleanse the heart of this dark sin of jealousy by way of the new birth, and by living a sanctified life according to the Scriptures. Those who call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved. Those who confess their sin, including the sin of jealousy, shall be forgiven. Those who walk in the Spirit will not fulfill the lusts of the flesh. Inappropriate jealousy is a dark emotion that can be subdued by the Spirit of the Living God.

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