Jealousy is a bad word in our culture, and for good reason. It is associated with the abusive boyfriend who flies off the handle in a fit of rage. Or the word is associated with greed. To be jealous is to envy and covet what someone else has. Jealousy conjures up images of irrational behavior, unjustified anger, and lust that leads to vitriol.
Understandably, then, most people cringe when they hear the word used of God. “God — jealous? No way! He is holy, not jealous.” But open your Bible, and you will discover that the word is often applied to God. In fact, not only is God said to be jealous (Exodus 20:3–5), but his very name is Jealous (Exodus 34:14). He not only acts in jealous ways, but he is jealous by nature.
How can this be?
The Holiness of Jealousy
The Bible does not use the word jealous like our culture does, at least when it refers to God. Instead, jealousy captures God’s ardent commitment to bring glory to himself as well as his command that we, his followers, not compromise our exclusive consecration to him. In Scripture, divine jealousy reflects God’s love, but it is an intolerant love, a love that will not permit his glory to be muddied by his people’s idolatry.
So, as it turns out, jealousy — if it is an intolerant love for divine glory and the exclusive commitment to that glory by his people — reflects God’s own holiness. Far from something amoral, jealousy shields God’s righteous character and displays his impeccable holiness, a holiness meant to be reflected in his covenant people.
Eternal, Immutable Jealousy
We should not be surprised that God’s jealousy is different from a human, even sinful, view of jealousy. He is the infinite, incomprehensible Creator, not the finite creature. Whereas jealousy in us is often the result of an uncontrolled, unrighteous mood swing, it is not so in God.
Remember, God is a God of simplicity (his essence is identical to his attributes for he is without parts), eternality (he has no beginning or end, but is timeless), immutability (he does not change), and impassibility (he is not subject to emotional fluctuation and suffering). All this means that he does not become jealous, as if he were not jealous for his glory before. Rather, he simply is jealous, and he is so eternally and immutably.
If jealousy is not something that changes in God, a mood swing that sometimes gets the best of him, but an essential attribute to the God who is first and foremost concerned about his glory, then no wonder he says to Israel again and again that he will not give his glory to another (Isaiah 42:8).
This is the fundamental issue with idolatry. At its root, idolatry not only inverts the image of God, but robs God of the glory that is his alone. That is why Israel’s journey begins at Sinai with this command: “You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a carved image. . . . You shall not bow down to them or serve them.” But why? “For I the Lord your God am a jealous God” (Exodus 20:3–5).
Is God Selfish?
But isn’t that selfish of God? If we are jealous for our own glory above all else, we would be narcissistic individuals. Yes, that is true. But God is not like us. As Jeremiah says, distinguishing Yahweh from the gods of the nations, there is no one like God (Jeremiah 10:6).
Anselm put it this way: God is someone than whom none greater can be conceived. He is the perfect Being. Anselm does not mean, as we are prone to think, that God is just a bigger, better version of ourselves, merely greater in measure or quantity. Rather, God is a different type of being altogether. He is not merely greater in size; he is greater in essence. For his divine essence is immeasurable, unbounded, and incomprehensible. In a word, he is the perfect Being because he is the infinite Being, what the church fathers called “pure Being” or “pure act.”
If he is the perfect, infinite Being, then anything that would somehow limit God must be excluded from the start. What might these be? Change, emotional fluctuation, dependence on the creature, divisible parts, succession of moments, lack of knowledge — all of these would limit God in some way, undermining his infinite perfection.
To be the perfect Being, certain perfect-making attributes must follow, attributes that shield God from such limitation, such as divine immutability and impassibility, aseity, simplicity, timeless eternality, omnipotence, and omniscience. Only then is our God someone than whom none greater can be conceived, someone who has the absolute right to command our exclusive devotion and consecration to himself.
Jealous for Our Joy
Like Anselm, Jonathan Edwards understood this perfect Being. As he says in The Nature of True Virtue, God is the “Being of beings, infinitely the greatest and best of beings” (550). If true, then the implications for the Christian life are massive. To begin with, God’s jealousy for his own glory must define who we are. We have been made in God’s image to glorify him. That is not antithetical to our joy but essential to it.
As the Westminster Shorter Catechism says, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” John Piper has clarified this statement, saying, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God by enjoying him forever.” I doubt those at the Westminster Assembly would have disagreed.
Notice, the charge of selfishness has been turned on its head. If God is the perfect Being, someone than whom none greater can be conceived, then he would be selfish to point us to something or someone else for our true joy and eternal happiness. Indeed, he would be unloving. For if he is the supreme Being, then the greatest joy and happiness in life can be found in him and him alone.
In the end, the most loving thing God can do is require his glory to be foremost in our lives.