If your child were under attack, what would you do? That (imperfect) surge of protection that you feel comes close to the biblical definition of (perfect) jealousy in God. It’s about his protection over you.
God does not flash with anger out of a bad temper. It takes centuries sometimes to express his anger (and other times it is quick), which is just a judicial decision to carry out the law. Think of an old English judge wearing a wig.
That is a picture of God in judgment, showing his protective jealously over his people.
The attribute is communicable or “transferrable” to us humans because we are made in his image.
What do theologians say?
In Hebrew the noun is qin’ah and means jealousy, envy, zeal, so the context determines the meaning, whether positive or negative.
In the New Testament, the noun is zēlos, where we get the word zeal, and means the same as in the Old Testament. In classical Greek, long before the New Testament was written, the word carried a positive sense: eager striving, enthusiasm or praise, and sometimes a negative sense: ill will or envy (Mounce, p. 366). This can carry over into the New Testament.
It is clear from the verses below that the context is about God’s protection of his people and his land in a covenant. But protection from what?
Reformed theologian Michael Horton writes:
It is God’s jealousy for his people, in fact, that underscores his love and eventuates in their salvation. In us, jealousy is a form of coveting—claiming that which is not ours. In God, jealousy is a form of protecting—guarding that which is precious to God, both his character and his covenanted people. (p. 272)
The word character in the last clause means that God not only protects us, but also his good name. One addition to what Prof. Horton wrote: we can have righteous jealousy, which is different from envy or claiming things that don’t belong to us. Think again of a mother’s zeal to protect her child from an attack. That is not envy or covetousness, but appropriate zeal or jealousy.
This attribute or perfection of God means that he is prompted to show loving zeal and a righteous sense of urgency to protect his people and his covenant.
What do the Scriptures say?
All the verses below speak of God’s protection over his people and the covenant of love he made with them.
I use the NIV here. If you would like to see the following verses in many translations and in their contexts, please go to biblegateway.com.
The first time God’s jealousy is mentioned is in the Ten Commandments. In the day of bloodthirsty and sexually loose gods in and around the ancient Israelites, God had to protect his people from degradation:
You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them, for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God. (Ex. 20:4-5)
Once again, the context is worshiping bloodthirsty and pornographic and animalistic gods. So God boldly says what his name is:
Do not worship any other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God. (Ex. 34:14)
Fire is a symbol of the Spirit that burns away the impurities and false gods in our lives:
For the Lord your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God. (Deut. 4:24; cf. 5:9, 6:15)
God purposes to protect his chosen people from diabolical spirits that lurk behind these gods—are indeed these actual gods:
They made him jealous with their foreign gods and angered him with their detestable idols. (Deut. 32:16, cf. v. 21)
This Psalm repeats a history of ancient Israel, so that the current Israelites would learn a lesson in their own days; don’t follow after the pagan gods, as follows:
They angered him with their high places; they aroused his jealousy with their idols. (Ps. 78:58)
In the next verse God protected his promised land by showing mercy on the people whom he called to occupy it:
Then the Lord was jealous for his land and took pity on his people. (Joel 2:18)
An angel was sent to proclaim God’s zealous protection over his chosen city:
Then the angel who was speaking to me said, “Proclaim this word: This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘I am very jealous for Jerusalem and Zion.” (Zech. 1:14; cf. 8:2)
The context of the next verse is Paul’s zeal to protect believers in Jesus from evil spirits. Paul writes: “The sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons, not to God, and I do not want you to be participants with demons” (1 Cor. 10:20). Now the target verse is clear:
Are we trying to arouse the Lord’s jealousy? Are we stronger than he? (1 Cor. 10:22)
The context of the next verse is cozying up to the world and its darkness. God wants to protect his people from it:
Or do you think Scripture says without reason that he jealously longs for the spirit he has caused to dwell in us? (James 4:5)
How do I know God better?
God’s jealousy is of a completely different order and quality from our imperfect version. He knows everything about the universe and about you personally. He knows what is best for you. He “intensely desires” or “feels the zeal”—those are phrases for jealousy—to help and protect you from yourself and demonic spirits. In both the Old and New Testaments, as seen above, worshiping false gods can be traced to bowing before demonic spirits. Very awful and unholy.
If you have a relationship with God already, you understand his jealousy, but if you do not have one, then you might misunderstand it. But even just an average unbeliever can understand righteous jealousy in a wife and mother when she acts to protect her marriage and her children from harm and dissolution. The zeal she feels is akin to God’s protection or jealousy.
I once heard a younger preacher on international TV humorously claim that God’s protection and his watching over you is like a human stalking you. “God, you watch me when I sleep?” He affected his voice: “That’s a little creepy.” (Laughter from the audience.) Despite the preacher’s good intentions, and all joking aside, he ultimately defamed God’s character because he lowered God to being a “groupie” or “stalker.”
You can get to know God better by not listening to the world’s definition of jealousy. Think of a jealous boyfriend with whom you have not made of covenant of love in marriage. He is possessive of you and claims you when you belong to God. He is irrationally jealous. He flies into a fit of rage. And even in a marriage covenant, your former boyfriend and now husband can display unholy and unrighteous jealousy.
It is unfair to transfer our imperfect jealousy to the image of God. It is not a two-way street, God to us and back to him again. It is a one-way street: God to us. Let’s not create God in our own image.
The bottom line is that God loves you and wishes to protect you. He made a covenant relationship with you and you with him, and he intends to care for it and you. That’s what it means to be a jealous God. This attribute or perfection is a blessing to us.
Do I Really Know God? He Is Jealous