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The Jealous God
The following passages are from J. I. Packer’s book, “Knowing God,” published in 1973 by Hodder & Stoughton.
‘The jealous God’---doesn’t it sound offensive? For we know jealousy, ‘the green-ey’d monster’, as a vice, one of the most cancerous and soul-destroying vices that there is; whereas God, we are sure, is perfectly good. How, then, could anyone ever imagine that jealousy is found in him?
The first step in answering this question is to make it clear that this is not a case of imagining anything. Were we imagining a God, then naturally we should ascribe to him only characteristics which we admired, and jealousy would not enter the picture. Nobody would imagine a jealous God. But we are not making up an idea of God by drawing on our imagination we are seeking instead to listen to the words of Holy Scripture, in which God himself tells us the truth about himself. For God our Creator, whom we could never have discovered by any exercise of imagination, has revealed himself. He has talked. He has spoken through many human agents and messengers, and supremely through his Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. Nor has he left his messages, and the memory of his mighty acts, to be twisted and lost by the distorting processes of oral transmission. Instead, he has had them put on record in permanent written form. And there in the Bible, God’s ‘public record’, as Calvin called it, we find God speaking repeatedly of his jealousy.
When God brought Israel out of Egypt to Sinai, to give them his law and covenant, his jealousy was one of the first facts about himself which he taught them. The sanction of the second commandment, spoken audibly to Moses and ‘inscribed by the finger of God’ on tablets of stone (Exodus 31:18 NIV), was this, ‘I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God’ (20:5). A little later, God told Moses, even more strikingly, ‘the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God’ (34: 14). Coming where it does, this latter is a most significant text. The making known of God’s name---that is, as always in Scripture, his nature and character---is a basic theme in Exodus. In chapter 3, God had declared his name as ‘I AM WHO I AM’, or ‘I AM’ simply, and in chapter 6 as ‘Jehovah’ (‘the LORD’). These names spoke of him as self-existing, self-determining, and sovereign. Then, in 34:5 ff., God had proclaimed his name to Moses by telling him that ‘the LORD’ is ‘the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, forgiving wickedness. . . yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished.’ Here was a name that set forth his moral glory.
Finally, in 34:14, as part of the same conversation with Moses, God summed up and rounded off the revelation of his name by declaring it to be ‘Jealous’. Clearly, this unexpected word stood for a quality in God which, so far from being inconsistent with the exposition of his name that had gone before, was in some sense an epitome of it. And since this quality was in a true sense his ‘name’, it was clearly important that his people should understand it.
In fact, the Bible says a good deal about God’s jealousy. There are references to it elsewhere in the Pentateuch (Numbers 25:11, KJV; Deuternomy 4:24, 6:15, 29:20, KJV, 32:16, 21), in the history books (Joshua 24:19; 1 Kings 14:22, in the prophets (Ezekiel 8:3—5, 16:38,42, 23:25, 36:5 ff., 38:19, KJV, 39:25, KJV; Joel 2:18; Nahum 1:2; Zephaniah 1:18, 3:8; Zechariah 1:14, 8:2), and in the Psalms (78:58, 79:5). It is constantly presented as a motive to action, whether in wrath or mercy. ‘I ... will be jealous for my holy name’ (Ezekiel 39:25, KJV); ‘I am jealous for Jerusalem and for Zion with a great jealousy’ (Zechariah 1:14, KJV); ‘The LORD is a jealous God and avengeth’ (Nahum 1:2, RV).
In the New Testament, Paul asks the presumptuous Corinthians, ‘Shall we provoke the Lord to jealousy?’ (1 Corinthians 10:22, RSV); and RSV is probably right to render the difficult sentence in James 4:5 as ‘He yearns jealously (literally “unto jealousy”) over the spirit which he has made to dwell in us.’
THE NATURE OF GOD’S JEALOUSY
But, we ask, what is the nature of this divine jealousy? How can jealousy be a virtue in God when it is a vice in humans? God’s perfections are matter for praise but how can we praise God for being jealous?
The answer to these questions will be found if we bear in mind two facts.
First: biblical statements about God’s jealousy are anthropomorphisms---that is, descriptions of God in language drawn from our life as humans. The Bible is full of anthropomorphisms---God’s aim, hand, and finger, his hearing, seeing, and smelling, his tenderness, anger, repentance, laughter, joy, and so forth. The reason why God uses these terms to speak to us about himself is that language drawn from our own personal life is the most accurate medium for communicating thoughts about him that we have. He is personal, and so are we, in a way that nothing else in the physical creation is. Only man, of all physical creatures, was made in God’s image. Since we are more like God than is any other being known to us, it is more illuminating, and less misleading, for God to picture himself to us in human terms than it would be if he used any other. We made this point two chapters back.
When faced with God’s anthropomorphisms, however, it is easy to get hold of the wrong end of the stick. We have to remember that man is not the measure of his Maker, and that when the language of human personal life is used of God none of the limitations of human creaturehood are thereby being implied---limited knowledge, or power, or foresight, or strength, or consistency, or anything of that kind. And we must remember that those elements in human qualities which show the corrupting effect of sin have no counterpart in God. Thus, for instance, his wrath is not the ignoble outburst that human anger so often is, a sign of pride and weakness, but it is holiness reacting to evil in a way that is morally right and glorious. ‘Man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires’ (James 1:10 NIV)---but the wrath of God is precisely his righteousness in judicial action. And in the same way, God’s jealousy is not a compound of frustration, envy, and spite, as human jealousy so often is, but appears instead as a (literally) praiseworthy zeal to preserve something supremely precious. This leads us to our next point.
Second: there are two sorts of jealousy among humans, and only one of them is a vice. Vicious jealousy is an expression of the attitude, ‘I want what you’ve got, and I hate you because I haven’t got it.’ It is an infantile resentment springing from unmortified covetousness, which expresses itself in envy, malice, and meanness of action. It is terribly potent, for it feeds and is fed by pride, the taproot of our fallen nature. There is a mad obsessiveness about jealousy which, if indulged, can tear an otherwise firm character to shreds. ‘Anger is cruel and fury overwhelming, but who can stand before jealousy?’ asks the wise man (Proverbs 27:4). What is often called sexual jealousy, the lunatic fury of a rejected or supplanted suitor, is of this kind.
But there is another sort of jealousy---zeal to protect a love-relationship, or to avenge it when broken. This jealousy also operates in the sphere of sex; there, however, it appears, not as the blind reaction of wounded pride, but as the fruit of marital affection. As Professor Tasker has written, married persons ‘who felt no jealousy at the intrusion of a lover or an adulterer into their home would surely be lacking in moral perception; for the exclusiveness of marriage is the essence of marriage’ (The Epistle of James p.106). This sort of jealousy is a positive virtue, for it shows a grasp of the true meaning of the husband-wife relationship, together with a proper zeal to keep it intact.
Old Testament law recognised the propriety of such jealousy, and prescribed a ‘jealousy offering’ and a cursing ordeal whereby a husband who feared that his wife had been unfaithful, and was possessed of a ‘spirit of jealousy’ in consequence, might have his mind set at rest, one way or the other (Numbers 5:11—37). Neither here nor in the further reference to the wronged husband’s jealousy in Proverbs 6:34 does Scripture hint that his attitude is morally questionable; rather, it treats his resolve to guard his marriage against attack, and to take action against anyone who violates it, as natural, normal, and right, and a proof that he values marriage as he should.
Now, Scripture consistently views God’s jealousy as being of this latter kind: that is, as an aspect of his covenant love for his own people. The Old Testament regards God’s covenant as his marriage with Israel, carrying with it a demand for unqualified love and loyalty. The worship of idols, and all compromising relations with non-Israelite idolaters, constituted disobedience and unfaithfulness, which God saw as spiritual adultery, provoking him to jealousy and vengeance. All the Mosaic references to God’s jealousy have to do with idol-worship in one form or another; they all hark back to the sanction of the second commandment, which we quoted earlier. The
same is true of Joshua 24:19; 1 Kings 14:22; Psalm 78:58, and in the New Testament, 1 Corinthians l0:22. In Ezekiel 8:3 (KJV), an idol worshipped in Jerusalem is called ‘the image of jealousy, which provoketh to jealousy’. In Ezekiel 16, God depicts Israel as his adulterous wife, embroiled in unholy liaisons with idols and idolaters of Canaan, Egypt, and Assyria, and pronounces sentence as follows, ‘I will judge you as women who break wedlock and shed blood are judged, and bring upon you the blood of wrath and jealousy’ (verse 38, RSV; cf. verse 42; 23:25).
From these passages we see plainly what God meant by telling Moses that his name was ‘Jealous’. He meant that he demands from those whom he has loved and redeemed utter and absolute loyalty, and will vindicate his claim by stern action against them if they betray his love by unfaithfulness. Calvin hit the nail on the head when he explained the sanction of the second commandment as follows:
The Lord very frequently addresses us in the character of a husband. . . As He performs all the offices of a true and faithful husband, so He requires love and chastity from us; that is, that we do not prostitute our souls to Satan ... As the purer and chaster a husband is, the more grievously he is offended when he sees his wife inclining to a rival; so the Lord, who has betrothed us to Himself in truth, declares that He burns with the hottest jealousy whenever, neglecting the purity of His holy marriage, we defile ourselves with abominable lusts, and especially when the worship of His deity, which ought to have been most carefully kept unimpaired, is transferred to another, or adulterated with some superstition; since in this way we not only violate our plighted troth, but defile the nuptial couch, by giving access to adulterers (Institutes, II, viii, 18).
One further point, however, must be made, if we are to view this matter in its true light. God’s jealousy over his people, as we have seen, presupposes his covenant love; and this love is no transitory affection, accidental and aimless, but is the expression of a sovereign purpose. The goal of the covenant love of God is that he should have a people on earth as long as history lasts, and after that should have all his faithful ones of every age with him in glory. Covenant love is the heart of God’s plan for his world.
And it is in the light of God’s overall plan for his world that his jealousy must, in the last analysis, be understood. For God’s ultimate objective, as the Bible declares it, is threefold---to vindicate his rule and righteousness by showing his sovereignty in judgment upon sin; to ransom and redeem his chosen people; and to be loved and praised by them for his glorious acts of love and self- vindication. God seeks what we should seek---his glory, in and through men---and it is for the securing of this end, ultimately, that he is jealous. His jealousy, in all its manifestations, is precisely ‘the zeal of the LORD Almighty’ (Isaiah 9:7, 37:32; cf. Ezekiel 5:13) for fullfiling his own purpose of justice and mercy.
So God’s jealousy leads him, on the one hand, to judge and destroy the faithless among his people, who fall into idolatry and sin (Deuteronomy 6:14 f.; Joshua 24:19, Zephaniah 1:18), and indeed to judge the enemies of righteousness and mercy everywhere (Nahum 1:2 Ezekiel 36:5 f; Zephaniah 3:8); it also leads him, on the other hand, to restore his people after national judgment has chastened and humbled them (the judgment of captivity, Zechariah 1:14, 8:2; the judgment of the locust plague, Joel 2:18). And what is it that motivates these actions? Simply the fact that he is ‘jealous for (his) holy name’ (Ezekiel 39:25, KJV). His ‘name’ is his nature and character as Jehovah, ‘the LORD’, ruler of history, his ‘name’ to be known, honoured, and praised. ‘I am the LORD; that is my name! I will not give my glory to another or my praise to idols.’ ‘For my own sake, for my own sake, I do this. How can I let myself be defamed? I will not yield my glory to another’ (Isaiah 42:8, 48:11). Here in these texts is the quintessence of the jealousy of God.
THE CHRISTIAN RESPONSE
What practical bearing has all this on those who profess to be the Lord’s people? The answer may be given under two headings.
1. The jealousy of God requires us to be zealous for God.
As our right response to God’s love for us is love for him, so our right response to his jealousy over us is zeal for him. His concern for us is great; ours for him must be great too. What the prohibition of idolatry in the second commandment implies is that God’s people should be positively and passionately devoted to his person, his cause, and his honour. The Bible word for such devotion is zeal sometimes actually called jealousy for God. God himself, as we saw, manifests this zeal and the godly must manifest it too.
The classic description of zeal for God was given by Bishop J. C. Ryle. We quote it at length.
Zeal in religion is a burning desire to please God, to do His will, and to advance His glory in the world in every possible way. It is a desire which no man feels by nature---which the Spirit puts in the heart of every believer when he is converted ---but which some believers feel so much more strongly than others that they alone deserve to be called ‘zealous’ men...
A zealous man in religion is pre-eminently a man of one thing. It is not enough to say that he is earnest, hearty, uncompromising, thorough-going, whole-hearted, fervent in spirit. He only sees one thing, he cares for one thing, he lives for one thing, he is swallowed up in one thing; and that one thing is to please God. Whether he lives, or whether he dies---whether he has health, or whether he has sickness---whether he is rich, or whether he is poor---whether he pleases man, or whether he gives offence---whether he is thought wise, or whether he is thought foolish---whether he gets blame, or whether he gets praise---whether he gets honour, or whether he gets shame---for all this the zealous man cares nothing at all. He burns for one thing; and that one thing is to please God, and to advance God’s glory, if he is consumed in the very burning, he cares not for it---he is content. He feels that, like a lamp, he is made to burn; and if consumed in burning, he has but done the work for which God appointed him. Such a one will always find a sphere for his zeal if he cannot preach, work, and give money, he will cry, and sigh, and pray. . . If he cannot fight in the valley with Joshua, he will do the work of Moses, Aaron, and Hur, on the hill (Exodus 17:9—13). If he is cut off from working himself, he will give the Lord no rest till help is raised up from another quarter, and the work is done. This is what I mean when I speak of ‘zeal’ in religion (Practical Religion, 1959 ed., p. 130).
Zeal, we note, is commanded and commended in the scriptures. Christians are to be ‘zealous of good works’ (Titus 2:14, KJV). For ‘zeal’ after rebuke the Corinthians are applauded (2 Corinthians 7:11, KJV). Elijah was ‘very jealous for the LORD God of hosts’ (1 Kings 19:10, 14, KJV), and God honoured his zeal by sending a chariot of fire to take him up to heaven, and by choosing him as the representative of ‘the goodly fellowship of the prophets’ to stand with Moses on the mount of transfiguration and talk with the Lord Jesus. When Israel had provoked God to anger by idolatry and prostitution, and Moses had sentenced the offenders to death, and the people were in tears, and a man chose that moment to swagger up with a Midianite party-girl on his arm, and Phinehas, almost beside himself with despair, speared them both, God commended Phinehas as having been ‘jealous for his God’, ‘jealous with my jealousy.., so that I consumed not the children of Israel in my jealousy’ (Numbers 25:11, 13, RV).
Paul was a zealous man, single-minded and at full stretch for his Lord. Facing prison and pain, he declared, ‘None of these things move me, neither count I my life dear unto myself, so that I might finish my course with joy, and the ministry which I have received of the Lord Jesus, to testify the gospel of the grace of God’ (Acts 20:24, KJV). And the Lord Jesus himself was a supreme example of zeal. Watching him cleanse the temple, ‘his disciples remembered that it was written, The zeal of thine house hath eaten me up’ (John 21:17, KJV).
What now, of us? Does zeal for the house of God, and the cause of God, eat us up?---possess us?---consume us? Can we say, with the Master, ‘My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work’ (John 4:34)? What sort of discipleship is ours? Have we not need to pray, with that flaming evangelist, George Whitefield---a man as humble as he was zealous---‘Lord, help me to begin to begin’?
2. The jealousy of God threatens churches which are not zealous for God.
We love our churches; they have hallowed associations; we cannot imagine them displeasing God, at any rate not seriously. But the Lord Jesus once sent a message to a church very much like some of ours---the complacent church of Laodicea---in which he told the Laodicean congregation that their lack of zeal was a source of supreme offence to him. ‘I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot; I would thou wert cold or hot.’ Anything would be better than self-satisfied apathy! ‘So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth. . Be zealous therefore, and repent’ (Revelations 3:15f, 19, KJV).
How many of our churches today are sound, respectable---and lukewarm? What, then, must Christ’s word be to them? What have we to hope for?---unless, by the mercy of the God who in wrath remembers mercy, we find zeal to repent? Revive us, Lord, before judgment falls! (189-198)
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