On Saturday, I tweeted a summary of what I’d been reflecting on in my quiet time (as I’ve been doing since the start of the year). It was about the part in the 10 Commandments where God states, “I am a jealous God.” Here is the tweet, along with a reply I received (picture and name deleted as I haven’t asked permission):
Several times since Saturday, I’ve almost replied. The reason I haven’t is simple: my answer is too long for 140 characters. But it’s an important objection. I too struggled for a long time with that phrase, ‘jealous God’. It didn’t sit right. It didn’t feel right. But now it does, and this is why.
Jealousy isn’t always petty
The word ‘jealous’ has largely negative connotations to a modern ear. We shouldn’t be jealous. It is seen as petty and petulant. The example in the tweet is a good one. A parent who desires their child’s love so much that they’re jealous of their child’s friends. That’s not a loving parent. It’s an insecure parent.
But what about another example. Let’s imagine for a second that I was unfaithful to my wife. Let’s imagine she discovered I had another lover. What should her response be?
Should she be upset? Yes. Why? Because I’ve broken my promises to her. Because I’ve betrayed her. But also because someone else has something that should only ever be for her. She wants something for herself, not for anyone else. And she is right to do so – it is hers!
That is an expression of jealousy. But it’s not petty. It’s just. It’s an expression, ultimately, of love for me.
I’m not saying she should be jealous every time I talk to a woman. I’m not saying she should be jealous about me to the point where all of my attention should be only ever on her, never my work, my friends, my hobbies. That is jealousy gone wrong. It is expecting things that aren’t hers to expect.
There are things we should be jealous for and things we shouldn’t.
A jealous God is a passionately loving God
So which picture best fits God’s statement that “I am a jealous God”? A parent who will never let their child enjoy anything else? Or a lover who expects a place in their partner’s heart that no-one and nothing else can take?
The statement is part of a command, the 2nd Commandment (Exodus 20:4-6), which prohibits the making and worshiping of idols. It is a command that God alone must occupy their worship, their obedience, their adoration. Nothing else, no-one else, can.
He is entering into a relationship with the people of Israel. ‘I have rescued you, ransomed you, freed you,’ God says, ‘I love you and I am committing to you. I will be faithful to you, and I ask that you be faithful to me. I will be your God, but you mustn’t make for yourself anything else to worship and love above me.’
This is not a petulant, over-controlling and insecure God, who just wants minions to do His bidding. This is a loving God who wants people who love Him, who want relationship. This relationship is described in marital terms frequently in the Old Testament. And it is true of the church, too. We are Christ’s bride, and He is fiercely jealous for us.
I could only love a jealous God
Imagine my wife discovered I was unfaithful, and she just didn’t care. No jealousy. No anger. She was happy to share me. What would that say?
It would say she doesn’t love me.
If we have an idea of God as a divine taskmaster, a cosmic control-freak who just can’t cope when we like or love something else, then the idea of a ‘jealous God’ is a scary one. I could fear that god, but not love him.
But that’s not the biblical picture of God. He is a lover, someone who loves. His desire is for relationship, not servitude, for a depth of love with His people. He gives us His heart and when we trample it in the dirt because we think something else will satisfy more, that hurts Him. The fact He is all-knowing means He knows every time I am unfaithful. It hurts Him every time, but He’s willing to love me anyway, and keep getting hurt.
At that point, a ‘jealous God’ is a beautiful picture. A passionate lover who wants our heart, who is faultlessly faithful to us and desires the same single-minded love.
That is a God I can give my heart. That is a God I can love.